Give new life to your laptop
Your notebook may be old, but that doesn’t mean its days are numbered. We’ll show you how to breathe new life into your portable by upgrading its vital components.By Christopher Null | Tuesday, September 30 2008
Want better performance from your laptop? The conventional wisdom has long held that you should simply buy a new one. You can put such conventional wisdom aside: upgrading a laptop may not be for the timid or the impatient, but if you’re handy with a screwdriver, and the sight of a circuit board doesn’t scare you, an upgrade can be a far more affordable solution.
We took tools to hand and worked our way through eight common (and not so common) laptop upgrades, in some instances stripping our test machine – a Dell Inspiron E1505 – down to the bare chassis. We can’t fit complete step-by-step, unscrew-this-and-unplug-that instructions for everything into this article, but we can provide tips to help with each process.
And note that every laptop varies: even machines from the same vendor can have very different designs and therefore wildly different disassembly methods.
Before you start, keep these essential points in mind:
- Many of these upgrades will void your laptop’s warranty.
- Some upgrades can damage your laptop. If you’re at all uncomfortable with such tinkering, leave it to a pro.
- Most vendors provide disassembly instructions in their products’ service manuals, which can usually be found on their websites’ support sections.
- Unplug your laptop and remove the battery before attempting any upgrade. Also, to avoid damage from static electricity, use a grounded wrist strap.
- You’ll need a collection of small screwdrivers, including flathead, Phillips, and possibly even Torx.
- Speaking of screws, keep them organised as you remove them. We like to use plastic cups for each step. Just write “LCD assembly” or “keyboard” or whatever on each cup as you go, to help you remember which screws go where.
- Pay special attention to wiring. Laptops have intricate channels where the wiring must run; stray wiring may get pinched or may prevent other parts from fitting together correctly.
- No matter what machine you’re working on, first upgrade your BIOS.
- You’ll need up-to-date BIOS code to support many newer components.
- Not every laptop component can be upgraded. Some may be soldered or otherwise permanently attached.
TIME: 10 minutes
Adding or replacing memory has always been one of the simplest upgrades to perform on a laptop; even novice computer users should have no difficulty with it. And in our tests, this upgrade gave the most bang for the buck. On our Dell Inspiron E1505 test model, an upgrade from 1GB of RAM to 2GB (cost: $80) boosted the laptop’s WorldBench 6 score from 57 to 62.
Quick tip Use Crucial’s System Scanner (at crucial.com) to find out what type of RAM modules you need. You can mix and match old modules with new ones, but some systems may end up with better performance if you install a matched pair of identical DIMM units.
Most laptops have a panel on the underside that, when removed, exposes the DIMM slots for RAM [photo 1, above]. (On some models, you must remove the keyboard to reach the slots – see the graphics card upgrade for this step.) To remove the panel – which is often labelled either with an M (for memory) or with a picture of a RAM chip – unscrew the holding screw or screws. (Usually a single screw holds the panel in place, though some laptops may use as many as eight.)
To remove an old RAM module, gently pull apart the metal clips securing each end. Once freed, it should pop up at an angle. Gently pull it straight out. Insert your new RAM in the same way, at an angle, until it is completely seated in the slot; then, again gently, press it down flat [photo 2, above]. The holding clips will engage automatically.
Replace the panel and battery, and boot up. Your computer should automatically recognise the change in RAM.
TIME: 60 minutes
Replacing a laptop’s hard drive is almost always an uncomplicated affair, and the actual swap can be done in just a few minutes. Transferring the data from the old drive to the new one requires a little more planning, and typically takes an hour or so. This simple task is likely not only to give you more storage, but also to improve performance. We upgraded a 5400rpm, 120GB drive to a 7200rpm, 200GB model, raising the WorldBench 6 score from 57 to 61.
Hard drives are usually accessible via a side panel in your laptop and held in place by screws on the bottom. Remove those screws, and then slide the drive out of the machine [1, left]. The drive will most likely be attached to a sled [2, left]. Remove the screws that are holding the drive in the sled, and remove the drive. Put the new drive where the old one was, and replace all of the screws in reverse order.
If you are reinstalling Windows from scratch, boot from your installation disc and go to town. On the other hand, if you want to reproduce your old data and programs exactly the way you had them before, consider using cloning software to make an exact copy of the old disk. We’ve had great success with Clonezilla (clonezilla.org), a free tool that is command-line only but is reasonably intuitive and very fast. Finally, clone your old (now external) drive to your new (now internal) drive, and boot normally. You’re done.
TIME: 15 minutes
Upgrading a wireless card is usually about as easy as upgrading RAM. In fact, on some machines, both the wi-fi card and the RAM are located under the same panel.
The trick is to make sure that you install a compatible part. Most laptops that were made a few years ago use Mini PCI cards, while newer ones use the Mini PCI Express standard. The latter type of cards have two separated sets of connectors along the narrower side; Mini PCI cards have only one set.
Even if the card you get has the right connector, it may not automatically work in your laptop: It’s unlikely that you can upgrade your old 802.11b card to an 802.11n one (since few 802.11n Mini PCI cards have been made), but it’s very likely that you’ll be able to find an 802.11a/b/g card that works. Also, many systems that shipped with 802.11g cards can be upgraded to meet the latest 802.11n standard. To avoid firmware incompatibilities, we advise you to get this part directly from the manufacturer of your laptop; in any case, it should be sold specifically for your computer.
Once you have the right part, the upgrade is a snap. If your wireless card is under the keyboard, as ours is, remove the keyboard (see the graphics card upgrade for this step), locate the card [1, right], and disconnect the two antenna wires (one white, one black) by pulling straight up on the connectors; don’t pull on the wires themselves [2, right]. Remove the card by pulling apart the two holding clamps on the card’s sides and then pulling the card straight out [3, right]. Insert the new card, and reattach the antennas by pushing the connectors straight down on the plugs.
If your wireless card is located on the underside of the machine, flip the notebook over, remove the appropriate panel, and follow the instructions above.
TIME: 10 minutes
Many laptops come with the wiring and circuitry to support a Bluetooth card already built in, even
if they don’t have the card itself installed. To avoid possible compatibility problems, however, you should obtain the Bluetooth module directly from your laptop vendor.
On our Dell Inspiron E1505 laptop, we found the Bluetooth connector behind an odd little door in the battery bay.
We merely popped open the door, pulled out the wires, and attached the Bluetooth module to it [1, left]. On some machines, the module is located near the wireless card slot; on others, it’s situated under the keyboard.
Reboot, and then download and install the appropriate driver from your laptop vendor’s website.
TIME: 5 to 20 minutes
Would you like to graduate from an older CD-ROM drive to a DVD burner, or possibly even to a high-def drive? If your laptop has a modular optical drive bay (one that is equipped with an ejector switch of some kind), replacing your optical drive is easy. Buy a replacement drive, or salvage one from a compatible machine. With the laptop turned off, eject the old drive and then install the new one [1, below].
If your laptop does not have a modular drive bay, replacement usually remains fairly simple, anyway: often a single locking screw holds the drive in place; you just unscrew it, slide the old drive out, put in the new drive, and replace the screw. In addition, you may need to install any drivers that came with the new drive.
A replacement drive should be designed for use with your specific notebook, so buy one directly from the system’s original manufacturer if possible. The advantages? For one thing, this ensures that you’ll have the correct IDE channel settings (which often cannot be changed) for the drive; for another, attaching the faceplate to the drive can be difficult, and it’s easy to break the faceplate when removing the original drive. Vendors put the eject button in different places, too, meaning that with the wrong drive you won’t be able to use the faceplate at all.
In many instances a new optical drive will work without additional tweaking. If yours doesn’t work, however, download the appropriate driver; you may have to search on the full model number of the part if you didn’t obtain the drive from your notebook’s vendor.
TIME: 90 minutes
Want better screen resolution, or maybe a glossy display instead of a flat, matte one? Subbing in a new LCD panel for your old one is doable, but be warned: this upgrade is one of the trickiest and most time-consuming notebook surgeries you can perform, with little guarantee that the new screen will work as it should. Still, if you do your homework in advance and select the right hardware for your machine, the payoff can be spectacular.
According to replacement LCD supplier ScreenTek (screentekinc.com), upgrading a screen can, unfortunately, be a matter of trial and error. Whether a higher-resolution screen will work depends on many factors, including the laptop’s video card, cable, and firmware. And of course, the new display must fit in the space available.
Before you purchase a replacement screen, it’s a good idea to talk with a sales rep, via phone or email, at ScreenTek or a similar LCD reseller (like local supplier gigacomputers.co.nz) to see what screens are available for your notebook.
To replace the LCD on our Dell E1505, we first had to remove the laptop’s hinge cover [1, above] and keyboard, by removing screws from the bottom and rear of the machine [2, above]; then we had to unplug the antenna and video cables from the motherboard. Those steps let us remove the LCD assembly from the laptop’s main body. Taking off the small rubber bumpers on the front of the screen revealed screws beneath. We removed the screws and then pried the bezel away from the screen [3, above], giving us access to the bare LCD beneath [4, above]. We had to work slowly: It’s easy to snap the plastic on the bezel during this part of the disassembly.
The LCD is held in place by brackets on each side. After removing the screws and unplugging the cables, we finally took out the bare LCD and replaced it with the new one. Then we simply reversed the disassembly process to put everything back together properly.
Prior to reassembly, plug the cables in and boot the machine up to ensure that it’s working correctly. If you don’t get a picture, check that the cables are properly seated, and try again. If it still doesn’t work, your notebook may simply not support that display resolution.
TIME: 60 minutes
Saddled with an old, slow processor in your laptop? Ripping it out and subbing in a new one can make for an exceptional boost in speed. For instance, upgrading from a 1.66GHz Intel Core Duo to a 2GHz Core 2 Duo T7200 raised our laptop’s WorldBench 6 score from 57 to 68. But this upgrade isn’t as simple as just dropping in a stick of RAM.
Make sure that you buy a CPU that will work with your portable. In fact, some laptops have non-replaceable, soldered-in CPUs. (Your service manual should indicate whether this is the case.)
If the processor is upgradeable, you’ll need to find a compatible replacement. As with the video card, the best way to proceed is to look at what CPUs have been sold with your laptop over the course of its lifespan, by googling “your notebook model CPU.” We purchased a 2GHz Intel T7200 from an online chop shop (we have yet to find a laptop vendor that will sell us a new processor).
Before you remove your first screw, it is critical to upgrade your BIOS to the latest version. BIOSs are often updated to allow support for newer CPUs. If you upgrade to a chip that’s newer than your BIOS allows, your notebook won’t boot at all. Check the support section of your manufacturer’s website for any BIOS updates for your notebook.
The process for upgrading your CPU is almost identical to that for upgrading your graphics board. In the case of the Inspiron E1505, the CPU is located directly underneath the video card assembly, so disassembly instructions were exactly the same for this part as for that one (see the following section for an overview of that process).
With the graphics card out of the way, we removed four more screws to get the heat sink off and to expose the CPU itself [1,above right]. Here we found the CPU held in place by a single locking screw. Turn the screw counter-clockwise until it stops, and lift the CPU straight up and out of the laptop [2,above right]. Drop the new CPU in, but don’t push (if it looks as though it needs a push, it’s not aligned properly), and turn the screw clockwise to lock it.
Next, you’ll need to get the heat sink prepared anew: remove all of the old thermal compound (silver-grey gunk) by wiping the sink with 99% isopropyl alcohol and a lint-free rag. If you bought a used CPU, it may be covered with this goop, too, so clean it off as well. When it’s dry, reapply a paper-thin layer of thermal paste to the top of the CPU [3,above right], spreading it evenly with a business card or an old credit card.
Clean up any excess paste and replace the heat sink. Reassemble the laptop and boot up. Jump into your BIOS setup to make sure the notebook is seeing the CPU properly; then launch Windows and enjoy the performance boost!
TIME: 45 minutes
Who doesn’t want better graphics quality from their notebook PC? But if the upgrade is possible at all, replacing the graphics card on your laptop can be a time-consuming operation that involves disassembling virtually your entire notebook (much as replacing its CPU does; see page 47), so don’t enter into this process unless you are definitely willing to accept the risk that you might destroy your machine in your quest for higher frame rates.
First question: is your laptop’s graphics card upgradeable at all? This question can be surprisingly difficult to answer, but the best way to find out is to see whether the computer was ever sold with different graphics card options.
You might also wonder, why not just buy a generic part? The answer is that there is really no such thing. Many laptop graphics boards sport unusual connectors and come with thermal cooling assemblies already attached – and these can’t be removed and reused. (Some newer machines, however, use a more standardised connector and don’t require a permanently attached heat sink.) And because makers often customise the size and shape of the card for a particular model, you’ll have no real alternatives for replacing the underlying graphics board, except in a few gaming notebooks that were designed with upgrades in mind. In most cases, you will have to replace the entire assembly.
Many laptops have come with several graphics options. With our Dell Inspiron E1505, we found that we could replace the old nVidia 7300 card with a more powerful ATI X1400 because the system was sold in both configurations. While no great find-all resource exists for choosing the right video card for every notebook, MXM-Upgrade.com lists options for many of them; even so, googling “your notebook model video card” is likely to yield the best results.
If your laptop is like ours, disassembly should go something like this:
Remove the hinge cover by prying up the plastic [1, right].
Detach the keyboard by taking out the two screws beneath the hinge cover that secure it, lifting it off, and then unplugging the connector [2, right].
Remove the display assembly by removing four screws on the bottom and back of the machine, and unplugging the video and wi-fi antenna cables [3, right].
Take out the optical drive.
Remove the upper shell by taking 11 screws out of the bottom of the PC [4,above right].
These steps gave us access to the video card assembly, which we removed by loosening two screws [5,above right]. Then, after installing our new card, we reversed the procedure to put everything back together as before, and fired it up.
New card installed, the laptop gave us basic video with standard VGA drivers, which kicked in automatically. After we downloaded the proper video driver from the vendor’s website, we enjoyed full resolution and colour support.
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