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How PC Power Supplies Work

by Gary Brown

If there is any one component that is absolutely vital to the operation of a computer, it is the power supply. Without it, a computer is ust an inert bo! full of plastic an" metal. #he power supply converts the alternatin$ current %&C' line from your home to the "irect current %(C' nee"e" by the personal computer. In this article, we)ll learn how PC power supplies work an" what the watta$e ratin$s mean. Power Supply In a personal computer %PC', the power supply is the metal bo! usually foun" in a corner of the case. #he power supply is visible from the back of many systems because it contains the power*cor" receptacle an" the coolin$ fan.

This is a power supply removed from its PC case. The small, red switch at right, above the power-cord connector, is for changing line voltages in various countries.

The interior of a power supply.

Power supplies, often referre" to as +switchin$ power supplies+, use switcher technolo$y to convert the &C input to lower (C volta$es. #he typical volta$es supplie" are,

-.- volts . volts /0 volts

#he -.-* an" .*volts are typically use" by "i$ital circuits, while the /0*volt is use" to run motors in "isk "rives an" fans. #he main specification of a power supply is in watts. & watt is the pro"uct of the voltage in volts an" the current in amperes or amps. If you have been aroun" PCs for many years, you probably remember that the ori$inal PCs ha" lar$e re" to$$le switches that ha" a $oo" bit of heft to them. When you turne" the PC on or off, you knew you were "oin$ it. #hese switches actually controlle" the flow of /01 volt power to the power supply. #o"ay you turn on the power with a little push button, an" you turn off the machine with a menu option. #hese capabilities were a""e" to stan"ar" power supplies several years a$o. #he operatin$ system can sen" a si$nal to the power supply to tell it to turn off. #he push button sen"s a .*volt si$nal to the power supply to tell it when to turn on. #he power supply also has a circuit that supplies . volts, calle" 2SB for +stan"by volta$e+ even when it is officially +off+, so that the button will work.

Switcher Technology
Prior to /341 or so, power supplies ten"e" to be heavy an" bulky. #hey use" lar$e, heavy transformers an" hu$e capacitors %some as lar$e as so"a cans' to convert line volta$e at /01 volts an" 51 hert6 into . volts an" /0 volts (C. #he switchin$ power supplies use" to"ay are much smaller an" li$hter. #hey convert the 51* Hert6 %H6, or cycles per secon"' current to a much hi$her fre7uency, meanin$ more cycles per secon". #his conversion enables a small, li$htwei$ht transformer in the power supply to "o the actual volta$e step*"own from //1 volts %or 001 in certain countries' to the volta$e nee"e" by the particular computer component. #he hi$her*fre7uency &C current provi"e" by a switcher supply is also easier to rectify an" filter compare" to the ori$inal 51*H6 &C line volta$e, re"ucin$ the variances in volta$e for the sensitive electronic components in the computer.

In this photo you can see three small transformers (yellow in the center. To the left are two cylindrical capacitors. The large finned pieces of aluminum are heat sin!s. The left heat sin! has transistors attached to it. These are the transistors in charge of doing the switching -- they provide high-fre"uency power to the transformers. #ttached to the right heat sin! are diodes that rectify #C signals and turn them into $C signals.

& switcher power supply "raws only the power it nee"s from the &C line. #he typical volta$es an" current provi"e" by a power supply are shown on the label on a power supply.

Personal computer power supply label. %S& is the standby voltage provided to the power switch.

Switcher technolo$y is also use" to make &C from (C, as foun" in many of the automobile power inverters use" to run &C appliances in an automobile an" in uninterruptible power supplies. Switcher technolo$y in automotive power inverters chan$es the "irect current from the auto battery into alternatin$ current. #he transformer uses alternatin$ current to make the transformer in the inverter step the volta$e up to that of househol" appliances %/01 2&C'.

Power Supply Standardi'ation

8ver time, there have been at least si! "ifferent stan"ar" power supplies for personal computers. 9ecently, the in"ustry has settle" on usin$ &#:*base" power supplies. &#: is an in"ustry specification that means the power supply has the physical characteristics to fit a stan"ar" &#: case an" the electrical characteristics to work with an &#: motherboar". PC power*supply cables use stan"ar"i6e", keye" connectors that make it "ifficult to connect the wron$ ones. &lso, fan manufacturers often use the same connectors as the power cables for "isk "rives, allowin$ a fan to easily obtain the /0 volts it nee"s. Color*co"e" wires an" in"ustry stan"ar" connectors make it possible for the consumer to have many choices for a replacement power supply.

# PC power supply removed from its PC case. Cables and connectors at right supply $C voltages.

&"vance" Power ;ana$ement

#dvanced Power (anagement (#P( offers a set of five "ifferent states that your system can be in. It was "evelope" by ;icrosoft an" Intel for PC users who wish to conserve power. <ach system component, inclu"in$ the operatin$ system, basic input=output system %BI8S', motherboar" an" attache" "evices all nee" to be &P;*compliant to be able to use this feature. Shoul" you wish to "isable &P; because you suspect it is usin$ up system resources or causin$ a conflict, the best way to "o this is in the BI8S. #hat way, the operatin$ system won)t try to reinstall it, which coul" happen if it were "isable" only in the software.

Power Supply )attage

& >11*watt switchin$ power supply will not necessarily use more power than a 0.1*watt supply. & lar$er supply may be nee"e" if you use every available slot on the motherboar" or every available "rive bay in the personal computer case. It is not a $oo" i"ea to have a 0.1* watt supply if you have 0.1 watts total in "evices, since the supply shoul" not be loa"e" to /11 percent of its capacity. &ccor"in$ to PC Power ? Coolin$, Inc., some power consumption values %in watts' for common items in a personal computer are,

PC Item
&ccelerate" Graphics Port %&GP' car" Peripheral Component Interconnect %PCI' car" small computer system interface %SCSI' PCI car" floppy "isk "rive network interface car" .1: C(*98; "rive 9&;

01 to -1W .W 01 to 0.W .W >W /1 to 0.W /1W per /04;

.011 9P; Inte$rate" (rive <lectronics %I(<' har" "isk "rive @011 9P; I(< har" "isk "rive ;otherboar" %without CPA or 9&;' ..1 ;H6 Pentium III @-- ;H6 Pentium III -11 ;H6 Celeron 511 ;H6 &thlon

. to //W . to /.W 01 to -1W -1W 0-..W /4W >.W

Power supplies of the same form factor %+form factor+ refers to the actual shape of the motherboar"' are typically "ifferentiate" by the watta$e they supply an" the len$th of the warranty.

Power Supply Problems

#he PC power supply is probably the most failure*prone item in a personal computer. It heats an" cools each time it is use" an" receives the first in*rush of &C current when the PC is switche" on. #ypically, a stalle" coolin$ fan is a pre"ictor of a power supply failure "ue to subse7uent overheate" components. &ll "evices in a PC receive their (C power via the power supply. & typical failure of a PC power supply is often notice" as a burnin$ smell ust before the computer shuts "own. &nother problem coul" be the failure of the vital coolin$ fan, which allows components in the power supply to overheat. Bailure symptoms inclu"e ran"om rebootin$ or failure in Win"ows for no apparent reason. Bor any problems you suspect to be the fault of the power supply, use the "ocumentation that came with your computer. If you have ever remove" the case from your personal computer to a"" an a"apter car" or memory, you can chan$e a power supply. ;ake sure you remove the power cor" first, since volta$es are present even thou$h your computer is off.

Power Supply Improvements

9ecent motherboar" an" chipset improvements permit the user to monitor the revolutions per minute %9P;' of the power supply fan via BI8S an" a Win"ows application supplie" by the motherboar" manufacturer. Cew "esi$ns offer fan control so that the fan only runs the spee" nee"e", "epen"in$ on coolin$ nee"s. 9ecent "esi$ns in Web servers inclu"e power supplies that offer a spare supply that can be e!chan$e" while the other power supply is in use. Some new computers, particularly those "esi$ne" for use as servers, provi"e re"un"ant power supplies. #his means that there are two or more power supplies in the system, with one provi"in$ power an" the other actin$ as a backup. #he backup supply imme"iately takes over in the event of a failure by the primary supply. #hen, the primary supply can be e!chan$e" while the other power supply is in use. Pin / -.-2 8ran 8ran Pin 0 -.-2 8ran Blue Pin Gn" Blk Blk Pin > .2 9e" Pin . Gn" Blk Pin 5 .2 9e" Blk Pin @ Gn" Blk Blk Pin 4 Gray Pin 3 Purp Pin /1 Fell 9e"

PD8E .2SB /02 White 9e"

Green Blk

-.-2 */02 Gn" PD8C Gn" Gn" Gn" *.2 .2 .2

Pin // Pin /0 Pin /- Pin /> Pin /. Pin /5 Pin /@ Pin /4 Pin /3 Pin 01