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PSUs 101: A Detailed Look Into Power Supplies

PSU Cooling

A very important component of most PSUs is the fan that handles cooling. However, there are some passive PSUs that don't utilize any active cooling. Fans keep sensitive components (like electrolytic caps) at appropriate temperatures. Doing this prolongs the PSU's life span, but the type and quality of the fan also plays a key role in its noise output. The circuit that controls the fan is responsible for its speed, and thus acoustic profile, under various conditions. If a manufacturer uses a high-speed fan, chances are that it will increase the overall noise output, especially at higher loads.

Semi-Passive Operation

Many high-efficiency (Gold-, Platinum- and Titanium-rated) PSUs nowadays feature a semi-passive mode during which the fan isn't utilized at lower loads, and in some cases even at mid-range loads. The PSU is totally inaudible in these load regions because the fan starts to spin when temperature inside exceed a specified threshold. This temperature is hard to reach under light-load conditions due to the increased efficiency and low energy dissipation.

To implement an effective semi-passive mode, especially in high-capacity units, PSU manufacturers use large heat sinks. This ensures that the active components are able to effectively dissipate heat, especially when the fan-activation threshold is set at high levels.

Since in many cases the semi-passive mode operation allows the build-up of high internal temperatures, we aren't very fond of it, at least in PSUs with fans that can start at low voltage levels. In our humble opinion, a fan rotating at low RPMs will be much more effective at keeping the temperatures at normal levels. On top of that, if the manufacturer chooses the right fan model, then it can be totally silent at such low speeds.

Unfortunately, with some units (for example, high-capacity PSUs that are equipped with powerful, high-speed fans), even in the best-case scenario output noise is increased. That's because powerful fans have a high start-up voltage, which means that at their lowest supported voltage, they spin quickly, generating enough noise to be annoying for some users. In such cases, semi-passive operation can make a true difference at light loads.

  • Alexis Shaw
    In your list of top-tier capacitor manufacturers you missed out on some of the better american and european manufacturers, while these may not be used on many consumer-grade power supplies they are definitely top-tier and if you were to find them you would be happy. I suggest the addition of at least:
    Cornell Dubilier (USA)
    Illinois Capacitor (Now owned my Cornell Dubilier)
    Kemet Corporation (USA)
    ELNA (Japan)
    EPCOS (TDK company) (Germany)
    Vishay (USA)
    Würth Elektronik (Germany)
    Reply
  • Aris_Mp
    Thank you very much for the list you provided. I am aware of almost all cap brands that you mentioned but unfortunately so far I found none of them inside a desktop/consumer grade PSU. I will think about it however (and also make a research on these cap brands), if I should include them as well inside my list.

    Reply
  • InvalidError
    16585466 said:
    Thank you very much for the list you provided. I am aware of almost all cap brands that you mentioned but unfortunately so far I found none of them inside a desktop/consumer grade PSU.
    There is a very high probability you have seen PSUs with several Kemet capacitors in them. You never noticed them simply because SMD capacitors are too small to carry logos, brand name or even value designations.

    The other brands are mostly found in specialty applications such as lab instruments, industrial machines and high-end audio.
    Reply
  • Math Geek
    very interesting read. more in depth than i need to know yet for the most part understandable and with careful reading it did not leave me confused.

    nice article.
    Reply
  • TallestJon96
    I only read 2/3 of it, but it's a good article.

    I basically have committed PC heresy with my cx600m. However I think that I'm in the clear with my 65w CPU and 145w CPU. I'd bet my total power draw is actually below 300w, the supposed highest efficiency point of a PSU.

    As a gamer, not a professional, I think it is better to get low power parts, and get a higher rating than you need, rather than get high power parts and high quality PSUs.

    Additionally, if you compare power consumption of a typical system from today to one from 5 years ago, power draw is considerably lower, with the exception of certain graphics cards. *cough* 390x *cough*
    Reply
  • powernod
    I decided to sign up at Tom's forum, and the only reason was to state how excellent is Aris's article!!!
    Thanks Aris for this very useful article on behalf of us all who want to learn the basic knowledge for PSUs.
    Haven't finished it yet, but i'm very anxious for it !!!
    Reply
  • GoZFast
    Very nice article!!! You made me remember my college physics courses lol
    Reply
  • traumadisaster
    I'm glad there are people dedicated to this but I'm not. I can't even read all of the chapter titles in this article. I disagree with the importance you place on this and all of the references you made to this being crucial knowledge.

    PSU and MB are insignificant to me and I can blindly pick one by reviewing user comments from newegg in about 5 min, and it will last for years. For less than $100 each I'm set for nearly a decade.

    CPU and gfx card now that affects fps and is over $1000, actually the most important part to me.
    Reply
  • Alexis Shaw
    16589602 said:
    I'm glad there are people dedicated to this but I'm not. I can't even read all of the chapter titles in this article. I disagree with the importance you place on this and all of the references you made to this being crucial knowledge.

    PSU and MB are insignificant to me and I can blindly pick one by reviewing user comments from newegg in about 5 min, and it will last for years. For less than $100 each I'm set for nearly a decade.

    CPU and gfx card now that affects fps and is over $1000, actually the most important part to me.

    I heartily dissagree, user are not the best way to judge reliability, and a bad powersupply is at fult most of the time there is a hardware issue. Further a power supply should last more than one system build, and in general I keep mine for a decade at a time at least. So an investment in a good power supply is not a waste, and a bad one will kill that precious $1000 GPU or CPU. The demo dart power supply on the motherboard is a similar story, however in general they are of higher quality than a cheap mains supply.

    Reply
  • Alexis Shaw
    16585679 said:
    16585466 said:
    Thank you very much for the list you provided. I am aware of almost all cap brands that you mentioned but unfortunately so far I found none of them inside a desktop/consumer grade PSU.
    There is a very high probability you have seen PSUs with several Kemet capacitors in them. You never noticed them simply because SMD capacitors are too small to carry logos, brand name or even value designations.

    The other brands are mostly found in specialty applications such as lab instruments, industrial machines and high-end audio.

    As well as SMT ceramic capacitors, Kemet makes through hole aluminium electrolytic capacitors. These are of high quality, though not as well known as their SMT capacitors. They also make high quality polymer SMT capacitors that are used as bulk capacitors on the power distribution circuitry on laptops and other devices.
    Reply