Crack open the case and add new parts – it’s easy
One of the wonders of the modern computer is its modular nature. And at times like this, when money may be tight, it’s more tempting than ever to open up your PC’s case and effect an easy upgrade instead of spending much, much more on a new system.
Some extra memory will improve your machine’s ability to multitask, while a faster hard drive will enhance file writing. The proposition changes a little if your system is a laptop – but it needn’t. Your notebook computer is in many ways just as easy to upgrade as your desktop. All it takes is a little more preparation.
Here we pass on the tips that we’ve learned from cracking open the shells of numerous notebook computers, from picking the best tools for the job to finding the right guide to help you do things properly.
Upgrading a laptop is very different to upgrading a desktop PC. Whip off the case of a standard tower and the motherboard is instantly exposed, with the slots, CPU and drive all easily accessible. In a notebook, the components are crammed into a much smaller space and are often layered on top of each other. Some forward-thinking manufacturers design their machines to provide easy access to the parts that are most likely to be upgraded.
On the back of a Toshiba Satellite Pro, for example, you’ll find cutaway hatches for accessing the RAM, Wi-Fi card slots and the hard disk. Other machines hide their wares, requiring you to remove the keyboard and sometimes even other components before you can get at a part to upgrade it.
Why bother upgrading?
There are three good reasons for upgrading your laptop. The first, and most important, is cost. You can easily eke out the effective life of a laptop with a cheap upgrade or two.
Another reason for cracking open your laptop case is to make repairs. Notebooks are prone to drops and knocks; components can come loose and elements with moving parts are easily broken. You’ll save yourself a bundle in labour costs if you’re confident enough to replace an ailing optical drive or sticky keyboard.
Our third reason for carrying out some DIY upgrades is to make your notebook a better, stronger and faster device. Adding the latest Wi-Fi card or a solid state drive to speed up data access could transform your notebook from a mobile standby into an effective desktop replacement.
Before you start
It’s important to begin with the right tools. While modern desktop cases are held together with quick-release catches, you’ll need at least a small Philips screwdriver to tackle a laptop case. A cheap, basic set of electrical screwdrivers should be fine, although in some cases we’ve had to resort to a powered screwdriver to loosen tightly fitted screws.
Some laptops – notably Dell and Apple notebook computers – have Torx screws to deal with, which have a star-shaped slot at the top. It might well be worth investing in a set of screwdrivers for those as well. You shouldn’t have to pay more than R75, and they’ll come in handy for small hex socket screws too.
In rare instances you may need a soldering iron, but only to repair any damage you’ve wrought by being over-eager with your modifications. You’ll find all the tools that we’ve mentioned here in your local DIY shop or online.
These are standard tools, but we’ve found that a couple of other bits and pieces come in handy too. A telescopic magnetic pick-up tool can be useful for grabbing small screws that have fallen down cracks: Silverline do one for around £2. A pair of pincers or tweezers will help you when removing small ribbon cables or motherboard connectors.
You’ll also find that many laptop cases click together with plastic clips. A plastic putty spreader is often the right size to get between gaps and strong enough to give you some leverage without causing too much scratch damage to the exterior case. Of course, you’ll only need something like this if you’re planning on fully disassembling your machine – and hopefully it won’t come to that.
No laptop model is the same as another. You can expect notebooks in the same family to be broadly similar, but it’s never guaranteed that all the screws are in the same place, or that the hard drive always slots into a handy bay on the side. Sometimes you have to remove the keyboard to get to a screw, or take off the back to access the hard drive.
Before you start, flip over your machine and take a good look at the bays and ports on the back and sides. If it’s not clear how to easily access a component, don’t go blundering in: read the manual first.
Some laptop manufacturers provide service manuals online, including Dell and HP. Websites dedicated to ‘take-apart’ guides – documents created by enthusiasts that detail disassembly procedures – are also helpful.
Gathering tech specs
The main difference between a service manual and a take-apart guide is that the former will give you a full, official overview of the components in your machine. That’s important when considering upgrades. An official guide should answer all sorts of questions, like what kind of memory you need, if there are any spare USB or PCIe ports in the machine and whether the optical drive is of a standard size.
If you don’t have access to a full service manual, you can interrogate your notebook’s architecture using free software tools. We recommend System Information for Windows, a freeware program that interrogates your computer and digs out valuable hardware and software information. It can tell you what drives you have installed and what the interfaces are, what kind of RAM is present and more. You can even use it to retrieve software licenses and passwords, which will come in handy for your pre-upgrade back-up routine.
A similar program, PC Wizard 2008, is also free. It supplies you with sufficient data to attempt upgrades, though in less detail and with no software information. It also includes a handy benchmarking tool, so you can measure any improvements in performance after you’ve upgraded.
Some guides recommend a BIOS update before upgrading. We think that’s only really necessary in two specific circumstances: if your machine is having problems that diagnostic tests suggest are BIOS related, or if you want to install components that your current BIOS won’t support. We say this because flashing your BIOS is a procedure that can turn your laptop into an unbootable brick if done badly. It’s also trickier to carry out on notebooks than on desktop PCs, because most lack a floppy drive.
One way around this is to boot into Windows using an old install disc and then access the BIOS upgrade – available from your motherboard manufacturer – from a CD-RW. Alternatively, and more safely, try www.bootdisk.com for DOS and Windows boot discs, including a bespoke ‘Flash CD’ with BIOS upgrade instructions.
Carrying out the upgrades
Now that you have the right tools, have correctly identified the part that you want to replace and have a service manual or disassembly guide to work with, you’re ready to begin the upgrade process.
As with desktop upgrades, your machine shouldn’t be plugged in to the mains – that’s just common sense. Ensure that the system is fully powered down – not just hibernating – and then remove the main battery. This step is vital. If you miss it, you could damage your system or get a shock when you open up the machine.
Next, touch something metal to dissipate any static in your body and bear in mind that you should continue doing this periodically if you’re going to be working on the machine for a long time. It should go without saying, but proceed carefully.
Once you’re into the case, remove elements slowly and keep an eye out for ribbon cables and small wires. Unless you have to access the motherboard or PSU, it’s rare that you will have to fully disassemble your laptop.
Take care with where you put the screws as you remove them from the case. The best way to keep track of them is to write down where you retrieved them from on a piece of paper and stick the corresponding screws next to the description with tape.
For example, if you’re removing five screws from the back panel, write down ‘Back panel – five screws’. It doesn’t take long and will save you a lot of time when you come to the reassembly stage. Better still, some notebooks have a unique identifier printed next to each screw.
RAM is simple to upgrade in tower PCs, and the same is often true for notebooks. In many cases you can access RAM slots without taking your machine apart at all; many modern laptops have memory access ports that are covered by a single plate.
As for finding out what kind of RAM to buy, try Crucial’s Memory Advisor or visit Kingston’s memory tools web page. Both will tell you what kind of RAM you need and the maximum amount that your system can use.
Adding RAM increases system performance by reducing swap file and virtual memory requirements. The more RAM that’s available, the more effectively programs will run.
An even cheaper way to improve memory handling for Windows Vista users is ReadyBoost, which uses flash memory as a drive cache. Vista’s not fussy about the kind of flash memory used, so for about a fiver you can effectively add 4GB of virtual memory to your machine with a single removable USB key.
Intel’s Turbo Memory system – codenamed Robson – takes this technology a step further. It uses flash memory on a PCI Express mini card to reduce the load on your hard disk by moving your frequently accessed files to an onboard solid state drive. This is an integrated upgrade that’s installed into a slot on your motherboard. Intel says that having this cache located close to the CPU significantly boosts disk performance.
The PCI Express mini card slot is mostly used in modern laptops for Wi-Fi provision. Chances are that if your old machine has an accessible slot, there’ll already be a Wi-Fi card in it. Some modern notebooks may have a spare second slot, so check your documentation as this can offer some of the most interesting upgrade routes available to laptop owners.
As well as Wi-Fi and Turbo Memory, digital TV tuner cards such as the Avermedia A306 and internal GPS systems such as the AzureWave GPS Module can also be installed into this slot. There are even consumer 3G cards lurking just beyond the horizon.
Hard and optical drives
Although laptop hard drives are fairly generic and conform mainly to a specific 2.5in form factor, you’ll find several variations in the way that they’re fitted. Some are accessed through a panel on the bottom of your notebook, while others slide into a bay on the side in a similar way to your optical drive. The hard disk could even be buried under several other components and require a partial disassembly – as is the case with the early iBook – before you can access it.
Still, once you’ve found it, replacing a hard drive is a fairly easy procedure. Take a look at our ‘Upgrade your hard disk’ walkthrough overleaf for an easy-to-follow guide to the process.
For peace of mind, make sure that you back up the contents of the old drive before proceeding. Just backing up documents is never quite enough to ensure that you’ve got all your data, so try the free tool CloneZilla and make a full copy of your hard drive. CD and DVD drives are similarly generic, with a standard 5.25in device fitting into most machines.
However, there are exceptions to this, so it’s worth checking that the drive you’re buying is compatible with your machine before you proceed. You’ll also need the right fittings, including the correct faceplate and runners. If you’re replacing an old optical drive then you should be able to reuse those parts from it, but there’s always a chance that things won’t work out so, again, it’s best to check first.
In most cases, replacing the optical drive is a fairly easy upgrade, with the device fitting into a bay in the side of the machine. It’s often a case of undoing a couple of screws, sliding out the old part carefully and then sliding in the new one, making sure that the connectors are pushed home.
Replacing an old CD drive with a DVD-RW one is now a fairly cheap and worthwhile upgrade to make – you’ll find drives for around R564 at www.saverstore.com.
Upgrading your laptop will require a lot of preparation and patience, but if you carefully pick the right approach, do your research first and always proceed with caution, you can add years to the effective lifespan of your trusty machine.