PC Power Supply

The power supply is not only one of the most important parts in a PC, but it is unfortunately also the most overlooked. In the words of a famous comedian, the power supply gets no respect! People spend hours discussing their processor speeds, memory capacity, disk storage capacity and speed, video adapter performance, monitor size, and so forth but rarely even mention or consider their power supply.

When a system is put together to meet the lowest possible price point, what component do you think the manufacturer skimps on? Yes, the power supply. To most people, the power supply is a rather nondescript, unglamorous metal box that sits inside their systems, something to which they pay virtually no attention at all.

The few who do pay any mind seem concerned only with how many watts of power it is rated to put out (even though no practical way exists to verify those ratings), without regard as to whether the power being produced is clean and stable or whether it is full of noise, spikes, and surges.

The power supply function is critical because it supplies electrical power to every other component in the system. The power supply is also one of the most failure-prone components in any computer system. I have replaced more power supplies in PCs than any other part. This is especially due to the fact that so many system builders use the cheapest power supplies they can find.

A malfunctioning power supply can not only cause other components in the system to malfunction, but also can damage the other components in your computer by delivering an improper or erratic voltage. Because of its importance to proper and reliable system operation, you should understand both the function and limitations of a power supply, as well as its potential problems and their solutions.

Primary Function and Operation

The basic function of the power supply is to convert the type of electrical power available at the wall socket to the type the computer circuitry can use. The power supply in a conventional desktop system is designed to convert either 120-volt (nominal) 60Hz AC (alternating current) or 240V (nominal) 50Hz AC power into +3.3V, +5V, and +12V DC (direct current) power. Some power supplies require you to switch between the two input ranges, whereas others auto-switch.

Positive DC Voltages

Usually, the digital electronic components and circuits in the system (motherboard, adapter cards, and disk drive logic boards) use the +3.3V or +5V power, and the motors (disk drive motors and any fans) use the +12V power. The power supply must deliver a good, steady supply of DC power so the system can operate properly.

Devices that run on voltages other than these must be powered by onboard voltage regulators. For example, RIMMs and DDR dual inline memory modules (DIMMs) require 2.5V, whereas AGP 4x and faster cards require 1.5V—both of which are supplied by simple onboard regulators.

Processors also require a wide variety of voltages (as low as 1.3V or less) that are supplied by a sophisticated voltage regulator module (VRM) that is either built in or plugged in to the motherboard as well. You'll commonly find three or more different voltage regulator circuits on a modern motherboard.

Negative DC Voltages

If you look at a specification sheet for a typical PC power supply, you can see that the supply generates not only +3.3V, +5V, and +12V, but also –5V and –12V. The positive voltages seemingly power everything in the system (logic and motors), so what are the negative voltages used for?

The answer is not much! Some of the power supply designs, such as the small form factor (SFX) design, no longer include the –5V output for that reason. The only reason it has remained in most power supply designs is that –5V is required on the Industry Standard Architecture (ISA) bus for full backward-compatibility.

Although –5V and –12V are supplied to the motherboard via the power supply connectors, the motherboard normally uses only the +3.3V, +5V, and +12V. The –5V is simply routed to the ISA bus on pin B5 so any ISA cards can use it, even though not many do today.

However, as an example, the analog data separator circuits found in older floppy controllers do use –5V. The motherboard logic typically doesn't use –12V either; however, it might be used in some board designs for serial port or LAN circuits. Although older serial port circuits used +/–12V outputs, today most run only on +3.3V or +5V.

The main function of the +12V power is to run disk drive motors as well as the higher-output processor voltage regulators in some of the newer boards. Usually, a large amount of +12V current is available from the power supply, especially in those designed for systems with a large number of drive bays (such as in a tower configuration).

Besides disk drive motors and newer CPU voltage regulators, the +12V supply is used by any cooling fans in the system—which, of course, should always be running. A single cooling fan can draw between 100mA and 250mA (0.1–0.25 amps); however, most newer fans use the lower 100mA figure.

Note that although most fans in desktop systems run on +12V, portable systems can use fans that run on +5V or even +3.3V. Most systems with newer motherboard form factors, such as the ATX, micro-ATX, or NLX, include another special signal. This feature, called PS_ON, can be used to turn the power supply (and thus the system) on or off via software.

It is sometimes known as the soft-power feature. PS_ON is most evident when you use it with an operating system such as Windows that supports the Advanced Power Management (APM) or Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACPI) specification.

When you select the Shut Down the Computer option from the Start menu, Windows automatically turns off the computer after it completes the OS shutdown sequence. A system without this feature only displays a message that it's safe to shut down the computer.

Power_Good Signal

In addition to supplying electrical power to run the system, the power supply also ensures that the system does not run unless the voltages supplied are sufficient to operate the system properly. In other words, the power supply actually prevents the computer from starting up or operating until all the power supply voltages are within the proper ranges.

The power supply completes internal checks and tests before allowing the system to start. If the tests are successful, the power supply sends a special signal to the motherboard, called Power_Good. This signal must be continuously present for the system to run.

Therefore, when the AC voltage dips and the power supply can't maintain outputs within regulation tolerance, the Power_Good signal is withdrawn (goes low) and forces the system to reset. The system will not restart until the Power_Good signal returns.

The Power_Good signal (sometimes called Power_OK or PWR_OK) is a +5V (nominal) active high signal (with a variation from +2.4V through +6.0V generally being considered acceptable) that is supplied to the motherboard when the power supply has passed its internal self tests and the output voltages have stabilized.

This typically takes place anywhere from 100ms to 500ms (0.1–0.5 seconds) after you turn on the power supply switch. The power supply then sends the Power_Good signal to the motherboard, where the processor timer chip that controls the reset line to the processor receives it.

In the absence of Power_Good, the timer chip holds the reset line on the processor, which prevents the system from running under bad or unstable power conditions. When the timer chip receives the Power_Good signal, it releases the reset and the processor begins executing whatever code is at address FFFF:0000 (usually the ROM BIOS).

If the power supply can't maintain proper outputs (such as when a brownout occurs), the Power_Good signal is withdrawn and the processor is automatically reset. When the power output returns to its proper levels, the power supply regenerates the Power_Good signal and the system again begins operation (as if you had just powered on).

By withdrawing Power_Good before the output voltages fall out of regulation, the system never sees the bad power because it is stopped quickly (reset) rather than being allowed to operate using unstable or improper power levels, which can cause memory parity errors and other problems.

On pre-ATX systems, the Power_Good connection is made via connector P8-1 (P8 Pin 1) from the power supply to the motherboard. ATX and later systems use pin 8 of the 20-pin connector, which is usually a gray wire. A well-designed power supply delays the arrival of the Power_Good signal until all the voltages stabilize after you turn on the system.

Badly designed power supplies, which are found in many low-cost systems, often do not delay the Power_Good signal properly and enable the processor to start too soon. (The normal Power_Good delay is 0.1–0.5 seconds.) Improper Power_Good timing also causes CMOS memory corruption in some systems.

Some cheaper power supplies do not have proper Power_Good circuitry and might just tie any +5V line to that signal. Some motherboards are more sensitive to an improperly designed or improperly functioning Power_Good signal than others. Intermittent startup problems are often the result of improper Power_Good signal timing.

A common example is when you replace a motherboard in a system and then find that the system intermittently fails to start properly when you turn on the power. This can be very difficult to diagnose, especially for the inexperienced technician, because the problem appears to be caused by the new motherboard.

Although it seems as though the new motherboard is defective, it usually turns out that the power supply is poorly designed. It either can't produce stable enough power to properly operate the new board or has an improperly wired or timed Power_Good signal (which is more likely). In these situations, replacing the supply with a higher-quality unit, in addition to the new motherboard, is the proper solution.