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How green are the devices that stream Netflix & Hulu?

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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.

A multi-room DVR setup consumes 617 kWh per year, according to the National Resources Defense Council. Picture credit: NRDC.

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.

15 Responses to “How green are the devices that stream Netflix & Hulu?”

  1. Downwind

    I cut my cable and unplugged the box. After subscribing to Netflix for 3 years I have canceled. They’re a greedy company that attempted to raise fees 60%. Now I simply use my roof antennae to get broadcast TV and connect my laptop to the TV to stream various free things. This reduces electricity. More important than this climate change diversion is the dire need to eliminate nuclear reactors. The media won’t tell you just how bad Fukushima really is. Millions will die and have genetic defects to serve our addiction to power.

    • Actually nuclear energy is one of the cleanest and safest forms of energy and has been advocated by James Lovelock, father of the Gaia theory. More people have died from wind power production accidents.

      The issue is WHERE you build the plants and a seismically active area in area long known for a risk of Tsunami is a very dangerous and poor choice. Besides what viable alternatives are there? Solar and wind are at best supplementary sources and many countries do not have access to enough hydro electric, the development of which is usually blocked by special interest groups. The only other real alternatives are things like coal, which does kill a lot of people and there is no debate on this or other fossil fuels. Natural gas is a fairly clean option compared to most others but there is only so much of it and it requires large transmission pipelines.

      The french have made extensive use and derive the vast majority of their power from nuclear. In fact, this was the only reason the EU showed as well as they did on the issue of carbon emissions. They have also shown that the waste can be stored and dealt with in a safe and effective manner.

      If anything will cause deaths by nuclear, it will be environmentalists blocking the development of new, meaning safer and more modern plants in better locations and the old ones will become more and more likely to have an accident.

      Besides, It is coal that is killing thousands of people every single year directly from its pollution. Lives that could be saved by effective and responsible use of nuclear power, in addition to cleaner air and water but the environmental extremists probably dismiss this because they also see the earth as overpopulated and needs a reduction in numbers anyways. Some of them can show more compassion for plants and animals than they do people and honestly that is truly frightening.

      • Downwind

        Russian medical records show close to a million eventually died from the Chernobyl radiation worldwide. Fukushima released a 100 times more radiation (and it is still ongoing). Well meaning people’s ignorance of radiation is what is truly frightening.

      • Coal is widely regarded as the greatest killer of all energy sources in both its mining and use. Banning responsible use Few other sources are enough to meet most countries energy needs, especially developing ones like China and India and currently clean ones don’t even come anywhere close to being viable.

        The harm caused by Chernobyl was more a result of the pool handling and maintenance of the plant due to the failings of their communist state, as was seen in many sectors in their countries (that also resulted in suffering and death)

        It has been soundly proven by the French, the country that had the most impact on reducing the EUs overall carbon emissions, that the technology can be used without any negative effects, even in disposal.

        Yes, it was a disaster waiting to happen when the Japanese built a plant in a tsunami zone with high seismic activity. THIS is the problem, not nuclear energy. Would you prefer the poor in Africa continue to live poverty, burning animal dung and without a viable economy to provide the basic necessities for life let alone prosperity? This is but one example of the human suffering your “compassion for plants and animals” results in.

        And compassion for plants? Oh come on. That is ridiculous, religious nonsense. Conservation, smart use of and protection of our resources, vegetable and mineral is needed and laudable but only because they benefits human welfare not some fairy tale woo woo nonsense.

        Sorry, I’m not dressed for church. We need science and rationality to deal with these issues not emotional idealism.

  2. This obsession with a watt here and a watt there (while often ignoring whether it comes from coal or hydroelectric) is getting beyond absurd. Splitting hairs over devices with single digit watt usage is beyond ridiculous and a perfect example of letting emotion be the root of such choices and judgements leads to a waste a use of human time, energy, potential and effectiveness. If these are the things that “greens” are obsessing on and there is truth to the dangers they advocate we are quite simply doomed.

    One year climate experts admit that volcanos, forest fires, decay of leaves and other natural sources produce more atmospheric carbon than humans do then they tell us the worst offender is cow farts. They make movies about slideshows about books base on data that turns out to be completely inaccurate.

    People are force to use compact fluorescents (that produce light that bothers me and I can’t stand) in the name of being green but they are made with the dirtiest coal power in China then shipped across the ocean. Or economically illiterates in government and in special interest groups either force or bring about legislation meant to “clean up the environment” but all it does is drive industry to nations that have some of the worst environmental records.

    In short, if there is any truth to human caused climate change, these well meaning but ineffectual folks are actually making things worse in the big picture. Scientists still cannot prove that any of the warming that they have apparently recorded is not caused by natural and normal environmental factors such as solar activity. The earth has not been a widely hospitable place for people let alone life for the majority of its life supporting existence and has shown severe shifts in temperatures far worse than anything they are projecting.

    Don’t get me wrong, I believe in a clean environment (we drink that water, dammit!) and energy efficiency. I don’t own a car, run a very efficient Mac Mini for my computer and eagerly look forward to LED lightbulbs being affordable but honestly with the religiosity and blind enthusiasm of environmental advocates are actually doing harm to both the environment and the economy (you know that thing that feeds most of the world).

    These zealots are repulsive to people they can’t indoctrinate (how many times did your kid or those you know have to watch Al Gore’s stupid movie in school?) and the alarmist and often contradictory press (propaganda) the issue receives has lead me to no longer read the news.

    So, if you really care about the planet, don’t how little power your Hulu device is using. It is all just self indulgent garbage meant to make people feel better about themselves and does absolutely nothing for the state of the environment.

  3. You can’t really shut off the Boxee Box if you have a content library of any kind. Otherwise it has to re-index it when you turn it back on and that’s, well, ugh. It’s largely Intel’s fault for not providing a good (any?) standby mode for the CE4150 designs, but it’s a downside to the Boxee nevertheless.

  4. Joe: the rest of these still use significantly less energy than a standard DVR, right? They’re still greener – just not as energy-efficient as the Apple TV and the Roku 2.

  5. Not sure this is a fair comparison, since you measured the power consumption of DVRs rather than just regular non-DVR cable Set Top Boxes. A Motorola DCT700, a digital-only standard def STB, uses less than 10W, less than the Boxee Box for example. The Motorola DCH3200, a modern digital HD non-DVR STB, uses less than 24W. The DVR version of this box uses about 30W, so another 6W or so for the DVR portion (the hard drive and so forth).

    A DVR can do things these digital streaming boxes can’t. It records things. If Season 1 of Breaking Bad is available, I can record it and watch it anytime I want. If Season 1 disappears from Netflix before I get around to watching it I don’t have that option, so I don’t think comparing DVR to non-DVR models is appropriate.

  6. So what your saying is it’s really apple TV that’s greener. No mention of how much these other thousand products that stream netflix are not green.

    • Oops…I meant antenna plus a wireless Internet TV, like our Sony Bravia, which is how we get Netflix and Hulu. Though, it would be interesting to see a comparison of that device vs. set-top boxes.

  7. What happens if you also factor in the electricity consumption of the servers needed to provide a single stream to each consumer, plus the consumption of the network? Does that end up still being more efficient than the broadcast multicast?