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How do the common low-dropout LP2950 and buck LM2596 regulators behave when their input voltage drops below their output voltage?

I'm driving a micro-controller board rated for 3.7-5.5 V with a 4.8V battery pack built from four 1.2V NiMH cells. 1.2V NiMH cells range from 1.45V freshly charged to slightly below 1V, or whenever you wish to start worrying about polarity reversal.

As I understand it, one should usually use a buck like the LM2596 for efficiency reasons. LM2596 boards all claim the input voltage must exceed the output voltage by at least 1.5V or even specify a minimum input voltage of 4V. I'll want the device running while the pack still exceeds 4V though, but 2.5V = 4V - 1.5V sounds too low, although not necessarily.

What actually happens when an LM2596's input voltage drops below output plus 1.5V? Does it stop working or become unpredictable? Or does it supply the input voltage minus 1.5V?

Are there LM2596 that bypass themselves or switch to an internal LDO when the voltage drop gets too low?

Also, I imagine an LDO like the LP2950 would continue dropping the voltage by it's minimum drop. Is that correct?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Also, I'm aware a Schottky diode could drop the voltage by as little as 0.6V, which covers my use case, just curious how these voltage regulators behave. \$\endgroup\$ – Jeff Burdges May 6 '13 at 9:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ Possible duplicate: electronics.stackexchange.com/questions/67864/… \$\endgroup\$ – Adam Lawrence May 6 '13 at 12:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ LM78XX are linear voltage regulators, like the LP2950, not switching regulators like the LM2596. I'm mostly asking about switching regulators here, but I'm curious about the linear ones too, so that's a useful answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Jeff Burdges May 6 '13 at 14:35
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The LM2596 is probably a bit better than what you think. If you look at figure 8 in the data sheet: -

enter image description here

It tells you that for a 1A load (at 25ºC) the drop-out is about 0.9V. Also note that the output is now just slightly out of regulation (Vout = Vreg - 50mV).

If you are running less than 1A this figure will improve.

However, take note of figure 11: -

enter image description here

It is telling you that at 25ºC the minimum operating supply voltage is about 3.6V (and this id for producing a miserly 1.23V on the output).

There are better devices than this I suspect and you need to consider what your maximum load current is when selecting one.

The LP2950 is a linear regulator and if you look at figure 10 it tells you that for a 50 ohm load and 4V inputted you will get about 3.6V coming out. Also look at figure 12 because this gives a different viewpoint in terms of output current.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ If I understand you, an LM2596 configured for 3.7V but receiving only 4V should output 3.1V under a 1amp load, more if under less load, yes? If so, that's probably perfect for my application, given that the micro controller should run below that 3.7V. \$\endgroup\$ – Jeff Burdges May 6 '13 at 14:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ @JeffBurdges that would be my assumption but it doesn't explicitly say that in the data sheet. Remember also that the drop-out is load dependent so if you are running higher than 1A you have to kind of guess where you'll be on figure 8. \$\endgroup\$ – Andy aka May 6 '13 at 16:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ I've now ordered one for trying out, so I'll test it. We're probably talking under 100mA load, not exactly sure yet though. \$\endgroup\$ – Jeff Burdges May 7 '13 at 0:42

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