Netbooks aren’t any better for the environment

Computers are an environmental disaster by many measures, so everyone is looking for ways to make them greener. There are ways to make computing greener, but they generally involve the non-glamorous activity of figuring out ways of making your old hardware run longer. Unfortunately, squeezing another year or two out of the life of an ancient processor doesn’t make the press headlines and it certainly doesn’t increase the coffers of the tech companies. There are few PR announcements and little corporate spin associated with being truly green. Instead, the industry is dedicated to figuring out how to get you to consume more, so they slap greenwash on their hardware and tell us that we have to buy the latest “green” computer to save the planet.

The latest phase in “green” marketing is the promoting of netbooks as an environmental option. Over and over in the press I see their green credentials being touted–probably because netbooks are the fastest growing sector in the computer market and the PC companies need something which makes good press coverage in an economic downturn.

According to a study by Eric Williams in 2004, 80% of total energy use for a typical home desktop PC and its 17″ CRT monitor lies in its fabrication and only 20% lies in its use, so netbooks should be greener because it takes less energy and resources to fabricate them since they have fewer components, integrated motherboards and smaller processors.

Nonetheless, the shorter lifespans of netbooks will balance out their smaller fabrication footprint. Mobile devices are much harder to fix and break more readily than desktop computers. According to Gartner, laptops have 3 times the failure rate of desktops in their first year compared to desktops. Laptops are thrown away much faster than desktop computers, partly because they break more often and can’t be easily fixed, but also because they become obsolete much faster and can’t be upgraded very easily.

In theory a netbook shouldn’t fail as often as a conventional laptop because it has fewer moving parts like optical drives and ferro-magnetic harddrives with spinning platters which are more likely to break. In practice, however, netbooks are probably just as likely to break as conventional laptops.

Netbooks generally use cheaper parts than conventional laptops to meet their low price point. The two most common points of failure on laptops are the keyboard and the harddrive. The lower quality keyboards on netbooks are more likely to break over time. Likewise the harddrive in netbooks is more susceptible to failure, since most use the solid-state flash drives. Flash drives are more shock resistant than standard ferro-magnetic drives, so they will withstand more drops and rough handling, but flash drives also have a much higher failure rate over time because their number of writes is limited and the downward price pressure is causing manufacturers to switch to more tightly packed flash technology which has a shorter Mean Time Before Failure (MTBF) and thus few writes before cells die.  In addition to likely problems with the keyboard and harddrive, other parts on the cheaply constructed netbooks like chassis and hinges are more likely to fail.

If a netbook fails, it is highly unlikely to be fixed. Unlike a desktop computer for which a replacement part can be easily obtained, most netbooks use custom parts which are difficult to obtain. Conventional laptops also use custom parts which are difficult to obtain, but people are more likely to fix a $1000 laptop if the keyboard or harddrive fails, whereas they are more likely to junk a $300 netbook since the cost of fixing it is often more than it is worth. Furthermore, few people bother to buy extended warranties for netbooks since they figure that it isn’t worth ensuring such a cheap investment. Acer and Asus currently control 70% of the netbook market, but Asus doesn’t even offer an extended warranty and Acer only offers an extended warranty of one additional year. Obviously, the netbook manufacturers don’t think that their devices will last very long if they are unwilling to over long warranties on their products.

Another major problem is that many netbooks are not designed to allow upgrades. Once a netbook becomes obsolete, the only option is to junk it. In theory a netbook shouldn’t need to be upgraded, since it is designed to rely on network storage and use internet applications. In practice, however, many people are running office applications on their computers and much of the multimedia available over the internet will require increasing mounts of memory and processing power. Flash internet apps tend to suck a lot of computer resources. The only saving grace of netbooks is the fact that many run on GNU/Linux and thus are less susceptible to the bloat of the proprietary software business model which is based upon endlessly upgrading to use more and more computing resources in a quest for planned obsolescence.

In the final analysis it is highly unlikely that netbooks will last any longer than conventional laptops, which already have incredibly shortened lifespans compared to desktop computers. If people avoid using processing intensive applications on their netbooks and continue using them after they have become obsolete, what that probably means is that they have another larger computer running for those uses, which in the end means consuming two computers rather than one.

Finally, netbooks rely on the cloud for much of their storage and applications which means that these computers will use a tremendous amount of internet bandwidth and server computing power. The amount of power used by servers doubled between 2000 and 2005 and is expected to double again by 2010. The ICT sectors already generates about 2% of global greenhouse gases and if it continues to grow at its current rate of growth, ICT will be responsible for around 4.5% of greenhouse gas production by the year 2020. The greenhouse gases caused by servers and communications infrastructure is growing about 9% per year, which is faster than another part of the ICT sector. Once the servers, routers and all the 24/7 infrastructure is calculated into the equation, netbooks are unlikely to be any more environmental than standard PCs.

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