Computers can sleep, hibernate, shut down, or, in some cases, use a hybrid sleep. Learn the differences and decide what’s right for your laptop.

A PC that’s shut down uses almost no power, but you have to go through the full startup when you want to use it. A sleeping PC uses just enough power to keep it’s memory active and comes back to life almost instantly, making it good for when you’re not using the PC for the short term. A hibernating PC saves its memory state to hard drive and essentially shuts down. Startup is a bit faster than starting up from a full shut down and power use is lower than when sleeping.

Some people leave their computers running 24/7, while others shut down computers the moment they step away. Laptop computers require you to be power conscious about your habits—especially when running on battery.

Each option has its advantages and disadvantages, so let’s take a deeper look at them.

Shut Down vs. Sleep vs. Hibernate

RELATED: What's the Difference Between Sleep and Hibernate in Windows?

Each of the four power-down states appears to shut off your computer, but they all work differently.

  • Shut Down: This is the power-off state most of us are familiar with. When you shut down your PC, all your open programs close and the PC shuts down your operating system. A PC that’s shut down uses almost no power. However, when you want to use your PC again, you’ll have to turn it on and go through the typical boot-up process, waiting for your hardware to initialize and startup programs to load. Depending on your system, this can take anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes.
  • Sleep: In sleep mode, the PC enters a low-power state. The PC’s state is kept in memory, but other parts of the PC are shut down and won’t use any power. When you turn on the PC, it snaps back to life quickly—you won’t have to wait for it to boot up. Everything will be right where you left of, including running apps and open documents.
  • Hibernate: Your PC saves its current state to your hard drive, essentially dumping the contents of its memory to a file. When you boot up the PC, it loads the previous state from your hard drive back to memory. This allows you to save your computer’s state, including all your open programs and data, and come back to it later. It takes longer to resume from hibernate than sleep, but hibernate uses much less power than sleep. A computer that’s hibernating uses about the same amount of power as a computer that’s shut down.
  • Hybrid: Hybrid mode is really intended for desktop PCs and should be disabled by default for most laptops. Still, you might come across the option at some point. Hybrid is like a combination of sleep and hibernate. Like hibernate, it saves your memory state to hard disk. Like sleep, it also keeps a trickle of power going to memory so that you can wake the computer almost instantly. The idea is that you can essentially put your PC into a sleep mode, but still be protected in case your PC loses power while sleeping.

The reason laptops don’t bother with hybrid mode is really just because they have a battery. If you put your computer to sleep and the battery becomes critically low, the PC will automatically go into hibernate mode to save your state.

When To Shut Down, Sleep, and Hibernate

Different people treat their computers differently. Some people always shut down their computers and never take advantage of the convenience of the sleep and hibernate states, while some people run their computers 24/7.

  • When To Sleep: Sleep is particularly useful if you’re stepping away from your laptop for a small amount of time. You can put your PC to sleep to save electricity and battery power. When you need to use your PC again, you can resume from where you left off in just a few seconds. Your computer will always be ready to use when you need it. Sleep isn’t so good if you’re planning to be away from the PC for extended periods, as the battery will eventually run down.
  • When To Hibernate: Hibernate saves more power than sleep. If you won’t be using your PC for a while—say, if you’re going to sleep for the night—you may want to hibernate your computer to save electricity and battery power. Hibernate is slower to resume from than sleep. If you’re hibernating or shutting down your PC every time you step away from it throughout the day, you may be wasting a lot of time waiting for it.

RELATED: PSA: Don't Shut Down Your Computer, Just Use Sleep (or Hibernation)

  • When To Shut Down: Most computers will resume from hibernate faster than from a full shut down state, so you’re probably better off hibernating your laptop instead of shutting it down. However, some PCs or software may not work properly when resuming from hibernate, in which case you’ll want to shut down your computer instead. It’s also a good idea to shut down (or at least restart) your PC occasionally. Most Windows users have noticed that Windows needs an occasional reboot. But most of the time, hibernate should be just fine.

The exact amount of power used by sleep and hibernate depends on the PC, although sleep mode generally uses just a few more watts than hibernate. Some people may opt to use sleep instead of hibernate so their computers will resume faster. While it does use marginally more electricity, it’s surely more power efficient than leaving a computer running 24/7.

Hibernate is particularly useful to save battery power on laptops that aren’t plugged in. if you want to take your laptop somewhere and you don’t want to waste valuable battery power, you’ll want to hibernate it instead of putting it to sleep.

Making Your Choice

Once you’ve made your choice, you can control what happens when you press the power button on your computer or close the lid on your laptop.

In Windows 7-10, hit Windows+R to open the Run box, type “powercfg.cpl,” and then hit Enter.

In the “Power Options” window, click the “Choose what power buttons do” link on the left-hand side.

In the “System Settings” window, you can choose what pressing the power button, sleep button, or closing the lid does. And you can set those options differently for when the PC is plugged in or running on battery.

You also can modify your computer’s power-saving options to control what it does automatically when you’ve left it idle. Check out our article on sleep vs. hibernate for more information. And if, for some reason, you’re using a laptop running Windows 8 or 10 that does not provide a hibernate option, check out our guide to re-enabling hibernation.

RELATED: What's the Difference Between Sleep and Hibernate in Windows?

Do you put your computer to sleep, hibernate it, shut it down, or just leave it running 24/7? Leave a comment and let us know!

Image Credit: DeclanTM|Flickr.

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Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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