How to Choose Between a Surge Protector and a UPS for Your Mac

Question:

How to Choose UPS vs Surge Protector Mac

Ernesto writes: I’m about to purchase a new 27-inch iMac to replace my current 24-inch model from a few years ago. I have many devices attached to my current iMac that I will migrate to the new one, including speakers, external hard drives, powered USB hubs, and an external Blu-ray drive. Everything is connected to power via several standard surge protectors that are about five years old.

As I prepare to set up my new Mac, would you recommend that I keep the existing surge protectors, swap them out for new ones, or use something like an uninterruptible power supply (UPS)? What benefit does a UPS provide over standard surge protectors other than battery backup?

Answer:

To start, let’s identify the difference between standard surge protectors and a UPS. Surge protectors provide protection by dissipating any excess power (surges) and preventing it from reaching your connected devices. Electronic equipment, especially sensitive equipment such as a computer or a hard drive, is designed to operate within a certain power range. If too much voltage reaches a device, it can permanently damage or destroy it.

APC UPSAn example of a consumer-grade UPS from APC.

A UPS provides protection against surges as well, but also includes a built-in battery with varying capacity based on model. Many people recognize the benefit of a UPS as providing extra power in the event of a blackout, giving a user time to save their work and shut down or keeping a computer running throughout the blackout if the UPS battery is large enough or the blackout lasts only a short time.

However, the use of a battery also means that the devices connected to a properly-functioning UPS will receive steady voltage and current in the event of a brownout or blackout. In simplistic terms, the UPS receives electricity from the wall, passes it through the battery, and then feeds it to connected devices. Because the battery is technically powering the devices at all times, the power levels are delivered in proper and steady amounts, regardless of what happens to the power coming from the wall.

A surge protector can therefore be thought of as providing protection from excessive levels of electricity only, while a UPS provides protection from both excessive and insufficient levels of electricity. This, of course, is in addition to the benefit of keeping a computer functional during a power loss.

Those interested in purchasing a UPS should note that not every outlet provides battery backup power. Many UPS devices, especially those targeted at consumers, only provide battery backup (and thus the benefits of both high and low power regulation) via one or two outlets. The rest of the outlets provide only surge protection. Therefore, read the technical specifications of a UPS carefully before purchasing to ensure that it will meet your needs and take care in setting it up so that your most critical devices are attached to battery-backup outlets.

Another factor to consider is financial compensation. Many surge protectors and UPS systems come with limited insurance policies offered by the manufacturer. If a surge protector or UPS is properly configured and connected to appropriate devices, the manufacturer will compensate you for any equipment damaged or destroyed in the event of a surge protector or UPS failure, or in the event of more serious power surges that overwhelm the capacity of the unit.

The manufacturer's liability is limited to a set dollar amount and only applies in certain situations, but the added value of an insurance policy is an important factor to consider when making a purchasing decision.

In summary, surge protectors are a minimum requirement for all important electronic equipment. Those with the ability to add a UPS to their computer setup should strongly consider doing so, especially if the user lives in an area prone to electrical issue. While neither a surge protector nor a UPS will provide complete protection against devastating events such as a direct lightning strike, using one will give your electronics and computers the best chance at a long, trouble-free life.

If only this edition of Mac Geek Gab Answers had been available to the engineers at the Superdome on Sunday night…

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