How to upgrade a laptop


Upgrading your hardware can be an affordable way to give your notebook a power boost.

Breathe new life into an old notebook


Upgrading a laptop is a simple way to improve its performance without breaking the bank. A few hundred dollars in hardware will be enough to give your notebook a boost in power, buying you enough time until you can afford a brand new model – or it can eliminate the need for a new one altogether.

In this article:

Can my laptop be upgraded?

Not every laptop deserves to have money invested in it and not every laptop can be upgraded. Modern notebooks tend to have parts that are glued or soldered together. This allows for thinner and lighter designs, but as time goes by and they become slower, it also means they can't be upgraded.

So the first step in upgrading your notebook is to determine if it has been designed to take upgradable parts. Every model is different and you'll need to search the internet to find this out. More advanced users can try to open up their laptop and have a look; not a bad idea since you'll have to learn the process if you plan on upgrading it anyway.

Consider the comfort of the keyboard and the responsiveness of the trackpad. These parts can't be upgraded and they will determine how easy it is to use the notebook in the long run. Screens are important too, although it's easier to live with a screen marred by poor viewing angles than a keyboard that leaves you in pain.

The notebook being upgraded for this guide is an Apple MacBook from late 2008. The chiclet keys of its keyboard have plenty of travel and its trackpad is based on the same technology found in modern smartphones. An ordinary Phillips-head screwdriver can be used to open the notebook's aluminium casing. Beneath it are a number of important parts that can be replaced.

What parts should I upgrade?

Upgrades to a computer's RAM, storage drive and battery can improve its performance. Here's a quick breakdown of what each component will improve:

  • Random Access Memory (RAM) is the storage occupied by running programs. The more RAM available, the more applications and programs a computer can juggle at any one time. Computers that struggle to run multiple programs simultaneously can probably do with more RAM.
  • Hard disk drives (HDD) store long-term data, from the computer's operating system to music, photos and video files. When you're copying a file from a thumb drive, that file is being copied to a computer's hard drive.
    Hard disk drives use mechanical components, which take more time to retrieve data and are not the most durable. Solid state drives (SSD), which are based on the technology behind memory cards, are superior in both performance and durability. They're also lighter and tend to operate at cooler temperatures.
  • Batteries are the trickiest of components to buy in Australia. The chemical makeup of batteries is combustible. Replacements can only be bought from companies based in Australia as airlines won't air-freight them. Shipping, on the other hand, can take weeks.
    Our experience reveals it might not be worth buying a battery upfront. We recommend performing upgrades to the RAM and storage drive first, observing what effects these have on the laptop's performance and then evaluating whether it is worthwhile investing in a replacement battery.

How much will it cost?

The MacBook we upgraded had spent the past four years gathering dust in the far corner of a wardrobe. Turning it on would take many minutes and it would struggle with tasks as simple as opening the application drawer. A single program would exhaust its computing power and the battery would deplete as though it was a minute timer counting down. By all accounts, it was a dud.

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Ten years ago the MacBook shipped with 2GB of RAM, but that's not much by today's standards; flagship smartphones, such as the Samsung Galaxy S7, have twice as much. A quick internet search revealed the MacBook would be compatible with DDR3 RAM and that it could handle 8GB worth. An eBay merchant based in Australia offered the RAM for $121.90.

Five minutes later we found the battery specifically designed for the late-2008 MacBook. The merchant was based in Australia and was selling the battery for $47.72.

The only component remaining was the storage drive. A 250GB Samsung SSD could have been purchased for $129, but we decided to really splurge on a 480GB SanDisk Extreme Pro for $299.

Even though the MacBook would continue to be powered by its 2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU, the above mentioned upgrades promised a noteworthy improvement in performance.

All up, the total cost of our top-tier upgrade was $468.62.

Installation tips and tricks

How easy it is to upgrade the parts in your computer will boil down to a single thing: do you have the right tools for the job? These will include a small set of screwdrivers, which are required to open the casing, a can of compressed air and a USB-to-SATA cable.

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Backup

Key to this process is making sure there is a copy of your computer's operating system installed on the storage drive. When the upgraded computer is turned on for the first time, it will need software to run. Copying everything on the old drive to the new drive can be easily carried out with the right software and accessories.

We downloaded a trial copy of a program called Carbon Copy Cloner for Mac OS X. When we connected the SanDisk Extreme Pro to the computer using the USB-to-SATA cable, the program cleverly mirrored all of the data. This meant the MacBook could boot up as normal when the new drive was installed.

Stay grounded

There are a few things to know before opening up a computer. The kind of electricity you can generate by shuffling on a carpet, for instance, can damage its circuitry. This static electricity needs to be earthed beforehand. Touching any metal surface, such as a chair leg or a door handle, is a good way to ensure it's discharged.

What goes where

Computer components are like pieces of a puzzle: they only fit together in one specific way. There's a good chance someone has already documented the upgrade process of your computer – or one similar to it. Videos uploaded to sites like YouTube could prove to be valuable in learning how different computing parts fit in place. The website iFixit offers detailed upgrade instructions for most models of computers. Storage drives will be easiest to install as they plug right in via a SATA connection. RAM modules are basically exposed sheets of circuitry with tiny pins that slot into place – these might require a little more tact.

Clean up

If your notebook is as old as our eight-year-old MacBook, its insides will be home to plenty of dust. Cleaning it up with a can of compressed air is a good idea as it will help lower the computer's operating temperature.

And finally, prepare a clean work space. Bundle the screws together and take note of the ones that are longer than others. Try to perform the upgrade in one go, which should be easy if you have the right tools and have done the research.

Test results: Faster and more powerful

Almost all of the upgrades we made on our MacBook led to a substantial improvement. 

Drive speed

The first time we powered the notebook on with the new storage drive, a few seconds passed before anything happened. Eventually the Apple logo appeared and it booted as normal. A few restarts were needed before it took advantage of the much faster drive.

We measured the speed of the old drive using BlackMagic's Disk Speed Test. The original 140GB hard disk drive scored respective read and write speeds of 24 and 33 megabytes per second. Installing the SanDisk solid state drive saw these numbers rocket to 263 and 202 megabytes per second. The increase in speed improved how the MacBook would turn on, copy files and, in general, run.

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Before the upgrade, the MacBook booted up in two minutes and 21 seconds. You could cook noodles quicker. Replacing it with a solid state storage drive cut the boot time dramatically to just 40 seconds.

Reinstalling a clean version of the operating system, OS X El Capitan, further cut down the boot time. Basically the MacBook's software would be in the same condition as a notebook purchased from an Apple Store today. Cleaning the software cut the boot time down to 37 seconds – that's more than 300% quicker.

RAM

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Quadrupling the RAM restored the notebook's immediacy and multitasking abilities. Not only could it open the application drawer with ease, but it would juggle a multitude of applications without showing signs of strain. We found we could run 12 programs smoothly at any one time. Spotting the loading icon is a rare occurrence nowadays.

Battery

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It wasn't worth replacing the battery in this case. We compared the performance of the new and old battery after the upgrade by looping a Full HD movie until both were discharged. The old battery lasted 137 minutes, while the new battery lasted 138 minutes. Hardly worth the $47.72.

Apple no longer manufactures original batteries for late-2008 MacBooks. The battery we purchased was from a third-party manufacturer. Odds are the upgrades made to the computer demanded less from the battery, so buying a replacement battery should be considered only after an old computer has been upgraded with new parts.

Was it worth the time, money and effort?

Some parts continue to reveal the old MacBook's age. The fan can be heard when the notebook is being worked hard and its level of volume is louder than any new notebook. The screen settles for an HD resolution and has some limited viewing angles. Transfer speeds are throttled by the notebook's USB 2.0 ports. But these are small shortcomings that are easy to live with daily.

Another shortfall limits how the upgraded MacBook can be used. One of the components that can't be upgraded is the graphics card as it's soldered onto the motherboard. The MacBook has 256MB worth of graphics from its NVIDIA GeForce 9400M card. This is enough to handle basic tasks, such as web browsing, music playback, watching a video and organising photos. Streaming videos over YouTube is fine, but doing so over less refined websites causes pausing and juddering. Gamers and designers would be better off buying a new notebook, but office professionals will rarely notice the old notebook's limited graphic power.

A fortunate surprise was the performance of the processor. Coupling the Core 2 Duo with the right storage drive and plenty of RAM has given the MacBook enough oomph to not only replace a four-year-old Samsung 900x3C, it also eliminated the need to buy a new notebook – at least for the foreseeable future.

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