It's Time To Make Standardized Ratings For Gadgets

Illustration for article titled Its Time To Make Standardized Ratings For Gadgets

Earlier today, the Environmental Protection Agency and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed off stickers that would give car buyers standardized info on a particular model's fuel economy and environmental impact. Gadgets should have standardized ratings, too.

Illustration for article titled Its Time To Make Standardized Ratings For Gadgets

When buying gadgets, comparison is paramount. There are inevitably a hundred TVs that fit the general requirements you've set out, a few dozen Blu-ray players, and a handful of smartphones. In many cases, it ends up being a process of elimination, and standardized gadget ratings would ensure that that process was a fair and informed one.

As our society comes to terms with the direness of our energy situation, and as the idea of "green" transforms from buzzy marketing bullshit to something that our gadgets actually have to be, it will be essential to have real, digestible data on how the electronics we use impact the environment. Some considerations here could include:

Power consumption: how much gadgets use when they're plugged in and operating; how much they use when they're plugged in and not being used.
Materials: how environmentally friendly are the materials used in a product.
Supply chain: under what conditions were the products manufactured, and from what countries did their parts originate.
Durability: how many use cycles a product can be expected to last for.
Disposability: how long a product, or its packaging, will take to degrade in various situations.

Illustration for article titled Its Time To Make Standardized Ratings For Gadgets

Some terms and standards for addressing these issues are already floating around. "Vampire draw" is a more colorful way to talk about the power our gadgets quietly suck while they're plugged in but not in use, and since 1992 Energy Star has been giving consumers a vague notion that their products were gobbling up a little less energy than they could be. But if you walked into a Best Buy and asked the people inside—the people buying things and the people selling them—what standards were required of any given product for it to bear the Energy Star sticker, how many of them would have any clue? Not very many, I imagine.



Green stats are just the start; similar standardized ratings could overhaul the way we evaluate all our devices' specs. Sure, many of the ones you might consider when buying a new gadget are objective: Megapixels. Processor speeds. Screen sizes. But why do we blindly trust the companies that make our gadgets to faithfully report things like battery life? Why do we have to rely on websites to run benchmarks for every new machine that comes out? Here are just a few things that could be tested by a third party:

Battery life: standardized tests for various usage scenarios. For a music player this could mean playing straight through, on shuffle, or selecting particular songs and scrubbing to a particular moment.
Benchmarks: tests for CPUs and GPUs.
Power on and shut down times: tests that would show how long various models take to turn on completely, shut down completely, go into a sleep state, wake up from a sleep state, etc.
Display: a standardized test for brightness, color reproduction, etc.
Wireless reception: how strong of a signal devices get with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, etc.
Noise: how loud larger products like desktops, appliances, etc. are while operating.


Things like stock specs and Energy Star standards are a start, but only that. Establishing standardized tests for aspects of performance and power consumption—and, perhaps, as the EPA has suggested for the auto industry, assigning a letter grade based on those numbers—would help keep consumers informed and companies honest.

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Out of all the specs and factors that come into play when deciding if I should buy a gadget, how environmentally friendly it is probably ranks right at the bottom for me. With the possible exception of major appliances, the power draw differences between gadgets when it comes to paying your utility bill is negligible. You can have all the green gadgets you like, but it's not going to make a damn when your apartment complex is using HVAC systems from the Reagan administration.

I couldn't care less if my desktop CPU had a TDP of 1.21 gigawatts, so long as it ran Crysis. Who cares if my laptop is full of lead solder so long as I don't have to deal with tin whiskers ruining my delicate BGA components.

When it comes down to it, buying green means consumers making a personal sacrifice. It means paying more and getting less. Eco-friendly versions of existing products are almost always more expensive. E85 fuel is more expensive and gets 1/3 poorer gas mileage. Taking the bus to work means sitting next to people who don't bathe and want to take your possessions on a commute that's three times as long. Recycling means sorting your sticky soda cans. Buying organic or sustainable means paying double. Driving a hybrid means a higher sticker price and a lower selection.

Being environmentally friendly on a personal level is always work, always inconvenient, always expensive, and provides no immediately visible return on your investment. Humans are show-me creatures. And in a world where bread and circuses are the only thing keeping the lower classes sane, being green is the last thing on their minds.

I love the environment, I truly do. And I care deeply about what is happening to our climate and our planet. But until efforts are focused more on letting us do the same or more with less energy, grazing land, gallons of fuel, etc, I see these green initiatives aimed at consumers as superficial marketing gimmicks that are like a hidden charity to a vague cause.

We can all do less with less, sure. We can clock down our laptops so they don't use as much power, thereby making them slower and more irritating to use (had to virtually disable power mgmt on my aunt's new netbook to get it to run), we can go back to sustainable walking instead of driving. We can spend more time washing dishes rather than use paper plates. Perfect at-home activities for those ever-increasing work hours.

I just bought a new car last month. I wanted a small 4x4 due to the inclement whether where I live. I test drove a Hybrid 4x4. It was decent, and fairly comfortable. It was also light purple, smelled like ass, had 60,000 miles on it, and was the only one in the entire auto mall. I chose a brand new conventional car for the same price.

Fuck green. I'm sick of "green." Until we do some serious work to get real, widespread results in sustainable energy, food, and living, keep your green out of my gadgets and out of my wallet.

Apologies for long, ranty post.