The fact that computers are constantly improving is something of a mixed blessing. There are always new and exciting developments to try out if you’re ready to upgrade. But the downside of this development cycle is that PCs aren’t a single monolithic structure.
If you upgrade one component you’ll often need to upgrade one or more tertiary elements. Upgrade your GPU and you might need to upgrade your motherboard to take advantage of its features.
Likewise, upgrading your motherboard might necessitate upgrading your CPU. But all of the upgrades tend to have one thing in common – power.
More powerful hardware will require more power. And that makes a power supply unit (PSU) the foundation of both an upgrade cycle and your PC as a whole.
If you’re upgrading your computer or building a new one then you’ll want to put special care into selecting the PSU.
You’ll want to ensure that it can keep up with as many future upgrades as possible. However, this isn’t always a straightforward process as the PSU market has become fairly specialized.
And there’s a strong distinction between the modular and non modular nature of a PSU. Deciding whether to use a modular PSU is an important decision for anyone who wants to get the most out of their computer.
Although it can be a little confusing at first, you’ll soon see exactly how to narrow down the options and pick the best type of PSU for your needs.
In this article we’ll discuss Modular Power Supply (PSU) for computers, their pros and cons, and also compare them briefly with semi-modular and non-modular PSU types.
What is a Modular Power Supply (PSU) in PC Computers?
The first question most people have is what modular designs even mean in the context of a PSU. When you hear the word modular you might think of machines that have components that can be easily swapped out. That’s not exactly the case for a modular PSU.
Power supply units deal with far too much electrical power to allow for easy internal modification. A modular PSU design instead focuses on the modularity of the cables attached to the PSU rather than the main power supply itself.
So a modular PSU won’t let you instantly increase the wattage cap to draw more power for your system. Instead it will let you add new cables to the PSU in order to attach a new device to your computer. This can be far more useful than you might imagine. But there are some downsides as well.
As shown on the picture above, a full-modular power supply unit comes with all of its cables detached from the main PSU box. You can add cables to the main device as needed.
Some Pros and Cons of Modular Power Supplies.
At first glance, it might seem like you’d always want to go with a modular design for your PSU. After all, it gives you more options in the long run.
But there are some good reasons why modular PSUs haven’t become the industry standard. They do have a lot of benefits, but there are some very real downsides to consider too.
Pros of Modular PSU
People often think of PC design as fairly uniform at this point. But there’s still a general lack of uniformity when it comes to power usage. And this is especially true the further your move away from common components.
Easily Add New Peripheral Components
For example, to use some GPUs specialized for machine learning you’ll need a separate 8-pin plug in addition to the extra power draw from the PCIe slot. And this trend is becoming ever more common as powerful new PC components become almost as, or even more powerful than the host PC.
It doesn’t take long for an upgrade cycle to require a host of eclectic cords and a large amount of extra power.
If you have a strong PSU with a modular design then you’ll be able to easily scale your existing system to meet increased needs.
In the prior example of a specialized GPU you could simply add a new 8-pin cable to your modular PSU to adapt it to the new card.
Better Air Flow and Space Utilization
The example of a new GPU also highlights another benefit of modular designs – space utilization.
You might have seen computers that are packed with cables. It’s easy to hand-wave since a computer’s internals are usually hidden from sight.
But a computer that’s jammed with cords is a computer with restricted airflow. This means that your cooling systems might not be able to properly circulate air in order to keep everything properly cooled.
Restricted airflow can cause significant problems with your processor since high-use scenarios can generate heat up to around 175 degrees Fahrenheit even with proper cooling. And GPUs can produce even more heat.
The upper limit for NVIDIA cards is 212 degrees Fahrenheit. And those temperatures are what you see with proper cooling. Plus, both the CPU and GPU will usually heat up concurrently with each other.
So you end up with two significant sources of heat working in tandem. You really need your cooling systems to work properly when dealing with multiple devices putting out that kind of heat.
And that’s exactly what a modular PSU can provide. It ensures that you don’t have massive, unused, cables disrupting air circulation in your PC. Hot air can be properly cycled out of your PC while cooler air is brought in.
Easier to Replace
Modular PSUs can also make it a lot easier to replace or upgrade your power supply. You can’t always just swap out one modular PSU for another.
But if you’re simply moving up from one brand of modular PSU to another, higher rated, version then you might be able to simply unplug the cables from one PSU and then plug them back into the new one.
Anyone who’s felt the stress of seeing delicate components bend while trying to unplug them will be able to appreciate the idea of just leaving plugs in when upgrading.
Cons of Modular PSU
So far it might seem like a modular design would be the best choice for most people. But this raises an important question. If modular PSUs are so great then why are they relatively rare in pre-built systems?
Cost and Added Complexity
The answer comes down to cost and complexity. Think about just how large the average PSU is and how much electricity it consumes. Now think about how much extra care would need to be put into it in order to ensure that cords can be safely added or removed without any risk to electronics or people.
This results in a significantly greater cost. A modular PSU will generally cost somewhere between 10% and 20% more than a non-modular PSU with the same specs.
Another downside of modular PSUs is that the added complexity in their design also translates into increased size.
Manufacturers need to provide extra space within the PSU casing to compensate for the modular design. And this, in turn, means that you’ll often need a larger case or frame for your PC.
This is an especially common issue if you’re upgrading a pre-built PC. PC manufacturers typically go with non-modular PSUs to save money and provide smaller form factors.
This means that the cases for their PCs are also generally sized for a non modular design. When you upgrade a PSU it typically means going to a higher power design. Which, in turn, means a larger unit.
This can cause size issues in and of itself. And going from non modular to modular escalates the issue even further.
There’s also an issue common to most smaller proprietary components. It’s easy to lose track of a modular PSU’s cables. And while they’re easy to lose, they’re not so easy to replace.
Every brand’s cables are typically incompatible with those of its competitors. As such, using a modular PSU also brings with it the need to remember where you stored those extra cords.
Differences Between the Types of PSU Design
Up until this point, it might seem like there’s a firm distinction between modular and non modular PSU designs. But there are some PSU designs that can blur the line between them.
In addition to the modular and non modular PSUs, there’s also a middle ground that sits between them. It’s best to think about PSUs as belonging to one of three categories – fully modular, semi modular, and non modular.
When people talk about modular PSUs, they’re typically discussing something that would more accurately fall under the label of a fully modular PSU. A fully modular PSU lets you swap out all of the cables. A fully modular design will essentially sit as a totally wireless box that you can then add to as needed.
A semi-modular design lets you swap out some, but not all, cables. You’ll typically have the most commonly needed cables hardwired into the PSU.
The exact choices differ by model. But you’ll almost always see the 24-pin cable hardwired into the PSU if it’s using a semi modular design. This is due to the fact that 24-pin connectors are nearly a standard for motherboards.
In general, it’s going to be a safe bet that your motherboard will use this cable. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. But manufacturers of semi modular PSUs typically work under the assumption that users will want the 24-pin cable.
An 8-pin and PCIe cable will often come hardwired as well. But this also differs on a case-by-case basis.
One nice thing about the semi modular design is that it also inherits a balance of both fully modular and non modular pricing.
A semi modular design typically isn’t as inexpensive as a non modular unit. But at the same time, a semi modular PSU usually won’t be as expensive as a fully modular PSU. A semi modular design is, in many ways, a nice middle ground between the two extremes of PSU design.
Non modular PSUs have all of their cables hardwired into the casing (as shown above), with the possible exception of the PSU’s power cord.
The only way to add additional cables to these types of PSUs is through special adapters. For example, you might use an adapter to convert multiple PCIe cables into a single 8-pin output. However, these types of solutions aren’t always reliable.
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