Ask LH: How Much Power Does My Desktop PC Really Need?

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Ask LH: How Much Power Does My Desktop PC Really Need?


Hello Lifehacker, How does one work out how much power their computer needs? I’m really confused about this, so please explain how I can calculate how many watts my power supply unit (PSU) will need if I upgrade. And any other tips on choosing one? Thanks, Power Receiver

Dear PR,

Good question! Unless you’re building a ridiculously powerful gaming rig, you don’t need an especially beefy PSU. Unlike RAM and storage, it’s not a matter of getting the biggest you can afford. Having too much power will just be a waste of money and can also cause fluctuations in performance.

With that said, you don't want the PSU to under deliver, either - this can cause your system to crap out when it reaches its maximum power output. In other words, you need a PSU with ample wattage for the job (as well as some extra for future-proofing) but without overdoing it.

As a general rule of thumb, you want around double the wattage your system draws on at full load for maximum efficiency. Most all-in-one desktops with a single video card will be able to get by on a 550 watt PSU.

However, that's just a ballpark number - it really depends on the PC components you're planning to use and their individual power demands. Some component models are specifically designed to have a low energy rating, while others, such as enthusiast-level GPUs, require more power than the average.

So it really depends on your particular build (which means you should choose your PSU last.)

The easiest way to get a tailor-made answer is to use an online PSU calculator. As their name implies, these apps calculate the wattage needed to power your system based on the components and system configuration you've chosen. (You can check out one example here.) Naturally, make sure to include your USB peripherals in the final tally.

Other things to look out for include the physical dimensions (will it actually fit inside your desktop chassis?), the PSU connectors/pins (are they supported by your motherboard/CPU?) and whether it has an "80 Plus" rating (this means that the power supply is certified to provide at least 80 per cent energy to the system when at 100 per cent load.)

In terms of specific brands, the quality-end of the market is stitched up by a handful of manufacturers, all of which provide similar bang-for-buck. Some brands worth considering include Corsair, Antec, XFX and Cooler Master. If you care about the noise your PC makes, keep an eye out for models with larger, thermally controlled fans for quieter operation.

Whatever you do, try to avoid cheap no-name offerings on Amazon and eBay - in addition to increasing the odds of an untimely PSU failure, you will also be putting your other components at risk. This is one occasion where it definitely pays to spend a little bit extra.

Cheers
Lifehacker

Comments

  • Go get a 400W power supply if you don’t have a graphics card, 600W if you do. If you know that 600W isn’t enough then you know how to work it out for yourself.

  • Just read the recommendation on the video card you’re buying. If it suggests a 700w power supply, get one of those. The only reason you’d add more to it is if you’re running large numbers of HDDs as well, then maybe add another 100-200w to cover off all that.

  • Dang, confused again! I was told 550W would be enough for my system (R9 290) despite the manufacturer saying more because actual draw is significantly less. I was told if I buy a good quality PSU then 550W would be fine – but this article suggests buying twice what the system will draw which aligns more with what the online calculators come up with. Does 80plus Gold mean I don’t have to?

    • My ideas, for what they’re worth:

      Use a few calculators from overclocker sites to get a consensus (not calculators on PSU manufacturer websites).

      There isn’t an important difference between 80+ bronze and 80+ platinum, but there’s a huge difference between an 80+ bronze and a non 80+ PSU. Basically, if they don’t have an 80+ rating, they’re lying to you about their specs, and they can (and will) change component suppliers and specs on the fly, buying the cheapest crap possible. If the PSU goes, much may go with it, and this isn’t a smart risk.

      Based on research and experience; I trust Seasonic and Zalman. I’m open-minded about Corsair. I actively distrust all the other major manufacturers.

      Be suspicious about silent PSUs.

      Always check newegg for comments, but be skeptical about both the glowing reviews and the damning ones.

      You may be tempted to accept a high wattage claim or a tempting price at the expense of the manufacturer or the 80+ rating. Counter that temptation by remembering that trusting the biggest liar or the cheapest components is foolhardy.

  • I tried the two online calculators mentioned in the article.
    For the same components, the ASUS page recommended a minimum of 600W and the eXtreme page recommended 359W.

    I’d say the first sounds about right for my PC and the second is way too low. :/

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