Image credit: Charlene McBride | Flickr

The modern computer is made up of dozens of different components, all of which work in concert to form a fully functional and working computer. Some components, however, are a little less talked about than others — like the voltage regulator, for example.

Without a voltage regulator, however, your computer wouldn’t get the constant flow of power it needs to stay on and working. But what does it do? And how does it work? Read on to find out.

What is a voltage regulator?

First up, what actually is a voltage regulator? A voltage regulator is basically a component in your computer’s power supply that basically helps it maintain a steady output of volts in a circuit. There are a few different ways it does this, which we’ll get into a little later, but the idea is that the power coming from your electrical outlet isn’t necessarily stabilized. The voltage regulator takes that power, and turns it into a steady and reliable power source, which keeps the computer’s components running at their peak performance. Perhaps more importantly, it ensures that those components aren’t damaged as a result of fluctuating power.

A voltage regulator could regulate one or more AC or DC voltages, depending on the design.

Types of voltage regulators

There are actually two main different types of voltage regulators, and they’re best used in different situations and different devices. The main two types of active voltage regulators are called “linear regulators” and “switching regulators.” Here’s a rundown of the two, their advantages, and how they work.

Linear regulator

Linear voltage regulators are best used on relatively low power devices or in applications where the output needs to be smaller than the input. That’s because of the fact that the design of it really only allows it to take away voltage rather than amplify it. The advantage, however, is that a linear voltage regulator is low-cost and small.

A linear voltage regulator is given its name because it’s used to offer one constant voltage to the device, and input voltage is continuously adjusted, with the extra voltage being dissipated as heat. That’s different from a switching regulator because of the fact that a switching regulator uses an active device that essentially switches on and off, maintaining an average value of output.

Linear regulators essentially use one or more transistors (while in the past they used vacuum tubes), along with, sometimes, an integrated circuit.

Linear regulators are best in a number of different situations. That includes when a fast response to input and output changes is required, and at power levels below a few watts.

Switching regulator

Switching regulators are a little more complex, and they basically rapidly switch a series device on and off. That switch basically sets how much voltage is transferred to the output. Thats controlled by a similar method as a linear voltage regulator, and because a switching element is either fully conducting or off completely, it doesn’t dissipate power — making it much more efficient.

So why use a switching regulator over a linear one? Well, as mentioned, switching regulators are far more efficient than linear ones. Not only that, but because they incorporate amplifiers, they can produce an output voltage that’s higher than the input voltage — or they can even provide an output voltage with opposite polarities.

At power levels above a few watts, switching regulators become cheaper. Switching regulators are also better implemented when DC voltage is the only voltage supplied.

Conclusions

As you can see, there are a few major difference between the two different types of voltage regulator — and using one over the other could save both money and energy.