Picking The Right Power Supply: What You Should Know

How does a power supply work? Why is it important to choose a sufficiently powerful and efficient model? We guide you through discussions of efficiency and tips for getting the best deal before we go on to explain why less can be more in the PSU market.

This piece is for the folks who'd like to learn more about the facts, technologies and terminology behind PC power supplies. If you'd really like to dig deep, then we suggest also checking out our PSU 101 article.

Keeping The Explanation Simple

Don't worry, this won’t be complicated or boring. We’ll just quickly explain how a switching PSU works, then use examples to illustrate some of the most common technical issues. We’ll explain what efficiency, loss and reactive power mean, and why those words are relevant to you. Then we’ll look at the possible and (more importantly) necessary protective measures before applying theoretical knowledge to practical examples.

Practical Examples

Big versus small, efficient versus high-performance; we're going to examine three different PCs based on a trio of different usage models, calculate the power supplies they really need, and then explain the right class of PSU to use in them based on quality and long-term environmental impact.

The Frequency Trick

Remember those ancient radios with the vacuum tubes? They were massively built and tended to be clunky and heavy. However, it wasn’t just the wooden frame contributing to their weight. The massive transformers inside were a major factor as well.

Even back then, clever engineers were taking advantage of a neat physics trick that would later come to be used in every modern switching power supply. In order to convert a high alternating current into a low one and achieve galvanic separation of currents, they used normal, albeit powerful, transformers with a core made of iron plates.

While a mains frequency of 60Hz required a comparatively large transformer, the so-called output transformers that delivered much higher low-frequency signals between 100Hz and 16kHz could be built much smaller while handling the same power. By aggressively capping the frequencies at the lower end of the spectrum, it was possible to increase the power that could be handled by a transformer of the same size. With the invention and subsequent introduction of new components, such as powerful switching tubes and, later, semiconductors using the same underlying physical principle, this advantage was carried over into other fields.

And How Does That Apply To My PC?

Due to the requirements of modern computers, a conventional transformer-based PSU is no longer capable of converting the mains power into the low voltages required by PC components. The transformer required for the job would be too large and consequently far too heavy. Instead, we use switching power supplies that employ the same frequency trick as the good old tube radio. Their job is to provide the required voltages and currents as efficiently as possible, while also reliably maintaining those levels. Analog (linear) solutions are no longer viable. Instead, we now rely on transistors as switches to convert the mains power into higher frequencies, allowing us to use smaller transformers to transmit high power levels. Indeed, this is where the term “switching power supply” comes from. Don’t worry, it’s simpler than it sounds.

Create a new thread in the US Reviews comments forum about this subject
    Your comment
  • A few more words about active power factor correction. APFC won't save you money on your electric bill although the electric companies will love you for it as it minimizes loss over the power lines saving them money, it does however enable you to use a much lower rated battery backup system. A hypothetical example a computer that uses say 200W without APFC would require a backup system of 700W or much more to cope with the large peaks in current where as a power supply with APFC would require a backup system of 250W or so.
    Therefore APFC is only worthwhile if you were to use it with a battery backup system.
  • Toms knows everything... yeah right.
  • Very well written article! Just one thing. You say:
    Regardless of whether the PC is idling or under full load, voltages may not deviate from their spec by more than five percent according to the ATX spec.

    But the ATX specification seems to disagree. According to the spec, full load or "peak loading" allows 10% deviation from the nominal voltage for the 12V rail.


    Also, Q about the power factor correction. It's probably the most difficult topic to understand. In this case, you say the load would be anything that used power. Are you talking about hardware like a GPU or the internals of the PSU like capacitors and such? Also, say the computer is putting load on the PSU. How is there idle current then?
  • Voltage Stability ?

    Ripple ?
  • Unaligned tables :|
  • There have been quite a few instances in the past where you could get an XFX PSU 550w or so for 40$ or less with rebates. I know compared to more modern PSUs they may not stack up, but they used to be pretty decent. Ya, more often than not, the cheaper the PSU the worse the quality, but you really do need to do your homework.
    Budget PSU
  • The newest ATX spec defines 5% at peak load as well. The 10% is only for the -12V rail which is now optional. The newest ATX spec is confidential (dont know why)
  • While I can understand that having a beefy power supply on idle state wont be too efficient, its on loads where you want it as efficient as possible.
    Somehow, having a low efficiency under a 65W load is less expensive than low efficiency at 500W load, go figure :D.
  • In all fairness, a PC is not a self-maintenance Robot.
    If you want a PC to last a good 10-15 years you need to take care of it:
    Clean dust, replace fans when they fail, replace thermalpaste, check your temperatures from time to time, not turn it on-off-on too fast, keep your Hard drives with some spare space and defraged if they are HDDs....

    There is quite some work for a PC to keep their form, but its not like a human can lay down in bed eating cheese and drinking cola looking like a model either.

    PSUs however have this strange aura of magic around them since some people vastly overestimate what power supply they need (I got a 700W TT one for a load of 320, go figure) and others buy things that are simply bad products, no matter how high the W are.

    I did once burn a PC due to a bad PSU (and I even OCed the damn PC, went down in smoke.. I gotta say it was quite fun, but expensive), so I stay on the safe side (I just simply add an extra 20% for 12v rail amps as long as the price of a quality supply is not doubling).
  • Is this write up inteded for who needs to replace a psu on a old system? Test systems are very ineficient really... So we are talking about 80 plus bronze gold on sandy bridge gtx 580 ... Enthusiast system?! My casual gaming needs ask me to upgrade 2-3 generations... I know is just a test for power of psu but not elocvent for some people who would want to use systems as a guide... Otherwise good writeup as now rather to explaining to people why you need a good psu and a optimal size can resume at passing tbis link.
  • This could be a stupid question but the power coming from the outlet is ac does it get changed to dc somewhere to be reconverted in to ac again or what?
  • there are no stupid questions, no worries.

    • AC socket: 100-240 VAC
    • After bridge rectifier: full-wave DC (square root (2) x AC input)
    • After APFC's bulk capacitor(s): 380 VDC
    • After primary switchers: chopped DC signal (feeds the main transformer's primary winding)
    • Transformer's secondary winding output: high frequency AC signal
    • Secondary side output: DC rails (12V, 5V, 3.3V, 5VSB, -12V)
  • You should've added a picture of the power supply that actually caught on fire in your low end power-supply comparison!
  • my pc is powered by an unknown chinese brand labeled as zero 1000 ,it is 1000 watts ,which cost me 50 egyptian pounds about less than 5 us dollars , and yet it is still running my core 2 duo e8400, one stick 8 gb teamelite ram ,nvidia gt 740, gigabyte g41 motherboard and 3 harddisks 4 terbytes in capacity . i am still worried about its safety measures
  • I'm curious to learn, at what point is a new PSU a must for new CPU's, mobos and GPUs? I have a Seasonic X-750w I bought new in 2012. What do I look for to know when I need to get a new PSU to go with a new system?

  • Thanks, I need to replace an old PSU that is starting to go. I was going to get Gold or Platinum but now I will get Titanium for the extra efficiency at 10% loads.
  • Quote:
    my pc is powered by an unknown chinese brand labeled as zero 1000 ,it is 1000 watts ,which cost me 50 egyptian pounds about less than 5 us dollars , and yet it is still running my core 2 duo e8400, one stick 8 gb teamelite ram ,nvidia gt 740, gigabyte g41 motherboard and 3 harddisks 4 terbytes in capacity . i am still worried about its safety measures

    That build most likely doesn't consume more than 200-300 W (rough guesstimate) at peak load. Try to load your PSU to actual 1000 W and watch the fireworks. Cheap PSUs *never* deliver the wattage they're rated for. At least in the EU and probably in the US regulations forbid selling PSUs that can't actually deliver the rated wattage or don't hold up to safety standards...
  • Thank you very much for the chart. The one bad thing about most calculators is they don't usually break things down very well. I think it's part of the reason why people end up with more PSU than they need: They want to leave room for upgrades, but aren't sure how much or little each extra thing'll cost 'em.
  • Nice article, thank you.

    I recently built a work station / game machine for rendering and the occasional demanding games. I chose a massive power supply that can output a bit more than I need to future proof an upgrade to whatever the 2nd gen Titan X Nvidia is coming out with later on this year.

    The funny thing is, I have a OC 6 core CPU and I can hear the water cool CPU fans spool up and increase in speed when I am rendering - however the PSU fans never turn on at all because it is so efficient and runs so cool. Very impressed technology has advanced so much from over 20yrs ago when I last built a machine. I switched to laptops and a NUC for a few years but got back into building my own full desktop PC.