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Cheap laptop fix: How I learned to upgrade my own RAM

Conquering my own apprehension about RAM upgrades can be your inspiration. Upgrading your RAM can be the cheapest path to improved performance around.

Tip No. 1: Leave yourself more desktop space than I did. Scott Stein/CNET

Embarrassing admission of the month: before last Friday, I'd never replaced my own RAM.

Honestly, the explanation's simple: I tend to buy new laptops before I consider upgrading RAM. The last time I considered a RAM boost was probably a decade ago, and back then I paid to have it installed. I also found the idea of RAM slightly less immediately appealing. Upgrading a hard drive? Sure, lots of storage space. New processor? Faster speeds. But RAM...for many people, it might lack a certain sexiness or essential quality that justifies the upgrade.

It took my friend persistently reminding me that his RAM upgrade on the same laptop model (a late 2008 aluminum MacBook) paid huge dividends on performance to finally pull the trigger. I'm glad I did. Even then, I waited about six months. My computer got progressively slower with each OS X update, until Lion gave me endless spinning wheels with only one program open.

A quick search on Amazon gave me a bargain: Crucial's 4GB upgrade kit with two 2GB modules cost just $26, or $29 after tax and shipping. A no-brainer. For older laptops, getting RAM costs practically nothing at all.

You should swap your RAM out with two new modules. You can't beat $26 for 4GB. Scott Stein/CNET

How did I know what to get? I found a quick reference guide for my own laptop online, which I also used to order the RAM to the specific description and speed. Make sure you've got those details correct, since RAM comes in many speeds and versions.

Yes, upgrading RAM is easy -- it's like plugging in a game cartridge. But, it's like plugging in a game cartridge on a console whose cartridge slot is often locked up under a ton of screws and tucked next to circuitry. (For those who are tech-savvy, you can laugh away; this is for the uninitiated and the apprehensive.) The RAM slots on my MacBook lay under an aluminum panel and eight screws, which required a screwdriver so small I had to borrow it from fellow co-worker and PC guru Rich Brown. Even then, it wasn't a perfect fit. You'll probably have to pay a visit to a hardware store or look online.

Tip No. 2: Overcome your apprehension about exposed electronics. (And remove Mrs. Dash and golf balls from the work area.) Scott Stein/CNET

I also had to pop out and remove the MacBook's battery (the 2008 model's battery isn't integrated). With this much fiddling, I felt a little nervous about exposing the circuit boards underneath. If you feel the same way, then pay someone to do it. Still, it wasn't hard to do.

The biggest concern? Safely storing those tiny screws. I laid aside a plastic dish (wrapping from a random gadget) to hold the screws, and reminded myself where each one had gone -- some were differently sized. Don't lose them; finding a replacement would be a huge challenge.

Tip No. 3: Keep those microscopic screws somewhere you can see them, and where they won't roll away. Scott Stein/CNET

Before diving in, I touched a piece of metal outside the laptop to ground myself. Everyone recommends you do this to avoid damaging your equipment. Why not be safe?

I found the RAM and popped it out by squeezing two plastic side pieces, then pulled each one out and inserted the two new RAM modules, holding them by the sides, and breathing deeply like I was playing a game of Operation. After that, I popped the metal lid back on, screwed the panel together, and turned my MacBook back on.

Doubling the RAM is a notable improvement. No, my laptop's not technically faster, but programs open with less spinning-wheel action, and I can switch between programs easily. It's cleaner-operating. For $29, I've bought myself a little breath of fresh air for my aging laptop.

I'd recommend you do the same, if you can find RAM as cheaply. And be sure to consult all official documentation from your laptop manufacturer before proceeding, or being near an expert who knows what they're doing, just to be safe.

Long live cheap upgrades!

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