When we say “UPS,” we’re not talking about that shipping company with the ubiquitous brown trucks; in the world of electronics, UPS is short for Uninterruptible Power Supply — or in snappier terms, battery backup. In a nutshell, it’s a power strip with a whole lot more going for it, but there’s more goodness than just some extra outlets to be had. There are three features that make a UPS a valuable addition to your home theater cabinet or computer desk: additional power outlets, surge protection, and battery backup.
If your electronics are set up someplace where there just aren’t a lot of outlets, chances are good that you’ve picked up an inexpensive power strip to supply all of them with juice. A UPS won’t necessarily offer you any more power connections than a $2.99 power strip, but it does have other advantages in terms of power delivery.
One obvious but often unstated benefit is that a UPS may simply have the outlets arrayed in a more useful manner, such as two rows of three plugs with wider separation, rather than a cramped, straight six configuration. This is definitely a plus when your components have bulbous, brick-style plugs instead of simple power cords. (Cell phone chargers and other small components like modems and routers are especially guilty of this.)
The urge to surge
If you live somewhere with frequent storms, high wind, or just an aging power grid, you’re probably familiar with the spikes and dips in electrical power. At best, power fluctuations are an annoying inconvenience; at worst, they can fry your electronics. While even inexpensive power strips offer a small degree of protection with a fuse or circuit breaker, a more robust layer of protection between your equipment and a power spike is definitely a good idea.
By running the current through a UPS, you can smooth out or entirely eliminate a lot of the fluctuations in the actual amount of power delivered. Cleaner, more consistent power delivery is good news for the longevity of your electronics, especially for more sensitive components. The power regulation circuitry that smooths out the power delivery also knows when to pull the plug when things get too extreme.
Higher-end models even have protection for telephone and coaxial cable lines, offering components that use those connections to outside wires protection as well. Many UPS (and surge protector) manufacturers also offer protection guarantees up to a certain dollar amount in case their device doesn’t protect yours. That’s a bit of financial peace of mind that you’re not going to get from a cheap power strip.
A light in the darkness
At some point, you’re inevitably going to lose power. Hopefully, it will just be for a moment or two, but as we all know, that’s more than enough time to lose a bunch of work you’ve put into a document or presentation (or maybe it’s just been a while since your last save in a video game). Having a UPS gives you the time you need to save and shut down your computer normally or even keep working right through a brief blackout or brownout.
One other benefit to having a UPS with a battery backup is that if the power outage drags on, you can charge your cell phone without draining it too much, and it can keep your internet modem powered (if you have wifi devices like an iPad or laptop that run on their own battery power), so you can keep in touch with the outside world… or look up the power company’s phone number and give them a call.
What to look for
Uninterruptible power supplies are rated for capacity in volt-ampere (VA). The higher the VA rating, the more power a UPS can deliver and the longer you have before its battery runs out. Most components will have a small label (either on their housing or their power cable’s DC converter) that specifies their power consumption.
If you’re not certain what size you need (the math gets messy and complicated in a hurry), there are online tools that can help you decide what size UPS will meet your needs. After plugging in my own components to that tool, I found it recommended UPS sizes range from 1000VA to 2500VA; I have an 1800VA unit to keep my computer, monitor, modem, and cell phone charger up and running.
UPS prices can range from under $50 up to several hundred dollars, depending on the capacity and features that are included (the big, expensive ones tend to reside in IT server rooms). Most home applications can probably be satisfied by units under $100, unless you’re plugging a lot of power-hungry stuff into just one UPS.
One other thing to be aware of is that UPSes are heavy. Most of them use the same type of lead-acid battery that you’ll find in your car, so it’s not uncommon for them to weigh from 30 to more than 50 pounds.