Picking The Right Power Supply: What You Should Know

Of Power Factors, Apparent Power And Effective Power

PFC (Power Factor Correction): It Does What It Says

Don’t worry, you won’t need your high school physics text book for this part. We just want to point out another characteristic that can be used to tell a high-quality PSU from a bad one. Once you know the basics, you’re a lot less likely to make a bad purchasing decision. So, let’s dive right in.

Idle Current And Idle Power

One problem that plays an especially big role in the case of switching power supplies is the so-called idle current, which results from inductivity. Note that idle current has nothing to do with the idle state of your computer. This idle current only transports energy between a generator and a load, but doesn’t end up benefiting the load in any way. Again, load in this context has nothing to do with a PC at full throttle, but refers to a component that uses power. Think of it as a power shuttle that isn’t involved beyond its role as a transporter. This idle current has to be reduced as much as possible and as early as possible, since it causes power loss in conjunction with ohmic resistors, manifesting as heat. This idle power consumption is a waste, and should be kept as low as possible through appropriate circuitry.

Effective Power And Apparent Power

Unlike idle power consumption, effective power measures the power that is actually used, while apparent power refers the sum total of the effective power and the cumulative idle power.

Power Factor

This factor is the result of the ratio between effective power and apparent power, falling somewhere between 0 (worst) and 1 (ideal). Thus, the higher the power factor the less energy goes wasted back to the mains network. Although residential consumers do not have to pay for apparent power, in order to minimize apparent power usage, the EU standard EN61000-3-2 states that all switched mode power supplies with output power of more than 75W must include a passive PFC converter. In addition, 80 PLUS certification requires a power factor of 0.9 or more. Some years ago, many PSU manufacturers used passive PFC in their products. PPFC uses a filter that passes current only at line frequency, 50 or 60Hz, so the harmonic current is reduced and the nonlinear load is transformed to a linear load. Then, with the usage of capacitors or inductors, the power factor can be brought close to unity. The disadvantage of PPFC is that it attains smaller power factors than APFC and requires a voltage doubler for the PSU to be compatible with 115/230V. On the contrary, PPFC has higher efficiency than APFC, something that probably most of you didn’t know. But that doesn't mean PPFC-equipped PSUs are more efficient than APFC ones, since PPFC units are often based on older designs that cannot compete with the performance of modern APFC PSUs.

Practical Application

Active PFC

As the name implies, active power factor correction (APFC) employs a circuit that actively corrects the power factor. As we just explained, the power factor is an important parameter in the world of PSUs, since it describes the ratio between effective power and apparent power:

• An almost ideal power factor close to unity
• Very stable current output even under input voltage variations
• Demands for smaller parts (transformer)

• Higher initial cost
• More susceptible to faults
• Energy losses occur onto the APFC’s boost diode (and the FETs)
Passive PFC

Passive PFC attempts to reduce idle currents by using large choke coils. While this method is simpler and cheaper, it is also much less effective.

• Cheaper (depending on the power handling range)
• Practically no electro-magnetic interference
•    More efficient than APFC (beware: this doesn’t mean though that PPFC PSUs are more efficient that APFC ones)

•    No automatic universal voltage input
•    Not suitable for higher power levels
•    Heavier due to the larger PFC choke
•    Lower power factor ranging from 70% to 80%

Power supplies with passive PFC should be considered outdated and can be considered inferior. And don't confuse efficiency and PFC!
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  • pjmelect
    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.
  • redgarl
    Toms knows everything... yeah right.
  • turkey3_scratch
    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?
  • JackNaylorPE
    Voltage Stability ?

    Ripple ?
  • Aks_X
    Unaligned tables :|
  • jossrik
    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
  • Aris_Mp
    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)
  • cats_Paw
    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.
  • cats_Paw
    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).
  • SpAwNtoHell
    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.
  • mrkillall
    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?
  • Aris_Mp
    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)
  • Travis Hershberger
    You should've added a picture of the power supply that actually caught on fire in your low end power-supply comparison!
  • Islam_5
    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
  • josejones
    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?

  • Soaptrail
    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.
  • amk-aka-Phantom
    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...
  • rayden54
    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.
  • RobAC
    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.