Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

An Energy Efficient Steampunk Computer More Powerful than a MacBook Pro

In my quixotic quest for an entirely solar-powered van build, I also created a home automation server like that at my house. I ended up with an energy efficient computer with the same core specs as an upgraded MacBook Pro but with only 2/3 of the power requirement… and less than 1/3 the cost.

dc low power steampunk computer mounted in vanlife van
The DC computer is a wifi router, security alarm/monitor, and general purpose workstation.

It’s been a long time since I built a computer. But building computer from scrap parts is exactly what got me interested in the subject at age 11.

I could have simply used a laptop and/or a Raspberry Pi. But I liked the idea of having a relatively powerful Ubuntu server in the van, just as I was accustomed to using at home. Much of my software developer work can benefit from some additional nearby computing power.

Understanding Computer Power Usage

The Kill-A-Watt tracks energy usage.

Many people find power consumption confusing. It’s easy to learn quickly by observing, though. I bought a handy device called a Kill-a-Watt. You just plug it in to the wall, and it keeps track of power usage for anything plugged in to it.

Using this device, I quickly discovered that the LG UltraFine 5k monitor which I had bought for my MacBook Pro (2017 USBC) machine was not entering any kind of sleep mode, drawing a ~1.4 Kwh every day. Perhaps consumption increased when the screens were actually on, but this number was suspiciously high. If I locked the MacBook Pro screen and hooked it up directly to the Kill-a-Watt, its sleep mode drew effectively zero power.

By way of benchmarking, a 15″ MacBook Pro will consume ~45 while fully charged an operating in reasonable bounds. When charging or pushed hard, it can reach ~95 watts.

Building a Computer from Parts

PCPartPicker.com lets you pick parts for a computer, ensure that they are compatible, and even see the power consumption of your build. I began by reading this blog post in order to get some recommendations, but

My system (see part list) came in at a theoretical 99 Watts. It sports an i7 (2.9Ghz quad-core), eventually was upgraded to 32 GB of RAM, and a 256 GB SSD… making it very similar to a ~2018 15″ MacBook pro.

DC Energy Efficient Computers

Since the van is powered by solar and batteries, it’s most efficient to not convert the DC battery power into AC.

I found a company which offers power supply units (PSUs) which consume DC. After chatting with them via email, they recommended the M4-ATX for me. It could provide in the 250 Watts range, so it appeared to be way more than enough for the 151 Watt PC (giving me a little headroom, if I event want to sacrifice some efficiency for more computational power).

Putting it All Together

Keeping with the steampunk theme of the van, I used a decorative box to house the computer. At one point, I had fairy lights (LEDs) inside the vials you see outside, connected via USB to indicate when the computer is on (I removed these because the van is a small place and light is annoying). The small touchscreen monitor can be used for diagnostic purposes, but in practice I usually ssh in the server from my laptop.

The whole project cost about $750. It consumes about 30 watts in normal operating modes, but can peak up to 99 watts when pushed. Not bad, considering that it’s as powerful as a MacBook Pro for a fraction of the cost.

Main Parts List

About the author

(zane) / Technically Wizardry

I've been a game designer, startup founder, and @Airbnb for 6+ years. This blog documents my hobbies of building a vanlife van, "magic" home automation, and interesting software to control it all.

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Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

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