Uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) review

Beat the blackout blues with these battery backup units.
 
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01 .Introduction

UPS

Test results for 18 UPS priced from $99 to $366

You’ve just about completed putting the finishing touches on your digital family photo album, but haven’t saved your work, and then the worst happens… a blackout. The power is gone and with it all your painstaking work — gone, forever. It’s a scenario that’s sadly all too familiar to many PC users, but it’s one that won’t occur if you use an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS).

A UPS is a battery backup unit that plugs in between your computer and the wall socket. If the power to your computer is suddenly cut, or drops significantly even for a microsecond, a UPS will cut in instantly and automatically supply power from its built-in battery. You then have time to safely save your documents and shut down properly — usually from 5-15 minutes, depending on the size of the UPS.

But what if you’re not at your computer at the time? No problem. Many home UPS systems also come with power management software that does the job for you. Once the UPS detects a significant power sag (or a total dropout) it immediately triggers the management software to save your documents and shut down the computer properly.

Please note: this information was current as of April 2009 but is still a useful guide to today's market.


Spikes and surges too

Modern home UPS systems also provide protection against electricity spikes and surges that can damage circuitry. Usually, surge protection is provided on all sockets which have battery backup protection.

A UPS may also have one or more sockets that provide surge protection only. This is useful for attaching devices that don’t specifically need a battery backup, such as printers, scanners and other computer accessories.

You don’t have to be in a blackout-prone area to get the benefit of having a UPS. If you’ve ever noticed all the lights suddenly dimming momentarily, you’ve probably experienced a power sag — sometimes called a ‘brownout’. That may be all that’s needed to make your computer suddenly turn off without warning — and without saving.

What we tested

Home UPS units are relatively small and affordable. We tested 18 home UPS units to see how they compared, noting how much power they supplied plus the performance of their software and other features.

Home UPS units can vary considerably in capacity — and hence, price — and though they aren’t marketed in standard sizes we have divided the UPS devices in this test into two nominal classes for comparison: Under 700 Volt-Amps (VA), and 700VA and above. Note that although the model number is often indicative of the unit’s capacity, this isn’t always the case.

Models tested

Under 700VA

  • APC BE550-AZ (550VA)
  • Belkin F6S600auUSB( (600VA)
  • Eaton Powerware 3105 UPS( (500VA)
  • MGE Ellipse 600( (600VA)
  • Opti CS500B( (500VA)
  • Power Shield Defender PSD650( (650VA)
  • Powertech MP5200( (650VA)
  • PSS UPS Pro650( (600VA)
  • Repotec RPT 603AU( (600VA)
  • Upsonic PROffice 650 UPS( (650VA)

700VA and above

  • APC BE700-AZ( (700VA)
  • Eaton Powerware 5110 UPS( (700VA)
  • MGE Ellipse Max 850( (850VA)
  • Opti ES1000C( (1000VA)
  • Power Shield Defender PSD1200( (1200VA)
  • Powertech MP5206( (1500VA)
  • Repotec RPT 1000A( (1000VA)
  • Upsonic Domestic series DS800( (800VA)
 
 

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 The following models scored the best results in our test 

What to buy
Brand Price
Under 700VA
Eaton Powerware 3105 UPS $129
Upsonic PROffice 650VA UPS $99
Power Shield Defender PSD650 $146
MGE Ellipse 600 $143
700VA and above
MGE Ellipse Max 850 $272
Powertech MP 5206 $319
Opti ES 1000C $366

Full results for all models are shown in the table belowResults table

Results table

Table notes

1 Price paid in December 2008.
2 Performance (60% hardware) based on the battery performance of the UPS unrestricted by power management software.
3 Ease of use (40% software) based on a combination of

  • Software (70%)
  • Hardware (30%).

4 Total annual energy cost Based on the usage scenario of 24hr/day, annually, calculated at 17c kWh. Value is rounded to the nearest 10c.
5 Specifications: Weight (kg) weight of UPS system complete; Dimensions (HxDxW) cm the size of the UPS, height by depth by width, in centimetres; Wall mountable if the system has provision for being mounted on a wall; UPS type the different UPS types; Capacity (VA) the energy capacity of the UPS system in Volt Amperes; Claimed battery runtime (mins) manufacturer’s claimed battery runtime; Charge time (mins) manufacturer’s estimated charging time.
6 Features: Status indicators LED lights and audible indicators status lights and/or alarms that alert the user to problems with the UPS; Total outlets/ connections standard 3-pin, IEC C13/C14, Other — the number and types of connections on the UPS; Software the power management software used and whether supplied or available for download; OS supported which computer operating systems are supported by the software; Warranty (yrs) length of warranty, in years; Connected equipment warranty ($) if insurance if offered for equipment connected to the UPS and if so, the value in dollars.

Footnotes:
[A] Calculated under average test load (PC with Intel Core Duo E6420 2.13GHz; 1GB RAM; 320GB SATA II HDD; Inno3D 8600GT 256MB VRAM graphics card; Windows XP Home with SP2; BenQ FP92W 19inch widescreen LCD monitor ; USB external hard drive; running a DVD movie.)
[B] Calculated without battery backup required by the system.
[C] With optional wall mount kit.
[D] Discontinued Feb 2009, but models may still be available.
[E] Includes data recovery.
[F] Warranty includes battery.
[G] 2 years + 3 years pro-rata.

ns Not stated.

How we tested

To calculate the performance and annual energy usage of the units, we set up a system to simulate that of a typical home user. The active power consumption of this system was 151 Watts:

  • Intel Core Duo E6420 running at 2.13GHz; 1GB RAM; 320GB SATA II Hard drive; Inno3D 8600GT graphics card with 256MB VRAM; Windows XP Home.
    BenQ FP92W 19inch widescreen LCD monitor.
  • We also connected an external 500GB hard drive, and had a DVD movie playing in the background.
  • After charging each UPS fully we booted into Windows and cut off mains power to time how long the UPS would run. This was done without being limited by power management software, thus providing the maximum battery time under the test load. We then recharged the unit fully and ran the same test with the power management software working.

We also tested the UPS systems to see if they could sustain operation with reduced voltage (simulating a brownout). Each UPS system was connected (with battery capacity full) and then stepped through varying voltages over a set period of time. All UPS units we tested passed this test.

We also assessed both the hardware and software for ease of setup and use, including cabling, manuals and documentation, software accessibility, setup wizard (if available), help and support files, software reports and notifi cations, and configurability.

Under 700VA

Eaton Powerware 3105 UPS Eaton

Price $129

Good points

  • Second best ease of use overall.
  • Excellent software ease of use.
  • Five-year warranty (2 years pro-rata).

Bad points

  • Nothing to mention.

Upsonic PROffice 650VA UPSUpsonic

Price $99

Good points

  • Excellent software ease of use.
  • Equal least expensive in price.
  • Three-year warranty.

Bad points

  • Software not provided, download required.
  • Longest charge time of all test units.

Power Shield Defender PSD650Power shield

Price $146

Good points

  • Excellent software ease of use.
  • Second-cheapest line interactive UPS in the test.
  • Battery included in warranty.

Bad points

  • Only two power outlets.

MGE Ellipse 600 MGE ellipse

Price $143

Good points

  • Good ease of use and performance.
  • Relatively cheap to run.

Bad points

  • Only one 3-pin to IEC C14 adapter included.

Belkin F6S600auUSB

Good points Belkin

  • Best ease of use overall.
  • Excellent software ease of use.
  • Relatively cheap to run.
  • Three-year warranty.
  • Second-lightest of all units in test.

Bad points

  • Nothing to mention.

PSS UPS Pro650VAPSS

Good points

  • Good ease of use, performance and overall score.

Bad points

  • Equal worst for hardware ease of use.

Opti CS500B Opti

Good points

  • Excellent software ease of use.
  • Relatively cheap to run.
  • Good status lights.
  • Lightest of all units in test.

Bad points

  • Nothing to mention.

Repotec RPT 603AURepotec

Good points

  • Cheapest line interactive UPS in test.
  • Equal least expensive.
  • Equal second-shortest charge time of all test units.

Bad points

  • Lowest ease of use score.
  • Equal worst for hardware ease of use.

APC BE550-AZAPC

Good points

  • Equal best for hardware ease of use.
  • Quality assurance test conducted before shipped (results are attached to device).
  • Cheapest to run annually.

Bad points

  • Nothing to mention.

Powertech MP5200 Powertech

Good points

  • Good ease of use score.

Bad points

  • Software not provided, download required.

700VA and above

MGE Ellipse Max 850MGE ellipse

Price $272

Good points

  • Equal highest performance score.
  • Second longest battery life overall.
  • Second-cheapest to run in the 700VA and over category.

Bad points

  • Only one 3-pin to IEC C14 adapter included.

Powertech MP 5206Powertech

Price $319

Good points

  • Equal highest score overall.
  • Equal highest performance score overall.
  • Excellent software ease of use.
  • Front-mounted LCD status display.
  • Longest battery life of all test units.

Bad points

  • Most expensive to run.

Opti ES 1000COpti ES

Price $366

Good points

  • Equal highest score overall.
  • Equal highest performance score overall.
  • Excellent software ease of use.
  • Shortest charge time of all the test units.

Bad points

  • Most expensive unit in the test.
  • Heaviest of all units in the test

Power Shield Defender PSD1200Power shield defender

Good points

  •  Very good overall.
  • Very good performance.
  • Very good software ease of use.

Bad points

  • Nothing to mention.

APC BE700-AZAPC

Good points

  • Equal best for hardware ease of use.
  • Quality assurance test conducted before shipped (results are attached to device).
  • Cheapest to run in 700VA and over category.

Bad points

  • Nothing to mention.

Eaton Powerware 5110 UPSEaton

Good points

  • Excellent software ease of use.
  • Five-year warranty (2 years pro-rata).

Bad points

  • Software not provided, download required.

Upsonic Domestic series DS800Upsonic

Good points

  • Three-year warranty.
  • Front-mounted LCD status display.
  • Excellent software ease of use.

Bad points

  • Software not provided, download required.

Repotec RPT 1000ARepotec

Good points

  • Very good performance.
  • Equal second-shortest charge time of all test units.

Bad points

  • Nothing to mention.

Our tests prove that size isn’t everything with a UPS. Although the largest capacity unit in the test — the 1500VA Powertech MP5206 — finished at the top of the overall rankings, it shared that position with the equal-scored 1000VA Opti ES1000C. Close behind was the 850VA MGE Ellipse Max 850, followed by the 1200VA Power Shield PSD1200. In the Under 700VA category, the 500VA Eaton Powerware 3105 UPS took first place, just ahead of two 650VA units, the Power Shield PSD650 and Upsonic PROffice 650. The Eaton Powerware 3105 also scored very highly for ease of use, placing second-highest of all the UPS units, just behind the Belkin F6S600auUSB.

Running cost

As you might expect, the most powerful UPS in our test was also the most expensive to run. Being a battery backup system, a UPS is designed to run continuously all year round. The annual running cost of the 1500VA Powertech MP5206 was calculated at $38.30, based on the usage scenario of 24hr/day, at 17c per kilowatt hour (kWh). While not in itself a huge cost, it’s more than nine times the cost of the cheapest-to-run UPS unit in our test, the 700VA APC BE700-AZ, at only $4 annually.

Ease of use

Three UPS systems were notable for their excellent ease of use scores: the Belkin F6S600auUSB, Eaton Powerware 3105 and the Opti ES1000C. All three UPS systems included helpful power management software that offered many configuration options. Easy configuration and use of power management software is vital to getting the most out of a home UPS. Particularly important is the software fully support the operating system used on your PC (whether Windows XP or Vista, Mac OS X or Linux). This is essential to the software’s ability to successfully shut the PC down without loss of data when mains power is interrupted.

Setting up

There are two parts to setting up most modern home UPS systems — the hardware and the software. Neither is particularly difficult and can be done by just about anybody, but it’s important to read the instructions that come with each unit.

Note that because you are dealing with power supply devices it is especially important to read the safety instructions. Safety considerations include heeding the manufacturer’s guidelines for the operating environment, and connnecting all devices directly (for example, not plugging the UPS into a power board or extension lead, and not plugging a power board or extension lead into the UPS).

Once the hardware is set up, install any power management software that came with the UPS onto your PC. Do this first, before connecting the USB (or serial) communication cable between the two devices. This will provide the PC with the software drivers needed for it to recognise and use the UPS.

Once the software is installed and the communication cable attached, configure the power management software to suit your needs, or simply accept the default settings.

Features

UPS systems also offer protection from power surges, in addition to battery backup, and most have at least one additional outlet that provides surge protection only. This is ideal for protecting a device such as a printer. See also our test on surge protectors.

In addition to power outlet protection, several UPS systems in this test also include protected connections for data lines (phone, fax, modem and Ethernet network sockets). If you want to include protection for communication ports, check for these features before buying.

All the UPS systems in this test have a replaceable lead-acid type battery. As such, it is heavy, but provides the power needed to keep your PC going when the mains power goes out. It’s important to note whether the battery is user-replaceable, as this can save you time and money when the old one is ready to give up the ghost. The power management software should indicate when the battery isn’t able to hold a sufficient charge and needs replacing.

Many UPS systems will also provide protection against electrical overload. This can take two forms — circuit breaker or fuse — but both provide the same type of over-current protection. If the device becomes overloaded, the circuit breaker switch will trip, requiring a reset, or the fuse will blow, requiring replacement.

Size isn’t everything

The size of the UPS you need depends on the equipment you need to power. Note that a UPS is not designed to power your system so you can keep on working through a blackout, but just to give you the precious minutes needed to save your work and shut down. Our testing showed that size (VA rating) of a UPS is not strictly the best indicator of how much backup power they will give you (see table). Our battery results varied from around four minutes to over 40 minutes, but there wasn’t a strict correlation between battery time and the power rating of the UPS.

As a general rule, if you have similar configuration to our test system (see How we tested ) — a single PC, monitor, and extra peripheral or two — you can generally get away with looking at a unit rated around 650VA or less, which should provide enough time to save your work and properly shut down your PC in the event of a power blackout.

If you want maximum battery powered uptime regardless of cost, the Powertech MP5206 is the pick of the bunch with over 40 minutes on our test system. Both it and the Opti ES1000C had an excellent overall score. The MGE Ellipse Max 850 provides a better value equation however, with a better balance of power and cost. Among the smaller UPS units the Eaton Powerware 3105 and Upsonic PROffice 650 are good performing standby units and great value. The Power Shield Defender PSD650 costs a little more but is a line interactive UPS, while the MGE Ellipse 600 is a standby unit, but gave the longest battery life of the smaller category.

Don’t be shocked!

Even though domestic UPS units are designed for use around the home, it’s important to remember they are a power storage device and safe handling procedures should have priority — as one of our testers learned. The tester unplugged the charged UPS from the wall without turning it off first, and when he touched the metal chassis it gave him a small shock. We recommend that a UPS not be moved when it is powered. If it needs to be moved, always ensure it is turned off first.

Here’s some key things to look for when shopping for a home UPS:

  • Audible indicators — sounds can draw attention to important conditions. This is useful if the UPS is kept out of sight, like under a desk.
  • Capacity — represented by a VA rating. For example, 550VA. In a power outage the battery life of the UPS will depend on the number and type of devices connected.
  • Circuit breaker switch — to prevent overloading.
  • Communication port protection — surge protection for phone, fax, modem or network
  • Outlet number and type — the number of outlets for battery backup and surge-only will vary with make and model.
  • PC connectivity type — check what type of connection the UPS has for a computer. Modern UPS units will typically use a standard USB connection, but in some cases only come with an older-style serial port (RS232), which is no longer included on most modern PCs, and requires the purchase of a USB-Serial adapter.
  • Power management software — essential for configuring and monitoring the UPS and enabling unattended shutdown of a connected computer in a power outage.
  • Standard outlets — check for outlets that match your computer equipment. Some UPS units have IEC C13/C14 connectors rather than Australian standard domestic 3-pin power plug sockets (AS/NZS3112).
  • Surge protection — not only on the battery backup outlets but also at least one surge-only outlet.
  • Battery type — a user-replaceable battery means you won’t have to send the unit back for service when a new battery is needed. Due to the potentially dangerous voltages involved, however, some UPS units require the battery to be replaced by an authorised technician, for safety reasons.
  • Visual indicators — LEDs on the front or top of the UPS provide information about the system’s major functions.
  • Warranty — we suggest a minimum of two years warranty, ideally.

Which is for you?

There are basically three types of UPS you will find: online, line interactive, and standby. All the units in our test were either line interactive or standby. On the whole line interactive units are the better option, but often cost more.

  • Online (also known as double-conversion), is the most sophisticated type of UPS system and hence the most expensive. It’s often used in large UPS units for industrial applications, rather than domestic systems.
  • Line interactive units provide power conditioning circuitry along with battery backup. They regulate power to an acceptable level, to ‘smooth out’ the power supply in the event of minor power sags without resorting to the battery backup. This makes them a better option in areas where there are frequent power fluctuations.
  • Standby (also called offline) remain in standby mode until the power supply fails, then the battery takes over. They are generally the cheapest of the three types, but don’t provide line conditioning.

Dictionary

  • Blackout: A short- or long-term total loss of mains electricity power.
  • Brownout: A temporary drop in voltage in an electrical power supply.
  • Circuit breaker: An automatically-operated electrical switch designed to protect an electrical circuit from damage caused by overload or short circuit.
  • Dropout: Momentary loss of electrical power.
  • Overload: In electricity supply, overload refers to a situation where a larger than intended electric current exists through a conductor, leading to excessive generation of heat and the risk of damaging equipment and causing fires.
  • VA: A measure of electrical power. The amount of power in an alternating current (AC) circuit equal to a current flow of one ampere at an electromotive force of one volt. On a UPS the VA rating is the apparent power that a UPS is capable of producing.

Warranty wrangles

Some UPS units come with a ‘connected equipment warranty’. The idea is that if any of your equipment connected to the UPS suffers damage while connected, it’s covered for repair or replacement. Sometimes this type of insurance cover runs into six figures. On the face of it this sounds like a good idea if you want peace of mind, and several of the UPS units we tested came with a connected equipment warranty. For example, the APC BE550-AZ and Belkin F6S600auUSB units provide $150,000 and $100,000 connected equipment protection, respectively.

Read the fine print however, as you may have a hard time collecting the money. In addition to stringent requirements, you may not be covered in particular circumstances or if you’re in Australia you may not be covered at all! The MGE Ellipse 600 and MGE Ellipse Max 850 for example only provide cover if you live in the European Union (EU). As with surge protectors, don’t base a purchasing decision on a connected equipment warranty.

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