If you’ve built a few PCs, or repaired a few PCs, you have some idea how important the power supply is. If you buy any old tin box that fits, you can probably expect to run into some problems. Here’s some advice on buying power supplies, including reliable power supply brands.
If you’re in the market for some new PC gear, it helps to measure reliability and quality of hardware. How do you measure that? How about buying the one that induces the least buyer’s remorse? That’s an approach you can take with the data from Hardware.fr. It’s in French, but Google Translate works.
This doesn’t measure long-term reliability–only DOA rate and short-term reliability–but it’s data I haven’t seen before, so I think it’s a welcome resource.
I dragged my computer back over to Micro Center this afternoon. It took three of us, but we got the computer working.
It’s a long story. It would have been a much shorter story if I’d remembered my rule #1. I won’t bore you with the details, except to say the second technician, upon hearing the only thing we hadn’t swapped out was the power supply, dragged a power supply out of the back. We plugged that power supply in, and heard the sweet gimme-some-memory scream from the motherboard failing to POST. Incredible. So we powered down, reinstalled the memory, and watched the system POST.
Needing a secondary case fan for my current PC build, I picked up an Antec Tri-Cool Double Ball Bearing fan, the 92 mm size. Even on its highest speed, I found it to be quieter than the fans in the PCs on my desk at work. On its lowest setting, you pretty much can’t hear it at all. At its full retail price of $25, I wouldn’t bother with it, but when it’s on sale for less than $10, that’s not bad.
I found a cross-reference for power supply brands and OEM manufacturers. It’s a couple of years old, but still useful.
Way back when, I knew that Sparkle Power actually made PC Power & Cooling Silencer power supplies. Since Sparkle units were cheaper, I bought those, and got good, reliable power from them for years until they were obsolete. That information is obsolete now too; Sparkle was bought out by FSP many years ago.
This chart tells you a whole lot more than that. And it validates that my current practice of buying Seasonic power supplies whenever possible is probably good, since Seasonic is the actual maker for several premium brands of power supplies today.
In the early 1990s, I learned how to fix computers because I got tired of long waits and shoddy repairs from computer stores.
Last month I took a friend to go buy a computer. I didn’t want her to get stuck with retail junk, so I took her to a computer store that I knew sold quality parts. Plus I know the owner. He wrote an O’Reilly book too. I figured it would be a smooth experience, since I knew exactly what to ask for. The salesperson said he’d get back to me within two days with a quote, then it would take about a week to build the system after we gave the OK. Seems pretty smooth and reasonable.
It turned into a nightmare. Or at least a mess. Read more
I’m fixing up my mother in law’s Compaq Presario S5140WM. She bought it about five years ago, a few weeks after her daughter and I started dating. It’s been a pretty good computer for her, but lately it’s been showing signs it might be overheating.
I took the shotgun approach, replacing pretty much everything that I would expect to be at or near the end of its life at five years.Since we seemed to have a heat problem, I picked up a better copper heatsink/fan for the CPU. The copper heatsink promised to lower the temperature by 5-10 degrees on its own. Since I rarely get more than 3-4 years out of a CPU fan, this was pretty much a no-brainer.
I also picked up a Seasonic 300W 80-plus power supply. I doubt the machine will put enough load on the power supply to actually get it to run at peak efficiency, but I also figured an 80-plus power supply would probably be better built and more reliable than a more traditional power supply. Seasonic is hardly a no-name, acting as an OEM for a number of big names, including Antec and PC Power & Cooling.
Finally, of course I replaced the hard drive. Being a parallel ATA model, I was limited in choices. I bought a Seagate rather than a Western Digital, because I’ve had better luck with Seagate through the years, and Seagate has also absorbed Quantum through its purchase of Maxtor. Maxtor admittedly had a couple of rough periods, so say what you will about Maxtor, but every Quantum drive I ever bought still works. I have a Quantum drive I bought back in 2000 still working in my computer downstairs. Yeah, it’s slow and loud, but it’s been ticking away like a Swiss watch for 8 years, in almost constant use! Maybe some of those Quantum engineers worked on this Seagate. To Seagate’s advantage, they do offer a 5-year warranty on their drives, which is really good, considering the conventional wisdom on hard drives used to be that you should replace them every three years because they’d fail soon afterward. Unless the drive was a Quantum, that is.
The question is whether I just clone the old drive onto the new drive, or install Windows fresh on it. I know if I do a fresh installation, the thing will run like a cheetah, free of all the useless crud HP installed at the factory. The question is how lazy I am.
After buying a new hard drive, power supply and CPU fan, I’ve sunk nearly $120 into this old computer. But it’s an Athlon, faster than 2 GHz, so it can hold its own with a low-end computer of today. The onboard video is terrible, but I solved that with a plug-in AGP card. It has 768 MB of RAM in it and tops out at a gig, but since she mainly just uses it for web browsing, 768 megs ought to be enough. I’ll keep my eye out for a 512MB PC3200 DIMM to swap in just in case.
And besides all that, since this Compaq has a standard micro ATX case, if 1 GB starts to feel too cramped, I can swap in a new motherboard/CPU that can take however much memory I want. And the power supply is already ready for it.
But as-is, I think this computer has at least another three years in it.
My wife came upstairs last night. "The mouse froze," she said. I walked downstairs to the computer. Sure enough: Frozen mouse, no caps lock light, no vital signs to speak of. Ctrl-Alt-Del didn’t do anything either. I shut down, powered back up, and got the black screen of death.I pulled the power plug and waited a minute, then plugged back in. It powered on, but crashed while Windows tried to boot. So I repeated the sequence and went into the BIOS hoping to find some health status in there.
My crippled Asus-for-Compaq BIOS didn’t have anything. (This system was built with a surplus Asus-made Compaq board, in a turn-of-the-century InWin case, with an Antec power supply–a classic Farquharstein job. I topped it off with a Dell LCD monitor and a legendary IBM Model M keyboard.)
I suspected the CPU fan but didn’t have time to investigate, although I did keep an eye out for parts when I hit the garage sale circuit.
Finally this evening, I opened it up. The CPU fan was seized. It wouldn’t turn by hand, let alone under power. Well, it would try, but when it did manage to spin, it was wimpy.
It was a $5 CPU fan I bought sometime in 2002, so I guess I can’t complain too much. I found a better ball-bearing fan in a junk system. I swapped it, and brought my trusty Farquharstein PC back to life.
I guess I could have used the excuse to replace it, but I can think of other things I’d rather do than build a PC right now. I may start, but at least swapping the fan bought me some time.
I did some power supply swapping this weekend. My video editing PC had outgrown its 300-watt power supply and I needed something fast, so I bought an Antec 430-watt TruePower box locally. I paid $30 too much, and it’s definitely a show-off box, with gold plating everywhere and multicolored sheathing around the power cables. I don’t care at all about that, but I do care that now my jammed-to-the-gills video editing machine has lots of steady, reliable power. How jammed? It has one PCI slot and one drive bay open. It can suck down some juice.
I then turned my attention to my 1.1 GHz Athlon. I’ve been building it for months. At one point I thought the motherboard was bad because the system always hung after the second reboot during an OS install. Always. I tried different Linux flavors, different Windows flavors, everything. Then the problems continued after I changed the motherboard. Prior to that I’d suspected the memory, but that worked fine in other systems. Then I tried every hard drive I could lay hands on. It didn’t matter how great the drive worked anywhere else, if I tried to run anything but DOS on my AMD, the system wouldn’t let me finish installation.
Once I’d tried a different motherboard, that only left the power supply. My case is an Inwin, with a 250w Powerman power supply installed at the factory. I swapped in my 300W Antec–newly unemployed after being replaced in my video editing box–and the system became stable.
Rule number one, which I’d forgotten, is to always suspect the power supply when dealing with AMD stuff.
In all honesty, I don’t remember when I bought that Inwin case, so I have no idea whether that Powerman was AMD approved or not. But the Antec provides considerably more power on the +3.3v and +5v rails and it works. The Powerman powers old Intel (P2-class) and AMD K6 stuff just fine, but none of my Athlon stuff.
So if you’re cobbling together an Athlon from spare parts and it’s not working, either cannibalize or buy a decent-quality power supply, preferably one that you know has successfully powered AMD gear in the past. I’ll bet it starts working.
A good question came up here yesterday: How do you know when your power supply is causing problems? There may be many power supply secrets, but that’s the one most important to know.
There are lots of symptoms of an under-rated power supply: frequent BSODs, spontaneous reboots for no reason, and the screen going black and the system crashing. A failing power supply can also cause other components in the system to fail much more frequently than they should. But generally you’ll see those other symptoms earlier.
Have you ever heard those horror stories about a lemon PC that’s had virtually every component inside it replaced at least once and it still doesn’t work right? Usually you can head off those kinds of problems. The trick is to replace the power supply after seeing two components fail.
In the previous story here, reader Glaurung asked if his IBM Aptiva’s 100-watt power supply might be causing him problems. He observed that two CD-ROM drives died in the system. I think it is.
IBM had a bad habit of skimping too much on the power supplies in its Aptiva and PS/1 lines. The business-class IBM PC line, in my experience, is good quality.
I don’t want to claim to know more about building a PC than IBM. But in that case I’d be replacing that power supply with something bigger. First check to make sure factory power supply doesn’t have any funky auxiliary connectors on it. A small few, especially those that mount their expansion slots on riser boards, do. Assuming yours doesn’t, a 400W unit from a reputable maker like Antec or Sparkle should only run $35 and prevent future peripheral death.
Usually, a low-power power supply becomes a problem when you start expanding. If you start with a system from a reputable maker (particularly a business-class system), the power supply ought to have enough juice to power everything they put in the box. You’re more likely to run into problems once you add a second hard drive and a CD burner. Some clone shops skimp on the power supply to save costs. The consumer machines you see in retail stores (like Compaq Presarios) typically have skimpier power supplies than business desktops (like Compaq Deskpros).
Whitebox systems built by your friendly neighborhood local clone shop vary. A lot of clone shops pride themselves on quality and build better computers than any of the big name brands. Other clone shops pride themselves on being cheap and cut every corner imaginable. The power supply is usually first.
While there are some really nasty motherboards out they aren’t as bad as they were in the past. Most causes of poor reliability in recent systems are due to cheap, commodity power supplies or cheap, commodity memory. PC Chips is notorious for making bottom-feeder motherboards. But given the choice between a computer with a PC Chips board and a quality power supply and quality memory or a computer with an Asus board with a no-name power supply and memory, I’d take my chances with the PC Chips.