Most PC users understand that a power surge, blackout, or other sudden loss of electricity has the capacity to seriously hurt your computer. But exactly what one should do to protect against it gets a little fuzzier. The two most common means of protection are a standard surge protector, sometimes (wrongly) called a power strip, or an uninterruptible power supply, usually shortened to UPS. (No connection with the delivery guys in the brown shorts.)
Which one is right for your computer setup? That depends on exactly what you’re doing, and how much protection you want.
Surge Protectors: Simple Protection For Electronics
Some people refer to a surge protector as a power strip, because they look more or less identical. This is a dangerous conflation: while a simple power strip might include a cheap circuit breaker (or not), it’s essentially just an extension of your wall power outlet, allowing more electronics to be plugged in at once but offering no significant extra protection. A consumer-grade surge protector has multiple outlets as well, but it also includes a shorting mechanism and a ground line that will physically block excess electrical energy from reaching your devices.
Surge protectors range from simple to complex, with pricier versions packing in ten or more electrical outlets, plus extra in and out lines for other types of electronic equipment like phone lines, Ethernet cords, USB power, and coaxial cables. All that stuff is nice, and could certainly come in handy if you’re planning an elaborate desk or television setup. But in terms of pure protection, what you’re looking for is the joule rating. Surge protectors offer an amount of electrical joules for which they are rated to stop, and the higher the better.
Power surges can be light—like your home’s internal grid re-adjusting when someone plugs in a hair dryer or a vacuum cleaner—or heavy, like when your satellite dish takes a direct lightning strike. Generally joule ratings range from under 1000 joules for the cheaper models to over 3000 for more elaborate versions. Since the more expensive models in this case aren’t actually all that expensive, getting maximum protection for your stuff doesn’t require a huge investment.
Most surge protectors include a small LED light that indicates the safety ground is still working. Some more elaborate versions have a tiny LCD screen for the same purpose. Be sure to periodically check that the light is still on, especially after thunderstorms or power outages.
UPS: For Saving Your Work (and Time) From Random Power Outages
An uninterruptible power supply is a different beast from a surge protector. Actually, a UPS might include a basic surge protector with a breaker and ground in the package, as well as multiple power outlets—they’re big, bulky boxes. But the primary purpose of the uninterruptible power supply is right there in the name: it provides power without interruption, no matter what else is happening to the power system in your home or city.
To achieve this, a UPS is basically a giant battery. Just like the portable battery charger you might already have for your phone, a UPS includes a large backup battery that can keep your computer (or anything else) running when the power goes down. Crucially, a UPS is also designed to instantly switch to its internal power supply (or simply feed electricity primarily from that supply instead of the wall power outlet) to make sure that devices plugged in never lose power, even for a second. In the specific case of desktop computers, this is crucial: it keeps the PC powered up and prevents any unsaved work from being lost.
That being said, a UPS is a different kind of emergency backup system than, say, a gasoline-powered generator that can run your entire home. Even with a large capacity battery, a consumer-grade UPS can only run a desktop PC and a monitor for twenty minutes to an hour (depending on the model you buy). It’s a failsafe designed to give you enough time to quickly save your work or finish some crucial task, then power down safely and wait for the primary source of electricity to come back. (Many also include software for the PC that can automatically shut it down safely, if you aren’t nearby at the time.) It might be possible to use the battery power of a UPS to run a laptop or cell phone for a much longer period of time, but don’t expect it to be your sole source of electricity through an extended power outage or natural disaster.
More expensive models of UPS come with larger internal batteries that can power multiple devices. But if your aim is simply to keep your computer from unexpectedly shutting down, an inexpensive model that can run it for a few minutes is enough. We recommend this CyberPower 1500VA model ($130). If you need to keep something powered on for hours, like a refrigerator for temperature-sensitive medication or a security system, you might want to look into more industrial UPS options. Check out our guide to selecting a UPS for more.
Which One Should I Use?
A surge protector is intended to protect your electronics from physical harm, in addition to just being generally handy for multiple power outlets. An uninterrupted power supply is meant to save you from the headache of losing time from failing equipment, either for a split-second brown-out or an extended power outage.
Most home users can get by with a simple and inexpensive surge protector—if the worst comes to the worst and you have a power spike in your home, just replace it and you’re good to go. A UPS is probably warranted if you frequently do critical work on a computer and can’t risk it losing power even for a second. It’s also a good upgrade if you live in an area with an unreliable power grid or frequent power outages from weather; those split-second power losses can be more or less ignored, restoring a bit of peace of mind.
If you want both maximum electrical protection and a means of keeping your PC constantly powered, you can combine both a surge protector and a UPS. Most UPS devices include a basic surge breaker and ground, and you can plug non-critical devices like speakers, phone chargers, or lamps into a cheap surge protector on the second wall outlet.