This old laptop: Revitalizing an aging notebook on the cheap

All it takes is a couple hours and about $125 to breathe new life into an old laptop.

My ThinkPad R50 just hit its fifth birthday, and the years haven't been kind to it. When it was new, the notebook was reliable and fast, and it traveled with me to many places throughout the world.

Today, it's slow and prone to annoying shutdowns. Plus, it has a broken key, its fan sounds like a 747 taking off, and the case looks like it went five rounds with Lenox Lewis. It can all be fixed, but is it a good investment to revamp a notebook that's worth about $350?

It sure is, because I'm going to give this old notebook a new lease on life for about $125 -- a bargain, considering what it would cost to replace.

I'll show you how I cleaned it up, replaced its slow and overloaded hard drive, installed extra memory, replaced the keyboard, and gave it a software tuneup. Not one of these tasks took me more than 15 minutes to do; altogether they took around an hour.

While it's all about reviving my ThinkPad R50, these techniques will work on just about any laptop. You'll need to investigate where the RAM is stashed, what kind of hard drive it uses and how the keyboard is attached. If you haven't backed up your data or defragged your hard drive lately, it could take you two or three hours longer than it took me, but it's absolutely worth the time you'll put into it.

When I finished my notebook rejuvenation, I benchmarked the system using FutureMark Corp.'s PCMark 05 tests to see how much extra performance I squeezed out of the old notebook. Turns out my little project yielded a very stable ThinkPad that performs 30% better than when I started. Here's how I did it.

Step 1: Add memory

One of the quickest, easiest and least expensive ways to improve a notebook's performance and reliability is to put in more system memory. Five years ago, the 256MB of RAM that came soldered to the motherboard was sufficient. Today, with operating system updates and more demanding applications, it's a drop in the bucket. Figure that it will take about five minutes to add memory.

My ThinkPad has one slot for adding memory and uses PC2700 SODIMM modules. I put in a 512MB module that cost about $30, tripling the amount of system memory to 768MB. (I used Infineon memory, but any brand would have worked.) I could have added a 1GB module, but at $75, it would have eaten up most of my budget and wouldn't have given me much more computing power.

CPU-Z close-up

Key memory specs revealed by CPU-Z.

Click to view image gallery.

How to do it

Ironically, the first step in this hardware project involves getting and loading the CPU-Z utility. Among other things, this nifty program shows how much memory is installed and its key specs.

Go to the Memory tab, and write down the frequency and other information that's listed; we'll need it later.

installing memory

Unscrewing the memory compartment's trapdoor. Click to view image gallery.

Next, shut off the system, remove the battery and find the trapdoor underneath the system where the RAM is hidden. It'll probably have a logo that looks like a circuit board.

After unscrewing and removing the cover, slide the new module into the slot, making sure that the gap in the board lines up with the plastic divider.

If it doesn't fit, don't force it. Try wiggling it a little or angling it in.

installing memory

Sliding in the new module.

Click to view image gallery.

Once the module is seated, snap it down, locking the board into place. The eraser end of a pencil is the perfect tool to use to make sure nothing delicate breaks.

Finally, start the system up and run CPU-Z to make sure that the new memory specs match the original specs; the only number that should change is Size, which should now read 768MB. Now, sit back and enjoy the extra performance.

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