New devices usher in new questions and the rise of the Chromecast (and other streaming HDMI sticks) have more than a few people curious if they should be unplugging it when they aren’t using it. Let’s clear things up and minimize your streaming hassles in the process.
Dear How-To Geek,
I’ve been hearing all this stuff lately about “phantom” power loads and how all the things we leave plugged in all the time are contributing to increasing power bills and general wastefulness. I recently got a Chromecast, and I’m curious if I should be unplugging or at least turning the device off when I’m not using it? When I touch it the Chromecast always feels warm which makes me think it’s using more power than I think it is.
What’s the final word? Am I worrying about nothing or should I unplug it between uses?
It can get confusing, no? You’re correct that there are a lot of energy vampires waiting in the wings. In fact just a few months ago a reader wrote in curious about whether or not their cable box and DVR were energy hogs (spoiler: they are). But does that mean every device is equally energy hungry?
Despite the fact that the Chromecast provide a full multimedia experience, that it’s warm to the touch (indicating power consumption), and that it’s intended to be left turned on all the time, it’s a surprisingly power efficient little device. Let’s take a look at why you want to leave your Chromecast (and other tiny streaming HDMI sticks) plugged in all the time.
Streaming Sticks Are Highly Efficient
First, they’re extremely efficient. While we assumed the power consumption was quite low just based on the power specs of the power transformer the Chromecast uses we wanted some concrete numbers for you so we hooked up the Chromecast to a Kill-a-Watt power meter (the same meter we used for this article on how to measure your energy use).
After running the Chromecast for 48 hours attached to the Kill-a-Watt meter and putting it through both periods of idling and high use with HD video playlists we checked the readings. You’re not even going to believe how little energy it uses: 1.8 watts. No matter how long it idled or how much video content we threw at it, it stayed steady at 1.8 watts of power consumption with only minor 0.1 fluctuations up or down. What does that mean in real world terms?
It means if you pay the U.S. national average for energy (12.5 cents per kilowatt hour) that your annual cost to run the Chromecast 24/7 will be a scant $1.97. In other words, in order to spend the same amount in energy consumption as you did purchasing the Chromecast (assuming you paid the average $30 cost) you’d need to run your Chromecast 24/7 for a little over 15 years. Realistically, however, those little fluctuations we mentioned in the last paragraph actually do add up and according to the projection estimate on the Kill-a-Watt the real world cost would actually be as low as $1.09 (and your whole energy-cost-to-purchase-cost ratio increases to 27 years of 24/7 use).
Curiosity got the best of us and we hooked up Amazon’s Fire TV Stick to the Kill-a-Watt meter, too. Aside from a minor fluctuation here or there we found that the Fire TV Stick used the same amount of power: it swung slightly between 1.6-1.8 watts throughout the test period. Again, based on those fluctuations the Kill-a-Watt predicted we’d spend just a bit over a dollar a year to run the device.
Although we didn’t get a chance to run the test on Roku Stick, we’d have to assume it also consumes roughly the same amount of power based on the design of the device and the size of the power transformer included with it.
As such, even with 24/7 use, it’s quite likely that your Chromecast is the most power efficient device in your entire house and you definitely don’t need to worry about breaking the bank (or the environment) by running it all day.
Always On Means Always Up-To-Date
We’ve established that there is little environmental or economic incentive to unplug your device (we don’t know about you but we’re not going to be crawling behind our TV every day to save a dollar a year) which is probably good enough for most folks, but there are a few other benefits to leaving your device plugged in all the time.
Always on devices are always up to date. If you leave your streaming stick plugged in 24/7 the chances that you’re sitting down to use it at the exact moment it is updating are about nil. If you leave the device unplugged, however, the chances that it will update right when you want to use it start to creep towards 100% as the time you want to use it and the time it can update converge.
If you want the most up-to-date user experience (be that updated firmware, thumbnails, suggestions, or cached content) you need to leave your device plugged in all the time. Don’t waste any time waiting for your device to boot or firmware to update.
HDMI Connections Are Delicate
The terminals of HDMI cables aren’t exactly made of glass, mind you, but they aren’t designed for continual plugging and unplugging. In fact the terminals are susceptible enough to shearing forces that most streaming sticks come with a little HDMI extension cable that both improves the Wi-Fi signal (but moving the stick away from the body of the TV) and protects the stick from being snapped off.
The more times you plug and unplug the device the more you stress the HDMI connection. Even if you’re hell bent on only powering your Chromecast or other streaming stick when you’re using it, we’d strongly encourage you to unplug the device from the power socket instead of from the HDMI socket. It won’t consume any power just sitting there and you won’t unnecessarily stress the connection.
HDMI-CEC Automatic Turn On
While this doesn’t apply to all television sets, most modern HDTV sets support HDMI-CEC which is a control standard that allows for television and peripheral device control over HDMI cables. What does that mean for your, curious Chromecast owner? It means that your Chromecast can turn your television on via the HDMI connection.
This feature only works if the Chromecast is on. Thus, if you want the ability to pick up a show on Netflix and then automatically turn on your TV when you hit play on your mobile device, you’ll need to have the Chromecast plugged in and ready to go. No power, no HDMI-CEC goodness.
Given what little benefit you reap from unplugging the device (your annual power savings will be erased just by forgetting to turn the bathroom light off a few times) and how beneficial it is to leave it on all the time (instant access, no waiting for updates, and HDMI-CEC control of your TV) there’s really no reason to not leave it running 24/7.
Have a pressing tech question big or small? Shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll do our best to answer it.