14 steps to a better, faster Windows laptop

After a couple of years, most laptops fall seriously behind the times. Here are several ways to upgrade your legacy laptop to meet today's standards.

Time to upgrade

I recently explained how you can clean out your laptop and increase its efficiency. However, sometimes what you really need is an upgrade.

What follows is a step-by-step rundown on how to give a legacy notebook a new lease on life by adding more RAM and a solid state drive (SSD), as well as the latest USB, HDMI and Wi-Fi hardware. As an example, I used my three-year-old HP EliteBook 2560p laptop, which is powered by a second-generation 2.6GHz Intel Core i5 processor and includes 4GB of RAM, a 320GB hard drive and Windows 7 Professional.

(I have not upgraded my operating system, although you can always switch to Windows 8 or Linux if you choose.)

Grab your tools and let's get started.

1. Grab your tools

The first step is to make sure you have the necessary tools and components. Everything is available online or at a good electronics store. These can vary depending on your needs, but should be good for upgrading most notebooks. First, let's start with the tools you'll need:

-- A small Philips screwdriver (I used a number 0)
-- A DVD-RW disc or USB drive (for creating startup media)
-- An external hard drive (for backing up data)
-- A pencil with an eraser (for pushing RAM into place)
-- A small bowl to hold screws and other easily lose-able objects
-- A marking pen for labeling

2a. Choose your components

The best strategy is to shop around to find the best -- and the most reasonably priced -- components for your particular system. The parts that I bought for revamping my EliteBook are listed below. I chose these for two reasons: Because I'm familiar with the vendors and/or products, and because they fit my system.

This list shows what I paid; prices may have changed since then (clockwise, from top):

-- Cable Matters Gold Plated DisplayPort HDMI adapter ($10)
-- Netgear A6100 WiFi USM Mini Adapter ($50)
-- Kingston 8GB SDRAM Module model DDR31333MHz (two at $90 each -- more about this on the next slide)
-- Crucial M500 480GB SSD ($370)
-- StarTech 2 Port ExpressCard SuperSpeed USB 3.0 Card Adapter ($32) 

2b. Select the right memory

Adding RAM to a computer boosts performance considerably. The EliteBook's 4GB of RAM was skimpy to say the least, but rather than boosting it to 8GB or 12GB, I decided to add 16GB of RAM so I could squeeze every last bit of speed out of it.

I used Kingston Technology RAM modules, but you can get the parts from a variety of sources such as Crucial, Patriot Memory, PNY or any of the dozens of others. Most vendors offer an online ordering system, where you type in the model and details about your machine. For my EliteBook, I ordered two 8GB DDR3 SDRAM modules. At $90 each, the 8GB modules aren't cheap, but I figured the extra performance would be more than worth the price.

2c: Select your storage: Hard drive or SSD?

Instead of swapping the EliteBook's rather slow 320GB hard drive with a larger one, I decided to replace it with a 480GB solid-state drive (SSD), which is roughly five times faster at reading and writing data, can take more abuse and uses less power than rotating media does. Since much of my current work now resides in the cloud, the storage space should be quite sufficient.

On the other hand, an SSD costs roughly five to six times more than a hard drive for a lot less storage space. For instance, the 2.5-in. Crucial M500 SSD I installed cost me $370 versus about $60 for a 500GB hard drive. So it all depends on your own needs.

3. Getting inside

After turning the machine off and removing its battery, I slid the bottom panel free. Laptops differ widely in accessibility; some feature several small hatches rather than a single removeable bottom. If that's your case, look on the bottom panel for a chip icon or other label.

The first task will be to upgrade the RAM. After unscrewing and removing the panel, you should find the memory modules.

4. Replacing the RAM

Once you've found the RAM, press down on the board's edges with a pencil eraser to release the module and remove it. Then line up the contacts of each new module with those on the motherboard. Do it one at a time at a 45-degree angle and press down until the memory board snaps into place.

When you're done, replace the battery, turn the system on and make sure that the new RAM is working properly by right-clicking on the Computer entry in Windows Explorer and clicking on Properties. This brings up the Windows System page. In this case, the system recognizes the new memory, so we're ready to roll.

5a. Create a start-up drive: Windows 7

Now, it's time to upgrade the storage.

But first you need to create an external start-up drive to use after you've installed the new blank drive. Either a DVD or a USB drive will work. (I prefer a DVD, because I can put it away for future emergencies.) 

Go to the Control Panel's Backup and Restore page. If you're using a blank DVD, click on "Create a system repair disc" and "Create Disc." It takes about 10 minutes to compile and burn the disc. If you're using an external USB drive, go to "Create system image" instead and, the the set-up window, select the drive to save it to.

5b. Create a start-up drive: Windows 8

For those using Windows 8, it's a little more involved. Go to the Control Panel's File History option. Then click on System Image Backup in the lower left corner. Choose whether you want the backup saved on a hard drive, DVD or a network location.

After picking the drive to back up from, confirm what you're doing and click on Start Backup to get it going. The system will then format the drive or ready the DVD, and start the process. Near the end, you'll get a Create System Image window that lets you make a startup disk to get the machine going with a blank drive in place.

Some vendors offer software tools to help create recovery media. Check your manual or with your vendor.

6. Back up your data

With the start-up media done, it's time to back up the existing hard drive using an external USB hard drive. (If you have a large-enough cloud storage account, you can back everything up online, but it will likely take much longer.)

After you attach the external drive, go to Windows' Backup and Restore page and click on "Set up backup." Highlight the external drive as the data's destination and select "Let me choose." You can then set the software to copy every file.

Next, click on the data you want copied: Local Disk (C:). Click Next to start.

7. Remove the old drive

Depending on how much data you have, it could take an hour or two to move all the data to the external hard drive (it took me about an hour and 15 minutes). When it's finished, shut the system down, flip the machine over and find the hard drive. I just left the bottom panel off during the back up; if you haven't, remove it again.

Loosen the four screws that hold the hard drive in place and put the screws into a small bowl. Finally, slide the drive out by its plastic tab.

After that, carefully loosen the screws that attach the drive to its bracket and put the drive aside. (You might want to use it as a spare.)

8. Install the new drive

It's time to install the new drive. After screwing the new hard drive or SSD onto the drive bracket, slide the drive into place and finish up by screwing the bracket into the notebook. You can also replace the bottom panel.

Now you have to fill the drive up again. Boot Windows from the start-up disc you created. My EliteBook boots from its optical drive if a disc is present; other systems may require that you change the BIOS settings to boot from its optical drive. For notebooks without an optical drive, use the same external drive you used to create the start-up disc.

9a. Reload your OS: Windows 7

It will take a few minutes to start the system, format the new drive and load Windows onto it from the DVD disc. Once it's done, boot your new drive, click on "System Recovery Options," select "System Image Recovery" and the laptop will then find the backup files on the external hard drive. Click Next to start the restoration process of moving the data to the new drive.

From here on out, it's all automatic. It should take about an hour or so. In other words, it's time for a coffee break. 

9b. Reload your OS: Windows 8

To restore from a backup using Windows 8, start by rebooting the computer while holding the shift key. This will bring up the troubleshooting window.

Click on Advanced options and then on System Image Recovery to start the process. After picking the backup image you want to use (the one that was just made), click Finish and the system will begin to copy your files onto the new drive.

If you want to upgrade to Windows 8 from Windows 7, it's fairly simple: Instead of using your startup DVD, put the upgrade disc into the drive, select everything that you want to move (Windows settings, personal files and apps) to the new OS and click Next. Plan on it taking a couple of hours.

10. Add USB 3.0

When my EliteBook came out three years ago, USB 3.0 was a luxury, but now even budget machines use this faster standard. Happily, the system has an ExpressCard slot that can take a USB 3.0 adapter card. (Unfortunately, a regular PC Card slot isn't fast enough to keep up with USB 3.0.)

There are a variety of cards available from vendors like Sonnet and Sabrent; I opted for StarTech's $32 2-port ExpressCard adapter.

I loaded the software, inserted the card in the ExpressCard slot and let the hardware install itself. Once installed, the card's two USB 3.0 ports increased throughput with an external drive from 26.6Mbyte/s to 87.1Mbyte/s, more than a threefold improvement.

11. Add HDMI

Rather than having an HDMI port, the EliteBook came with a DisplayPort video connector. DisplayPort works well with my monitor in the office, but when I travel, I have to connect a projector using the system's VGA port, which doesn't handle audio. It's an easy fix with a DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapter, which averages about $10 to $20.

If you don't have a DisplayPort connector, look for a VGA-to-HDMI adapter, which should cost about $25 to $30.

12. Upgrade to 802.11ac

The current Wi-Fi standard is still 802.11n, but you may want to consider upgrading to 802.11ac. While it lacks formal IEEE approval, 802.11ac is stable and works with existing gear. The new protocol can receive data at up to 1.3Gbps of data flow, about three times that of 802.11n. 

I chose Netgear's AC600 WiFi USB Mini Adapter ($50) because it sticks out only an inch from the notebook. It improved my Wi-Fi reception from 3 bars to 5 bars on the Windows Wi-Fi signal strength meter in my laptop's task tray and extended the system's range by 15 ft. More to the point, my online access speed rose from about 9Mbit/s to 12Mbit/s.

13. Update your BIOS

As long as you're updating the hardware, it's a good idea to update the system BIOS. This should be done whenever a new version comes out, but it's easy to ignore. In the case of my HP laptop, the most recent version fixes a few problems.

Start by finding and downloading the newest BIOS for your system (usually, you can find it on the manufacturer's support page) and transferring it to the desktop so it is handy. The new BIOS usually comes with a transfer utility that controls the data flow. Do the transfer with the machine plugged in -- if the transfer is interrupted, your computer may not start.

14. Check to see everything's working

Before I returned the EliteBook to service, I wanted to verify everything inside was working properly. I used HP's Support Assistant software, which came with my EliteBook. A good alternative is AVG's TuneUp Utilities 2014 ($50; free 15-day trial), which can do everything from removing duplicate files and cleaning up a hard drive to fixing Registry problems and making the system start faster.

It's also a good idea to make absolutely sure that your upgraded notebook can take the heat. I use the PassMark BurnInTest ($39; free version available), which runs a variety of tasks simultaneously while noting any faults. This is harsher treatment than you'll give it on a normal basis, but it is a good test of the system's mettle.

An overall improvement

All told, the upgrade of my HP EliteBook took about three hours. Increasing the system's RAM to 16GB meant that its PassMark PerformanceTest score of 937.1 went up to 1,241.7. After I swapped the EliteBook's hard drive for a high-speed SSD, the score rose to 1,750.7 -- nearly double the original system's performance.

Of course, all these upgrades weren't free. The bill for the various materials I used for my upgrade added up to $642 -- about the price of a new budget machine.

However, you can pick and choose which upgrades you really need and which you don't. The result will be a rejuvenated laptop that you can depend on -- or that you can confidently pass on to a friend or relative.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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