Why a good green tablet is hard to find

Energy Star omitted criteria for tablets in its classifications, leaving EPEAT -- and green-minded consumers -- in a lurch

There was a time not long ago when computer makers went out of their way to promote the green credentials -- power efficiency, recyclability, environmental friendliness -- of their newest PCs and laptops. With the latest generation of computing devices, particularly tablets, vendors aren't playing the green card quite so prominently, if at all.

That might be cause for concern for organizations that want to remain on the cutting edge of technology yet who've pledged to purchase only lean, green machines for their workforce, be it for the sake of cutting costs, being better environmental stewards, or a combination of the two. Are vendors no longer focusing on sustainability as they rush to get the shiniest products to market? Or are the bars for measuring a product's greenness not keeping up with the technology? Turns out it's a little of both.

There are a couple of bars for measuring the "greenness" of today's next-generation computing devices. One of them is the EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool) registry. Maintained by the GEC (Green Electronics Council), EPEAT is a searchable database of computer hardware that meets a strict set of environmental criteria. Among them, registered products comply with Energy Star; have reduced levels of cadmium, lead, and mercury; and are easier to upgrade and recycle. Products can receive a rating of Bronze, Silver, or Gold.

Strikingly, there is exactly one "tablet notebook" listed in the EPEAT registry: the Xplore iX104C5 DMSR, added on Dec. 11 of last year. There are no iPads, no Surfaces, no Streaks, no Kindles, no Nooks. How is it possible that not a single hardware vendor has managed to crank out a tablet that meets the minimum EPEAT criteria?

According to EPEAT's communications rep Sarah O'Brien, "There is one barrier to registering 'slates' in EPEAT -- the fact that there is currently no Energy Star specification that covers these products."

Confusingly, Energy Star 5.0 covered tablets, but with Version 5.2, Energy Star reclassified tablets as handhelds. Here's the exact text: "Slate computing devices, defined here as a type of computer lacking a physical keyboard, relying solely on touchscreen input, having solely a wireless network connection (e.g., Wi-Fi, 3G), and primarily powered from an internal battery (with connection to the mains for charging, not primary powering of the device) are considered handhelds and are not considered notebook computers. Consequently, slates are not eligible for this version of the Energy Star computer program."

The problem, therefore, is that Energy Star is a required criterion for a machine to garner an EPEAT rating, "so this explicit exclusion of slates means they can't currently be registered," O'Brien said. "Notebook-type slates (the ones that have a slate type surface but are primarily conventional notebooks) can be registered as what we rather clumsily call 'Tablet Notebooks,' but this has not been a popular category." Indeed, there's only one tablet notebook listed.

The next version of Energy Star intends to include slates, according to O'Brien. The EPA is considering a ULEM (Ultra‐low Energy Mobile) Computer product classification that would include netbooks and tablets. In the meantime, she said that EPEAT is moving forward with research on slates and similar devices "to better understand how they can best be addressed within EPEAT's rating system and product categories."

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