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This week's top token gesture: Google Chrome chokes energy-hungry background tabs

But more could be done through better programming

By Thomas Claburn, 16 Mar 2017

With the recent arrival of a new version of its Chrome browser, Google is celebrating its software's energy saving potential, even as it overlooks its electricity addiction.

"Starting in version 57, Chrome will throttle individual background tabs by limiting the timer fire rate for background tabs using excessive power," said Alexander Timin, a Google software engineer who self-identifies as a "power saver," in a blog post.

The Chocolate Factory claims background tabs account for almost a third of browser power usage, making them a significant burden on batteries. Its avowed goal is to suspend background tabs completely, but it has a few more milestones on its roadmap before that becomes a reality around 2020.

In the meantime, with exceptions for tabs playing audio or managing real-time connections, Chrome 57 will delay background timers. These normally fire with a minimum interval of once per second, using energy in the process. But now Chrome will limit average CPU load to 1 per cent of a computing core if an application is using too many background resources.

Many laptop batteries will thus be spared untimely deaths. But Google's life support regime for portable devices looks like a token gesture.

If Google really wanted to reduce energy consumption, it could start by shutting down a data center or two. In 2015, the ad giant said [PDF] it used 5.7 terawatt-hours of electricity across all of its facilities, almost as much as all of San Francisco, California, used that year.

That's not a viable option for the cloud goliath, but if Google stopped serving ads, Chrome users could save 2.5W [PDF], the equivalent of about 14 active browser tabs drawing 0.18W each.

Even that may be too much to hope for. But at least Google can encourage better coding practices. The internet search king says that simply adding a few lines of JavaScript code to disable visual updates when the webpage isn't visible – something that ought to be standard practice – can reduce CPU usage by as much as 75 per cent. ®

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