Data Centers

Know when it's time to upgrade your power supply

If you're running into trouble with an unstable at-home system or a crashing office workstation, you may need to give your system more juice. Ed Engelking explains how a recent upgrade experience showed him the importance of having enough power.


It’s no secret around TechRepublic that I’m an avid hardware geek. I try to always have the latest and greatest gaming hardware—and the processing speed to match. Over the years, I’ve upgraded my home computer several times. I’ve upgraded the processor, motherboard, video card, hard drive, and CD-ROM, but I never changed the wattage of the power supply, until now.

In this article, I’ll examine why I will seriously consider this option in the future—both for my home computer and for the computers I support at work—and why you should do the same.

A little history about my at-home machines
My first machine, purchased in 1995, was a Packard Bell 486DX2 with 8 MB of memory. It wasn’t very powerful by today’s standards, but at the time, it was a screamer. In 1997, I built a new PC using several new components and some parts from the original machine. This computer ran a Cyrix MII 300-MHz processor (with AT motherboard), held 64 MB of memory, and used an ATI XPERT@Play PCI video card. It required slightly more power than the 486DX2, and I used a 250W AT model power supply.

In January of 1999, I built a custom machine using an ATX motherboard, AMD K6-2 500-MHz processor with fan, and 128 MB of RAM. I upgraded the video card to a Voodoo3 3500 AGP. Because I changed motherboards, I also opted for a new case using a 250W ATX model power supply.

My current configuration
When Y2K rolled around, I often found myself tweaking my computer’s settings to squeeze every bit of power the machine had. Finally, I decided the machine was past its prime, and so I once again upgraded the PC. For this incarnation, I used one of each of the following:
  • A 950-MHz Slot A Athlon processor
  • An EpoX Slot A motherboard with 4x AGP slot
  • A PC 133 128-MB DIMM
  • A UDMA 100 40-GB hard drive
  • A Hercules Prophet II MX AGP 4x video card
  • A Tower shell with a 250W power supply
  • Windows 2000

I was extremely pleased with the upgrade. For once, I was getting the speed I had always desired.

The problem begins
All seemed well at first, but soon I began noticing intermittent freeze-ups when playing certain 3D action games. These applications require large amounts of processing power to render complicated graphics. My initial thought was that there was a problem with the Windows 2000 operating system. I wiped the hard drive and installed Windows 98. It didn’t help. Since the operating system wasn’t at fault, I thought that the PC might be overheating, causing the software to become unstable.

To cool the machine down, I removed the case’s side panel and used a fan to help circulate air through the PC. I also added additional fans to the computer’s CPU and case. Unfortunately, I was wrong again. Even with the fans running at full blast, my machine still crashed as often as it did without the fans. As a matter of fact, the PC seemed to crash more quickly after I installed the new fans.

A solution emerges
I continued to explore possible causes of the freeze-ups. My troubleshooting efforts followed this thought process:
  • Was the problem a faulty motherboard, memory, or processor?
    Because other applications and simple games worked just fine without crashing, this couldn’t be the problem.
  • Was the hard drive overheating?
    I had already placed a fan next to the hard drive. Although the hard drive did cool down a bit, the crashes continued.
  • Was it a faulty video card?
    To see if this was the culprit, I installed the video card in an AMD K6-2 powered machine and ran one of the problem applications. To my surprise, it didn’t crash.

Convinced that my video card was causing the freeze-ups, I looked for problems that other Hercules-card owners were having. I then discovered an interesting FAQ on Hercules’ Web site. The FAQ section covered reasons why some applications might cause system crashes or lockups. At the bottom of the FAQ, it mentioned something that I hadn’t considered.

Upgrade your power supply
The FAQ suggested that I might not be supplying my system with enough power. Applications rendering large scenes with lots of pixels can increase a PC’s power consumption. My video card, however, was unable to pull enough juice from the power supply, causing the machine to become unstable and freeze.
Did you know that computer power supplies have a universal case fitting? If you need to upgrade your case from a 250W power supply to a 300, 350, or 400W supply, the new unit will fit as easily as the older model. Keep in mind, however, that while a power supply may be universal, that doesn’t mean it will fit every motherboard available on the market. Some power supplies can only be used with AT model motherboards, others are designed for ATX boards, and some can power both AT and ATX motherboards. Make sure you know which you need before making a purchase.
To test this theory, I replaced my existing 250W with a brand-new 400W colossus. After playing one of the previously problematic games for a few hours, I discovered that it no longer crashed. To further test my upgrade, I reinstalled Windows 2000 and was still able to play the game crash-free.

Powering up at the office
While you probably won’t be installing any games on the workstations in your office, some users may have graphic-intensive applications that require a power-hungry 3D card. Other workstations may have 1-GHz+ processors and multiple hardware devices, such as CD-RW drives, DVD drives, multiple hard disks, or internal tape drives, that use large amounts of power.

Before you add new components to an existing workstation, be sure to consider how much power the machine will require. If it runs a power-guzzling application, you may need to upgrade the power supply to avoid crashing problems.
Have you ever had a hardware problem that took you forever to figure out? If so, we’d love to hear about it! Feel free to leave a post below or send us a note with your thoughts on the subject.

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