Ten Ways to Upgrade Your Netbook

Netbook hacks
Netbooks are universally regarded for their portability, but no two netbook models are exactly alike, and each seems to come with different trade-offs. A netbook with a superior battery might have a horrible keyboard arrangement; a netbook with a solid-state drive might slip out of your price range; a netbook with a killer list of specs might be missing 802.11n connectivity. These are all common problems--and you won't find common solutions.

Due to their diversity, netbooks don't share common upgrade paths as typical desktop PCs do. Each model is unique in what you can do to it, and the exact procedures for modifying your device are as varied as the netbooks themselves. If you want to upgrade your machine, we recommend that you hunt down the instruction manual or, in the case of trickier upgrades, a community of users who can walk you through the process of modifying and hacking new functionality into your extremely portable PC.

That said, you can make a wealth of netbook customizations, and they range in difficulty from 5-minute routines to soldering-gun-based surgeries. We'll take you through some customizations for a Dell Mini 9, as it's one of the more tweakable netbooks we've come across. While your mileage (and procedures) will vary with your own netbook model, this guide will give you a good idea of the kinds of upgrades that could be possible for your machine and skill level.

Easy Upgrades

Insert a Better Battery

Finding the right high-capacity battery for your netbook can be tricky, but installing it couldn't be easier.
In our testing the Dell Mini 9's battery lasted around 3 hours, 34 minutes. That's not too shabby for a four-cell battery, but you can do better. Though you may find a few guides online that teach you how to create a laptop battery using a number of aftermarket batteries all wired together, that's a recipe for disaster. Instead, look to eBay: There you can pick up a 77-watt-hour, eight-cell battery that's entirely compatible with the existing connections (and size) of your Dell Mini 9. You'll double the longevity of your netbook--provided you aren't bothered by the unruly mass sticking out from underneath your system. To replace the battery, flip your netbook upside-down and move the two switches from the locked icon to the unlocked icon, and push up on the battery tray.

Upgrade the Operating System

Since netbooks don't come with built-in optical drives, you'll need a USB drive to perform an OS upgrade.
If you want to install a new operating system onto your netbook, you certainly can: Just pop the CD in any external USB optical drive and install away.

Want to dual-boot your netbook? Grab the GParted utility, by downloading the .iso file for its LiveCD and burning the file onto a disc. Insert that disc into the external optical drive, restart your netbook, and jump into the BIOS to change the boot settings for your machine. Boot off of the optical drive first, and GParted will load. Right-click on the primary partition and select Resize/Move. Microsoft recommends at least 16GB of space for Windows 7; if you were hoping to use that OS but your netbook doesn't have that much room, your experiment ends here. For any OS, if your netbook does have space for it, enter a new partition size of your choosing. Click Resize, and you'll see the newly unallocated space sitting to the right of your primary partition in GParted's graphic. Right-click on this area and select New. Enter zeros for the 'Free Space Proceeding' and 'Following' selections, select Primary Partition under 'Create as', and click the add button.

If you prefer not to use an external optical drive, you can follow these steps for using GParted and installing the new OS with a simple USB thumb drive.

Rearrange the Keyboard

Do you accidentally bump the keys near your touchpad? Pop them out and remap the keyboard to suit your typing style.
Is the default layout of your netbook's keyboard conflicting with the muscle memory you've built for desktop keyboard layouts? Pop an offending key off of your netbook by wedging a tiny screwdriver under the key and gently applying upward pressure. As long as the keys you're swapping around are of the same size, you'll be able to interchange them as you please. Once you've made the physical transformations, use the Sharp Keys utility to reassign how your operating system interprets the keystrokes. If you don't mind a bit of visual confusion, you could leave the physical keys exactly where they are and simply redefine their purpose with this helpful application.

Intermediate Upgrades

Upgrade the Hard Drive

What's worse: the underwhelming capacity of the typical solid-state drive that comes with a brand-new netbook, or the price difference you'd have to pay just to get a larger drive in your preconfigured netbook build? Here's a way around both of those nightmares. First, pick the lowest-capacity drive you can purchase when you're building your netbook on the manufacturer's Web site (or, if you have no configuration options, just buy the netbook as it is). Next, consult the appropriate user forums to get a sense of which aftermarket solid-state or magnetic hard drives are compatible with your machine. Finally, grab your screwdriver.

On a Dell Mini 9, the solid-state drive is a small card held in place by two screws.
On the Dell Mini 9, flip the netbook over and remove the two screws that secure the larger back panel into place (since it's in the center of the netbook, it's hard to miss). Pry off the panel with your finger or with the tip of a screwdriver. With the Dell Mini 9's battery facing north, you'll see a set of four large electronic pieces inside the machine; those are the hard drive, the memory, the network card, and a blank space for a nonexistent 3G card. You'll see two screws securing the tiny flash-memory circuit board into place in the upper-left quadrant. Unscrew them, and the SSD should lift up a little. Pull it out, insert its replacement, tighten the screws, and your upgrade is done!

Upgrade the RAM

Did you know that memory is one of the main areas of a netbook where system manufacturers can jack up the price? It's true. Don't let a netbook maker empty your wallet by selling you RAM that you can find on the aftermarket for a lot less. In the case of the Dell Mini 9, we purchased the bare minimum of RAM necessary to complete the configuration: 512MB. To upgrade your machine's RAM, first open the back of the netbook and look for the memory. On the Mini 9, it's in the upper-right quadrant (with the battery facing north). On the RAM you should see its specifications. Either you can purchase the same type of RAM in a larger size (in our case, that came out to a 2GB stick of DDR-2 SODIMM running at 533MHz), or you can check the manufacturer specifications for your netbook to discover the maximum supported speed. You'd barely notice the speed difference between DDR2-4200 memory and DDR2-5300 memory, but there's no sense in maxing out with DDR2-6400 if your machine can't support its full speed.

As with ordinary laptops, netbook RAM is easy to replace once you remove the main cover plate on the bottom of the machine.
To replace the memory, simply push outward on the two clips holding the memory in place near the notched groove on each side. The RAM will pop upward toward you for easy removal. Insert your newly purchased memory, push it into place, and you're set. When you start up the machine, quickly press the appropriate key to pull up the system BIOS (for the Dell Mini 9, it's the 2 key). Head to the main tab and confirm that the system recognizes the new memory. If it does, your upgrade is a success.

Upgrade the Wi-Fi

Upgrading the internal Wi-Fi capabilities of a netbook from 802.11g to 802.11n sounds like an easy task at first. In theory, it should be. In theory, you should be able to purchase any old miniature wireless card, pop off the back of the netbook, do a quick shuffle of components, and enjoy the increased functionality and speed of the new card.

Alas, in reality it isn't that easy.

For starters, just because a Wi-Fi card looks like it will fit in your netbook, that doesn't mean the card is compatible with the operating system/motherboard combination. But before we even get to that, there's the issue of sizing. When purchasing a replacement Wi-Fi card, you need to know whether your netbook can support a full-height or half-height card. To verify this, remove the back of the netbook and look for the existing Wi-Fi card. A full-height card is long and rectangular, almost like the shape of an SD Card for a camera. In contrast, a half-height card is stubbier--it resembles the shape of a CompactFlash card (or, for that matter, a full-height Wi-Fi card cut in half vertically).

Once you've figured out the available space for a new card, you'll know what kind of card to get. As for the specific brand of Wi-Fi card, there is no hard-and-fast rule to determine what will be compatible with your particular netbook model. What looks perfect on paper might not work at all with your system's configuration. Instead of using trial and error, take the time to run an Internet search for other people's successful Wi-Fi upgrades of the same netbook model. It's the only way you'll be able to know, with 100 percent certainty, that the card you pick up will actually work.

To upgrade your netbook's Wi-Fi card, begin by disconnecting the two antenna cables from the card.
Once you've cleared that hurdle, installing the card is an easy task. On the Dell Mini 9, for example, first remove the netbook's rear covering. The Wi-Fi card is located in the center-right of the system; it's the card with white and black wires (the antenna) running into it. Gently disconnect those wires, undo the screws holding the card in place, and remove the card from the slot. Insert the new card, reinsert the screws to tighten it into position, and reconnect the two antenna wires--note, however, that the specific card you buy will dictate whether you should reverse the wires as compared with their positions on the original card. Depending on the size of the card and the configuration of your netbook's motherboard, you might have to remove a motherboard standoff to make for a solid fit.

If the operating system can't find the new card on the next system boot, be sure to install the drivers for the particular Wi-Fi adapter you purchased. You should be able to find the drivers on the company's Web site; if not, you might have to install drivers from a third-party netbook manufacturer whose product happens to use the same network card.

Overclock the Processor

Overclocking represents the pinnacle of system upgrades that an average user can perform without physically deconstructing the netbook. It's also one of the more dangerous upgrades for netbooks, given that these miniature systems don't come with the best cooling. In the case of the Dell Mini 9, the passive cooler protecting the CPU from thermal overload is no match for frequency tweaking, and it's probably for the best that we were unable to find a way to overclock this tiny PC.

Other netbooks are a bit more flexible in this regard. Owners of Dell Mini 10 netbooks can rev up their CPU through the SetFSB utility. Users of earlier Asus Eee PC models can pick up the Eeectl utility, which permits them to alter the frontside bus within Windows and, consequently, up the speed of the processor. If you have an MSI Wind netbook and you want to update the BIOS, you'll find that that company officially supports your overclocking habit. Still, these are waters best navigated carefully--or not at all, lest you turn your netbook into a doorstop.

Extreme Upgrades

Some of the crazier upgrades you can perform on netbooks, including the Dell Mini 9, are detailed enough to warrant their own multipage articles. While we can't list every step along the way, we can at least show you the possibilities that await should you choose to pick up a soldering iron and venture into the world of electronic mischief.

Add a Touchscreen

First up is the process of replacing your netbook's ordinary screen with a touchscreen. Prior to the invention of handy, all-in-one, no-soldering-required kits, this process used to require extreme care, patience, and the cash to repurchase a machine should your connections not be as precise as they needed to be. Thankfully, online you can now find a variety of kits for a wide range of netbooks that give you the parts--and, more important, the step-by-step walkthroughs--for this complicated procedure. While it still isn't an upgrade for novices, adding a touchscreen to a netbook has come a long way from the solder-filled days of yore.

Add a GPS Receiver

Inserting a brand-new GPS receiver into a Mini 9 sounds like an easy task, given the size of the device in question. Since it's no larger than a tiny flash drive, you would think that sticking this device into a netbook and finding a place to connect it would be as simple as plugging in a USB thumb drive. And you'd be right--but only about the first half of that process. The Dell Mini 9 certainly has plenty of room inside for an integrated GPS receiver, but unlike an average motherboard, the Mini 9's doesn't have any open USB connectors to simplify the powering of the receiver. Super Moderator Acabtp of the MyDellMini forum ran wires all around his Dell Mini 9 in search of power for the device, eventually finding success in connecting the GPS unit to the unused mini-PCI Express connector of the Mini 9's WWAN port. This is a tricky upgrade that requires some additional hardware hacking in order for you to turn the device on and off at a whim, but it's a small price to pay to have a hybrid netbook/GPS device.

Add a Drive-Activity Light

Everyone loves hacks that add a little more aesthetics to an otherwise drab machine. In the case of the Dell Mini 9, the netbook lacks a hard-drive-activity light on its front to let you know when your magnetic (or solid-state) drive is in use. Super Moderator UnaClocker of the MyDellMini forum went through the painstaking process of detailing exactly how to add an activity light to a Dell Mini 9 that has been upgraded previously with a RunCore solid-state drive. The procedure requires you to identify the exact pin on the SSD's controller that's responsible for the activity reading, solder a wire to the resistor, and then solder the other end of the wire to a resistor that's attached to an LED. You then have to find a way to install the LED into the Dell--UnaClocker put it in the battery-notification area--in order to achieve the blinking effect.

More Resources

Looking for communities to guide you in your netbook hacking? Jump-start your journey through the many netbook modifications available to you by making use of the knowledge that other netbook owners discuss on a daily basis. Here's a listing of the top places to find netbook-hacking information for some of the most popular brands on the market.

Acer
Acer Aspire One User Forum

Asus
EeeUser Forum

Dell
MyDellMini

HP
HP Mini Guide Forums

MSI
MSI Wind Forums

Samsung
SammyNetbook

OSX Compatibility Chart
Boing Boing Gadgets

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