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 Mac or PC 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.
The older your laptop, the more likely it is to have user-replaceable parts.
Newer laptops tend to have parts that are glued or soldered in place and require special tools and professional expertise to repair or upgrade – in the long run it might be better value, effort and cost to buy something new.
Increasingly often, a laptop's casing is one piece of metal or the parts are unreachable without damaging them, so upgrading is impossible.
Can I upgrade it myself?
A quick look at the underside will usually show if you can upgrade your laptop at home. Check for removable panels that could give you access to battery, RAM or storage.
Next, search the internet for information on your specific laptop brand and model to find out what parts can be easily changed.
Often you can find a user manual online (if you've lost your original) and comments or even repair/upgrade videos by people like you who have already done something similar. These will help you find out if you need any special screwdrivers or tools (Philips, Torx or Pentalobe screwdrivers may be required).
The three areas that you can generally upgrade are:
Other laptop hardware such as the CPU (central processing unit) or GPU (graphics processing unit) – or integration of the two – generally can't be upgraded.
The same goes for data ports, such as upgrading a USB 3.0 port to a faster technology like Thunderbolt 3.
Before you start: back up your storage drives
Of course, before pulling anything apart, make sure you have a full backup of the computer. A "clone" of your old hard drive will give you a quicker recovery of your operating system and programs if anything goes wrong. But there are other options.
If you're replacing your laptop's internal hard drive with a smaller SSD (solid-state drive), you may need to archive some stuff first (such as music, movies and photos) to a different drive. Once you've cloned your operating system and programs to the new drive and it's working in the laptop, you can choose what data files and folders to restore.
If you're new to backing up, check out our article on how to choose the best backup software.
- Usually, a laptop will only have one or two RAM slots available. Sometimes it has a spare RAM slot that isn't already occupied by anything. If this is the case, you can probably just buy new RAM and not remove the old.
- Make sure you check online and buy exactly the right RAM for your model. You may be limited in the capacity of the RAM module you can install.
How much RAM do I need?
If your laptop has 4GB or less RAM, upgrading to 8GB is a good idea. If you only have 2GB or less, you might get by with an upgrade to 4GB if your laptop is just for light use such as emails and word processing.
You probably won't need beyond 8GB, as any programs which require that much RAM may also need a faster CPU (central processing unit) and GPU (graphics processing unit) than your old laptop has, and you can't upgrade these parts.
What is RAM?
Random access memory (RAM) is fast solid-state memory used for running programs. RAM only stores information temporarily, while the computer is powered on. It's one of the main reasons older computers struggle with new programs due to ever-increasing RAM demand.
If your computer struggles when running several programs or multiple tabs in a web browser at once, you can probably do with more RAM.
Usually, the easiest way to improve a laptop's overall performance is to replace a hard drive with an SSD (solid-state drive), which is much faster.
If you already have an SSD, you can still potentially get benefits from upgrading. Newer or more premium SSD options for your laptop might exist. If your SSD is small and regularly fills up, this will slow down performance. Storage drives work faster the more free space they have, so a bigger SSD might come with the benefit of faster speeds.
What's the difference between a hard drive and an SSD?
Hard drives are an older technology. They provide long-term high-capacity data storage, usually ranging from around 1TB to 2TB (terabytes) in laptops, and hold everything from the computer's operating system to music, photos and video files. They use a magnetic rotating disc mechanism and offer relatively cheap high-capacity storage.
SSDs are many times faster than hard drives, but they cost quite a bit more per MB (megabyte). Usually, an SSD will have less capacity than the hard drive it replaces, but it's often worth downsizing your storage to boost your performance.
As well as being much faster, SSDs are lighter, use less power (giving longer battery life) and usually stay cooler than hard drives. In laptops, they're physically around the same size, so they can slot in as a direct replacement. They're also a little more durable, so any jolts or bumps to your laptop are less likely to damage them than a hard drive.
What size SSD do I need?
Just go for the largest SSD you can afford.
A 256GB SSD sits in the sweet spot for a price-capacity trade-off if you stick mostly to productivity software and don't need media storage, though SSDs of up to 512GB could be affordable, depending on your needs. SSDs of up to 2TB or more are available, but the rapidly escalating cost of the higher capacity drives tends to be prohibitive for general use.
Unless you save everything to the cloud, avoid 128GB drives. After accounting for your laptop's operating system, default programs, drivers and other background software, you'll have very little free space for personal use.
Batteries wear out. Replacing yours with a fresh one can give you much longer between charges, even though it will probably be the same model battery as your old one. But it won't boost performance, unless you regularly find your laptop in power-saving mode.
Is your battery removable?
With older laptops that have a removable battery, changing it is usually as easy as undoing the battery lock button/clip, removing the old one and slotting in a replacement. Unfortunately, many modern laptops aren't designed for this; you need to force or cut open the casing and some batteries are not user-replaceable at all. They may be hidden behind other parts or even glued in place. In that case it's time for a professional or a whole new laptop.
Before you buy a new battery
Make sure the battery you're thinking of buying matches your computer product model exactly. Batteries are often designed to fit into a specific laptop – avoid getting one that doesn't fit.
Check whether your laptop's RAM and storage can be upgraded (and if it's worthwhile) before forking out for a new battery. If they can't, consider how long you think you can keep using your laptop before it needs replacing.
Extra-long boot-ups, endless timeouts, slow saves and lengthy program launches mean your laptop has lost its vim and vigour. And the older it is, the slower it gets.
But just because your faithful old computer is constantly driving in the slow lane doesn't necessarily mean it's time for the off ramp to the e-waste bin. You could revitalise it with a few easy upgrades without breaking the bank.
With the right information, tools and a little preparation, you could have your old laptop performing even better than new.