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Upgrading your Notebook PC

Upgrading your Notebook PC

Why you should consider it: Upgrading your memory and hard drive can lead to significant performance increases.


Upgrading your Notebook PC

Entry-level notebooks tend to provide the bare minimum for a usable Windows XP experience. The memory is often sorely lacking, and the hard drives tend to be slow. Even some higher-end notebooks provide hard drives and memory (RAM) that would be considered skimpy in a budget desktop PC.

A standard notebook hard drive operates at 4200 RPM (rotations per minute) while modern desktop drives spin at 7200 RPM. This lower speed means slower access to information, which means more time drumming your fingers. Furthermore, notebooks are often sold with only 256MB to 512MB of memory, which is also often shared with the video card. This can cut useable memory by as much as 25% in some cases!

The good news is that you can almost always upgrade both of these things yourself. In this guide, I will show you how to of perform these upgrades without breaking the bank. In fact, buying the parts and performing the upgrades yourself often costs less than including them when ordering the system.

My notebook (an eMachines M6811) has 512MB of memory (two sticks of 256MB in two different places), and an 80GB hard drive that spins at 4200RPM. I have decided to purchase a 1GB memory chip and a 60GB hard drive that operates at 7200RPM. While the new hard disk is smaller, the performance gain will be well worth it, as you will see later. While you probably don’t have the same model as I do, the general procedures in this guide will hold true for most notebooks.

Memory Upgrade

Notebook memory is different from the memory used in desktop PCs. They are similar, but have a different size and shape (referred to as its ‘form factor’). Notebook RAM is called SO-DIMM: Small Outline Double Inline Memory Module. The SO-DIMMs used in modern notebooks are either DDR or DDR2 depending upon a number of other technologies used in the notebook. Your notebook manufacturer’s website will list the compatible memory upgrades for your PC. I caution you, however: don’t purchase the memory from your notebook manufacturer, or you will most likely overpay.

“I need more memory (or RAM)” is a phrase often spoken by individuals who are experiencing performance issues with their PCs. If you purchased a notebook with only 256MB of memory, truer words were never spoken! Windows XP needs at least 512MB to truly thrive. If your PC has only 256, the operating system will swap information to the hard drive when it fills up the memory. On a notebook, you take a double performance hit when this occurs, because the hard drive that your OS is swapping information to is only a 4200 RPM drive. Adding memory in this case will certainly provide a noticeable performance gain.

The procedure for installing memory is simple; just remember to be careful when you’re working with it. The memory is typically located on the underside of the machine, under a panel that is attached with a screw (sometimes more than one). Removing the screw(s) and flipping back (or removing) the panel reveals the memory. If you’re not sure which panel has the memory under it, check the documentation that came with your system or the manufacturer’s website.

ram_outside

This panel covers the user-serviceable memory chips.

You will notice that there are two metal retaining clips holding the memory chip in place. In order to remove the memory, carefully pull on the two retaining clips at the same time, sideways and away from the memory. The memory will pop up toward you. It can then be slid from its slot.

ramslot_open

The retaining clips appear at each side of the SO-DIMM.

Installing the new memory is essentially the reverse of what we just did. First, gently place the new memory chip in the slot. Make sure the memory seats securely in the base of the slot. It will rest against the retaining clips at about a 30-degree angle.

ram_angle

The memory chip seated in the slot.

Next, gently push down against the upper edge of the memory chip. The retaining clips are shaped in such a way that they will automatically slide sideways to accommodate the memory, and then they will clip into place after the memory has seated. Now, screw the cover back over the memory slot, and your memory upgrade is complete!

Hard Drive Upgrade

(Note: You will probably want to backup your data to easily accessible media, like a CD or flash drive, before upgrading your hard drive. You will need to install your operating system – probably Windows – on the new drive afterward, so have that CD handy.)

A notebook hard drive upgrade is significantly easier to choose than a memory upgrade. Almost all notebook hard drives are 2.5″ form factor, and ATA-6 or SATA specification (the latter is becoming more popular). Again, check your manufacturer’s webpage in order to insure the compatibility of your purchase. Another item you will want to check is the rotational speed of your hard drive. If your current drive is 5400 RPM, you will likely notice less of a difference in the upgrade to 7200 RPM drive than if your drive were a 4200 RPM. If your existing drive is already 7200 RPM, then a new drive will not likely improve performance noticeably.

Our goal, in a performance-oriented hard drive upgrade, is to purchase a 7200 RPM drive. In my case, I purchased a Hitachi Travelstar 60GB 7200RPM drive due to the factors of price, compatibility, and performance. While I am losing 20GB of storage space, I am gaining significant performance. Furthermore, I have purchased an external drive enclosure for the 80GB drive in order to retain the storage space.

New notebook hard drive
A shiny new laptop hard drive.

The hard drive replacement procedure is relatively simple. The hard drive can usually be found along the edge at the bottom of your notebook’s case. The hard drive is generally inside and screwed to a removable metal ‘cage’. The cage is usually secured with a single screw that, once removed, will allow the hard drive cage to slide right out, with the drive inside.

Hard drive slides out

The hard drive will slide out easily after removal of retaining screw.

The hard drive is generally bolted to the cage with two to four screws. Unscrew them, and the hard drive will be disconnected from the cage. In some cases, you will find a metal or plastic plate that is separate from both the drive and the cage. This is used to protect the underside of the drive. Remove it from the old drive and place it on the new drive in the same orientation. Some hard drives will have an adapter on the pins, like the drive pictured below. This was removed from a Toshiba notebook PC. If you see something similar on your drive, the adapter will need to be transferred to the new drive as well.

toshiba_connector

Some hard drives have an adapter on the pins.

The reinstallation procedure is the reverse of removal. Screw the new hard drive into the cage in the same manner that the old drive was attached. Then, slide the drive back into the notebook PC, and connect the enclosure to your PC with the outer screw. At this point, you can either reinstall your operating system from the system restore disks that came with your notebook, or copy over your previous installation using disk imaging software.

Hard Drive Enclosure

As I mentioned earlier, I purchased an external enclosure for my old 80GB hard drive. Enclosures for 2.5″ drives can be found at very low prices, but be careful with your drive; many enclosures do not provide much shock protection. A dropped drive can often lead to a dead drive.

The installation procedure for the enclosure is simple. Simply plug the end of the enclosure with the electronics into the drive, slide the drive into the enclosure and securely screw the enclosure together.

hdd_enclosure

Hard drive enclosure during assembly.

The enclosure that I purchased cost under $20. Without it, I would have been left with a useless extra notebook hard drive after my notebook upgrade. Now that I have the enclosure, I have a spare ultra-portable hard drive that I can use for a cost-effective external backup drive, or as a way of storing extra data while on the go.

Benchmarking and Results

All benchmarks were performed with Windows XP Home (fully updated) and the latest chipset and graphics drivers installed.

Before:

  • CPU: AMD64 3400+, 2.2GHz 1MB L2 cache
  • Video: Mobility Radeon 9600 64MB
  • Memory: 512MB PC2700 DDR
  • HDD: 80GB Hitachi Travelstar 4200RPM

After:

  • CPU: AMD64 3400+, 2.2GHz 1MB L2 cache
  • Video: Mobility Radeon 9600 64MB
  • Memory: 1.25GB PC2700 DDR
  • HDD: 60GB Hitachi Travelstar 7200RPM

I ran the popular test suites of 3dMark 2006 as well as PCMark 2005 in order to gauge the relative performance change of the notebook in response to the upgrade.

Test

Pre-Upgrade

Post-Upgrade

Change

3dMark Measurements:

3dMark2006 Score

263

365

38.78%

Shader Model 2.0

122

170

39.34%

CPU Score

831

833

0.24%

PCMark Measurements:

Hard drive – General Usage

3.10 MB/s

4.76 MB/s

53.39%

Hard drive – XP Startup

4.74 MB/s

7.19 MB/s

51.67%

Memory Latency

10.51 Maccesses/s

10.52 Maccesses/s

0.09%

The improvement in 3dMark score with the upgrade is a whopping 38%. While both scores are low, the relative level of improvement is huge, especially considering that the graphics card was not changed. Similarly, key benchmarks from the PCMark2005 test suite show a marked improvement.

Of particular interest in the PCMark2005 scoring is the set of scores assigned for hard drive performance. Both HDD scores improved by over fifty percent! This improvement seems to be a key player in the overall increases in 3dMark scores. In fact, it seems quite obvious that the faster access times of the hard drive and the increased quantity of RAM played the only role in the score increases, because the CPU score and Memory Latency did not change by an appreciable amount.

Benchmarks reduce the results into a set of objective numerical data. The improvement in the benchmark numbers is great, but the true mark of a successful upgrade is felt by the user, not in the numbers.

Conclusion

In the end, personal experience is the leading indicator of whether or not an upgrade is a worthwhile one, and my experience has been nothing but positive. Considering the price of this upgrade was half of what a new value-priced notebook PC costs, I was a bit gun shy at the outset. Now that I have been running with the upgrade for some time, however, I definitely feel that it was money well spent.

The feel of the notebook is now completely different: it boots faster, responses are snappier, and it’s even possible to play some newer games without frustration. My notebook has been performing so well after the upgrade, I am now using it as my primary machine, and it has truly earned the name of “Desktop Replacement”.

While it is not exactly “cheap” to perform a memory and hard drive upgrade on a notebook PC, it will cost you significantly less to do it yourself than to purchase upgraded components from the manufacturer. If you intend to use your notebook as a desktop replacement or a gaming machine, it simply doesn’t make sense not to perform the upgrade.

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