Introduction

Anyone building a computer system should eventually pose the question: How much power does the system actually require? This is an important consideration, since it's impossible to choose an appropriate power supply without actually knowing the demands of your system. Unfortunately, many users take the easy way out: just grab a 500W power supply and call it good. If you really want to be safe, you can even grab on 800W PSU... or if you plan to run multiple graphics cards perhaps you really need a 1000W unit, right?

If people really took the time to examine system power requirements, we would see a tremendous increase in sales of 300W to 400W PSUs. The truth is that the vast majority of systems would run optimally with such a "small" power supply. Even if you're running SLI/CrossFire, you don't actually need a 750W power supply. (Of course, we recommend purchasing a good quality power supply, as there are certainly "750W" PSUs out there that can't reliably deliver anywhere near that much power.) To help dispel some myths relating to power requirements, we've put together a couple of charts.

GPU Power Consumption*
Manufacturer Idle Load
NVIDIA GeForce 9600 GT 49W 107W
NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GT 64W 115W
NVIDIA GeForce 9800 GTX 79W 116W
NVIDIA GeForce 9800 GX2 90W 179W
NVIDIA GeForce 8800 Ultra 100W 186W
ATI Radeon HD 3650 17W 32W
ATI Radeon HD 3850 53W 82W
ATI Radeon HD 3870 62W 92W
ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT 67W 104W
ATI Radeon HD 3870X2 55W 130W

* Actual power consumption for the graphics cards only. Results taken at idle on the Windows desktop and under full load running the Fur benchmark.

CPU Power Consumption**
Manufacturer Idle (EIST or CnQ Enabled) Idle Load
Intel Core 2 Duo E4500 14W 17W 36W
Intel Core 2 Duo E8500 18W 22W 43W
Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550 19W 23W 60W
Intel Core 2 Extreme QX6850 29W 32W 103W
Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9770 26W 56W 86W
AMD Athlon 64 X2 5000+ 33W 47W 89W
AMD Athlon 64 X2 6000+ 25W 74W 160W
AMD Phenom X3 8750 50W 67W 86W
AMD Phenom X4 9600 BE 29W 36W 101W
AMD Phenom X4 9850 BE 38W 53W 126W

** Actual power consumption for just the processor. Results taken at idle on the Windows desktop with either EIST/C&Q enabled or disabled, and full load generated using BOINC.

Chipset/Motherboard Power Consumption***
Platform and Chipset Load
Intel P35 (775) 37W
Intel P965 (775) 39W
Intel X38 (775) 52W
Intel X48 (775) 40W
NVIDIA 680i (775) 46W
NVIDIA 790i (775) 51W
NVIDIA 750i (775) 59W
NVIDIA 780i (775) 69W
NVIDIA 8200 (775) 29W
AMD 690G (AM2) 34W
AMD X3200 (AM2) 35W
AMD 770 (AM2) 40W
NVIDIA 570 (AM2) 40W
AMD 790FX (AM2) 42W
AMD 790X (AM2) 43W

*** Actual power consumption for the motherboard and chipset. Idle and load power do not differ by any significant amount.

Top-end graphics cards are clearly one of the most demanding components when it comes to power requirements in today's systems. Only heavily overclocked CPUs even come close to the same wattages. Note that the above chart only includes last generation cards; NVIDIA's latest GTX 280 requires even more power.

Looking at the processor side of the equation, Intel's Core 2 Duo/Quad/Extreme CPUs in general have very low power requirements. AMD's latest Phenom processors aren't far behind, however, especially in light of the fact that they include the memory controller rather than delegating the task to the chipset. We should also mention that part of the reason for the extreme power requirements on the X2 6000+ come from the use of an older 90nm process.

Naturally, motherboards also require a fair amount of power. Current motherboards average around 47W for socket 775 and 39W for socket AM2/AM2+, but features and other factors can heavily influence that number. Outside of their IGP solution, NVIDIA's chipsets tend to use more power than the competition; AMD chipsets on the other hand typically require less power. Again, numerous other aspects of any particular motherboard will impact the actual power requirements, including BIOS tuning options.

Hard drives and optical drives account for another 10 to 20W each. However, remember that hard drives are a relatively constant 10 to 15W of power draw (average is around 12W) since the platters are always spinning (i.e. idle), and movement of the drive heads during read/write operations (i.e. load) only increases power draw slightly. Optical drives on the other hand stop spinning when idle, requiring only about 5W, while during read or write operations they need around 18W.

RAM power requirements measured a constant 2W per DIMM, regardless of capacity (though clearly not including FB-DIMMs). That figure is estimated, unfortunately, as we could not measure DIMM power requirements directly; we measured power draw with two DIMMs and then again with four DIMMs to arrive at the reported figures. It's also not possible to easily separate memory power requirements from the motherboard and chipset, as they share many of the same power connections from the PSU.

Building Three Sample Systems
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  • computerfarmer - Tuesday, September 23, 2008 - link

    Good article! Based on the number of comments, this has many of us thinking. This gives a way of figuring out our needs vs bigger is better.
    This article gives us enough information to make educated choices. Looking at the 12V rails is a good place to start along with total power. With a single 12V rail like Corsair VX series, the amount each rail carries is a non issue.

    A rule I have always followed is to use a power supply with at least 20% more power than the maximum required.
    Reply
  • dragosmp - Tuesday, September 23, 2008 - link

    Hey, I just wanted to say that after posting this link on OCN, there were tenths of replies. People want to know how much various things consume, as all this 1kW PSU hype hype is getting very tiresome.

    I for one would be curious how did you measure the current thru the PCIe slot - have you modified the slot to access the power lines? Soldering geeks would really like to know :)

    And lastly, browser compatibility. This comment is very hard to write in Chrome (writing overlapping), maybe you or google will fix this.

    Cheers,

    Dragosmp
    Reply
  • Fudus - Tuesday, September 23, 2008 - link

    I am stupid and run my 4850 off a 300W power supply, with a sata power>molex>pci-E power connection. Go Go overloading!

    It seems to work at stock speeds under stress as well for some reason. I really didn't expect it to work this well (C2D e6550, Radeon 4850,300W power supply, 2GB RAm, G33 motherboard, 1 HD/DVD+RW)
    Reply
  • marc1000 - Tuesday, September 23, 2008 - link

    you are not stupid, Fudus. if you sum the power for your c2d (never more than 65w), mobo (40w), ram+HD+DVD (5+15+10) you have 135w. then add the 4850 and you are still fine with a 300w PSU. Like i Said before, I have a 90W CPU (that old Pentium-D, argh!) but run a radeon 3850, so my system consumes about the same energy as yours. and the 300w is working fine with me too. or else I would be a stupid too =P Reply
  • dragosmp - Tuesday, September 23, 2008 - link

    Wow, this gives me hopes to mount a 4670 on a 120W pico-atx powered rig.
    How is the noise, the +12V level?
    Reply
  • oopyseohs - Monday, September 22, 2008 - link

    I have seen upwards of 700W while testing on old QuadFX systems with 8800Ultra SLI. I would imagine that Skulltrail overclocked to 4.0GHz (easy) and 2x Radeon HD4870X2's in CrossFireX would demand significantly more than 700W. Of course these systems are rare, but they do technically validate the "need" for power supplies that output 1000W+.

    In any case, thanks for this article. I think it does a great job of showing why ultra high-output power supplies are not even close to necessary for 99.9% of the computing world.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, September 22, 2008 - link

    I have a Q6600 @ 3.42GHz with dual 3870 cards, and that peaks at around 650W at the outlet. Certainly there are plenty of overclocked PCs that can draw more than 700W... but once you take efficiency into account, my PC is only really using around 520W. I've also tested high-end water-cooled setups with 8800 GTX SLI that topped out at 650-700W power draw as well. I personally think with ultra high-end PSUs that having six 12V rails isn't very useful as well - some of the problems people experience with lesser PSUs simply comes from 12V rail distribution.

    If you're running dual GTX 280 cards and a quad-core (probably overclocked) CPU, I don't think there's anything wrong with 1000W PSUs. In fact, I know Gary has blown a few 1000W PSUs with his overclocking testing in the past. However, I'm running perfectly happy now with a 3.2GHz quad-core and really don't need even that much CPU performance; it's all about the GPU for games, and CPUs are only really taxed in 3D rendering and video encoding it seems.
    Reply
  • Griswold - Monday, September 22, 2008 - link

    Now that you made that clear, give us some of your great reviews for reasonably dimensioned PSUs instead of these 600-1000W bricks. :P Reply
  • whatthehey - Monday, September 22, 2008 - link

    Maybe it's just me, but I sort of got the impression that the reason for this article is precisely that Anandtech is tired of only getting the highest-end power supplies for testing. It's all marketing BS of course: they don't want to limit sales of the $300 1000W PSUs so they only send those out for testing.

    Or maybe the truth is more nefarious: they figure if they send out a top-quality 1000W PSU that has great efficiency and voltage regulation, unsuspecting buyers will buy their lower wattage parts that might not be all that great? The first is more likely, but it wouldn't surprise me if some of the less expensive 400-500W PSUs (even from major brands) use much cheaper components. Which is why we all want to see them tested, and probably also why the companies don't want to send them out for review.
    Reply
  • Martimus - Monday, September 22, 2008 - link

    Since this article is about choosing a PSU for a new computer build, it would have been nice to include new components like the P45 chipset, or the new nVidia or AMD graphics cards. I started reading it with the hope of knowing how well the Antec Earthwatts 500W PSU that came with the Sonata III case I bought would be do with various build options. The problem was that with only old equipment being used, I couldn't come to any real conclusion. It seemed to read more like a report to prove a point rather than an actual guide written to help with a new computer build. I am not trying to berate the article, but I just don't see the point of it. Reply

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