PC vendors question future of Energy Star

After almost a year of selling high-end systems that exceeded federal regulations for power consumption by PCs, vendors once again can easily meet Energy Star guidelines, thanks to the new Pentium II 333 MHz chip Intel Corp. introduced earlier this year.

The question that remains to be answered is whether vendors will flock back to the specification or if it has been surpassed in importance by new specifications, such as the Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACPI) outlined by Microsoft Corp. in its "PC98" specification, which describes its recommended hardware specification for running Windows 98.

The Energy Star guidelines, defined nearly five years ago by the Clinton administration and overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency, call for PCs to use less than 30 watts of power when in sleep mode and that they be preset at the factory to go to sleep after 15 to 30 minutes of disuse. The guidelines for monitors are the same.

After enjoying "must-have" status among federal PC buyers, the once-mandatory EPA Energy Star label fell into disuse with the advent of the Intel Pentium II processor. That chip's appetite for power devoured most vendors' hopes of certifying PCs that used the original Pentium II processor, although some vendors did manage it.

As a result, many federal PC buyers and sellers ignored the requirement for Energy Star compliance.

"Two years ago, every [request for proposal] we got said it had to be Energy Star [-compliant]," said Michael Takemura, product marketing manager for Compaq Computer Corp. "But it was really an issue that got put on the back burner."

"We've all been turning our eyes away from that," another federal PC vendor said. "But the law never changed," he said. "No one in the government ever said it is OK to sell non-Energy Star-compliant machines."

"Every so often, people need a subtle, or not-so-subtle, reminder that they should be buying Energy Star," agreed Andrew Fanara, program manager for the Energy Star office equipment program.

Pentium II Problematic

With Intel's introduction of the new lower-powered, 28-watt, .25 micron, 333 MHz Pentium II, the first of a new class of chips with the code name "Deschutes," vendors can again easily meet Energy Star guidelines with Pentium II PCs. As these processors join the mainstream, vendors will be able to sell more Energy Star-compliant computers to federal customers.

However, PCs that are based on other Pentium II chips remain a problem for PC vendors.

"It clearly is more difficult to meet the criteria with the [Pentium II]," said Tim Mann, program manager for environmentally conscious products at IBM Corp. Nevertheless, IBM is among the few vendors that do sell Energy Star-certified Pentium II PCs.

"[Power consumption] is one of the issues with that platform," said a PC administrator at DOD. "I'm very much in favor of Energy Star, and I ensure everything we buy or [that] I recommend is Energy Star-compliant."

Indeed, the Micron and Compaq PCs that the Air Force buys on the Desktop V contract are still tested for Energy Star compliance, said Mary Hriber, chief of the Air Force small-computer program management branch. "With the Pentium II, it depends on who the manufacturer is," she said. "All of the ones on our contracts are Energy Star-compliant."

According to the EPA, the only companies with certified Pentium II PCs are Digital Equipment Corp., Fujitsu Ltd., IBM Corp., Micron Electronics Inc., Mind Computer Products, NEC Technologies and Tatung Co. However, vendors can certify their products without formally notifying the EPA of their certification, so some companies may be absent from the list.

Compaq says that it has Energy Star-compliant models that will be certified in the near future.

Because so few Pentium II PCs were Energy Star-certified and because the executive order directing federal buyers indicated that they should do so when it does not impose a hardship on the purchaser, most buyers concluded that the dearth of Energy Star-compliant Pentium II PCs meant that the requirement was effectively waived.

The pattern of first introducing a power-hungry, difficult-to-certify processor was established with the original Pentium, Fanara said. "As new products [came] out that [did] not meet the specification, the second generation does," he said.

But in the case of the Pentium II, the new chip became the mainstream processor quickly, while older 486 machines enjoyed popularity during the early days of the Pentium chip. So this first-generation chip had more of an impact on vendors' ability to sell mainstream Energy Star products.

The rapid adoption of new technologies has led some vendors to not bother with certification because of relatively short product lives, said Richard Simpson, president of Government Micro Resources Inc.'s West Virginia manufacturing operation.

"Our interest in certifying everything is based on cost," he said. "You reduce your emphasis on certification because you want to move on to the next system board."

More Granular Control

PC manufacturers are gearing up to support the ACPI in new machines, and that specification will give end-users much finer control over their PCs' power use than current systems.

Having ACPI will largely make Energy Star redundant because of the power savings possible using ACPI-mandated controls, Simpson said. "There are a lot of educated buyers out there, and they are seeing the same things we are seeing," he said.

Furthermore, ACPI will fit in to the larger scheme of centrally managed PCs that meet additional requirements for features such as Wake on LAN, which make PCs easier to administer, Simpson said. Wake on LAN allows a centrally located administrator to turn on users' desktops to provide software updates and other services.

While these features will take precedence with users in the future, existing current purchasing requirements for Energy Star will cost sales to vendors that do not certify their PCs, industry sources said. "Will someone lose on that? I guess the answer is yes," Simpson said.

But in the long run, ACPI and Manage PC requirements will be the ones that matter, he said. "Over a span of 24 months, ACPI is going to be a key ingredient for bids."

Customers want benefits that are more overt than the subtle cost savings of reduced power use, Takemura said. "What is more tangible?" he asked. "Do I really want Energy Star or do I want Wired for Management remote wake-up technology?"

Compaq ran into the same problem when it developed low-noise PCs a few years ago, only to find that buyers did not care about acoustic levels, Takemura said.

A lack of Energy Star compliance may simply be a lack of effort by vendors to perform the certification, according to an analyst at a research firm that just completed a still-confidential project examining Energy Star compliance. The research firm found that as many as 80 percent of PC models met Energy Star requirements, and that 80 percent accounted for nearly all the PCs shipped. Only the very high-end models could not meet Energy Star requirements, the source said.

The EPA has addressed the problem of high-end machines' inability to participate in the program by developing a sliding power-use scale, Fanara said. Instead of a steadfast 30-watt maximum, PCs that have power supplies rated at more than 200 watts are allowed to use up to 15 percent of the power supply's rated power when sleeping. This will let the high-end PCs that are heavily loaded with power-consuming components still participate in the Energy Star program, Fanara said.

Among other vendors, IBM has not given up on the program because the company has an Energy Star-related announcement scheduled for this week, during the FOSE trade show in Washington, D.C. "For the machines that can't meet Energy Star today, ACPI will help," Mann said. "I look at [new power standards] as helping us meet Energy Star rather than as competing against it."

-- Carney is a free-lance writer based in Herndon, Va

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