Testing: APC’s BR700G UPS

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Above: APC’s BR700G UPS, charged and ready for duty. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

An uninterruptible power supply (UPS) has been a part of my life for almost as long as I’ve owned a computer system. I don’t think I had one for the first Mac Classic I ever owned, but by the time I had upgraded to a color LC model, I was definitely plugging that expensive computing gear into a box designed to control the current coming into it.

Variable electrical loads, sudden outages and voltage spikes may not be as common in Trinidad and Tobago as they used to be, but on a daily basis I’m reminded that the electricity powering my home office isn’t anywhere as stable as I imagine it is.

These days, I run a lot of computing gear off of four different UPS devices. If I were starting from scratch, I’d probably rewire the home office to connect to one large UPS system capable of handling the whole load, but that’s not on the cards right now.

The largest one is a huge box from a company called Eaton, who sold me their smallest device (their largest is the size of a deep freeze) to manage the power needs of my workstation and server, which is connected to large screens and runs seven drives internally.

The others keep smaller computers and mission critical devices running in a full power outage, including my Internet router and modem, which has been a blessing while transferring a large, time critical file on more than one occasion.

At least three times during the day, I’ll hear the telltale signs of a significant power drop, the steady chirping of a UPS kicking in to take over the business of supplying steady current to the device under load. It usually doesn’t last long, but it’s an insistent reminder of the importance of putting that box between my far more costly gear and a wall socket I view with a squinty eye.

For most of the last 20 years, my preferred UPS provider has been American Power Conversions (APC), now owned by Schneider Electronics, whose business ranges across the spectrum of electronics support equipment.

The BR700G is the little brother of one of the UPS boxes currently in my lineup, a very similar model, perhaps 40 percent larger, that offers 1500va of protection. The BR700G is rated for 700va, making it suitable for a small computer system and monitor or a laptop and external monitor.

In that configuration you’ll probably get around half and hour to an hour of off-current use, perhaps more if the laptop is fully charged.

You shouldn’t buy a UPS on looks alone, though the BR700G is clearly designed to sit on top of a desk, perhaps neatly slipped between monitor and peripherals with only its slim front face and LED showing. Since APC offers different capacities in this style, it’s best to figure out exactly what you want to protect (high load devices like a laser printer shouldn’t be connected to a UPS) and calculate the electrical demand that the UPS will have to cover. Schneider offers a useful UPS selection guide that you can use to put you in the ballpark for your needs. Always buy the model above your immediate needs for maximum longevity.

The slimline style of the BR700G isn’t the only option in UPS systems. I also like the boxy powerstrip device style, which is useful when you need to plug and unplug devices from the surge protected, non-UPS sockets of the device.

APC BR700G: Shipping box.
APC BR700G: Shipping box.

The BR700G arrived in a plain brown box, a departure from the colourful style of prior devices, which favoured large colour photos of people marveling at the wonder of proper power for their devices. Points to Schneider for using cardboard made from recycled materials.

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APC BR700G: Box contents

The usual suspects are to be found inside the box. The UPS box and hardwired power cable, a cable you plug into the box and into your USB port (or better, hub, if you’re using a laptop) that allows the computer to monitor the status of the UPS and do a controlled, automatic shutdown using the software that’s on the enclosed CD. You should visit the UPS provider’s website to see if a newer version is available before installing however. Schneider provided PC software. Macs have the capability built into their Energy Saver system pane.

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APC BR700G: Battery bay.

 

The battery arrives disconnected. You should set the box down on a sturdy table, pull off the battery cover and pull the battery out part way. Previous APC boxes came with both sides disconnected, but the BR700G has the ground cable pre-connected, so be gentle pulling the batter forward. It’s heavy, accounting for at least half of the overall weight of the device, so it’s better to lay the device flat when doing this.

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APC BR700G: Battery connectors.

Remove the clear protective plastic cover from the battery’s unconnected pole and firmly but gently push the live wire onto the peg on the battery that you’ve uncovered.

APC BR700G: LCD and control buttons.
APC BR700G: LCD and control buttons.

Charge the UPS for 16 hours before connecting it to anything. The buttons at the top allow you to burrow into the menu options for the device, but the front pane will tell you everything you need to know at a glance. My first step was to turn the audible beep off. I generally know when there’s no current, and other devices in my workspace let me know when the current is iffy.

Your estimated runtime will drop significantly once you place a load on the device (nothing’s plugged in here), so no, don’t expect 13 hours of of backup power once you plug some stuff in. This display will be most useful when you’re sitting in the dark wondering how long you’ll be able to continue working.

I’ve always been fond of the APC brand and their UPS systems have tended to be my first stop when selecting a new device. It is, of course, impossible to truly test a UPS in a couple of days. The real test of battery backup is reliability under load, sensitivity to voltage fluctuations (you can set the level at which you want the BR700G to kick in) and overall robustness.

Most UPS boxes will work reliably for at least five years, though their assigned task is to take the hit if a serious surge of current arrives on your power line, in which case they can die early. In my experience, they will function for five to seven years, but you will have to change the batteries long before the box itself malfunctions.

Fortunately, replacement batteries aren’t hard to find, though they are a bit pricey, running as much as 50 percent of the original cost of the UPS itself. Most UPS devices and all APC units will give you an audible or if they have an LCD, visual indication that their batteries are at the end of their useful life.