A recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) made headlines when it revealed that the biggest energy drain in your house likely isn't the fridge, air conditioner, or heater--it is, unbelievably, the TV set-top box. These ridiculously energy-inefficient boxes, typically provided by your cable company, have received little scrutiny until now, which means the cable companies have had little reason to embrace readily available methods to decrease their energy use. We've put together a list of the best and worst existing set-top boxes, so you can at least know what you're getting.
First, some background. How could that little innocent cable box that provides so many hours of Monk reruns actually use more energy than a giant refrigerator? The problem is that modern DVRs and other set-top boxes aren't regular one-function appliances; they're just specialized computers, with a different exterior. They house energy-sucking hard drives, modern processors, HD video cards, and all kinds of other components you'd find in a regular computer. Except when you're not using a computer, you shut it down (at least, we hope you do). Not so for set-top boxes.
The NRDC found that "Today’s set-top boxes operate at near full power even when the consumer is neither watching nor recording a show," and that set-top boxes are only in use about a third of the time they're running. It raises the question: Why don't people just shut down their boxes when not in use? The answer is in two parts: First, they don't realize they should, and second, set-top boxes take awhile to start up--like a computer (which is what they are), rather than the instant-on of a TV. Customers are not accustomed to waiting a few minutes for their TV to be available, and so leave the boxes on all the time, which in turn means the cable providers don't have any motivation to reduce startup time, let alone make them more efficient.