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Power Projection – A Wargamer’s Practical Guide to PC Power Supplies

by Andy Mills, 6 May 2012

Power, POWER! We need more power! We need power that won't fail us!

Most gamers focus on a sexy video card or a scorching fast CPU when they are buying a new PC or upgrading their current rigs. Unfortunately, the most overlooked component of your PC is the arguably the most important – the power supply. Many think the power supply, or PSU in geek parlance, is a boring little box that hums away in the background and has no impact upon your gaming experience. Nothing could be further from the truth! If you want to spend your precious free time playing the latest wargame, instead of trouble shooting computer problems, you need to seriously consider what PSU is right for you.

Good PSU/Bad PSU

Why is a good PSU so important? The answer to this question is very simple – it powers every component in your PC. Killer video cards, kick-ass processors and even all those cool LEDs are completely dependent upon the PSU for even the most basic of operations. A good PSU provides clean and consistent output that ensures your hardware works according to spec and allows for optimal performance. In short, this means more quality gaming time and fewer technical headaches.

Diagnosing a bad PSU is not always an easy task. Cheap units tend to have a short life and can lead to a number of other PC problems. Intermittent lock-ups, blue screens of death and unexplained system errors can be a sign your PSU is a problem. Another symptom is when your PC boots-up and then mysteriously powers-off. Perhaps the most heinous of all PSU failures is when the unit powers-up normally and the LED lights come on, but nothing else happens. More evident signs of PSU problems include squealing noises, burning smells and a system that won’t boot-up or power-on at all.



Inside a Quality PSU: This picture shows the inside of two quality PSU’s . I’ve trimmed most of the wiring away so it is possible to get a good view of the components. The supply on the right is a good quality Corsair 400 watt unit that sports decent sized heat sinks (red arrows) and normal sized components (orange box). The power supply on the right is a high-end, OCZ 500 watt unit that provides excellent cooling via extensive heat sinks (yellow arrows). Note that even the smallest potential hot spots have a heat sink (purple arrow). This unit also features oversized components (orange box) to easily handle higher wattages.

Watt Do I Need?

When spending your hard-earned money on buying or upgrading a system question the sales person about the specifics of the PSU. Make sure it is a brand name, like Antec, Corsair, Enermax, EVGA, Mean Well, OCZ, PC Power and Cooling, SeaSonic, Sparkle, XFX, or Zalman. Also verify that the unit has a replacement warranty valid for at least 3 to 5 years.

When you buy a quality PSU it is almost certain that you will get:

  1. More connection types than you need
  2. The unit will meet the 80 Plus certification for high efficiency
  3. It will feature Active PFC (Power Factor Correction).

When it comes to understanding power ratings, choosing the right wattage is not really that complicated. CPU’s and graphic cards are the major power hogs in any system, so use that as a guide. If you have a system with a modern CPU, single video card, one or two hard drives and a DVD-RW, a quality 500 watt PSU should be sufficient. If you have two video cards and a recent CPU chances are you will want to look at for a 700-1000 watt PSU that has been Crossfire (for ATI video cards) or SLI (for Nvidia video cards) certified. If your budget permits, don’t be afraid to buy a higher wattage unit in order to better support future upgrades.

Being Connected

Does it matter if the PSU has modular cabling or fixed connectors hardwired into the unit? Not really. Some folks prefer modular set-ups as it allows for a neater cabling scheme and better cooling. Others like the hardwired cabling as they think it decreases resistance and allows for more efficient power routing throughout the system. In the end, it comes down to a question of personal preference.

Watt About Me?

Up until this point in the article, I have been speaking about industry standard ATX form factor PSU’s. These units fit in most clone PC’s or larger rigs. Form factor is just a fancy term for the size of the motherboard in your computer. The form factor designation of a motherboard is a standard used to denote what size components can be installed in a computer. If you own a pre-assembled PC, such as a Compaq, HP or Dell, PSU upgrades may become a bit more complex. Many PC’s in this category have proprietary PSU’s and connectors. Small, non-ATX form-factor, PC’s (about the size of a gaming console) are almost always limited to an internal, non-standard size 200-300 watt power supply or an external power brick. As you may imagine, this severely limits you choice in aftermarket video cards and other system devices. Some larger Dell desktops will accept a standard PSU, but this is the exception, not the rule. Bottom line: if you want to upgrade your PSU in the future, buy from a dealer that sells standard ATX form factor PC’s or a specialized gaming vendor.

The List

All of the key features we discussed above should be clearly noted on the box of any PSU that is worth buying. You don’t need to have a complete understanding of each feature to buy a quality unit-just ensure that your purchase has all of them! So, to bring it all together, here is the list of what you need:

  1. Make absolutely sure it is a brand name unit.
  2. Match it to the form factor of your PC.
  3. Ensure it has a 3-5 year replacement warranty.
  4. Base your wattage requirements on your CPU and video card(s). Look for Crossfire (ATI/AMD) or SLI (Nvidia) certification if applicable.
  5. Verify it is 80 Plus Certified and has Active PFC.
  6. Don’t be afraid to overbuy when it comes to wattage.You Have the Power

So there you have it! If you are planning on upgrading or buying a new system, make sure you don’t ignore the PSU. Read a few reviews online to get a feel for which units you may want to check out and be prepared to pay a little bit more for a quality component. Remember, a quality power supply equals quality gaming!

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