Review: APC Back-UPS Pro 420 with PowerChute plus

A product review by Bobulous.


Product made by APC. A Back-UPS (uninterruptible power supply) Pro provides power regulation for your PC so that surges and brownouts don't affect the running of your computer system. Battery power is also integral so that the PC can run on during short blackouts, removing the risk of data loss during power failure.


I ordered my APC Back-UPS Pro 420 from Technomatic online in May 1999. I paid £138 (and some small number of pence) which included VAT (@17.5%) and delivery. This was the best price I could find after a brief search of online vendors and Technomatic delivered within two days (it would have been within one day, but I didn't place the order until well after 4:00 PM).


On its arrival, I realised the Back-Ups Pro 420 was a lot smaller than it looked in the picture. Of course, being what it is, the small size didn't matter at all. In fact, it's an advantage because once you unpack the thing, you realise you need to find some place to put it. Space found, setting up is easy so long as you read through the included documentation to make sure you don't do something horribly wrong. Swap some leads around from here and there and stick the monitor and PC power leads into the back of the UPS, plug the UPS into the mains power supply, connect your modem into the UPS and the UPS (lead included) into the phone line, et voila... you're PC is completely surge proof. Because the back of the UPS only accepts the blocky-looking power leads that go into the back of your PC and monitor, I couldn't think of any way to plug my powered speakers into the UPS (because they use a good ol' English plug). I'm not sure if power surges can go through the speakers' audio leads into my soundcard, but I'll find out.

The APC Back-UPS Pro system has the ability to talk to a Windows 95 / 98 operating system. To do this you need to connect the grey serial cable (included) between the UPS and one of your serial ports. I was a little confused to find the system using a serial cable, because APC's Web site claims that the Back-UPS Pro system uses the new USB port for communication. There's no big difference, though, because I don't need my serial ports for anything at the moment. I recommend, though, that you plug the grey cable into your first serial port because Windows Plug & Play refused to detect my UPS when I had the cable plugged into serial port B.


The PowerChute plus software is quick to install and, once it's communicating with the UPS, very useful. PowerChute lets you monitor all the details of your Back-UPS Pro 420, including the all-important battery runtime remaining. PowerChute sits running in your system tray and keeps a log of all the power events that occur. If the utility (mains) power fails and the UPS switches into battery power, PowerChute will keep an eye on battery runtime remaining. If runtime drops into the 'low' region (and, as with all the settings, 'low' is a user-defined amount), PowerChute will safely shut down your system. This is very important. If you're not at your machine when utility power fails, you need to know that your system will shut down correctly. Without this feature, power would drop out from under the PC as soon as battery failed, and that's no better than the PC turning off when utility power fails. PowerChute has a big bunch of other features, too, so you can control exactly how and when power reaches your computing system. In fact, PowerChute is so good that I wonder why it is not included with APC's Back-UPS Pro 1000 and 1400 units (it currently only comes with the 280, the 420, and the 650 units). The only problem I found was that PowerChute does not seem to send messages to WinPopup, as it claims to do so. But I'm not on a network, so that doesn't bother me.

In the event of a utility failure (which can be simulated by the software or, more satisfyingly, by switching the power to the UPS off at the plug) the battery switches in immediately. The UPS unit beeps an alert and PowerChute keeps on eye on things to make sure the user shuts down before time gets dangerously low. It all works beautifully. With the Back-UPS Pro 420 on my system (a Pentium III tower box with 17" monitor) I get about fifteen minutes of battery power. This is more than enough to safely finish utterly critical tasks, save my work and exit gracefully. Re-charging the unit takes several hours, but this goes on while you are using your PC as normal.


I'm very glad to be using the Back-UPS Pro 420. It really works as it's supposed to and I'm more than confident that it'll keep my PC safe from the unreliable world of mains electricity. Power failure can no longer lose hours of painstakingly thoughtful work that I might never be able to reproduce, and power surges are no longer a risk to my expensive pile of silicon wizardry. If you do any important work on your PC, I recommend one of these little black boxes.


August 2009: I had the Back-UPS Pro 420 for five-and-a-half years before trading it in (via APC's Trade-UPS programme) for an APC Smart-UPS 750XL. The (much larger) 750XL has served me well in the four-and-a-half years since, but the battery finally gave up the ghost last month after several weeks of the "replace battery" alarm going off every time I turned it on. APC are currently selling a replacement battery for £119.99, which seems like good value so long as the new battery and the existing UPS could last at least another four years or so. Alternatively, I could send the whole UPS back to APC for recycling under their Trade-UPS programme and get a new UPS of similar capacity for a lower price than it would cost to buy from third-party vendors.

Whatever I do, I'll stick with APC because their UPSs have done a fine job over the last ten years, whereas a Belkin UPS I bought only lasted a couple of years and then suddenly died after a mains voltage drop. The APC just shrugged it off as usual.