Now You’re Playing with Less Power

Everyone’s favorite kerfuffle generator, the Internet, is at it again, making kerfuffles out of kerfufflets.  The source this time is a pair of blog posts from Noah Horowitz at the NRDC drawing attention to the fact that the Xbox One consumes a remarkably high amount of energy, especially when in standby mode – or, as you or I might say, “turned off.”  Predictably, this news has induced a case of what you might call Gamer Persecution Syndrome among a certain subset of gamers who show a strong aversion to any critical or negative commentary about our hobby (see: feminism).  To be fair, this type of thinking is not unique to gamers; hyperbolic, vitriolic reactions can be found in just about any comment thread on the Internet, and usually represent a tiny slice of the community.  Also, this is not a huge issue.  The reaction has been pretty muted, and I doubt anyone will be talking about this a month or two from now.  Still, it seems worth writing about, because there are a number of misconceptions in the coverage of and reaction to this story.

The Xbox One: it’s the same color as oil and coal for a reason.

First, some background.  While a lot of the coverage has referred to “a recent report” or something along those lines, what they’re really referring to is a blog post.  (The word “blogs” in the URL and “Noah Horowitz’s Blog” at the top of the post should’ve been clues.)  The report in question is actually almost a year old, and is linked to in the third paragraph of Horowitz’s blog post, a paragraph that begins with the words “last year.”  The report outlines the results of an NRDC study of energy consumption by the three current-gen consoles and makes recommendations for improving their efficiency.  One of the big takeaways is that current-gen consoles use a lot of energy – enough to power all the homes in Houston by the end of this generation – and a lot of this energy is consumed in standby mode.

The March 26 blog post criticizes Microsoft for not only making the energy-gobbling “instant-on” mode the default mode, but for also burying the energy-saving mode in the less-than-intuitive settings menus rather than as an option during initial setup.  Someone buying and setting up a new Xbox One could easily have no idea that the energy-saving mode even exists, let alone how to activate it.  Microsoft responded to the post (and media coverage) by announcing plans to add a screen to the setup process that will prompt users to choose between these two modes “in the coming months.”  Horowitz responded with a second post that praised Microsoft for addressing the issue, but expressed skepticism that the changes would be as effective as they could be.  He pointed out that the new setup process would still default to the “instant-on” mode, and uses language that seems biased against the energy-saving mode; he also pointed out a few other areas where Microsoft could make energy-saving changes.

So let’s look at the way some of the gaming press and its collective comments section (I know, I know, rule #1: never read the comments) are mishandling this story.  First, as mentioned, a lot of the coverage I’ve seen has treated a recent blog post and a year-old study as interchangeable.  Second, people seem to be really overstating the degree to which the NRDC is pursuing this.  One dude at the NRDC (350 employees, 1.3 million members) has written two blog posts about this issue.  There’s no mention of this on the organization’s homepage, or on the page for energy.  So this isn’t exactly the organization’s main focus.  Nor is their language particularly vitriolic.  To be fair, there is some snark in Horowitz’s posts – and a snarky environmentalist is about as easy a target as a cop in a donut shop or an NRA member with truck balls – but to read some people’s reactions, you’d think the NRDC was demanding videogames be outlawed and gamers be hung by their thumbs.  So, as with just about every time people use the Internet to respond to things, everyone should take a breath and relax.  (Of course, I’m devoting a few million words to writing about what I admit is mostly a non-issue, so…)

The prototype for the Xbox One came with its own smokestack and was powered by whale oil.  (Image: Ian Barbour)
The prototype for the Xbox One came with its own smokestack and was powered by whale oil. (Image: Ian Barbour)

What has really drawn criticism from some gamers is that second blog post, the one in which Horowitz is still not satisfied despite Microsoft planning to implement one of his suggestions.  Predictably, Internet commenters had plenty to say about this.  What I didn’t expect, though, was that normally-reasonable IGN would pooh-pooh the whole thing and call Horowitz a whiner on one of their podcasts – the sheer ignorance of which compelled me to write this piece – while simultaneously having no idea what the NRDC is.  (Pro tip: it’s not a government agency.)

One reaction to Horowitz’s posts has been to ask, “Why is the NRDC singling us out?” or something along those lines.  Well, first of all, they’re not.  The NRDC does a lot of stuff, issues a lot of reports, and engages in a lot of activism.  There’s a link at the bottom of June, 2014, story to another story called, “A Call to Action for More Efficient Clothes Dryers,” for example.  Second of all, it’s their job.  The NRDC is a conservation organization.  Global warming – maybe you’ve heard of it – is kind of a big conservation issue, and energy production (and, by proxy, consumption) is a big component of that issue.  So of course they’re going to be concerned about the efficiency of popular consumer electronics.  And finally, Microsoft kind of asked for it.  The 2014 report looked at all three consoles; the Wii U fared pretty well (its standby mode actually uses less power than the Wii’s did), and the NRDC suggested improvements Sony and Microsoft could make to their then-new consoles.  Sony followed the recommendations and significantly improved the PS4’s efficiency.  Microsoft so far hadn’t done anything about the recommendations, despite the fact that the company has pledged to be carbon-neutral, so of course someone at the NRDC was going to give them a little more prodding.

Another reaction has been to dismiss the whole thing as trivial and therefore not worth addressing, with comments to the effect that the NRDC should pick a different battle, as if the NRDC is only capable of addressing one issue at a time.  This is a case of the common There Are Starving Children in Africa logical fallacy – i.e. this problem isn’t actually a problem because a larger problem exists somewhere in the universe.  The IGN podcasters had fun laughing at the relatively trivial amount of money – $33 to $75, or the cost of a game or two, over 5 years – that Horowitz claimed gamers might save by switching to the low-power mode.  That’s a dollar a month!  Why even bother!  Now, saving individual consumers money isn’t the NRDC’s mission; the money isn’t the point, it’s just an extra bit of motivation Horowotz is offering to consumers to nudge them towards action that could have a huge environmental impact in aggregate.  And dismissing this $50-ish savings is a pretty basic cognitive error that you learn about in high school economics.  People will happily clip a coupon to save a dollar on a bottle of juice, but almost no one would bother clipping a (hypothetical) coupon for a dollar off of a Toyota Corolla.  Even fifteen-year-olds can easily see that this is stupid: a dollar’s a dollar, no matter where it comes from.  Seventy-five bucks over five years isn’t a lot of money, but it’s not no money.  It’s perfectly fair to say that you personally are willing to spend a buck a month to have these features, that it’s worth that much to you.  But to say that, because the dollar amount is so comparatively low, the issue does not actually exist is simply logically fallacious.

What happens when you look at this issue from another perspective?  Imagine you’re at GameStop looking at two different Xbox One SKUs, each with the same price.  One you can turn on with your voice; the other comes with a free game of your choice.  Which would you pick?  Fifty-ish bucks doesn’t look so trivial in this light.  How many people would forego a free game for the minor convenience of a voice-activated startup?  I wouldn’t.

Would you like Excellent Mode?  Or Terrible Mode?
Would you like Excellent Mode? Or Terrible Mode?

Many people also dismiss as petty Horowitz’s criticisms that the language in Microsoft’s proposed power mode selection screen is biased and that the system defaults to “instant-on” instead of “energy-saving.”  What a nitpicking whiner, right?  Well, no.  The differences between Microsoft’s plan and Horowitz’s ideal are minor, but not petty.  For one thing, Xbox Ones (or is it “Xboxes One,” like “attorneys general”?) in Europe default to the low-power mode, so why not in North America?  As for the language, it does seem pretty biased.  Now, no one expects Microsoft to not tout the benefits of their design features.  The quick boot-up, background updating, and voice commands are things they’re proud of.  Of course they’re going to make them sound cool.  But the description of the energy-saving mode may as well say something like “such awful, very slower” or “teh sux.”  Microsoft is offering the benefit (but not the cost) of the one mode, and the cost (but not the benefit) of the other.  They’re comparing apples to oranges strictly in terms of apple-ness; of course the apples are going to look better!  They could at least show consumers how much energy they stand to save in the energy saving mode, so they actually know what tradeoff they’re making.

As for which mode is the default, yes, it’s a difference of whether choosing the low-power mode requires you to press one button or two.  Not a big deal, right?  Well, it kind of is.  What Horowitz is getting at here is the idea of choice architecture, which is discussed at length in the book Nudge, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.  The idea is that the way choices are framed has a big influence on the choices people make, even if they are still free to choose however they’d like.  People will save more money for retirement, for example, when money is automatically put into a 401 (k) unless they opt out – as opposed to requiring people to opt in if they want to save.  One can argue that it’s not Microsoft’s responsibility to steer people towards the power-saving mode, that they have good reasons to steer people towards the instant-on mode.  But, in light of what we know about behavioral economics, it’s clear that the way the choice is presented will be steering people, one way or the other.

So is Microsoft in the wrong here?  Should they be doing more for the environment?  Or is Noah Horowitz whining and making too much of this?  Is the NRDC targeting gamers?  Well, first of all, no, no one is targeting gamers.  No one’s out to get us.  The coterie of gamers who perceive every bit of negative information or criticism as some sort of existential, personal attack is getting really annoying.  This is, I cautiously assume, a pretty small subset of all gamers, but they tend to dominate the conversation.  And I don’t know if Horowitz is overreacting, but if he is, then certainly the people complaining about his two blog posts are overreacting.  And certainly I, writing a lengthy post in response to a few minutes of a podcast and a bunch of Internet commenters, am overreacting.  But it’s the Internet; everyone overreacts to everything on the Internet.  Let’s at least try to all overreact with a bit of logic and perspective.

But to the main point, the answer is probably somewhere in the middle but closer to the side of Microsoft needing to do more.  Horowitz’s post could have done with less snark.  As someone who cares about the environment, I hate to see fellow travelers make themselves (and, by extension, all of us) so easy to ridicule or dismiss.  But a lot of Microsoft’s decisions just don’t seem to make much sense, especially from a company that has made a carbon-neutral pledge.

"Anyone there?  How about now?  How about now?  How about now?"
“Anyone there? How about now? How about now? How about now?”

Take the background updates, for example.  This is a nifty feature, to have updates happen while the system is in standby, in the middle of the night, instead of first thing when you turn on the console.  But, as Horowitz points out, a lot of other devices, like the Wii U, do this using much less power.  The Wii U powers up once an hour for a few seconds to check for updates; if there are none, it returns to its super-low standby state, at 0.4 watts.  There’s no reason that an Xbox One needs to be humming along at 12.5 or 15 watts (depending on where you get your numbers; the higher one comes from Microsoft) on the off chance that there’s an update.  The Wii U’s method is beyond sufficient.

The big power hog for the Xbox One, the main reason it has to idle at 12-15 watts, is the voice-activated startup option.  Your Kinect is listening, around the clock, for you to say, “Xbox!  On!”  Personally, I don’t really see the benefit in this.  For the first month or two, I used this feature.  It was a nifty gimmick.  It felt like I was living in the future.  But every time I turn on my Xbox, even with the power of my voice, I still have to pick up a controller with my hands and hit the home button to turn it on.  Which will turn on the console.  In other words, the thing I have to do every time I play a game will turn the console on anyway; being able to turn it on with my voice just saves me the two seconds it takes to walk from the edge of my Kinect’s reliable range to the coffee table where I keep the controller.  I can live without it.

But whatever.  My point is not that people shouldn’t use this feature.  Microsoft will probably continue to grind down the power consumption incrementally over the years, but it can only go so far, and getting there will be a complex technical challenge.  Having this thing on, listening for your voice, 24/7, will require a chunk of power; there’s no way around that.  But this is where a much simpler fix comes in.  Most gamers sleep every day and go to work or school every day, and they follow predictable schedules.  My (Windows) phone lets me set quiet hours, programming it to automatically silence at certain times according to a weekly schedule; why doesn’t my Xbox let me program hibernation hours so the Kinect isn’t gobbling up electricity to listen for voice commands that I know won’t be coming while I’m asleep or out of the house?  Most people could easily cut this feature’s power consumption by 2/3 with some basic scheduling.

Another annoying, easily fixed problem is the fact that there are only the two modes: Every Convenience Always mode or No Conveniences Ever mode.  This makes no sense.  One of my favorite minor conveniences is the Xbox One’s ability to turn your TV on for you.  Granted, this feature wasn’t as good as it could have been.  The Xbox One simply toggles the power to your TV, so if your TV is already on, turning on the Xbox will turn your TV off.  My much older standalone Blu-ray player, on the other hand, gets your TV to be on and tuned to the right input when powered up, regardless of the TV’s prior state.  (And, listen, this whole paragraph needs a major First World Problems trigger warning, I know.)  But this feature is only available as part of the power-hungry “instant-on” mode.  Why?  There’s no reason this feature couldn’t work with the energy-saving mode; it might toggle your TV’s power a few seconds later than it otherwise would, but the feature could absolutely work.

And this is, I think, the core of Horowitz’s argument, at least in his second post.  So much of the power the Xbox One uses is just wasted on completely unnecessary design choices that could be very easily fixed.  Reducing the amount of power the system needs for the faster startup time, and for the time spent actively listening for voice commands, will be a tough challenge, with gradual progress and small returns.  But there are a number of easy fixes Microsoft could implement in a matter of months that would make a huge impact: unbundle the various features of the “instant-on” mode so users could more precisely tune the system to their needs; make the background updates work the way the Wii U’s do; allow users to schedule Kinect active listening time, so voice activation is not an all-or-nothing proposition.  These fixes could take care of almost all of the Xbox One’s standby energy consumption.  The system could idle at 1 watt or less for most of the week, revving up to 12-15 watts for a few hours every night or all day Saturday or whatever.

Again, this is a company that purports to be “green,” but has thus far failed to implement some very obvious, very easy changes to its worst-in-class energy sponge.  Pointing this out is not an attack on gamers.  There are no black helicopters swooping down to steal all our Xbox Ones.  Let’s drop this reflexive defense of all things videogame and take Noah Horowitz’s pair of blog posts for what they are: a reasonable argument.

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