Why Netbooks Are Greener Than Laptops

It was just over a year ago that small, low-cost netbooks hit the market, and since then they’ve become one of the hottest technology trends of 2008, with the top two vendors in the space — Asus and Acer — predicting they’ll sell 11 million devices this year. While the tiny laptops may be the computer equivalent of a second home for many of the early adopters, they also offer a greener alternative than most of the full-featured laptops available to on-the-go buyers, thanks to lower power demands, fewer toxic components, and a resource-efficient approach to computing.

Because netbooks are designed for ultraportability, they strive for both lower battery weight and longer battery life.  Often, lower power consumption has meant reduced performance — a big no-no for traditional laptop marketing. But for netbooks, which strip down the computer’s power needs with lightweight operating systems and software, performance trade-offs aren’t a significant problem. By including energy-efficient components, such as highly efficient processors and solid state drives, netbooks can make the most of smaller-sized batteries.

The vast majority of netbooks are powered by Intel’s Atom processor, an energy-efficient chip inside of the laptops listed with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program. How efficient is it? Atom sports a maximum thermal design point (TDP) of 2.5 watts; compare that with Intel’s Core 2 Duo chips, which have a TDP of 65 watts 25 watts. That not only makes the notebooks more efficient, it makes the machines using them cooler and quieter, a key feature for a netbook. Netbooks’ efficiency is likely to increase in the year ahead. More power-conscious ARM-based netbooks are coming in 2009 with chips that will use no more than 1 watt of power.

Energy efficiency can have other benefits as well. The reduced weight from a small battery can help shrink the carbon footprint involved in shipping them to stores and buyers. It also can help manufacturers meet environmental standards such as the U.S.-based EPEAT program, which certifies products that achieve a number of environmental performance metrics, from energy efficiency to end-of-life management. Lenovo’s ThinkPad SL400 and SL500 netbooks and ASUS’s N-series are EPEAT Gold, while the HP Mini-note line is EPEAT Silver.

EPEAT also evaluates the ingredients that make up a computers’ components. In the EU, electronic devices must comply with the Eurpean Restriction on Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive, which limits the use of heavy metals and other toxic compounds in electrionics. Some manufacturers, including Lenovo and Fujitsu, offer RoHS-compliant netbooks to the U.S. market. Many new, full-featured laptops are moving in this direction as well, but because the entire netbooks category is new, they’ve got the jump on eco-label compliance.

But perhaps netbooks’ greenest feature is their whole approach to personal computing. They don’t offer monster performance, but most of us don’t need monster performance. Netbooks are good enough for most of what I want to do most of the time, among them email, web browsing (including blogging), music, and some occasional online video. I suspect the same is true for many consumers, and because of their low price, they’re likely to become the computer of choice for consumers looking for nothing more than light-duty Internet machines.

This “take only what you need” approach is a fundamentally greener way of looking at resource use, whether the industry we’re talking about is forestry or computing. Just be sure to power down your home computer when you’re on the go, or the eco-boost from your efficient little netbook just might go up in a plume of coal-powered smoke.

This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com