So you're humming along on your Windows desktop, chatting with your friends on your social media service of choice or filling Chaos demons full of holes in Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor — Martyr (one of the most epic names for a game I've seen in a while). And then, your system zoots off. Yes, zoots.
"Strange," you think to yourself. "My room's lights are still on."
You take a look at your system — perhaps it's a fancy gaming system — and notice some oddities. Perhaps its lights are on, but no amount of cajoling (power-button-mashing) is getting the computer to actually power on. Maybe it's working, but making a very strange sound. It might also be completely dead or, worse, you get your system powered on and you start experiencing more frequent, random crashes like these:
While there are plenty of things that can go wrong with your desktop PC at any given moment, a faulty, overworked, or dying power supply is one of the more vexing and frustrating issues you can encounter. Diagnosing it can be tricky and fixing it is impossible — you'll just have to purchase a new one.
Before you hit up your favourite online retailer of choice and cough up a lot of cash to next-day ship a new PSU, because you don't want to miss your weekly World of Warcraft raid night, here's are a few quick tips to help you make it through your power supply predicament:
Backups are your friend
In theory, a power supply can damage any component it supplies power to, which is basically anything important (or expensive) in your desktop system. While having a faulty power supply is a rarer computer issue to have, it's one of the more severe ones — potentially. The last thing you want is for some funky electrical surge to zap your solid-state drive and make it impossible for you to access the data that was on it. Yikes.
Before I even start talking about broken power supplies in greater detail, let's take a moment to take the backup pledge. Hold your hand over your keyboard in a dramatic fashion and repeat after me: I will back up my system's data. I will do this regularly or use an app or service that does this on my behalf. I will not complain if it costs me money each month, because my files are invaluable and irreplaceable.
No matter what backup solution you pick, and there are plenty to choose from, you need to have one. Period. There are plenty of things that can go wrong with your PC, and even your drives themselves, beyond a faulty power supply.
That even includes "I accidentally shift-deleted an entire folder of important things and now I'm screwed." With regular backups, you'll still feel a little anxious if your PSU starts puffing out smoke, but you won't lose everything you have.
Is your power supply even to blame?
When your system starts giving you issues, it's important to have an attack plan for troubleshooting it — Occam's razor and all that. It's the same principle behind why an occasional cough or two probably doesn't mean you have cancer, but you never want to just let a cough linger for months. Or something like that.
Since myriad issues can create all kinds of wacky problems on your PC, I'm not going to go on a step-by-step journey through everything you can do to fix every PC ailment you might encounter. We'll be here all day.
Instead, if your system is giving you issues that are strange, but not completely indicative of a PSU problem (as in, your PC is occasionally crashing, but not outright refusing to turn in), consider a few general steps before you crack it open and start pulling cables.
Did you just install some kind of software or new drivers that might be causing the problem? Did you install a new hardware component or plug in a new device? Did your operating system automatically update? If you can rule out a software issue — which you can can do by reinstalling various system drivers, software, and possibly even the operating system itself (after a backup, of course) — then your issue might be hardware-related.
Consider updating the firmware for any components you can (including devices you connect to your system or your system's internal hardware, like your motherboard or solid-state drives). You can also try running any manufacturer-provided utilities to try and isolate down to hardware that might be problematic. If a drive diagnostics tool says your SSD is working fine, your problem is probably not that, for example.
Testing your power supply
The best way to find out if your current power supply is proving problematic is to have a backup power supply. Disconnect the one you're using from all your components, connect up a new one, fire up your PC, and see if you still encounter whatever issues you're having. Swap testing is as easy as it is illuminating.
I'm pretty geeky, though, and even I don't have a backup power supply sitting in one of my desk drawers. I also don't have a multimeter, though I probably should, as that can be a great way to check whether your power supply is actually proving the correct voltages to your gear, as YouTuber cobuman demonstrates in this video:
(At this point in the article, I should note that power supplies aren't something you want to just casually mess around with. Resist the urge to disassemble yours and start poking around its insides. Heck, I even get a little nervous using a paper clip to jump one — a trick I'll get to in a moment — but that's just me. Don't fry yourself while you're troubleshooting your PSU; you have been warned.)
If you go the multimeter route, make sure you've looked at your power supply's instruction manual or the manufacturer's website, or even contacted the manufacturer directly, to get a readout of what your PSU's voltages should be. (You'll also want a pin readout to make sure you're sticking your multimeter's probes in the right places and using them in the safest way.)
You can also just pick up a regular ol' power supply tester for fairly cheap, which can quickly tell you if you're having any issues with yours. As an added bonus, the tester can spin up your power supply without forcing you to do the slightly more complicated paperclip-in-the-pins test, which you can use to figure out if your PSU will even turn on or not. (You might also have to connect a few case fans to the PSU to provide enough of a load to get the power supply to even spin up.)
If it's time to purchase a new power supply...
So, your power supply is dead, dying, smoking, or just acting weird. If it's time to buy a new one, congratulations — you've just stepped into one of the more confusing areas of computer building, as nobody really knows how much power their system really requires.
Instead of just going out and buying the most expensive, 1000W, modular power supply you can find — since more is better, right? — it's worth doing a quick self-assessment to figure out what size power supply you might need. You'll save some money, at minimum, by purchasing a power supply that's just slight more than what your system needs, not a ton more.
A number of sites offer different "estimator" tools that can give you an idea of what kind of power supply you should buy. I recommend entering your system's specs on a few of them (Cooler Master or OuterVision, to name two) to get a good ballpark of what you might need to purchase.
When in doubt, the more specific a calculator lets you get about your parts, the better the result — supposedly.
Once I've figured out about how much power my system needs, I like buying a power supply that offers slightly more — just in case I want to make some upgrades later. So, that might mean buying a 750W power supply if my system is going to draw 600W.
A number of sources suggest that you only consider power supplies with at least an "80 Plus" gold designation. In other words, 80 per cent of its rated power goes to your system and 20 per cent is lost to heat. I don't put a ton of stock in these designations, but I also wouldn't probably push for something like Platinum if it meant paying a lot more for one similarly sized PSU over another.
More importantly, make sure your PSU's connections are what your system needs — specifically, your graphics cards, cooling setup, hard drives, and anything else you have stuffed in there. Nothing is more annoying than having to reconfigure your system because you ran out of available power cables.
With that all said, I think the handy guide over at Logical Increments is great for seeing a bunch of different options based on how much you're willing to spend and how much power you need. As always, scout for reviews about anything you're thinking of buying to make sure it doesn't have any unwelcome surprises. Here's hoping your new power supply lasts you a long, long time.