You do have a UPS, right?
If so, skip this paragraph. If not, give your head a shake, and listen to this: if you’re reading this site, you probably have at least $2,000 worth of computer equipment. Your time and your data is worth far, far more. And you do NOT want your system attached directly to the same power grid that serves every other light bulb, motor, and heating element in your house. And your neighbor’s house. And the rest of your neighborhood. And you certainly don’t want to be directly attached to the constant lightening strikes, transformer explosions, bird explosions, and a long, long list of other stuff that goes wrong on a daily basis. We’re pretty good at keeping the power on, and relatively consistent, most of the time. But consistent means somewhere between 100 and 150 volts. Good enough for your oven. Not good enough for your shiny new XPS. Whether you know it or not, this matters. Remember that hard drive that died on you? The flaky video card? Those weird blue-screens you were having a few months back? The old Pentium-4 that died on you? Bad power eats away at electronics, and eventually, destroys it.
And if you do have a UPS, is it worth the grief? If you spent less than $100, it probably isn’t. Sure, it’s going to be better than that power bar with the ‘Surge Protected!’ sticker and the glowing orange power switch. It’s probably even better than your $1,500 Monster Cable PowerCenter. And it even has enough of a battery to keep a small computer running for a few minutes when the power goes out. But let’s face it: these sub-$100 models are kind of like the disposable inkjet printers of similar cost. They usually get the job done, kind of, for a year or two. But they’re not a pleasure to use. They’re not exactly equipment you’d trust your life to. And they’re not a particularly sound investment. Cheap, sure, but not good value.
Enter the APC Back-UPS RS 1500VA LCD 120V, affectionately known as the APC BR1500LCD (catchy names). This UPS isn’t really cheap, but you can probably track one down for under $200. And once you drop that extra $100, you’ll never again spend any less on a UPS.
The first thing you’re going to notice when you pick this up is that it’s really big, and really heavy. This is a good thing. Small and light is fine for cell phones, but when it comes to handling power, it’s either big and heavy or it’s cheap and crappy. The guts of this beast will do exactly what the marketing says they do: provide clean, uninterrupted power. All the time. The usual features are there, of course: phone line protection for your ADSL modem, co-axial protection for your cable modem, a USB port so your computer can talk to the UPS, a bunch of fancy software you’ll never install, and plenty of pure, sweet, power outlets! Of course, you can expect pretty good battery life: I get about 20 minutes of backup for my big, honking tower (with two power-hungry video cards and more hard drives than I can count), three large displays, and all the usual accessories. A second unit, powering only some vital (but low power) networking and telephone equipment at the moment, reports estimated battery life of over 8 hours, but I haven’t actually tested it to verify.
The second thing you’ll notice is that there’s a screen! You may think this is a gimmick, but once you work with it a while, you’ll understand that rather than a gimmick, the screen is what turns this device from a big, heavy, beeping power strip to something a bit worthier:
As you can see, you’ll always have access to the three most important bits of data: power status, battery status, and load status. This alone is a big deal. It means you’ll never have to worry about overloading your UPS, you know exactly how your battery is doing, you know exactly what your UPS is doing, and you know why it’s doing it. This information is presented in a way that even grandma can understand. But there’s also a numeric component, which can be switched between different fields:
- Current load, in watts: How much power your equipment is sucking down. This is good information to have, even in a general sense, but becomes vital for working with a UPS.
- Current load, in percent: A UPS can only provide so much power. This shows you how close to the limit you are. As a rule of thumb, it’s probably a good idea to keep this under 50%.
- Output, in volts: Okay, this is a bit useless. Hopefully this is pretty close to 120V, since that’s the entire purpose of this device.
- Output, in hertz: And this is entirely useless. Again, this is what the device is for; so long as it’s on and working, you can assume this is going to be 60.0 Hz (or damn close to it).
- Input, in volts: This is a bit more helpful. In theory, this number should be 120V, but it won’t be. Input voltage will constantly change a bit, and often it will change a lot. This reading lets you know exactly what your power company is delivering to you at any given moment.
- Event counter: This is my favorite. It’s a running count of the number of times the UPS has had to jump into action to save your equipment from a power surge, brownout, or blackout. This doesn’t include the continuous massaging of more ‘normal’ power fluctuations to keep the output exactly where it should. Since I last reset this counter a few weeks ago, this UPS of mine has dealt with 31 power events. I noticed about 3 of them.
- Estimated run time: Another really useful bit of information. This tells you how long the UPS expects to be able to keep things running on battery. You can get this information whether you’re running on battery or not, and it takes the current load, battery charge level, and battery health into account. When the power is actually out, this acts as a countdown timer.
With all this information, your UPS becomes more than an annoying box that beeps mysteriously at you: it becomes a trustworthy addition to your system that you can understand and depend on. And since power is the lifeblood of all your computer equipment, healthy power means healthy systems.
You need a UPS. And this is the one you want.