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Most geeks interested in buying new hardware or building a new system think first of the processor, graphics card and perhaps the hard drive. These components have the most impact on performance, so they are given first thought. Somewhere down the list, sitting near the enclosure and optical drive, is the power supply.
This is unfortunate, because power supplies are important. They can have an impact on system stability, they determine the devices you’ll be able to power and they are a long-term purchase. If you buy a good power supply you probably won’t need another for five to ten years. But how do you buy a good one?
It’s Not Just About The Watts
One of the problems with power supplies is the way they are advertised. Manufacturers rate their units with a given output in watts. There are two problems with this.
First, no one is responsible for fact-checking power supply manufacturers besides journalists, and producers of no-name power supplies usually don’t make their products available for review. A disreputable manufacturer doesn’t have to label a power supply with what it can actually supply. They can just label it with whatever they think they can get away with.
Second, the way a power supply delivers power is more complex than one big number. Power supplies have multiple rails, each of which carry a certain amount of current that is rated in amps. Different devices draw from different rails. If you draw more power from a rail than it can deliver you will experience system instability. The power supply may even fail.
There is one rail you want to pay particular attention to – the 12V rail. This will be responsible for delivering power your video card, if you have one. A video card is by far the most power hungry component in a system, so you need to give it proper juice. You’ll want about 30 amps on the 12V rail for a computer with a single video card.
You can get by with much less if you only run a mid-range video card (like a Radeon 7750 or GTX 550), but you don’t have to pay a heap of extra cash to gain some wiggle room for future upgrades. The Corsair Builder Series 430W unit, for example, is rated at 28W on the 12V rail. It is priced at $42. Why save $10 or $20 on a power supply that might be just barely adequate?
What Those Certifications Mean
As you browse for a power supply you will run in to certifications such as “80 Plus.” So what do those really mean?
It has to do with efficiency. A power supply’s job is to take current from your power outlet and convert it into usable power for your computer. Some power is wasted as heat in this process. An 80 PLUS certified power supply is at least 80% efficient, which means only 20% of power is lost as heat.
There are even better certifications including 80PLUS Bronze, Silver and so on. Check out the graph below for a summary of the requirements which must be met to achieve certification.
A more efficient power supply will use less power at any given load, but don’t expect to shave more than a few quarters off your monthly power bills.
The main reason you should be interested in this certification is build quality. High levels of efficiency can only be achieved with high quality components and good engineering. If you are looking at two similar power supplies with similar prices the certification will likely be the tie-breaker.
Make The Connection
Power supplies connect to the various components in a system using specific connectors, each of which is designed for a different type of component. PCIe connectors go to video cards, SATA connectors go to SATA drive, and so on.
Once again, video cards require some special attention. Current video cards capable of decent gaming performance usually require at least one 6-pin PCIe connector. Many more powerful cards require two 6-pin connectors. And the biggest, nastiest cards of all time (like the GTX 590) require one 8-pin and one 6-pin or two 8-pin connectors.
Obviously, you’ll want to research your build and make sure you buy a power supply with the connections you need. But it’s also a good idea to leave room for future upgrades.
The Corsair 430W power supply I suggested is great for any budget computer and can handle a decent video card, but you might want to instead buy the more expensive Corsair Gaming Series 600W, which includes an extra 6-pin PCIe and several more SATA connections. This will give you room to move up to a bigger video card and more hard drives without switching the power supply as well.
You also receive more SATA and peripheral connectors, is a boon if you have a tendency to use a lot of hard drives or internal cards.
Sometimes, Basic Works
With all of this talk of power supplies and connectors and amps, you might be ready to go buy a Seagate Snotstomper 1250W with 20x SATA connections. This is what some people (particularly hardcore gamers) do no matter the system they’re building.
I recommend a more conservative approach. I ran a gaming computer for several years with a similar Corsair 450W power supply. This included a heavily overclocked Radeon 3850 and an overclocked AMD processor. It worked well, as it should. It had enough amps on the 12v to easily handle my video card and plenty of connectors.
You only need to think about more extreme solutions when you start to think about huge arrays of hard drives, multiple video cards or heavily overclocked processors. In these situations you really do need an extreme power supply – but most people reading this aren’t running 12 hard drives, twin GTX 680s and a heavily overclocked Core i7-3770K. You’re probably running a couple hard drives, a mid-range processor and a single video card. For that, a quality 400 to 500 watt power supply will do nicely.
Image Credit: Oliver Aaltonen