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Surge Suppressors and Power Stations
Few people are willing to use their PCs with no protection at all. The least-expensive, most basic form of protection is a surge suppressor. These devices take the form of a plastic block with outlets into which you plug in your computer, monitor and other devices, with a cord which then plugs into the wall. These are also sometimes called "power strips" or "power bars". Surge protectors range in quality from very good to almost useless, with the protection being somewhat proportional to the cost. Cheap surge suppressors don't really offer very much protection. Some protection is better than nothing, but don't fool yourself into thinking a $5 surge suppressor is going to do very much to prevent power problems on your PC.
Surge suppressors normally work to reduce power problems in two ways. First, they use power absorbing components that take the shock of voltage spikes and surges and prevent them from being passed on to your computer equipment. The usual component that is used for this purpose is called a metal-oxide varistor or MOV. These devices are designed so that any voltage above a specified "safe" level is shunted to ground instead of being passed through. This is what is protecting your equipment, though they only work up to a point--a metal-oxide varistor is not likely to handle a lightning strike. Second, they normally include some line conditioning circuitry to smooth out and reduce power line noise, although not the top of the line components that you'd find in a true line conditioner.
There are several quality and feature considerations that you should take into account when shopping for a surge suppressor. As you do, bear in mind that the marketing droids are at work in the power protection industry as readily as they are elsewhere, and if you see a power strip that claims to provide "ultimate protection" but costs as much as a Happy Meal, be wary. Here are some specifications and quality considerations to consider:
Warning: You should always
remember to use your operating system's correct shut down procedure before powering off
your main PC box. If you are in the middle of using Windows and just "hit the
switch", you risk lost data and file system corruption.
Note: Some suppressors have
a light that is just a "power on" light. All that shows is that the power is
flowing. This obviously provides no indication at all of your protection level, but it
does tell you if the suppressor is plugged in and working (at least at a basic level).
This should not be confused with the protection indicator LED mentioned above.
A variant on the surge suppressor theme is the power station, also called a power manager. This is a unit that also provides numerous outlets for your equipment to plug into, but adds buttons to allow you to easily turn on and off individual units. They are often shaped to allow them to sit under your PC's monitor. Some of these units, such as the one pictured below, include full surge suppressor capabilities. Others have the on/off buttons and little else, and do almost nothing to protect your equipment! Be sure of what you are buying.
Warning: I have received
information that warns about possible equipment failure and even safety hazards as a
result of plugging surge suppressors into the output jacks of a UPS.
You should never do this, as it could create a hazardous situation.
Next: Line Conditioners