Most of the chatter about Vista, Microsoft’s new operating system, centers on whether the techies in Redmond have outsmarted the hackers this time around. But might the system also slow destruction of the environmental variety? Microsoft is touting Vista’s new energy-saving features, even as critics are pointing out that the system has some eco-downsides as well.

How green is my Vista?

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The efficiency advances involve sleep mode, a computer’s ability to power down after an idle spell. With Vista, says Microsoft, sleep will be as energy efficient as shutdown. “We’ve worked very hard to make the sleep experience a much easier and more elegant one for users,” says Michael Rawding, Microsoft’s vice president for special projects.

In the past, Microsoft has fielded complaints from users about sleep. Sometimes an application or driver interfered with a computer’s ability to doze off; a laptop that one thought was asleep might be surprisingly hot when pulled from a bag hours later, or even have a drained battery.

Vista will make it harder for applications to impede sleep. And sleep and other power-saving options will now be the default on machines running Vista — they will start snoozing after an hour of non-use — whereas before users had to change the default settings to ensure sleep.

Vista’s sleep-mode improvements will make the biggest difference at large companies. Corporate IT departments regularly do mass updates on thousands of desktop computers in the middle of the night. Often, however, it is hard for IT engineers to order them all back to sleep without going from machine to machine. Vista’s new set-up will fix this, forcing the computers back to sleep after two minutes.

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“What you’ve seen in the last couple of years, both among hardware manufacturers and among users, particularly in a productivity scenario, is a recognition of the cost of power,” says Rawding. “Overall efficiency of power is just becoming a major design criterion across the board for systems.”

But Vista has efficiency shortcomings too. According to early reports, its much ballyhooed 3-D interface will require slightly more energy to run than XP, Microsoft’s previous operating system. On balance, though, the improvement in the sleep process will probably outweigh the energy costs of the new features, according to Tom Bolioli, an energy-efficiency consultant with the firm Terra Novum.

Look Before You Sleep

Computer energy use is no trivial matter. Microsoft reckons that a PC using an old-style cathode-ray tube monitor, if left awake around the clock, results in the emission of over half a ton of carbon dioxide a year just during the time when it’s not in use. At a typical electricity cost of roughly nine cents per kilowatt hour, that translates to over $70 wasted per year per machine. Computers with flat-screen LCD monitors, which are more energy efficient, still drain almost $56 a year for sleepless idleness.

The Foreign Policy blog, building on the conservative estimate that 100 million computers using a Microsoft operating system are running nonstop and aren’t currently optimized for sleep, speculates that $5 billion to $7 billion is wasted each year powering the machines when they don’t need to be powered, and that 45 million tons of CO2 is emitted in the process.

This means Vista has the potential to save an enormous amount of energy. Then again, as Hank Green points out in Treehugger, if Microsoft had gotten these features right when it released its XP operating system in late 2001, roughly $25 billion and 225 million tons of CO2 might have been saved over the past five years. But the bugs in its sleep functionality have gone unaddressed until now. Apple, it’s worth noting, mastered the sleep mode years ago.

Consider also that most of the hundreds of millions of computers in use around the world aren’t powerful enough to run Vista, no matter how much electricity they suck from the nearest outlet; they lack the memory and graphics cards needed to power the 3-D interface. Disabling Vista’s flashiest features will help on some machines, but still won’t solve the problem for many others. Critics like the U.K. Green Party are warning that Vista could trigger a huge new wave of electronic waste as companies and individuals ditch their old computers for more powerful new ones that can meet the operating system’s demands.

The Foreign Policy blog argues that Microsoft should offer a software upgrade for its older operating systems that would adjust energy-saving settings for maximum efficiency. Because the vast majority of the world’s computers run on Microsoft software, the move could result in huge energy savings. “[N]o other company has an opportunity like Microsoft to make such a direct impact — and practically overnight,” the blog writes. “Microsoft could seize this chance to lead the pack, and come out on top as the greenest software company in the world.”

No word yet on whether Microsoft might take up the challenge — but don’t lose any sleep waiting for it.