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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  • kuraegomon - Monday, September 22, 2008 - link

    Aargh. The most important argument for ensuring that your PS has plenty of headroom is ... lifespan!

    The most knowledgeable PS people out there will all tell you the same thing: running even a quality PS at consistently more than 80% or so of its rated output is all but guaranteed to reduce its operational lifespan. It's also a catch-22 because the longer a PS is run at high load, the less the maximum load it can support becomes. This isn't a terribly quick process, but quite a sure one. Track down any number of JonnyGuru's comments/reviews out there for more info.

    Do all the math stated in this article, and figure out what your idle and load draws approximate too, then make sure you've got 30% headroom on top of your load requirement. This is BEFORE taking into account any expansion plans. Also, try to remember that 850 PCP&C supply described here STILL isn't being used the way a power user uses their system. It's spending more time at or near peak load, but it's also quite likely spending a fair bit of time on the shelf.
  • 7Enigma - Monday, September 22, 2008 - link

    What is your point? In the article the PSU's for each category are well under 80% utilization. If you look back at the charts, in the rated range for each system:

    -low end is utilized <50% of rated wattage

    -mid-range is utilized <75% of rated wattage

    -high-end is utilized <80% except for the Neopower Blue (which honestly looks pretty crappy both from a efficiency and sound standpoint)

    That is across the board. In each category the higher-rated parts are obviously utilized less than those percentages.

    Even the comments below each chart bares this out. For the low end, for example, they state that a 250w PSU would be perfect, while even a 200w would suffice. With a total system draw of 140w, the 250w would be near 50% utilization (56% if you want to be picky), and the 200w would still be <75% utilization.

    I don't see fault in this article from that standpoint.
  • vlado08 - Monday, September 22, 2008 - link

    The problem is that even if you calculate the expected power draw of your system you have to trust the label on the power supply and to be sure that if it says 500w then it is so. Well then you just end up to trust the trade mark or some reviews for the model you are going to by.
    Or you trust somebody who is going to assemble your new computer for you.
  • 7Enigma - Monday, September 22, 2008 - link

    Thank you very much for this article. As someone building a system by the new year I appreciate it greatly!

    One interesting thing is that there are times where the higher wattage supplies actually make more sense due to efficiency (and probably more connectors/warranty/etc.).

    The Enermax Pro82+ 625w is definitely the best mid-range you have listed IMO for a stock system (ie non-OC'd), but for someone looking to OC their system I think the Zalman850 from the high-end section is probably the better buy (both efficiency and soundwise). There is a crossover point very close to idle power levels (if you take into account another 25-50w for an OC'd system), and so anything above idle will have better efficiency and at load quieter levels.

    But I haven't checked the price difference, which I'm assuming is quite large. A 1-2% efficiency difference between the Enermax and Zalman is probably not worth the increase in price from both a ROI (from power savings and increased case temp from inefficiency).

    Thanks again for the great review!
  • vlado08 - Monday, September 22, 2008 - link

    In the article you didn't mention how did you measure the power draw of different components for example the CPU or the draw from PCI express? And haw did you test the efficiency of the different power supplies? Reply
  • Don Tonino - Monday, September 22, 2008 - link

    I found the remarks concerning the efficiency charts a bit misleading... why give the range of efficiency of the high end system, for example, as between 85% and 89%, when the first number refers to the efficiency with 90VAC? the numbers given out are not consistent, as the systems at 230VAC show in reality the following efficiencies approx:

    low end - 74 to 80 %
    midrange - 82 to 88 %
    high end - 87.5 to 89.5%

    Based on the numbers above, the PSU is actually quite well suited to the high system as the efficiency changes by a meager 2% between idle and load. It would be even better with some extra load, so to place the idle/load range between 450 and 700 W.

    As far as the point to make is to show how efficiency changes with the load, it would have been as meaningful to give data just for the 230VAC, as it was already stated that efficiency with 120VAC or 90VAC would be even lower.
  • Insomniac - Monday, September 22, 2008 - link

    The range isn't for 90VAC to 240VAC, it's to cover the idle load to full load range of the sample system. Reply
  • Don Tonino - Monday, September 22, 2008 - link

    Check the chart. For every system the lower efficiency, the one given for the sistem at idle, has a value that at that particular power load (respectively given as 90W, 168W and 310W) lies on the red line, the one representing efficiency of the PSU when running at 90VAC.

    This is most evident if you take the high end system, which is stated will make the PSU run at an efficiency between 85% and 89%; those values, if you move on the blu line (PSU running at 230VAC) means a power load between 200W and 650W).

    Giving the idle efficiency with the PSU running at 90VAC and the load efficiency with the PSU running at 230VAC gives a much higher change in efficiency than real. The only real meaning for it would be to say: "with such a system and such a PSU you will have an efficiency between A% and B%, based on the current the PSU is running on"... and I seriously doubt that anyone at home have an electrical system that changes VAC on the run.
  • Insomniac - Monday, September 22, 2008 - link

    I see what you are saying now. I misunderstood what you said before. It seems a table would be better to show the efficiency range for each, or the values for one curve only (the article seems to say it was supposed to only be 230 VAC). Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, September 22, 2008 - link

    Sorry for the error - not sure how we missed that, but yes the efficiency with the high-end system and UCP 900W is higher than stated initially. Must have been confused with the other systems, but I'll correct the text now. Reply

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