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When Power Supplies Attack!

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I have a computer I refer to as "The Dinosaur." It has an AMD Duron 750MHz processor, a 20GB primary hard drive (partitioned into two to cover for the 4.3GB original that gave up the good fight after about 10 years), 256MB RAM, and a 3dfx Voodoo3 2000 16MB PCI video card. Let's not forget the burly 24x CD-ROM (no R, no RW) and the Soundblaster AWE 64 ISA sound card. Behold the power… of 1997's finest.

Why do I even keep this thing alive? Well, it's a makeshift file server and still houses the video card that games like the original Unreal Tournament and Aliens vs. Predator were optimized for (ahh, 3dfx Glide). I was even able to get Ghost Recon to run on it, even after Ubisoft's specs reminded me time and time again that this card wasn't supported. Take that.

Given the age of the system, it shouldn't have been that much of a surprise when the power supply finally died in it recently. The odd thing was that it hadn't been used in at least a month, then I moved into a new place, plugged it in, hit the power button, and it just went click. Nothing else happened. It literally wasn't connected to anything between the last time I used it and when it stopped working. Maybe its age just caught up to it.

I priced several replacement power supplies online. The unit originally in it ran at a meager 250W, and about the smallest replacement I could find was well above that. I figured that, for an older machine, I might be able to buy a low-end 500W power supply and save some money. The machine has virtually no monetary value in today's market, and evidently uses very little power compared to modern behemoths, so why blow $100 on a part for a machine I barely use? As it turns out, there are some very good reasons to do so.

Went out shopping, browsed several makes and models, and was even shown a power supply tester that cost about twice as much as the cheapest power supply available (it was about $40, though you can find similar devices for half that price online). Again, thinking there was some certain level of quality that all these devices had to measure up to, I ended up choosing one based solely on price. It was the Eagle Tech Cool Power ET-PSCP 500W ATX power supply, which retails for about $20. I mention the model specifically so that you can avoid it.

I took it home, lifted it out of the box, and noticed a couple things right off. For one, the power cable included with it was about two feet long, not nearly enough to reach from the top of a table to an outlet or power strip unless it's right next to it. Other noticeable omissions were mounting screws and any sort of manual. The screws weren't a problem in my situation since I had the ones from the supply I was replacing, but it may be problematic for those building a machine from scratch. The lack of instructions also wasn't too troubling for me since I knew what went where, but it's not good for novices.

I slid it into the power supply slot just fine, screwed it in, got everything connected, and it seemed ready to power up. I plugged everything in and hit the power button with little to no anxiety. Again, the assumption of baseline quality control overruled my judgment. The screen came on, it started booting, seemed like I was in the clear. I got to the Windows login, tried to type my password, and nothing happened. I moved the mouse to try to click on Shutdown, and it didn't work either. I removed the mouse from its USB-to-PS/2 adapter and plugged it into a USB port. Seemed to work fine then, so I clicked Shutdown and restarted, hoping it was just a temporary glitch.

Windows login screen came up after the reboot and still the keyboard and mouse situation hadn't changed. Apparently my PS/2 ports had died, and I hadn't enabled Legacy USB support in the BIOS previously, which means I can't use these devices to do anything in DOS, including open or edit the BIOS to enable them to be used as such. Problematic, to be sure.

Just as I realized what a quandary I was in, the temperature alarms started going off inside the computer case like the French police were about to bust out onto my desk. I quickly clicked Shutdown and powered it off.

I grabbed an equivalent but longer power cable and decided to try it from another power outlet, as if that would have anything to do with it. Standing behind it, I switched on the power to the supply, then had a friend hit the power button on the front of the tower. Let's just say I'm glad I moved my hands away before giving the "go" signal.

The power supply made a horrible buzzing sound, blue sparks shot out, and eventually a couple of flames blew out through the exhaust vent toward me. A flicker and a puff of smoke later, and it was all over. The power supply was dead, having committed suicide right there inside my machine. It's not really that bad in there, I swear!

Back to the drawing board, I started looking more seriously at reviews on different sites — particularly NewEgg.com — to see who was getting the best reviews. Having just had a run-in with the dark side of electricity, I wasn't about to take chances again. As it turns out, nobody has a flawless track record in this area of manufacturing, but one seemed to rise above the rest time and time again: PC Power and Cooling. I checked out their site, read testimonials, saw how they handled upset customers and replacements, and was convinced that, at the very least, they couldn't do any worse than what I'd seen up to that point.

I returned the explosively defective PSU (power supply unit) to Micro Center (not their fault; they gave me what I asked for), and this time went with the PPCS500 Silencer 500 EPS from PC Power and Cooling, which cost about $90, more than four times what I paid for that crap PSU, but it was worth checking out. If you go with something from this company, bear in mind that they do make custom PSUs for Dell computers which, due to their size and shape, likely won't fit a standard case properly. Some users berated the company for this, when really they or the retailer were likely more to blame for not paying closer attention to what they were buying.

Regardless, there were mentions of the size of even the standard units being difficult to fit into cases. The Silencer 500 is about the same width and height as the slot I squeezed it into (had to work it in a little to get it to fit snugly), but it is about a half-inch longer than my old one. The manufacturer says this is to allow more room between the components and the cooling fan inside the unit, which cuts down on noise as well as improving efficiency. By all accounts, they're right. The PPCS500 also fixed the pack-in foibles of the one from Eagle Tech, offering mounting screws, instructions for use, and a power cable at least twice the length.

Not only might the increased size of the PSU require a bigger case for some (probably not ideal for Shuttle PCs), but also the sheer amount and length of cabling may prove troublesome for those with cramped towers. It sports the standard 20-pin motherboard connector with a four-pin expansion to fit 24-pin models; due to the location of my motherboard's connector, I had to break the plastic hinge between the 20 and the four to get it to fit well without making contact with anything around it. It also has support for Nvidia SLI and ATI Crossfire dual video card setups, as well as power connectors for IDE hard drives and CD/DVD drives, SATA drives, and one for a floppy drive, for those of you still using them. Problem is, of the seven individual foot-long cables, I only really needed two of them to hook everything in (CD-ROM, hard drives), leaving the other five cables dangling. Figuring it wasn't such a hot idea to leave them that way, I ran them out the front of the system through one of the 5.25" expansion bay slots and bound them together with a twist tie. Not pretty, but it works.

Moment of truth… I get everything connected and plugged in, hit the power button much more anxiously than last time, and everything seems to come on okay. On spin-up, the PSU's fan made a little bit of noise, but by the time it got to the Windows login screen, I could barely tell it was on. Silencer indeed.

My PS/2 ports are still dead, and I have yet to determine if they simply went bad or were somehow shorted out by the screwed-up PSU from Eagle Tech. I made it into Windows, saw my wallpaper and icons for the first time in over a month, and no alarms or anything were dissuading me from continuing use.

Skip ahead about a week and it's still humming along just fine. Everything seems to be in working order (except those PS/2 ports), so at least any power surge from the Eagle Tech PSU didn't kill anything major in the computer (motherboard, processor, drives, etc.). The PC Power and Cooling unit seems solid, quiet, and is supposedly 83% more efficient than a standard unit, which will cut down both the heat inside the case as well as your electric bill. The only other problem I've found is that it doesn't shut down properly with the computer; either the fan will stay on or the computer will simply reboot when shutting down, but this is an older Gigabyte motherboard, and some compatibility problems between them and newer power supplies have been reported. In a system less than 10 years old, I reckon it would work exactly as it should.

I can't swear that this PSU is going to last forever; honestly, what does? However, having almost scorched my hand by trying to save a few bucks on a power supply, I'd definitely say this is one area where you do get what you pay for. PC Power and Cooling has a wide range of wattages and connectivity options, but if you're a little short on space inside your case, theirs may not work out the best for you. Based on the performance thus far and my experience throughout this whole endeavor, I'd have to say they've earned another satisfied customer to bolster their reputation.

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About Mark Buckingham