DIY Laptop Upgrades
Some easy ways to make any laptop run faster (including 2nd hand laptops, new laptops, ....)
Pimp Your 'Book
So you want to max out your laptop, whether this be a new machine or a 2nd hand one. Great. But where do you start? Laptops are the same as desktops, right? Not exactly. Can you upgrade the graphics card? Yes and no; you can't improve your current graphics card, but you could use an eGPU, at least if you stick to using the Windows operating system (see below). Processor? Not usually, but then again even on a desktop PC this isn't done often (often new CPU's can no longer be used with your (older) motherboard. What's left? Why you remove you battery if worn and run it straight from the mains electricity, format your hard drive, put a new/clean operating system on it -or replace your hard drive if really necessairy-, change your optical drive if needed, and increase your amount of RAM.
Especially formatting and putting on a new/clean operating system on it can yield HUGE performance boosts. We'll walk you through the ins and outs of all of these, showing you what will work in your 'Book and how to perform the upgrades yourself.
Especially in case when you bought a 2nd hand laptop, you might encounter the problem that you need to wait a really long time before the battery is charged far enough to be able to use it (battery being almost completely worn out). A good solution is to either try and find a new battery for your laptop on-line, or -if you use your laptop near a power outlet anyway-, just remove it. If you just remove the battery, it will automatically run directly from the mains electricity grid (using the AC power cord with the transformer you're currently using to plug in your machine to the mains electricity grid to recharge your battery). There is no need to be wary about destroying your laptop, fearing that a battery "needs to be in the machine. It may be weird, but the machine really does not mind if there is no battery in between the power supply unit and the mains electricity. It just works. Note that if you can also attach another power cord to your laptop, disregard this. This will probably be a DC power cord you can attach to run your laptop straight from the DC power of a car (using a car plug). Note that this power cord/function is only present with few laptops by the way.
Formatting your HD, new OS
By far the most effect in terms of increasing your laptop's speed will be to format your HD and reinstall the operating system (OS) you are accustomed of working with, or change it for a completely new operating system. Especially if you obtained a 2nd hand laptop, chances are that an old windows OS is placed on it. So format and put on a windows or Mac OS you are accustomed with on it, or choose a new OS. Some OS's are open-source, meaning you don't need to pay for them. An example are the linux distro's. Some of these Linux distro's are also very lightweight (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lightweight... ). Just pick one, download the iso, burn to CD (using imgBurn, ...) or put it on a USB stick with a program like UNetbootin, YUMI, ... Then, make sure you set the boot order in your BIOS to try to boot the cd-rom or USB devices first. You can make the cd-rom or USB stick with another computer if needed. Some of these lightweight linux distro's run from RAM by default (and often require but very little RAM as well, say 256mb or 512mb). So, even if you have an old, slow hard drive, chances are that you won't notice this when using this lightweight linux distro.
Hard disk drives
The hard disk drive is a very important component in your computer, and will speed things up when copying or moving files, or even general computer tasks (as the computer needs to be able to read it fast, over and over, at least when you're using regular operating systems. Operating systems that work from RAM however won't benefit from hard disk upgrades, as long as you work in RAM and not access any file from your hard disk.
It should also be noted that the RPM speed of the hard disk really isn't very important. The main difference is going to be whether you have a PATA (a.k.a. E-IDE) drive or a SATA drive. Whether this PATA or SATA drive is 5400, 7200 or 10000 RPM doesn't matter, as the bottleneck lies not in the RPM of the drive, but on the connection itself. You can check whether you have SATA connectors on your PC in your BIOS.
Other important things to bear in mind are the noise and the size of the drive. For the noise level, you could compare the decibel-levels mentioned on the box of your newly-bought drive, or look it up online if you buy secondhand.
For the size of the drive; just see how large the drive bay in your laptop is; if you're unsure, pick the smallest size (2.5 inch). Note that depending on the OS you'll install, you don't always need a harddisk at all. You could run the OS from removable (non-persistent) media (like CD, DVD, ...) or run it from a USB stick or SD card. This option however only works well with lightweight OS's; regular OS's (like windows, OS X, most regular linux distro's, ...) are rather slow when booting from non-persistent media, may not run from media at all (non-live versions, only installable from media), ...
The capacity often is of secundary importance: to install an OS one often requires 4 gb or so anyway, so even the smallest harddisk you'll find secondhand (40gb) is more than plenty. If you are to buy the harddisk, chances are you probably won't find a harddisk under 100 gb anymore (which is way more than most people need). If you do require a huge amount of capacity, you're better off buying an external hard disk; these can be connected to other machines as well, and if you need to format your PC (if you use windows, formatting/reinstalling is needed say every 6 months to a year or so to keep it working relatively fast), you don't need to wipe this external drive -as your OS is then on your laptop's smaller harddisk, and not on your external one-. Note that if an external harddisk is too costly, you could also simply use a internal SATA harddisk (or even a PATA one with a SATA-to-USB adaptor) and use it as an external one.
The read speed of optical drives really isn't all that important. Rather, just make sure you buy a DVD drive (able to read DVD and CD) and also make sure it can write CD's or DVD's if you require it (write speed of this also isn't important). Read speed of cd's and dvd's has become so fast these days that there won't be significant delay anymore anyway. Even if you use an OS that is run from the CD (live CD/DVD), chances are that it's either an OS that is run from RAM (so which writes the CD/DVD info to the RAM once and then reads from the RAM instead), and even if it's a regular live CD/DVD, you'll probably only use it for testing purposes (and install the OS to harddisk later-on, or use a persistent media (like USB-stick or SD card) later-on).
RAM and swap space
RAM is the fastest, easiest, most bang-for-your-buck upgrade out there. RAM is a no-brainer--if your machine is slow and you're not sure if you need more RAM, you probably do. You can upgrade the RAM yourself in just about any Mac laptop in 10 minutes. We covered RAM upgrades in depth in our RAM Upgrade FAQ. It's important to make sure that you order the correct type of RAM for your computer.
Many Linux distro's also support adding swap space; which basically does the same as adding RAM physically, but at no cost (just at the expense of some hard disk space). See http://enira.net/?p=61
Another very important "upgrade" is to add spacers on your laptop. The spacers are stuck to the bottom of the laptop and basicaly create "feet" for it. Due to this, there is then a cavity. This allows the fan to discard the heat more efficiently to the outside of the computer housing, often on the side of the laptop (as most fans are placed on the bottom, propelling the air upwards, discarding it via the side of the laptop). By doing this, the lifespan of your computer hardware can be extended a lot. Spacers can often be bought in a specialised computer store, or you can make it yourself or simply use a few small items (i.e. a few lego blocks, rubber wheels of old toys, small wooden blocks, ...) for this. Note that by upening up holes resulting from the removal of unused equipment (i.e. broken battery, floppy drive, ...) you can also improve the cooling even more; however do note that dust can come in via these openings, so implementing a filter in these holes, or just cleaning up the inside often (using a vacuum cleaner and/or damp cloth) would be advisable.
Most laptops don't have graphical cards or only very limited graphical accelleration (on-board graphics). A solution could be an e-GPU, however do keep in mind that if you don't have an SATA hard disk drive, and use a conventional OS, you won't be able to take advantage of the power of this anyway, and also keep in mind the e-GPU solutions may only work under Windows (often there even isn't Linux support). As a last note, if you buy a 2nd hand graphics card to put in the e-GPU assembly, you need to make sure it is indeed compatible (even with same connectors, problems may occur, as the speed of the connectors needs to match too). A desktop PC that uses a regular (internal) graphics card is thus preferred instead for 3D work, if you indeed have one you can use for this.
Can I do it myself?
Yes--if you're not afraid to get your hands dirty. Some machines are harder than others, but with the correct tools, repair manuals like my company's Fixit Guides, and a little bit of elbow grease, you can upgrade your computer yourself. There's nothing like the sense of accomplishment and ownership you get from working on your own machine.
The exact tools required vary by computer, but the most common tools you'll need are the Phillips #0 and #00, and the Torx T6 and T8 screwdrivers. You can find these tools at Radio Shack or Sears.
Will I void my warranty?
It depends. For example, Apple's warranty has an exclusion clause that states: "This warranty does not apply... to damage caused by service (including upgrades and expansions) performed by anyone who is not a representative of Apple or an Apple Authorized Service Provider." So your warranty is still valid if you install a new hard drive yourself-as long as you don't damage anything-. If you do, the warranty won't cover that damage. You should still be eligible for coverage for other unrelated issues.
In fact, Apple has been shifting to more user-installed warranty fixes, where they ship you the replacement part and have you perform the repair yourself. From the warranty: "If a hardware defect arises... Apple may request that you replace defective parts [yourself] with new or refurbished user-installable parts." Apple has been doing this more and more lately in an effort to save money.
Of course, if you don't want to worry about warranty issues, you can always buy your upgrades online, and then take them to a local Apple tech to install it for you.
In case you have a secondhand laptop however, chances are that you don't have any warranty at all, or that the warranty has expired ages ago. In this case, no need to worry about this. Instead, just make sure you work safe and slow when upgrading the laptop
Upgrading your 'Book is one of the best investments you can make. You can extend your current machine's life by a couple years and still run many programs faster than a new Book (running the same OS). All of the upgrades we've discussed are available through regular computer shops (full disclosure: My company, iFixit, sells such upgrades and provides free installation manuals online).
Bio: Kyle Wiens' last article on RAM upgrades (Feb, 06) convinced him to upgrade to two 1 GB PC2700 DDR SODIMMS in his PowerBook G4 17". He is also the CEO of iFixit, a laptop and iPod parts retailer, and co-author of the DIY repair Fixit Guide series.
NOTE: This article was originally published by Macworld on 1/5/2007 and has been adapted for http://iFixit.com