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Laptop Troubleshooting Flowcharts

If It Jams Home

Copyright 2011 by Morris Rosenthal

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How to upgrade a laptop computer - Upgrading Laptops or Notebooks

Copyright 2011 by Morris Rosenthal -All Rights Reserved

First, let me repeat, you should never buy a used laptop with the intention of upgrading it. Before you spend real money on an upgrade, you should really compare the cost of that upgrade with simply buying a new laptop for between $400 and $600 on Amazon. If you've owned a laptop since buying it new or it was given to you as a hand-me-down, upgrades are always worth looking at if you have the money and are looking for a little more functionality. The easiest and most effective upgrade most laptop owners can make is upgrading the RAM. If there's any exception to the "don't buy to upgrade" rule it's RAM. Some retailers fool around with selling new laptops with Vista installed and only 512MB RAM, which just isn't enough for Vista. Rather than paying the retailer $100 to upgrade the RAM, you can buy another 512MB online from Crucial for around $20, which will get it up to 1GB. If you have around $60 to blow, 2.0 GB of matched RAM is the best option for Vista. Windows XP will run on 256MB, but is better with 512MB or more. But an old laptop running Windows 98 with 32MB of RAM will see a major performance increase (especially when you open multiple windows) if you upgrade it to 64MB, and a notebook with 64 MB will run "like new:" if you add 128MB for 192MB total. Laptop RAM is usually upgraded by removing an access panel on the bottom of the notebook, secured by a single screw, and installing the new SODIMM.

The whole trick is making sure your laptop doesn't already have the maximum amount of RAM installed, and buying the right module. I suggest using the memory finder at Now comes the bad news. The RAM is the only internal laptop component that can be easily upgraded, if at all. The problem is three-fold. First, laptops are highly proprietary, and upgrade parts like a CD burner that will fit the physical form and provide the right connector aren't always available. In some instances, you may be able to use the outer plastic bezel from the original CD-ROM to match a new CD record to the body of the notebook, but it still has to be a supported model. Second, these parts are so much more expensive that desktop components that it's not funny. Your best bet is to buy "pulls," components scavenged from broken or discarded units, but even these aren't cheap. Finally, the laptop BIOS may not support the new CD or DVD drive, or even a larger capacity hard drive. I wouldn't fool around with flashing the laptop BIOS unless you are absolutely desperate, because if it goes wrong, you'll be left with a brick.

The more complicated question for upgrading laptops is CPU replacement. CPU failure is fairly rare even under overheating conditions since modern CPU's can protect themselves by shutting down on thermal overload. But if you're looking for a performance gain by upgrading your laptop CPU, you're likely to be dissapointed. Many laptops employ surface mount CPUs soldered to the motherboad, which are non-replaceable. Some laptop motherboards will support a whole series of CPU's from Intel or AMD as long as they use the identical socket and voltages, but it may require a BIOS upgrade for the system to recognize the upgrade CPU at the it's full speed. Flashing the BIOS of your laptop unless you absolutely have to is a bad idea, an error in the process or a mistake in downloading the correct BIOS upgrade will leave you with a brick. Furthermore, the performance gain in upgrading the CPU with a chip that's 20% faster will yield dissapointing results, as the speed increase will only be apparent in certain computation intensive tasks. Finally, the new CPU may dissipate more heat than the original, and the heatsink/cooling capacity of your laptop model may not be up to the task, even if the motherboard supports the speed. And higher power consumption also means a shorter battery life.

So, have we eliminated ever recording CD's or increasing the storage capacity of your old laptop? Absolutely not. Notebooks are designed to work with peripherals, and as long as you have a USB 1.1 or better port, you'll have no trouble finding external drives that will not only work with your old notebook, they'll be portable to any other computer you have now or may purchase in the future. For moving data between computers or storing relatively small (up to a gigabyte) amounts of data, jump drives are a great solution. You can carry a jump drive on your key chain (and many are designed for just that), and read the data on almost any computer in the world. You can also connect to a router for high speed internet access through your USB port, or through the RJ-45 network port, if your laptop is equipped with one. Another handy notebook upgrade is an external mouse and keyboard. A simple USB splitter for less than $10 will provide both ports in one convenient rat tail, especially handy if your notebook only has a single PS/2 port for a keyboard or a mouse and you can't find a PS/2 splitter.

You can't upgrade the motherboard your laptop, you can't even replace it cost effectively in most cases if they fail. The same obviously goes for the screen and the video adapter (built into the main board), but you can hook most notebooks to an external monitor if your screen is failing and you aren't ready to replace it. Of course, you can add almost any capability to a notebook if it supports PC cards, sometimes referred to as PCMCIA (Personal Computer Memory Card International Association) cards, but they aren't cheap, and the software drivers may not be available for your older operating system, so read the specs carefully. Also, PC cards for storage devices are much thicker than cards for memory or communications, so you may only be able to use PC card at a time, even if your laptop has two PCMCIA slots.

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