How to upgrade your laptop components

Crack open the case and add new parts - it's easy

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.

Memory first

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 £30 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.

See the visual walkthroughs in an e-version of the original article on the PC Plus website.

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First published in PC Plus Issue 280

Like this article? Then check out How to overclock your notebook

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