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April 23, 2009

Filed under: tech»green


After almost two years, my laptop's 7-cell battery has gone from a total capacity of ~65Wh (watt-hours) to around 35Wh. That's a drop of about 50%, and translates to a run-time of just under two hours (down from four or five when I bought it). It sounds drastic, but it's not unexpected: lithium-ion batteries that are kept at room temperature should be expected to lose that much. And everyone should know at this point that batteries are wear-intensive items (hence my preference for user-removable/replaceable batteries when possible). But it's still a little shocking to see it happen right before your eyes.

So I really, on a very primitive level, wanted a new laptop battery.

I don't need one, mind you. Two hours is not uncommon for many new laptops. And this is part of why I bought the bigger battery anyway: there's more buffer against capacity loss. Moreover, I rarely use the machine unplugged. It's almost always either docked, or at work with the adapter plugged in. I simply suffer from the fear, similar to my chronic overpacking habit, that I might at a moment's notice need to work for more than two hours in the middle of a frozen, powerless wasteland. This despite the fact that I'm an urban creature who rarely travels more than 15 miles from a Krispy Kreme donut shop.

My actual behavior completely contradicts my consumer impulse. So why was my first thought to look at new batteries, instead of being glad that I bought the smaller power adapter? Consider the information I was given. When I open up Lenovo's power manager, I'm not presented with statistics on the percentage of on-battery use, or the average length of those sessions. I'm only told about the loss of functionality, not whether I need it, or if I really use it.

It goes without saying that this is very bad for greening efforts. And it raises the question of whether efforts like Lenovo's greening/recycling initiatives are really as sincere as they should be. Lenovo even includes a link for buying more batteries in its power manager software. Sure, they recycle the old ones for you. But did you need a fresh set in the first place? If they are really serious about reducing their environmental footprint, the information presented needs to be more reflective, even if it means they sell slightly fewer.

In any case, it's got me thinking about laptops and sustainability in general. This is not an idle question: laptop sales were up 21% in 2007, while desktops dropped 4%, and the gap probably increased in 2008. That's a lot of portable computers being sold--many with replaceable batteries and modular drives, but the majority a sustainability time bomb of non-upgradeable innards and custom-built parts. And then there's netbooks, one of the fastest-growing portable segments. Oh, sweet heavens, there'll be a price to pay for netbooks in the future. Their value as affordable technology is undeniable for helping to bridge to digital divide and reach new market segments. But ecologically, they're all the negatives of a laptop, compounded: cheap construction, proprietary parts, and marketed (within the nerd community, at least) as a convenience purchase.

The obvious solution is that laptops need to become more serviceable. This was one of the original goals of the OLPC project hardware (which was always pretty clever, even if the educational mission was less so), and it was an admirable one. But even this won't really be enough. After all, desktop computers have been generally user-serviceable for years, and yet most people never open then up, due to a combination of unfriendly design and (more importantly) a consumer culture that encourages a perception of computers as disposable appliances.

This has to change. It means that the design of upgrading--connectors, casing, and drivers--will need to be rethought, particularly with an eye toward the portable segment. I shouldn't have to recycle an entire laptop just because the CPU and GPU have fallen behind, for example. And I shouldn't want to. It's time to start building a culture of re-use in the developed world--Last Year's Model is a good start, but I don't think it goes far enough. Our values should demand at least a year of use (and more like five or ten) from our electronics, and require us to spend less money on shiny junk (ironically, it helps to stop reading the very tech/gadget blogs who have plugged LYM. Trust me, you're not missing much).

Finally, this cultural change applies to software as well--just from familiarity, I'm looking at you, PC gaming industry. Although there are other factors, a heavy driver of both upgrades and new purchases is the ever-increasing demand of game engines. Companies like Valve and Stardock that target older machines should be applauded for both the business savvy and the ecological impact of that choice. And those like Crytech, who seem to see it as their mission to justify expensive, cutting-edge rigs, should be ashamed. Have we learned nothing from the Wii and the continuing sales of the PS2? The bleeding edge may not be a sustainable path for game developmers after all, and it's certainly not sustainable for the rest of us, economically or ecologically.

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