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Power Supply 101: A Reference Of Specifications

Power Supply 101: A Reference Of Specifications
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Tom's Hardware and Que Publishing are partnering up to give you four chapters from Scott Mueller's Upgrading And Repairing PCs, 20th Edition. This fifth installment is the beginning of the forth chapter we're making available from Scott's book, which covers Power Supply Fundamentals. Don't forget to check out the previous chapters published on Tom's Hardware, Computer History 101: The Development Of The PC, Hard Drives 101: Magnetic Storage, LAN 101: Networking Basics, and LAN 102: Network Hardware And Assembly. In the days to come, we'll also present a comprehensive look at Power Supply usage factors.

The Power Supply

The power supply is not only one of the most important parts in a PC, it is unfortunately one of the most overlooked. Although most enthusiasts who build their own systems understand its importance, the mainstream PC buyer generally does not. Some that do pay any mind seem concerned only with how many watts of power it is rated to put out (even though no practical way exists to verify those ratings), without regard to whether the power being produced is clean and stable or whether it is full of noise, spikes, and surges.

I have always placed great emphasis on selecting a power supply for my systems. I consider the power supply the foundation of the system and am willing to spend a little extra to get a more robust and reliable unit. The power supply is critical because it supplies electrical power to every other component in the system. In my experience, the power supply is also one of the most failure-prone components in any computer system. Over the years I have replaced more power supplies in PCs than any other part. A malfunctioning power supply not only can cause other components in the system to malfunction, but it also can damage the other components in your computer by delivering improper or erratic voltages. Because of its importance to proper and reliable system operation, you should understand both the function and limitations of a power supply, as well as its potential problems and their solutions.

Primary Function and Operation

The basic function of the power supply is to convert the electrical power available at the wall socket to that which the computer circuitry can use. The power supply in a conventional desktop system is designed to convert either 120 V (nominal) 60 Hz AC (alternating current) or 240 V (nominal) 50 Hz AC power into +3.3 V, +5 V, and +12 V DC (direct current) power. Some power supplies require you to switch between the two input ranges, whereas others auto-switch.

Technically, the power supply in most PCs is described as a constant voltage switching power supply unit (PSU), which is defined as follows:

  • Constant voltage means the power supply puts out the same voltage to the computer’s internal components, no matter the voltage of AC current running it or the capacity (wattage) of the power supply.
  • Switching refers to the design and power regulation technique that most suppliers use. Compared to other types of power supplies, this design provides an efficient and inexpensive power source and generates a minimum amount of heat. It also maintains a small size and
    low price.
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  • 5 Hide
    joytech22 , December 14, 2011 4:19 AM
    Quote:
    On the other hand, if you plug into a 240 V outlet and have the switch set for 120 V, you can cause damage.


    Did that when unboxing a computer, must have flipped the small red switch on the supply and boom, at the Windows XP loading bar the PSU exploded. lol.
  • 8 Hide
    cmcghee358 , December 14, 2011 5:05 AM
    Did I miss them covering efficiency and the whole 80 PLUS thing?

    I can't imagine as detailed as it is, omitting something like that...
  • 9 Hide
    cangelini , December 14, 2011 5:59 AM
    cmcghee358Did I miss them covering efficiency and the whole 80 PLUS thing?I can't imagine as detailed as it is, omitting something like that...


    There's still one last part to go!
  • 3 Hide
    cmcghee358 , December 14, 2011 8:55 AM
    But the last part isn't for PSUs. It's just the last part in the series of PC components.
  • 0 Hide
    nikorr , December 14, 2011 9:44 AM
    Thanx ...
  • 0 Hide
    neiroatopelcc , December 14, 2011 10:54 AM
    I wonder how much the power_good signal prevents? is it just the powering of the cpu ?
    I recall once using two power supplies to power a sli board and accidently use a molex from the second supply to power a sli power connector on the motherboard - resulting in fans powering up if you powered the second psu even when the first wasn't on (and if you didn't, the geforces would screech due to lack of power)..... maybe that was just the creative yet rubbish asrock board design, but it certainly didn't need a power_good to power up the fans.

    ps. "Note: If you find that a system consistently fails to boot up properly the first time you turn on the switch, but that it subsequently boots up if you press the reset or Ctrl+Alt+Delete warm boot command, you likely have a problem with the Power_Good timing. You should install a new, higher-quality power supply and see whether that solves the problem."
    Could this explain why I only have 4-6GB memory at post, but 10GB after a quick power off and back on (didn't bother with a reset switch when designing case). Note that 10GB is still 2 short. It used to initialize 10GB - then power off and back on would provide the full amount. Running less than 6GB memory doesn't cause the error.
    Someone said I'd have to reseat the cpu, but maybe it's just that rubbish coolermaster power supply?
  • -2 Hide
    chesteracorgi , December 14, 2011 12:35 PM
    Very informative and interesting. The part about single 12V vs. multiple 12V rails is important reading for system builders who opt for "safer" multiple 12V PSUs. With the current state of design of PSUs anyone planning a sli or Xfire rig is well advised to opt for the single 12V design rather than risk an imbalanced PSU that overvolts a component.
  • 1 Hide
    JohnnyLucky , December 14, 2011 1:06 PM
    Great article. It's not just for beginners.
  • 1 Hide
    Reynod , December 14, 2011 1:30 PM
    Compatibility Issues was a useful section.

    Overall very well written.

    Cheers,
  • 0 Hide
    kd0frg , December 14, 2011 2:39 PM
    awesome information! nice work!
  • 0 Hide
    elbert , December 14, 2011 3:28 PM
    cmcghee358But the last part isn't for PSUs. It's just the last part in the series of PC components.
    Quote:
    covering efficiency and the whole 80 PLUS

    If you picked one of these books up you would want the efficiency to move them. Edition 17 was huge and very heavy. These books are already to thick for many to pick up with one hand. Scott Mueller's has published 20 editions of this book and most come with CD/DVD which may guide you to online information about the subject.

    Here is a link to his online forum.
    http://forum.scottmueller.com/
  • 0 Hide
    digiex , December 14, 2011 3:48 PM
    I'm just wondering what is the use of the floppy connector...

    Until unexpected glitch ruined the flashing if my motherboard, beyond this, I think the floppy connector is useless.
  • 4 Hide
    mayankleoboy1 , December 14, 2011 3:49 PM
    PSU: the most overlooked and underrated component
  • 4 Hide
    Anonymous , December 14, 2011 4:14 PM
    I fixed one of those non-compatible Dells way back with a standard PSU. Dell wanted £120 for a new PSU, I was suspicious, "how could they get away with that?". Checked online, found the incompatibility, dodged the bullet bought a PSU for £20 and an adapter for £5. Never bought Dell again nor recommend them.
  • 6 Hide
    A Bad Day , December 14, 2011 6:07 PM
    This reminded me of a friend who bought a $5 no-name "600 watt" PSU for a +$900 rig.

    As soon as he turned on the computer, the PSU failed so badly that it exploded into flames and took out everything: motherboard, RAM, CPU, GPU, hard drive, CD drive, you name it.
  • 0 Hide
    grantmcconnaughey , December 14, 2011 7:49 PM
    I've been reading this book lately. To me, this is absolutely the bible of PC hardware.
  • 0 Hide
    newbie_mcnoob , December 14, 2011 8:19 PM
    I remember working on an old Dell Dimension 4100 series with the proprietary power supply and RIMM memory. I'm glad those got phased out.
  • 2 Hide
    hunter315 , December 14, 2011 10:50 PM
    Quote:
    In other words, it is far better to have a single 12 V rail that can supply 40 amps than two 12 V rails supplying 20 amps each because with the single rail you don’t have to worry which connectors derive power from which rail and then try to ensure that you don’t overload one or the other.


    Im quite disappointed to see tom's fell for the marketing BS of "a single rail is better than multiple rails". On a well designed unit it does not matter one bit, the design engineers already split the connectors so the rails were reasonably balanced, and the OCP threshold is set such that added together their theoretical current limit is more than the total limit of the 12 V source so you don't have to have your rails perfectly balanced to get the full power out of your unit.

    I wrote up a post on this a while ago, if anyone has any questions or anything they think should be added to it let me know.
    Single 12V rail or multiple 12V rails? The eternal question answered


    Also, you guys left the CPU off the +12 V part of your chart of what requires what voltages.
  • 1 Hide
    PreferLinux , December 14, 2011 10:58 PM
    ChesteracorgiVery informative and interesting. The part about single 12V vs. multiple 12V rails is important reading for system builders who opt for "safer" multiple 12V PSUs. With the current state of design of PSUs anyone planning a sli or Xfire rig is well advised to opt for the single 12V design rather than risk an imbalanced PSU that overvolts a component.

    I guess it is better to be able to use the 12 V rail as an arc welder then? Because you could if you have a >1000 W single-rail PSU. Not to mention that it won't overvolt anything – how does a high power draw cause high voltages? It generally causes low voltages. And if the PSU is a decent one, the rails will be pretty well balanced, especially for SLI or Crossfire.
  • 2 Hide
    iam2thecrowe , December 14, 2011 11:15 PM
    ChesteracorgiVery informative and interesting. The part about single 12V vs. multiple 12V rails is important reading for system builders who opt for "safer" multiple 12V PSUs. With the current state of design of PSUs anyone planning a sli or Xfire rig is well advised to opt for the single 12V design rather than risk an imbalanced PSU that overvolts a component.

    you couldn't be more wrong.
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