How green are the devices that stream Netflix & Hulu?

Here’s another good reason to cancel your pay TV subscription and just rely on Netflix (s NFLX) and Hulu instead: It will save you a bunch of money on your energy bill, and help fight global warming in the process. A recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) showed that U.S. set-top boxes collectively consume as much electricity as produced by nine 500 MW power plants. The same study said that Internet video devices used to stream video from Netflix and Hulu are generally much more efficient. We wanted to know more, which is why we tested the power consumption of five leading streaming devices.

Streaming uses less energy

First the good news: Streaming really does eat up less power than watching cable TV. We tested the Apple TV (s AAPL), Roku’s new Roku 2 XS, the Logitech (s LOGI) Revue Google TV set-top box, the Boxee Box and the WD TV Live Plus, and all of them consumed significantly less electricity than your average cable setup. The NRDC estimates that a regular DVR consumes around 32 watts when on, with some of the devices tested by the Council eating up as much as 50 watts. Set-top box makers have started to produce more efficient devices, but those are slow to reach the market. Verizon recently told USA Today that 90 percent of its boxes don’t meet meet Energy Star criteria yet.

An Apple TV on the other hand consumes less than 2 watts when streaming HD video from Netflix. That means that you could theoretically run 16 Apple TVs with the same power that is needed to run a single cable DVR. Of course, that’s a bit of a hypothetical situation, so let’s go with one of the examples used by the NRDC instead. The Council estimated that a typical multi-room DVR setup with one DVR running on high gear for nine hours a day and two clients each used for three hours a day uses a total of 617 kWh per year (check out all the details in its study).

If you replaced the entire setup with Apple TVs and streamed Netflix on them for the same periods of time, then you’d use merely 10.4 kWh per year. And if those numbers don’t really mean that much to you, consider this: The electricity of this multi-room DVR setup alone would cost you close to $70 per year, based on a national average of$0.11 per kWh. The three-room Apple TV alternative on the other hand only costs about \$1.15 per year.

Some devices are greener than others

Not all streaming devices are created equal, and our tests revealed that the same is true for their energy footprint. The Apple TV is by far the most efficient device on the market, impressing with low consumption even during HD streaming and close to zero impact during standby. On the other end of the spectrum are devices like the Boxee Box and Logitech’s Revue, which both consumed around 13 watts while streaming HD content.

Check out a detailed comparison in the table below:

The power consumption of Internet video players
Device tested off/standby idle streaming HD via Ethernet streaming HD via Wifi additional resources
Apple TV less than 0.5 watts 1.5 watts 1.6 watts 1.9 watts Our Apple TV review
Boxee Box 0.5 watts / 13.5 watts 14.5 watts 12.4 watts 12.8 watts Our Boxee Box review
Logitech Revue 12.3 watts 12.8 watts 13.1 watts Our Logitech Revue review
Roku 2 XS 2.1 watts 2.1 watts 2.5 watts 2.8 watts Our Roku 2 review
WD TV Live Plus less than 0.5 watts 6 watts 6.9 watts no on-board Wifi Our WD TV Live Plus review

A few points worth noting:

• The culprit for the high consumption of the Logitech Revue and the Boxee Box seems to be Intel’s (s INTC) CE4100 Atom processor that both devices are based on. Boxee’s sleep mode also doesn’t really save any energy, but the device can be turned off with a dedicated on-off button, which helps to significantly reduce its energy consumption. Logitech’s Revue doesn’t even offer a standby mode because it’s meant to be used in conjunction with other always-on devices.
• Roku’s streaming performance is almost as good as the Apple TV’s, but its standby mode is a bit of a mystery: The device uses as much electricity when in standby than it does when it’s on.
• Penny pinchers may want to take notice that you can save a little bit of electricity by streaming the content via Ethernet as opposed to Wifi. It’s not enough to really make a dent, but it should also help to improve your Netflix quality.
• We measured all of this with the help of a Belkin Conserve energy monitor, and streamed an episode of Mad Men in HD in each instance.

But is it really greener?

Getting rid of your power-hungry cable box and replacing it with a lean and green streaming device can obviously save you some money on your utility bills, but is it really greener? Doesn’t it just outsource the same functionality to some data center that serves up Netflix content?

It’s true that the video bits have to come from somewhere, but a number of studies have shown that cloud computing as it is used by Netflix to serve up video actually could lead to billions in energy savings. Part of that has to do with the fact that cloud computing helps Netflix to only use servers when it needs it and customers are actually watching.

Compare that to your average DVR, which is constantly recording a half hour buffer of whatever station you watched last, and it becomes clear that on-demand video viewing in combination with an energy efficient streaming device may be the greener way to go.

Image courtesy of (CC-BY-SA) Flickr user jonathan mcintosh.