Picking The Right Power Supply: What You Should Know

How To Spot An Efficient PSU?

Guidelines, Rules, And Regulations

One of the most important indicators of a PSU’s efficiency is whether it complies with the Energy Star 5.0 guidelines and the 80 PLUS standard. The latter applies primarily to computer power supplies and is recognized worldwide. Additionally, if you’re located in a European country, CE conformity and compliance with ErP guidelines are also important.

80 PLUS PSUs Are More Efficient

The specifications, norms, and guidelines we just mentioned all call for high efficiency, as well as improved power quality. Power supplies that conform to these demanding and very strictly-interpreted rules by passing a defined set of tests may then be marked with the 80 PLUS badge appropriate to its efficiency level. While the load/stress tests may not correspond to those defined by the ATX specification, that’s acceptable in this case. Here’s some good news for our European readers: since the tests are conducted using the lower US voltages, these power supplies achieve even higher efficiency levels in the European 220 V grid.

80 PLUS: Platinum, Gold, Silver, Bronze

The original concept of the 80 PLUS certification has been revised, adding new, more strictly-defined efficiency levels. The bronze, silver, gold, and platinum certifications each come with their own requirements. Thus, a PSU that is certified “80 PLUS Gold” or “80 PLUS Platinum” is more efficient than a normal unit. The downside is that the more complex circuitry needed to hit those levels generally results in a higher price tag, too.

Below you’ll find a table that shows what efficiency levels a PSU has to achieve at a given load to make the grade for a specific certification level.

 Efficiency at 20% Load
Efficiency at 50% LoadEfficiency at 100% Load
80 PLUS80%80%
80 PLUS Bronze82%85% 82%
80 PLUS Silver85%88%85%
80 PLUS Gold87%
80 PLUS Platinum90%92%89%

When Off Isn't Really Off: A Few Words On Standby Power Consumption

When you shut down your computer, the PSU doesn’t really switch off completely. This is necessary for features such as Wake-on-LAN to work. The point is that the power supply keeps drawing some power, even when the computer is off. Newer PSUs, especially ones sold in Europe and certified to be ErP/EuP-compliant, draw less than 1 W in this standby mode. If you’re serious about conserving power, go for a newer model with ErP support.

Which Power Rails Are Important?

That brings us to one of the most crucial points of modern power supplies: namely, the power they are able to supply at various voltages. Nowadays, PCs draw the majority of their power from the +12 V rail. By comparison, the other two voltages, 3.3 and 5 V, play a far less important role. That’s why you can use the following as a rule of thumb: if a PSU’s 12 V rail can supply all of the required power with room to spare, then the lower voltages are sufficient as well.

However, the opposite is not necessarily the case. Let’s compare the spec stickers of two PSU models:

The difference is quite obvious. Although the second model is billed as a 550 W unit, its +12 V rails only add up to 380 W, and even that only holds true if the other rails aren’t being stressed simultaneously! Nobody needs 315 W on the 3.3 and 5 V rails. In practice, this power supply would probably reach its limit at a load of 350 W on the 12 V rail.

Ironically, even a good 425 W PSU could push more power than this model at 12 V. Don’t fall for this sort of trickery. 

Initial Cost Vs. Energy Savings

Quality products cost more initially, but that doesn’t necessarily always translate into lower cost in the long run. That’s why we’ll take a look at a few specific components and their prices in a moment to determine the type of PSU makes the most sense in a given environment, and what kind of savings you can achieve, if any. Some of the results may surprise you!

It’s not enough to focus solely on the financial aspect, though, because we also have to consider durability, reliability, and safety. We go into more detail on these points on the next page.

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    Your comment
  • 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.

  • 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.
  • zodiacfml
    The first and second pages just introduce more confusion than clarifying anything.
    It could have shown AC waveforms and converted DC waveforms to show how it works. By the way, introduction on AC and DC currents is a must.
  • ssf_coffee
    Hoping this is the right forum or that you folks are willing to entertain this one:

    I have a system purchased from an engineer whose wife ordered it out of her living room. About $600 for:

    Gigabyte GA-Z87X-HD3
    Intel i7-4770k
    24 GB RAM
    EVGA GeForce GT-740 FTW 1GB

    Some Cooler Master cooler that barely breaks a sweat.
    At 100% load the system runs 60-65 W and 65 degrees C according to the Intel Power Gadget.

    Samsung EVO 240 GB SSD
    2 TB WD Green (most storage is on a NAS)
    Corsair CX500M PSU (four years old?)

    Soprano case

    Now, I'm running three monitors: 2 off the GT740 and one off the integrated. That third monitor usually only has documentation or mail up for viewing. Most of my work is office level junk with the occasional heavy Excel Solver LP/Evol. work, random forests in R, video editing in Camtasia or visualization in Tableau.

    Now, about a month ago, I had an OCZ SSD go bad but also ended up with a system that would only boot to the BIOS and freeze. Draining the CMOS worked and its been solid ever since. I've tried adding a few other older IDE items (DVD, and 250 Zip drive) using converters but it seemed to be unreliable for booting it would sometimes come up and sometimes would refuse to even power up. The system has also complains occasionally about the power use on the USB (iBeam whiteboard system?).

    When I'm not using it the CPU is pegged doing work for the World Community Grid using the BOINC grid client. So the CPU runs max most of the time.

    Someone suggested the PSU was at its limit.

    Now, I've thought about swapping out the PSU for a Corsair HX850i (refurb) which is currently on sale. I assume it will be a simple swap.

    I also just received a Sapphire Radeon HD7850 2GB card (free)

    Now, I'm hoping a new PSU will deal with the power issues and perhaps be a bit more efficient given the current 100% constant load. It would be nice to have room for upgrades for when I win the lottery and spring for a pair of 1080s. In fact, a GPU upgrade might be possible in the near future.

    So the questions are:

    1. Is the Corsair HX850i going to solve the too much load problem (assuming that is the problem).

    2. How about the graphics cards, should I use both the Nvidia and AMD or simply use one OR use one or more with the integrated Intel graphics. Will any of these cause bottlenecks?

    3. While I'm at it, is adding another 8GB of memory worthwhile? I've hit a memory wall a few times (using R I've gotten a 64GB image running) but I'm wondering if more will actually help on the day to day stuff.

    Would love to hear your thoughts and thank you.

    - David
  • youcanDUit
    the one thing that's really important about psu's is jonnyguru.com is the place you an trust.
  • turkey3_scratch
    593370 said:
    the one thing that's really important about psu's is jonnyguru.com is the place you an trust.

    Jonnyguru is not the only reputable site. I don't see why people seem to think this.