Hardware Tips: Cheap Notebook Tweaks--Maximize Your Laptop

Illustration: Mick Wiggins
If pink is the new black, and 50 is the new 40 (and I really hope it is), are laptops the new desktops? I'd have to say yes. With the right upgrades, enhancements, and accessories, many notebook PCs match their desk-bound counterparts all the way down the line. These tips will help you get more use out of your laptop, no matter how new or old.

Upgrade with care: Support techs report that the most troublesome laptop components are the hard drive, screen, and keyboard. While you probably won't want to replace an expensive laptop screen, anyone with the right tools and even a slight mechanical inclination can replace the hard drive, keyboard, and other components, with some patient tinkering.

Opening your laptop case may void the warranty, so if your system is still under warranty, let the manufacturer deal with repairs. Notebooks are delicate, so never force anything. Vince Dougherty, who has repaired countless laptops for Wine Country Computers in Healdsburg, California, says the most common mistake is using the wrong-size screwdriver. One slip and your motherboard is ruined.

Before doing anything else, remove the notebook's battery and disconnect its power cord. Remember to ground yourself before you open the case, either with a grounding strap (the safest way), or by touching a piece of grounded metal (a lamp or water pipe will do), while touching a metal part on the case's exterior.

Replace your hard drive: Adding a new hard drive to a laptop is usually easier than doing the same thing on a desktop PC: You just remove a few screws from the bottom of the case, slide or lift the hard drive assembly out of the system, and swap a new drive into the assembly (always handle drives by the edges).

Most notebook PCs use a standard 2.5-inch hard drive, but ultralights and other diminutive systems may use a smaller 1.8-inch drive. Drives also come in different heights; the most common are 12.5 millimeters and 9.5 millimeters. Check your laptop's documentation, or visit the vendor's Web site to determine the drive size compatible with your machine.

A 2.5-inch, 100GB drive costs less than $200. Third-party vendors such as Drive Solutions and NewEgg.com often charge less than laptop manufacturers. Check with your notebook vendor to find out whether you need a SATA or parallel ATA model. Buy only from vendors that offer a money-back guarantee--any reliable seller will provide one lasting at least 30 days.

Boost your RAM: Most laptops come with only one or two memory sockets, which may leave no open slots for upgrades. Adding memory may require that you discard at least one existing memory module. The RAM on most laptops resides behind a removable panel. The modules slip into a slot and are secured at the ends by clips or retainers. Crucial offers an excellent tutorial on installing laptop RAM.

Crucial and Kingston will tell you the type of RAM your laptop needs. The high-quality modules they sell are well worth the small, additional expense over no-name RAM.

Change your keyboard: Installing a new keyboard usually requires disassembling the laptop's case, but in other respects it is straightforward: First snap the old keyboard out, and then snap the replacement keyboard in. You can expect to pay $50 to $100 for a new notebook keyboard. Appropriate replacement keyboards may be available only from the notebook's vendor.

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