Upgrading a laptop can improve its performance without breaking the bank. A few hundred dollars in hardware can give your Mac or PC a boost in power, buying you more time until you need to fork out for a brand new model.
Before anything else: Try a full reset
You might not need new hardware at all. Operating systems, Windows in particular, get filled with all kinds of digital detritus over the years. Your storage drive might be overflowing with unnecessary files, too. Generally speaking, the fuller a drive, the slower it operates.
Instead of forking out hundreds of dollars for new hardware, try a full factory reset. This will erase all settings and files, hopefully returning your laptop to off-the-shelf condition. It can take a few hours and might require an active internet connection or installation media.
This obviously means you have to back up any important files and possibly record the product licenses for software you've purchased (this is unusual, but some software still works like this).
Don't create a full clone of your drive – doing so will only recreate your old problems. Find a backup solution that only saves the files you want, without bringing all the clutter along for the ride.
All this said, a factory reset likely won't fix any battery problems, except for in very rare circumstances.
Most newer laptops have at least some components glued or soldered in place, requiring special tools or professional expertise to repair or upgrade them. The casing for many laptops is one piece of metal, or the parts are unreachable without damaging them, which makes upgrading impossible.
But there is hope on the horizon. 'Modular' laptops are a trending topic right now, with some manufacturers focusing on upgradable tech ('modular' is pretty much marketing speak for components that can be swapped out).
These new laptops won't help anyone who needs an upgrade right now, but keep them in mind if you end up buying a new model.
Can you do it yourself?
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 the 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). Be sure to check repair/upgrade videos and even user comments from people 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 might be required).
You might even need to buy a whole computer repair kit, which start at about $20, but can be much pricier.
The three areas of a laptop 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 – usually can't be upgraded.
The same goes for data ports, such as upgrading a USB 3.0 port to a faster technology like Thunderbolt 4 or USB 4.0.
Before pulling anything apart, make sure you have a full backup of the computer, or at least of your important files. 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 solid-state drive (SSD), you may need to archive files 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 which 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, empty RAM slot. If this is the case, you can potentially just buy new RAM and not remove the old, as long as the new RAM is identical.
Make sure you check online and buy the right RAM for your model. You may be limited in the capacity of the RAM module you can install, and different types of RAM require different port shapes.
How much RAM do you need?
If your laptop has 4GB or less RAM, upgrading to 8GB should get you by for the near future.
You probably won't need beyond 8GB, as any programs that require that much RAM may also need a faster CPU and GPU 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 could 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, which is much faster.
If you already have an SSD, you can still benefit from upgrading – newer or more premium SSD options for your laptop might exist. If your SSD is close to full, 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… until you fill it up, too.
What's the difference between a hard drive and an SSD?
Hard drives are an older technology and slower. They provide long-term high-capacity data storage, usually ranging from around 1TB to 2TB (terabytes) in laptops, offering relatively cheap high-capacity storage.
SSDs are many times faster than hard drives, but they cost quite a bit more per gigabyte. Even if this means you need to downsize, it's often worth doing so to boost performance, especially given how easy online cloud storage is to access these days.
As well as being much faster, SSDs are lighter, use less power (giving longer battery life) and stay cooler than hard drives. In laptops they can usually slot in as a direct replacement without an adaptor. They're also more durable, so any jolts or bumps to your laptop are less likely to damage them than a hard drive.
What size SSD do you need?
Take a look at your current storage drive and make your decision based on how full it is.
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.
Laptop batteries wear out quickly. Replacing yours with a fresh one can give you much longer between charges, even though it'll probably be the same model battery as your old one. It won't boost performance, however, unless your current laptop spends a lot of time in power-saving mode.
Is your battery removable?
With older laptops that have a removable battery, changing it is can be 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 aren't 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
Batteries are often designed to fit into a specific laptop, so make sure the battery you're thinking of buying matches your model exactly.
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.
If your laptop can't be reasonably upgraded and a factory reset didn't solve your problems, consider switching from Windows to a free Linux distribution.
If you need to replace your device anyway, what do you have to lose by trying a different, free operating system?
In the event you do need a new device, consider if you need a laptop at all. For many day-to-day users, a tablet will do quite nicely. This can save you some money while also being more portable.
Why upgrade at all?
A slow laptop doesn't always have to go straight to landfill or the recycling plant. Stretching out the life of what you have can be better for the wallet, as well as the planet. You might be able to revitalise it without breaking the bank.
With the right information, tools and a little preparation, you could have your old laptop performing even better than new. Or, at least, good enough for the near future.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.