How to upgrade your laptop

Has your laptop become agonisingly slow? Do you swear it used to be faster? What if you upgraded it instead of replacing it?

Craig Simms Special to CNET News
Craig was sucked into the endless vortex of tech at an early age, only to be spat back out babbling things like "phase-locked-loop crystal oscillators!". Mostly this receives a pat on the head from the listener, followed closely by a question about what laptop they should buy.
Craig Simms
4 min read

Has your laptop become agonisingly slow? Do you swear it used to be faster? What if you upgraded it instead of replacing it?

(Credit: Craig Simms/CBS Interactive)

DISCLAIMER: CNET Australia takes no responsibility for any damage or injury that may be incurred as a result of following these instructions. If you choose to upgrade a laptop, you do so at your own risk and may void your warranty.

Upgrading your battery

(Credit: Craig Simms/CBS Interactive)

Laptop batteries tend to start losing charge capacity even after the first year. If you think your laptop's not staying on as long as it used to, you're probably right. Either replace your battery or buy a higher-capacity one. A word of warning: third-party batteries are usually not tested to the same quality-control levels as those from the original laptop vendor — don't risk it; buy the official version.

Upgrading your RAM

Many laptops include a user-accessible bay for replacing your RAM. (Credit: Craig Simms/CBS Interactive)

RAM is one of the easiest of the internal components to replace, and most manufacturers will allow you to replace it or add more without voiding your warranty. Before you begin your journey, find out what RAM standard your laptop supports, and whether it can take larger-capacity chips. Quite often, older BIOS are limited in this fashion.

Once you have your RAM, all you have to do is pop the tabs holding your existing RAM to one side, then replace the chip with the larger-capacity SODIMM.

Upgrading your hard drive

Hard drives are often housed in caddies that have a pull tab on them for easy removal. (Credit: Craig Simms/CBS Interactive)

Also very easy to do, hard-drive replacement is often user serviceable and won't void warranties. Pretty much all laptops take 2.5-inch hard drives — but the trick is to make sure that you get one that's the right height, or it might not fit.

One of the biggest upgrades you can perform on your laptop is to install a solid-state drive (SSD) — although, as above, check the height before you buy. Usually, an SSD height of 7mm or under is a good bet, but check your existing drive to see what will fit.

Using mini PCI-E slots

(Credit: Craig Simms/CBS Interactive)

Many laptops come with a spare mini PCI-E slot, which all sorts of modules can be plugged into, including storage and wireless network cards. Before you buy, make sure there's enough clearance around your slot — mini PCI-E cards come in varying lengths, and not all may fit in your laptop.

If your laptop is a few years old, you may also have an ExpressCard slot on the outside to add in extra things like TV tuners, network cards and extra USB ports, although this is a dying feature. We'd expect this functionality to be wiped out by Thunderbolt in the coming years.

Upgrading your wireless

(Credit: Craig Simms/CBS Interactive)

All vendors these days use standard mini PCI-E slots for wireless cards. While it's easy to get your hands on, say, Intel's top-of-the-line Centrino Ultimate-N 6300 for an upgrade, there are two factors to consider here. If your laptop is older, it may not have as many aerials as newer laptops, which could hobble the performance of the new card. Many laptop vendors, like HP, also whitelist — that is, through the BIOS they restrict which wireless cards can be used, rendering a potential new purchase useless.

A safer, though not as streamlined, solution is to buy a USB wireless dongle. A decent dual-band one will set you back around AU$100. Just remember to connect via your new dongle, and not your old wireless card, as both will appear in your wireless connections dialog in Windows. For safety, you could always disable the old one through Device Manager, or via a hardware switch, if you have one.

Upgrading your CPU

Yeah, good luck getting to that. (Credit: Craig Simms/CBS Interactive)

This is one of the most difficult parts to replace, and swapping this out will definitely void your warranty. Laptop vendors will also do their utmost to make sure that this is housed in a nearly impossible-to-reach spot, and you can expect to deal with a heatsink integrated into the entire laptop, requiring a complete disassembly.

If this hasn't turned you off, you can find some mobile CPUs on eBay, or, if you know the exact model number you're after, then you may be able to find one through StaticIce.

Upgrading your optical drive

(Credit: Craig Simms/CBS Interactive)

While you can replace your optical drive, it's likely going to be a hassle. Firstly, you'll have to free the drive bay from the chassis, which will be an adventure. Then you'll need to find an optical drive that has the same dimensions as your existing one, of which you may have varying luck, depending on the size and age of your laptop. When you're done, you'll need to swap the fascia from your existing drive on to your new one, so that things sit flush with your chassis.

It's honestly easier to get yourself an external USB DVD&plusm;RW drive, which will run you somewhere between AU$60 and AU$80. If you want Blu-ray, you'll be paying around AU$180.

Upgrading your graphics

Not only is this one hiding under a heatsink that's integrated into the chassis, but it's also attached directly to the board. (Credit: Craig Simms/CBS Interactive)

Bad news: you're pretty much stuck with your original GPU. Most laptops have the graphics chip integrated onto the motherboard or CPU. Larger laptops can use MXM, which is technically a swappable technology, but good luck finding parts. If you want to upgrade your graphics, pretty much your only option is to upgrade your entire laptop.

The best hope for upgradeable graphics in the future is Thunderbolt, via an external graphics box like MSI's GUS. It's limited to only PCI-E x4, but at least you can always put a more powerful card inside.