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I was wondering why a laptop power adapter is so huge. Most laptops that I have seen use a ~19V power supply. Using transformer equation, and considering 100 turns in the primary(just an assumption), and a 220V power supply, I calculated that there should be about 8 turns in the secondary. Using the same equation for a mobile phone charger(5V) and considering 100 turns in the primary, there should be about 3 turns in the secondary. So there shouldn't be much size difference between the transformer used in a cell phone charger and a laptop charger. So why are laptop charger adapters so big while a cell phone charger adapter is small?

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    \$\begingroup\$ FWIW, newer laptop power adapters tend to be much less bulky too. My current adapter weighs about a fifth of one I got five years ago. \$\endgroup\$ – leftaroundabout Feb 6 '16 at 11:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ Mine weighs more, but it's also more powerful 105W vs 60W \$\endgroup\$ – Jasen Feb 7 '16 at 11:58
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Laptops and cell phone both use switching power supplies so the adapters are not simple transformers.

For a given technology there is a relationship between power capability (measured in watts) and size (volume, specifically). So a cellphone that needs 2.1A at 5V (about 10W) can use an AC adapter that is much smaller and lighter than that for a notebook computer that requires 19V at 4.62A (about 90W).

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Actually, neither laptops or cell phones use a transformer, per se.

What they use, instead, is called a "Switched-Mode Power Supply" that rectifies the 110 or 220V AC input into a DC capacitor, then uses a multi-KHz switching microcontroller to pulse that through an inductor to "convert" the voltage down. This requires far less space than a 50Hz transformer on a big, heavy core, and is usually more efficient to.

As for why the laptop converter is generally so much larger than the usb chargers for cell phones/tablets/etc. That's a matter of power handling. Due to the higher voltage & current demandex by the laptop, its power supply needs thicker wires, a larger inductor, and higher-power switching components. Also, with more power going through it, there's more heat to get rid of.

Because of the need for bigger, heavier components, and more heat dissipation, the lappy charger simply must be bigger, so long as you aren't willing to pay many times more money for rare & expensive materials.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ but both power supplies do use an transformer, they just operate at a higher frequency than 50/60 Hz. The transformer is used to provide isolation between line voltage and output voltage. \$\endgroup\$ – markrages Feb 6 '16 at 16:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ In my experiance even the really shitty ones have a transformer (though it's sometimes a rather poorly made transfromer). Do you have a link to a teardown of one that doesn't. \$\endgroup\$ – Peter Green Feb 7 '16 at 4:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ At less than 100W they're mostly flyback converters so it's actually a coupled inductor, not a transformer, but it does use coupled magnetic flux to transfer energy while providing isolation. so it's like a transformer. \$\endgroup\$ – Jasen Feb 7 '16 at 11:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ @jasen what is the difference between a transformer and a coupled inductor? \$\endgroup\$ – markrages Feb 23 '16 at 1:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ inductors are designed to store energy in the magnetic field, transformers designed to store little energy.. \$\endgroup\$ – Jasen Feb 29 '16 at 9:18
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All modern AC adapters or DC supplies are switched mode circuits/systems. For safety, the AC line maybe isolated with a transformer. It is a high frequency transformer, thus much smaller in physical size.

AC is 50/60Hz (cycles per second). Switching regulators are 50kHz to Mega-Hz. As such, the isolation transformer is much smaller. This is the reason of the change from massive transformer to a much smaller high-kilo-Hz transformer.

The material savings (copper winding, iron core), and the efficiency by electronic switching, effecting much lower cost, much more energy efficient, and, smaller size.

Same as old transformer design here: The 'output' side (2ndary) of the transformer is rectified to raw DC Voltage. For smallest size, the transformer coil ratio might be 1:1 (output at 110VAC,USA). High Voltage! Or whatever ratio for best overall design. The difference: The raw DC is the DC power supply for a switching circuit only, not to the output. The switched circuit output is the final DC supply.

Switched circuit simplified: When the switch is on, the raw DC charges the coil. When off, raw DC is disconnected from the coil. Now, by nature of coil, the coil forces the energy out of itself (try relieving itself!). The switches at its terminals 'happen' to be on and connected to a capacitor. The coil dumps its energy to the capacitor. This capacitor is the output DC smoothing capacitor, doubling as a 2ndary energy storage.

The load at the output, mean while, continues to deplete the capacitor energy. The coil recharges the capacitor from time to time. The raw DC replenishes the coil energy, from time to time.

In non-isolated case, no transformer, and the AC 110V (USA) is directly rectified (dangerous high Voltage!) to form the raw DC (about 120-150Vdc).

The rest of the electronics regulate the output Voltage. When the capacitor reaches the desired Voltage the coil is switched off from the capacitor, preventing from charging to higher and higher Voltage. At the same time, the coil is reconnected to raw DC to recharge. When output is depleted too low, the coil is reconnected back to the capacitor to recharge it.

The switching frequency is chosen for optimum results, considered among physical size, efficiency, and cost.

In summary: Rectify; high DC Voltage; charge the coil; dump the coil energy to output capacitor; repeat.

By nature, switching circuit is NOT isolated (DC to DC switching). At least one wire is common, a direct connection from input to output.

If isolation is not needed (say, inside a closed package, such as a light bulb), maybe no transformer. Isolation is for safety, so a transformer is added. The lower the frequency, the less efficient in electric-magnetic conversion. Surely, at too high frequency, conversion efficiency begins to tail off.) Coil summary: One optional isolation transformer. At least one coil to store energy as a way to transfer energy from input to output.

Extra for the inquiring mind: Skip the coil! All you need is a switch to charge the output capacitor (switched capacitor mode!), directly from the raw DC! When reaching the desired output Voltage, switch off. Done! Save a coil component! You'd say: Cannot Voltage drive a cap? OK, add a current limiting resistor. Resistor is still much cheaper than a coil. Why need a coil? More ... Why not raw rectify the AC 110V, then the raw DC supply for a high frequency generator to drive a high frequency transformer? Instead of 60Hz, you now have 50kHz AC system! Same small transformer. Next, transformer steps down the AC Voltage. Rectify, Voila! [Hint: efficiency, and output power].

[Efficiency: Energy on capacitor=(1/2)xCV^2; coil equivalent: (1/2)Li^2. As Voltage gets higher on the cap [or equivalent for coil], it is more efficient: V is squared. Square 5V=25. Square 100V=10,000! Dumping 5V to the capacitor/coil is only that much. Dumping 105V (110V-5Vout) on a coil, wow!]

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