Step-by-Step: 5 Laptop Upgrades You Can Do Yourself

Photograph: Charlie Nucci
Want better performance from your laptop? The conventional wisdom has long held that you should simply buy a new one. You can put such conventional wisdom aside: Upgrading a laptop may not be for the timid or the impatient, but if you're handy with a screwdriver, and the sight of a circuit board doesn't scare you, an upgrade can be a far more affordable solution.

We took tools to hand and worked our way through eight common (and not so common) laptop upgrades, in some instances stripping our test machines--a Dell Inspiron E1505 and a Dell Inspiron 6000--down to the bare chassis. We can't fit complete step-by-step, unscrew-this-and-unplug-that instructions for everything into this article, but we can provide tips to help with each process.

And note that every laptop varies: Even machines from the same vendor can have very different designs and therefore wildly different disassembly methods.

Before you start, keep these essential points in mind:

  • Many of these upgrades will void your laptop's warranty.
  • Some upgrades can damage your laptop. If you are at all uncomfortable with such tinkering, leave it to a pro.
  • Most vendors provide disassembly instructions in their products' service manuals, which can usually be found on their Web sites' support sections.
  • Unplug your laptop and remove the battery before attempting any upgrade. Also, to avoid damage from static electricity, use a grounded wrist strap.
  • You'll need a collection of small screwdrivers, including flathead, Phillips, and possibly even Torx.
  • Speaking of screws, keep them organized as you remove them. We like to use Dixie cups for each step. Just write "LCD assembly" or "keyboard" or whatever on each cup as you go, to help you remember which screws go where.
  • Pay special attention to wiring. Laptops have intricate channels where the wiring must run; stray wiring may get pinched or may prevent other parts from fitting together correctly.
  • No matter what machine you're working on, first upgrade your BIOS. You'll need up-to-date BIOS code to support many newer components.
  • Not every laptop component can be upgraded. Some may be soldered or otherwise permanently attached.

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