Blog Action Day ’09: a greener gamer

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ChiFFaN already noted that the iPhone in particular, is a PC killer. It does email, internet, music, telephony – there isn’t much that the device can’t do – within the reasonable limits of its size and processing power. But where it really excels is in in replacing a multitude of devices, many of which are power hungry. In the past, Apple have taken flack from certain green organisations for less than stellar green-figures, but that doesn’t mean the California company are not trying; in fact, they may be ahead in a game which often values horn-blowing rather than true revolution.

For years, the big CPU/GPU companies have pushed the agenda that users need more, and roughly every 18 months, computing power doubles. Some computing requires more resources; video, audio, and graphics creation are great examples of computing projects which need a large overhead of silicon, and with it, vast power resources. For the average users, however, usage patterns haven’t really changed in ten years; we email, write documents, and listen to music; we also watch movies, and tag photos. The truth is that over 90% of what the vast majority of users do needs only a few mHz here, and a bit of RAM there.

But what about games? Fast CPU’s, strong graphics processors and a store of memory which would embarrass Samsung are all vital to successful gaming, right? Apple computers have not been in the centre of gaming since the mid 80′s. Even in the days of Apple 2.0, game stores are generally bereft of Mac games. Mac gaming is an embarassingly costly venture which yields worse performance, fewer updates, and often, online incompatibilities. Despite Apple’s failure at grabbing the PC gaming market, they feasting on the burgeoning handheld gaming segment thanks to the iDevice. The platform has an army of features which work very well for casual games such as Fieldrunners, to full-blown RPG’s like The Quest. And, with the inclusion of advanced geometric input devices such as accelerometers and 3D compasses, the touch-screen device is re-inventing handheld gaming. All of this is done on a fraction of the power which is needed to run a ‘real’ gaming rig.

Earlier this year, I experimented by underclocking my MacBook’s CPU from 2 400 MHz to 600 MHz — a reduction of 75% of raw number crunching — and found 90% of my daily tasks were unaffected. I wrote emails, surfed the internet, created documents, and downloaded AND WATCHED iTunes content such as movies. Such tasks need little more than a display and a keyboard, but what surprised me was that my graphics work including heavy Adobe Illustrator files and multi-layered Photoshop editing, too, was completely doable, albeit, more slowly. I spent about 3 weeks underclocked and wasn’t bothered by the experience.

My MBP is by no means a weedy machine. It has tossed around Oblivion, X3, and Unreal Tournament 3 – all in Windows XP. On the Mac side, gaming has been a world of hurt even at full speed. With games which are sad ports from their Windows counterparts, titles often run at less than half the speed on the same hardware. Underclocking my processor didn’t help much, but then again, I have been on the way out of PC gaming since 2006 when my abilities — and drive — peaked. Underclocking my 3000$ laptop did little to prove that Mac gaming is a viable alternative, but it did teach me a valuable lesson: I can survive with much less than I once thought I needed.

Let’s look at the iPhone. The new 3GS has 256MB of RAM and a 600 MHz CPU. I’ll ignore other specs for the moment in order to prove a point: on paper, and from a shallow viewpoint, it matches my underclocked, and very capable MacBook Pro. Of course, my laptop has 4GB of RAM and its 600 MHz is in another performance league when compared to the iPhone, but in the current marketplace, numbers are important selling points for many products.

Here are a few more numbers: idle power consumption: 19 watts; and, fully loaded power consumption: 53 watts. My 2007 model MBP should dissipate about that much eletricity though those numbers are based on a 1st gen MBP from 2006. The iPhone, uses much, much less.

In fact, in terms of pleasure/watt, it is one of the most powerful devices on the planet. I have chased baddies in Need for Speed, hacked the Amazon Queen to bits in The Quest, flown over gorges and through tall pinnacles in Glyder: gaming is phenomenal on THIS Apple device. It comes in all flavours, and thanks to a rather young demographic of iPhone users, is blossoming, birthing new genres that its direct gaming competitors, the NDS and PSP, cannot imitate fast enough.

Apple’s interest in greening up its business has taken a different form from many of its own competitors; rather than focusing solely on lessening production emissions, Apple are looking at the cradle-to-grave scenario: how much pollution will the device emit from its assembly, to eventual — and idealistic — recycling? Apple reckon that as much as 53% of their carbon emissions come from their products, a number which dwarfs the 3% of their initial production. That percentage is heavily influenced by a product’s power consumption, reliance upon toxic substances, and heat output among other factors.

But this is where the iPhone, and by parenthesis, iPhone Gamers come in. Gaming, of all computing uses, is among the most carbon-deadly. It runs CPU’s hot, burns wattage to new heights, and always craves more. Companies like Intel, AMD, and nVidia thrive on game developers who constantly push the boundary between reality and fantasy and supply them with hardware which is capable of delivering the fiction. The problem is that this mindset, like a dependence on fossil fuels, ignores an important fact: resources aren’t expendable.

A different kind of game
The iDevice comes in two flavours: touch and phone, both of which are tied to hard rules governing performance. Neither can exceed a certain power envelope simply because users need a minimum of run time and the handheld has to behave in a person’s hands. The platform isn’t just a phone, or a gaming device, and it’s not just a computer; it is all three. In order for it to function well in even one of its roles, it must compromise. This is where it is a true game-changer. Until now, games which push the envelope for graphics and gameplay on the device have been cauterised by the addendum, “for the iPhone”, meaning that as good as it looks or plays, it is far below the level of performance expected from other devices.

But, there are users, who like me, have given up on PC gaming. Others, have switched to netbooks. As the iPhone and similar devices evolve, the market will change. Google’s Android, for instance, is poised to explode, and with the support of multiple platforms, will encroach on Apple and Microsoft’s hegemony in desktop computing. High-quality mobile gaming on do-it-all devices is an important step in influencing hardware manufacturers to focus on a new benchmark: polygons per watt (PPW). I applaud Apple’s iPhone and iPhone OS. It games, computes, and rocks out on a slimmer diet of electrons than any other comparable device and in doing so, is transforming a market segment based on Apple’s hipness and sincere effectiveness at producing, and marketing devices for a real, changing world.

In doing so, Apple haven’t only redefined a portable, multipurpose platform, but they have laid the ground work for constructing a new, greener gamer.

If you are interested in climate change, and effecting changes in areas that you understand by letting your voice be heard, get involved at Blog Action Day ’09.

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