Low-power computing: a tech guide

Summary:We examine a number of low-power desktops, thin clients and notebooks to find out which platforms are most suitable for deployment in developing countries.

Many organisations are working to make computer technology available to the (roughly) 5 billion people in developing countries who currently reside on the PC-free side of the so-called 'digital divide'. For corporations such as Intel and Microsoft, the impetus is clearly a mixture of self-interest and altruism: on the one hand, 5 billion people constitute an enormous and tempting market; on the other, the philanthropic instincts of, for example, Intel's Gordon Moore and Microsoft's Bill Gates are demonstrably genuine. For charities and other not-for-profit organisations, the motivation is simpler: to promote technology as a driver of improved social and economic conditions in developing countries.

This project came about at the suggestion of a charity, Computer Aid International, which collects unwanted PCs from UK businesses, refurbishes them, and then ships them for reuse in education, health and not-for-profit organisations in developing countries. Unfortunately, traditional desktop PCs, as used in western companies, have relatively large power requirements — especially when paired with old-style CRT monitors. At the same time, power supply in developing countries is often unreliable, particularly in rural areas, leaving little choice beyond environmentally questionable (e.g. diesel generators) or expensive-to-purchase (e.g. solar panels) power-generation technologies. It therefore makes sense on many grounds — operational, financial and environmental — to use the most power-efficient computers available.

Computer Aid International provides professionally refurbished computers for reuse in education, health and not-for-profit organisations in developing countries.

There are now a number of low-power computers on the market, ranging from notebooks (which are generally designed from the ground up with power consumption in mind), to small-format desktop PCs, to thin-client solutions that hang a number of minimalist workstations off a central host PC or server. Some of these products are explicitly aimed at developing countries, while others are more focused on the increasing need to conserve power in developed countries. But which type of low-power solution is best? Beyond the manufacturers' claims, there is very little independent information on this question.

In this initial survey, ZDNet UK has gathered eight examples of low-power computers, including high-profile products such as the OLPC XO and Intel's Classmate, and measured their power consumption when performing a representative set of tasks. For the battery-powered notebooks, we also measured rundown and recharge times. In addition to the lab tests, we have made a comprehensive log of each system's hardware and software features, giving extra weight to attributes that are particularly relevant to the developing world. Naturally, we also spent time simply using the computers, exploring their functionality and ergonomics. Finally, looking beyond the systems themselves, we have considered important factors such as the availablilty of documentation and technical support, and of training to help teachers, in particular, make the best use of the technology.

The outcome of this process is a shortlist of low-power solutions comprising at least one mini-desktop, one thin client system and one notebook. Six examples of each product will go on to the second stage of the project: field-testing in Africa, which will be carried out by universities in Kenya, Nigeria and Zimbabwe. The outcome of this trial, which will concentrate as much on 'ecosystem' factors as the technology itself, will be described in a later report.


Topics: Reviews

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Hello, I'm the Reviews Editor at ZDNet UK. My experience with computers started at London's Imperial College, where I studied Zoology and then Environmental Technology. This was sufficiently long ago (mid-1970s) that Fortran, IBM punched-card machines and mainframes were involved, followed by green-screen terminals and eventually the pers... Full Bio

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