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.

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Step 5: Give your software a spa day

Now that all the hardware was upgraded and clean as a whistle, it was time to reinvigorate the R50's software. (This is especially important if you don't replace the system's hard drive, because a lot of digital flotsam and jetsam build up over time.)

How to do it

Defragmentation is important because Windows (and other operating systems) scatters files across the sectors of a hard disk. This makes it time-consuming to put the data together when it's needed, putting a drag on performance. Defragging moves the data around and consolidates it.

Just go to Windows Explorer, right click on the drive, and select Properties at the bottom of the list. In the Tools tab, click on Defragment Now. The rest is pretty much automatic, but set aside an hour or more if you haven't done this essential piece of maintenance recently.

defragging

Defragging the drive.

Click to view image gallery.

To prevent out-of-control fragmentation, schedule regular defragging sessions when you're not likely to be using the computer, such as every Tuesday at 3 a.m. Go to Scheduled Tasks in the Control Panel and add a task to start the wizard. Next, click Browse, navigate to the Windows/system32/ folder, select defrag.exe and click Open. Finally, choose whether you want the autodefragging to take place daily, weekly, monthly, when the machine is started up or when you log on. All you need to do now is pick the day and time for the task to take place, type in your password, and click Finish.

Error checking can find physical faults in a hard disk, like a scratch or a place where the magnetic coating has worn away, and then avoid them. Figure about 15 minutes to error-check a 40GB drive and twice that for an 80GB drive.

Starting Check Disk

Starting Check Disk. Click to view image gallery.

In Windows Explorer, right-click on the drive, select Properties, go to the Tools tab, and click on Check Now. Check the boxes marked "Automatically fix file system errors" and "Scan for and attempt recovery of bad sectors," and click Start to start the Check Disk software. Because the software needs to have the exclusive use of the drive, you might have to restart the computer to run Check Disk.

Managing memory is especially important with Windows XP, which is a resource hog even with 768MB of RAM. In other words, every bit helps.

Memory Washer

Memory Washer. Click to view image gallery.

I like Right Utilities Inc.'s Memory Washer because it's a powerful program that can increase the amount of available memory and shows where memory is being wasted. It shows not only how much free memory you have but also how many Windows processes are running. In about one minute, Memory Washer freed up 15MB of memory on my R50.

The 1.9MB download is available for free and lasts 15 days as trial software; if you like it, pay the $15 to license it.

30% faster -- and no longer embarrassing

All told, the hardware and software changes I performed to revive my R50 yielded a 30% gain in performance based on Futuremark's PCMark 05 benchmark.

More to the point, the fan now works properly, so the system doesn't shut down on its own. It's clean, and I'm no longer ashamed to use it in public. Not bad for an hour's work and about $125.

Revamping a ThinkPad R50

Before After
CPU 1.5-GHz Pentium M 1.5-GHz Pentium M
RAM 256MB 768MB
Hard drive capacity/speed 40GB/4,200 rpm 80GB/5,400 rpm
PC Mark 05 score* 1,182 1,536
*Higher is better

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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