Makers Must Think Outside of the Box

larry.magid@latimes.com

Regardless of whether there are rolling blackouts, California needs to go on an energy diet. I'm not suggesting we turn off all the lights and shut down our PCs, but we must find ways to cut back on the amount of power we use. One way to do that is to develop PCs that use less energy.

A typical PC with a standard cathode ray tube, or CRT, monitor uses 200 to 300 watts of electricity, but there are ways to drastically reduce that draw. For example, machines purchased in the last several years typically are in compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency's EnergyStar program, which requires PCs to use no more than 15% of their power supply's maximum continuous output rating while idle or in sleep mode. So, a typical PC with a 200-watt power supply would consume less than 30 watts while idle.

Monitors also have sleep modes. The ViewSonic G75f 17-inch CRT monitor, for example, burns 100 watts while lighted up, but in "deep sleep" mode it sips as little as 1 watt, according to data that ViewSonic provided to the EPA.

Liquid-crystal flat-panel displays are far more energy efficient. While running, the 17-inch ViewSonic VE170 uses 50 watts--half the energy as the same size CRT monitor--and it too can go into deep sleep mode.

Laptop makers have been striving to save energy long before it was fashionable, because they've always been judged by how long their machines go between charges. A Compaq Armada E500, which has a 15-inch monitor and either a CD or DVD drive along with a hard drive and plenty of memory, does it all on less than 50 watts when running. Like all laptops, it uses substantially less energy when it goes into power-saving mode to prolong battery life.

Using a laptop PC instead of a desktop is a good way to save energy, and it's an excellent way to protect yourself against losing data in the event of a blackout because the built-in batteries will keep it going one to four hours, depending on the machine's battery life.

Of course, not everyone wants to work hunched over a laptop. There's something to be said about having an external keyboard, monitor and mouse. Although it's possible to equip a laptop with those external devices, it's also a bit pricey.

Kishor Bapat, chief executive of Newbury Park's EWO Software, has developed a prototype of a PC that combines the power-saving features of a laptop with the ergonomics of a desktop machine and has come up with an unconventional way to deliver power to the machine.

EWO's OmniPod Network Powered PC is unique because it doesn't come with an electrical plug. It doesn't run on batteries. Instead, it gets its power from a modified version of an Ethernet hub via standard Cat 5 Ethernet cables that connect the PCs to the network hub.

The hub, which plugs into a standard electrical outlet, has a built-in power supply that converts the AC power into low-voltage DC power. It then delivers that power to each connected OmniPod PC via the four unused wires in the Ethernet cable. Two wires go to the PC itself and the other two to the LCD monitor. That way, you can add PCs to the network without having to plug them into the wall.

It eliminates a couple of ugly wires and enables you to place PCs in areas where you don't have electrical outlets, assuming you are able to wire the area for Ethernet.

The machine Bapat demonstrated to me was clearly a prototype. He is looking for funding and partners to get his idea off the ground. The machines would cost about $1,000, plus $200 to $300 for the hub. The most expensive component is the LCD screen, which costs $400 to $500.

I don't know whether Bapat's idea will take off, but it's good to see some people thinking beyond the box when it comes to PC design. One of the reasons the PC industry is in such a rut is because most PCs look, act and function pretty much the same. At the risk of sounding like an Apple commercial, now is as good a time as any for PC makers to start to "Think Different."

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Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard between 2 and 3 p.m. weekdays on the KNX-AM (1070) Technology Hour.

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