Technolog

After a YouTube-like acceleration from total semantic obscurity, your “carbon footprint” is now the benchmark for your environmental friendliness. And processor manufacturer VIA – which championed the power-consumption problem way before it was trendy – has announced what it claims is the first carbon-free processor, the C7-D.

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Last year, I attended a small press briefing given by VIA’s president, Wenchi Chen. Given the amount of corporate power he wields, he’s a disarmingly modest and humble man. A few minutes in his presence confirms he clearly believes deeply in VIA’s power-efficient computing philosophy, not for the sake of marketing but for the sake of the planet.

So it’s disappointing that claims for the C7-D’s environmental credentials only hold true when accompanied by caveats and conditions. In proclaiming it carbon-free, VIA entirely ignores the total-system energy cost. In other words, it fails to accommodate the energy required to make the processor; it ignores the energy of eventual recycling or disposal; and there’s no assessment of the considerable energy cost of shipping and distribution. If anything is to be considered carbon-free then all of these need to be considered together, not just the energy consumed while the part is in service.

What VIA really means is “carbon-neutral in use”. It’s stating that it will offset the power the C7-D uses derived from sources based on fossil fuels by other means. VIA enumerates these means as “reforestation”, “alternative energy” and “energy conservation” (www.pcpro.co.uk).

Whatever the actual method of compensating for carbon output, the fact is that a manufacturer, when it makes a piece of carbon-free equipment, has to come up with a figure upon which to base its carbon-offset level. You can probably see where the problem lies: the sum needs to be based on a notional approximation of a piece of kit’s energy consumption from now until it ceases to be used.

One of VIA’s partners in this carbon-free initiative is Tranquil, maker of very attractive media PC systems (www.tranquilpc.co.uk). VIA makes “carbon-free” processors: Tranquil claims to make complete carbon-free PCs based on those processors. The company does at least qualify what it means by carbon-free right at the top of its homepage. All of its systems, it claims, are “supplied as ‘Carbon Free in Use’. This commitment ensures that units supplied … do not leave any carbon footprint during their serviceable lifetimes”.

Fair enough: no obfuscation there, no worries about ambiguous wording. But with the best will in the world, the calculation of total energy consumed during this notional average “serviceable lifetime” is sketchy.

According to Tranquil’s own figures, to remain carbon-free in use you need to make sure your PC isn’t used heavily for more than two hours a day, is in standby for 16 hours of that day and is, er, unplugged from the wall for the whole weekend (I’m in no way denigrating any manufacturer for producing low-power systems that will, in absolute and undeniable terms, be responsible for releasing less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than higher-power Intel or AMD systems, if used for equivalent lengths of time (I won’t muddy the waters by going into notions of performance per watt here).

In the end, though, a carbon-free-in-use PC that makes any kind of sense outside of the marketing department can only be achieved in two ways. The first requires the company that produces it to magically monitor its power consumption in real-time and plant more trees to compensate. The second requires that the energy-consumption model incorporates much more leeway than the confines of a three-year service life that also demands you don’t go near your PC at the weekend. Until that changes, the entire notion of carbon-free computers will be tainted by the smell of profit-motivated corporate conscience.

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