Five Insane Upgrades That You Should Never Do (and How to Do Them!)
Just because you can do something, that doesn't mean you should. That old truism goes double for computers. But some PC geeks are so fanatical about performance, so doggedly determined to push their hardware to extremes, that they'll go to ridiculous lengths to wring a few more clock cycles out of their components or add a little more cool factor to their rig.
This article is dedicated to all those insane, irrational enthusiasts who defy all reason and common sense in the pursuit of PC glory. We've tried and tested five risky upgrades that no sane user should ever try. Don't get us wrong--these upgrades deliver genuine benefits. But they aren't for the faint of heart, as each is either time-consuming, expensive, or dangerous to your hardware. If you like to walk on the wild side, though, grab your screwdriver and follow along.
Replace Your Laptop's LCD Screen
Want better screen resolution, or maybe a glossy display instead of a matte one? Subbing in a new LCD panel for your old one is a bit extreme, but doable. This upgrade is one of the trickiest and most time-consuming laptop surgeries you can perform, with little guarantee that the new screen will work as it should. Still, if you do your homework in advance and select the right hardware for your machine, the payoff can be spectacular.
According to replacement-LCD supplier ScreenTek, upgrading a screen can, unfortunately, be a matter of trial and error. Whether a higher-resolution screen will work on your notebook depends on many factors, including the laptop's video card, cable, and firmware. And of course, the new display must fit in the space available.
Before you purchase a replacement, it's a good idea to talk with a sales rep at ScreenTek or a similar LCD reseller to see what screens are available for your notebook.
To replace the LCD on our Dell E1505, we first had to remove the laptop's hinge cover and keyboard, by taking out screws from the bottom and rear of the machine; then we had to unplug the antenna and video cables from the motherboard. Those steps allowed us to remove the LCD assembly from the laptop's main body. Taking off the small rubber bumpers on the front of the screen revealed screws beneath. We removed the screws and then pried the bezel away from the screen, gaining access to the bare LCD beneath. We had to work slowly: It's easy to snap the plastic on the bezel during this part of the disassembly.
Brackets on each side of the LCD hold it in place. After removing the screws and unplugging the cables, we finally took out the bare LCD and replaced it with the new one. Then we simply reversed the disassembly process to put everything back together properly.
Prior to reassembly, plug the cables in and boot the machine up to ensure that it's working correctly. If you don't get a picture, check that the cables are properly seated, and try again. If it still doesn't work, your notebook simply may not support that display resolution.
Lap Your CPU
Overclocking your CPU isn't particularly crazy. With a bit of care and common sense, anyone can squeeze a little extra speed out of their processor. But if you want to push your hardware to illogical extremes, you'll have to get your hands dirty. And that means lapping your CPU.
Lapping is a fancy word that machinists use for sanding. In this case, you'll be sanding the metal plate that sits on top of the CPU. This plate, known as an integrated heatspreader, serves not only to keep you from crushing your CPU core when installing a heat-sink-and-fan combination but also to transfer heat away from the processor. Sanding it to a flat finish ensures that it makes optimal contact with the heat sink.
But since the heatspreader's surface already comes machine-lapped from the factory, why repeat the process at home and risk destroying a perfectly good CPU? A reckless disregard for safe computing is one answer. But if you were to look at your processor through a microscope, you might be surprised at what you'd find. Though the surface may appear smooth and flat to the naked eye, your CPU's heatspreader actually contains many microscopic nicks, depressions, and other flaws that prevent it from making the best possible contact with your CPU cooler.
Thermal pads and pastes help fill in those imperfections, but only by lapping your processor to an ultrasmooth finish can you be assured of whisking away the most heat. Of course, you'll also be whisking away your warranty, but unless you're one of those sane people who run their processors at stock speed, you've already voided it anyway.
What You'll Need
- Sandpaper (400, 600, 800, 1000, 1500, and 2000 grit) in full- or half-sheet form
- Isopropyl rubbing alcohol (90 percent concentration or higher) or ArctiClean
- Masking tape
- Cotton swabs or unscented toilet paper
- Can of compressed air
- Pane of glass or some other smooth, flat surface larger than the sheets of sandpaper
You can find the coarser varieties of sandpaper at any local hardware store or supercenter; but for 1000-grit and finer sheets, you'll likely have to visit an auto-parts dealer. Look for variety packs to save on costs, and don't fret if you can't find full sheets--you need just about a foot of vertical space to work with.
Set Up Your Workspace
Lay down the pane of glass so that you have a completely flat, supersmooth surface to work on. A level kitchen table will also suffice, but so long as you're going to risk destroying a $100+ processor, will you really miss another $5 for a sheet of glass should something go wrong and your endeavor become an epic fail?
Grab a full sheet of 400-grit sandpaper and cut it in half, and then secure one of the pieces vertically to your work surface by placing masking tape around all four sides. Now might also be a good time to call your mother if you haven't talked with her for months. The resulting good karma might later make the difference between a cooler-running processor and one that refuses to boot.
Prep Your Processor
Because you'll be removing layers of nickel and copper from the heatspreader, you want to protect the CPU's circuitry from getting all gunked up. We're not just being OCD here; mixing metal flakes with internal circuits is not only a sure way to fry your processor, but it can also destroy your motherboard. To keep that from happening, take four strips of masking tape and butt each one up against the raised part of the heatspreader, folding the excess underneath the CPU. This will prevent any flakes from sneaking under the heatspreader (where the CPU core sits exposed) or dirtying up the contact points on the bottom as sand and metal start to fly.
Void Your Warranty!
Now you're at the point of no return. Place your processor on the sandpaper and gently guide it in long, straight strokes. Don't apply any pressure, and after 50 full strokes rotate the chip clockwise and repeat the process until you've completed a 360-degree rotation. Give both the sandpaper and the CPU a few blasts of compressed air, and then clean the heatspreader with a cotton swab and rubbing alcohol. Keep doing this until you've removed the nickel layer, then move on to the next-finer grit of sandpaper and start over. Do another 50 strokes in each direction, and so on.
Once you get to the 1000-grit sandpaper, your processor should be flat but not shiny. This matters because if you ruin your processor doing this trick, you'll be left with little more than an expensive keychain--and who wants a dull-looking keychain? Use the finer grits to obtain a reflective surface, cross your fingers, and then install the CPU in your system as you normally would. Don't forget the thermal paste!
By doing this mod, we were able to reduce the load temperatures on our Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 processor by 7 degrees Celsius, which will allow for some pretty hard-core overclocking, though not all gains will be that significant. If you're willing to roll the dice a second time, repeat the above process on your heat sink's base for an even better potential payout.
Push Your RAM to Its Limit
When it comes to overclocking, the processor and graphics card typically end up hogging the spotlight. Cooling manufacturers have crafted hundreds of different heat sinks designed to give obsessive PC enthusiasts an edge in pushing components well past their rated specs. Even case designers have jumped into the act, with special cooling ducts and other contraptions aimed at keeping the CPU and GPU chilly. That leaves RAM as the redheaded stepchild in the hardware family, but because we love all our components equally (and because we're just a little nuts), we're going to show you how to make those modules scream.
Enter the BIOS
You may be tempted to use a software-based overclocking utility to tinker with your system, but for hard-core tweakers the BIOS offers far greater control over a wider variety of settings. To get into your machine's BIOS, press the Delete key during the first seconds of boot-up. Depending on your motherboard or system vendor, you may be prompted to press a different key, such as F2 or Esc. Consult your manual if necessary, but you'll need to deduct 100 geek-cred points from your overall score.
Not all motherboard makers use the same type of BIOS, and even different models from the same vendor can vary. But one thing almost all have in common is that the overclocking settings, if offered, are typically clumped together under one menu. Look for labels such as MB Intelligent Tweaker (Gigabyte), Extreme Tweaker (Asus), Cell Menu (MSI), or other similar terms.
As you increase your RAM's frequency, your CPU will ramp up in speed too. This can cause you to run into an overclocking wall prematurely, even though your RAM has room to spare. To prevent that from happening, locate the CPU Ratio Setting in your BIOS and drop your CPU's multiplier down at least two whole numbers, preferably as far as your motherboard allows. Using an Intel Core 2 Duo E8400, dropping the multiplier down from x9 to x6 decreases the CPU's clock speed from 3.0 GHz to 2.0 GHz, giving you plenty of headroom to play with as your push your RAM to absurd heights.
Next you'll want to relax your memory timing. If the latency settings are grayed out, change the DRAM Timing Control (or other similarly labeled item) from Auto to Manual. For DDR2, loosen the CAS Latency Time (TCL), RAS to CAS Delay (TRCD), RAS Precharge (TRP), Precharge delay (TRAS), and Command Rate (CMD) to 6/6/6/18/2T respectively, and for DDR3 set the same settings to 10/10/10/28/2T. Refer to your motherboard manual if you can't find these settings in your BIOS, and deduct another 100 points from your geek-cred score.
Cool It and Juice It!
Once you've eliminated bottlenecks and pushed your RAM's frequency as high as it can go, the real craziness begins. Increasing your RAM's voltage can give it more headroom--give it too much, however, and your modules will give up the ghost in return. Consider 2.4V and 2.2V the respective red zones for DDR2 and DDR3. To keep from involving the fire department, invest in an active-cooling product such as Corsair's Memory Airflow Fan; or if you really want to push the envelope, pick up a water block for your RAM and integrate it into your water-cooling loop (see page 5).
Once you've taken your RAM to the bleeding edge and survived, slap your PC's case back together and crank it up. If nothing melts or starts to smoke, you're solid.
Strip Your PC Naked
Most computer users (you know, the sane ones) will never open their PC's case. A few may take the initiative to upgrade their video card or add an extra hard drive--and if you're reading this, you've likely done at least that much. But some seriously hard-core PC freaks spend about as much time tweaking their hardware as they do using it. For obsessive upgraders like them, normal desktop enclosures simply don't cut it. In this section we'll explain how to join the ranks of the truly insane enthusiasts by moving your rig into an open-air test bench.
Bleeding Edge vs. Bleeding Fingers
Open test benches--usually made from a few pieces of glued-together acrylic--provide several advantages over the boring old PC enclosures you're accustomed to seeing. Having quick and easy access to components becomes a necessity for extreme tweakers who push their systems to the limit through overclocking, as well as for users who constantly swap out parts. Also, placing the system in an open-air environment can greatly improve its operating temperatures and increase performance by allowing more overclocking headroom.
The risks that come with a test-bench setup are potentially disastrous. Since all of the hardware is exposed, the possibility of physical damage to your computer--and serious injury to you--increases exponentially. Let's face it, accidents happen. And moving from a normal, enclosed case to an open test bench is a little like stepping out of an amored car, stripping down to your skivvies, and hopping on a motorcycle. The margin for error decreases to nil. Curious children or pets should not be allowed to venture near the computer and its naked parts.
Choose Your Weapon
So you think you're ready to enter the world of the extreme PC modder? Luckily, you have a couple of good ways to set up an open-air test bench. If you have the time and the tools, you can build your own custom tech station with dimensions and features that fit your needs, using any old materials you have lying around; for ideas, see how one determined modder did it. For people who want to get in on the action quickly, a couple of well-designed test benches such as the HSPC Tech Station or the Danger Den Torture Rack are available for purchase. We recommend the Torture Rack for its sexy acrylic design and its ability to house water-cooling loops (see the next page) right out of the box.
Location, Location, Location
Now that you have a killer tech station sitting on your desk, component placement is vital to achieve superior results. Set the motherboard on the top level for easiest availability. You can install gigantic CPU heat sinks without the hassle of removing the motherboard or working in an enclosed case. You can position additional fans quickly to help cool down the system during your grueling overclocking sessions. Place all other parts, such as the power supply and hard drives, out of the way on the lower level since you won't access them much.
Max It Out
Using a system installed on a test bench can be dangerous, but the benefits can definitely offset the risks involved as long as the computer remains in a controlled environment. With this setup, you can tweak to your heart's desire and overclock until you've squeezed every last clock cycle from your PC.
Run a River Through It
Water cooling has long been an efficient method of cooling PC components, but most users are hesitant to take the plunge for several reasons. Some point to the insanely obvious hazards of introducing water to electronic components. Even more find the total cost of a water-cooling system a little nuts.
Just as in a car, water-cooling your PC is more effective than air-cooling it, since the continuous flow of cooled liquid can absorb and dissipate heat more rapidly than can air alone. PC liquid-cooling setups consist of a pump, a radiator, and some hoses that carry water to various heat-exchanger blocks, which mount atop your hottest system components. Cool water pumps in from the radiator and then flows across the hot blocks, carrying the heat back to the radiator, which releases the heat into the air outside your computer.
Here's how you can choose the best liquid-cooling components and create your very own water-cooled monster.
Pick Your Parts
The best liquid-cooling parts are not all made by one company. Stay away from complete kits, since you can piece together a better-performing loop for the same cost. When shopping for water-cooling gear, check out Petra's Tech Shop, Jab-tech, and Performance-PCs.com.
Here is a list of the essential parts you will need to complete your own extreme liquid-cooled PC project:
- Water block (CPU/GPU)--The water block is a heat sink that mounts directly on your CPU and/or GPU. Currently the D-tek Fuzion V2, EK Supreme, and Swiftech GTZ are the best CPU water blocks. Since a wide assortment of graphics-board blocks are on the market, check out EK Water Blocks and Danger Den's product line for your specific card.
- Pump--When you're looking for a pump for your loop, you'll want it to provide high pressure, reliability, and quiet operation. Both the Liang DDC-3.2 and D5 pumps are excellent choices.
- Radiator--In general, the larger the radiator, the better cooling performance you will achieve. We recommend Thermochill's PA120 series radiators.
- Fans--The size of your radiator will determine the size and quantity of the fans you will need. For example, the monstrous PA120.3 radiator can hold up to six 120mm fans, with three on each side.
- Reservoir/t-line--Tube reservoirs have become the popular choice in the water-cooling scene, and they provide for easier filling and bleeding. EK makes several different models. You can use a t-line instead of a reservoir if you don't have much room.
- Tubing--The inner diameter (or ID) of your tubing should match the barb size on all of your parts.
- Coolant--Use distilled water for your coolant. Add a couple drops of biocide, such as Petra's PT Nuke, to prevent algae growth.
- Barbs/fittings--Use the same fitting size throughout your cooling loop and make sure it matches up with the inner diameter of your tubing. We like Bitspower Compression fittings, as they provide the most watertight seal and look awesome.
- Clamps--Use clamps to seal your loop anywhere the tubing meets a fitting. Plastic clamps or worm drive clamps work well, but you can also use zip ties if you desire. You won't need clamps when using compression fittings.
Cleanliness Is Absolute Godliness
The very first thing you should do after receiving your parts is to flush the radiator with distilled water. Chemicals used in the manufacturing process will leave a residue in the radiator, and you need to clean them out thoroughly before you install the radiator. Pour distilled water into the radiator until it's half full, shake it several times, and then pour out the liquid. Repeat this step until you've gone through 2 gallons of distilled water. It's also a good idea to flush the water blocks.
Loop the Loop
When setting up your cooling loop, one rule you absolutely must follow is to install the reservoir or t-line immediately adjacent to the pump so that the water flows directly from the reservoir or t-line into the pump. This arrangement provides a steady supply of coolant to the pump and helps sustain performance. It also reduces the possibility of running the pump while it's dry, which would cause the pump to fail. The order of the rest of the components doesn't matter, so use the shortest amount of tubing possible to maintain a consistent flow of fluid through the loop.
I recommend setting up the loop outside of your case and performing a leak test. This trial will help reduce the chance of having water splash on your PC components right off the bat, and it will give you a better idea of where to tighten fittings and clamps. Place your loop on some paper towels and run the pump for a few hours to see if any problems arise.
Install It All
Finally, you can install your loop inside the case and perform another leak test. Make sure no power runs to your motherboard yet. Place some paper towels underneath the blocks and the clamps, as that is where a leak would occur. Let the pump run for a full day and make sure that everything is dry. Once you are in the clear, fire up your PC and enjoy its chilly performance.