Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Upgrade Your Laptop

PC Magazine


By John Delaney

Upgrade Your Laptop
Rummaging through my office closet (the designated burial ground for non-­working PCs and other assorted aging electronic gadgets), I happened upon a dusty old Gateway laptop in a darkened corner. The notebook, a Solo 9550 "desktop replacement," is only five years old, but its Pentium III processor, CD-RW/DVD ­combo drive, and 128MB of memory are ancient tech­nology compared with today's mobile offerings. The system contained a painfully slow (4,200-rpm) 30GB hard drive, which was filled to capacity, but it still fired up once I found the correct AC adapter. Then I discovered why this seemingly capable laptop earned a spot in my version of an oversized junk drawer: The screen worked for 2 minutes before the image faded to black.

I had found the perfect upgrade candidate.

Let me say right up front that upgrading a laptop can be a costly endeavor, depending on how many components need replacing. At some point you have to decide if it makes more sense (financially) to scrap the older system for a shiny new model. For example, a new screen, hard drive, memory, optical drive, and PCMCIA TV tuner card set me back more than $700, which would go a long way toward purchasing a brand-new notebook.

I also didn't tackle the most complex part of a PC upgrade: the processor. Though it's possible to upgrade the processor in some notebooks, it's a complicated job that may require soldering skills, depending on the model. There are online parts suppliers that provide chips for various systems, but you must be certain that your power supply can handle the extra power draw and that the cooling fans will prevent overheating; otherwise, you run the risk of frying the motherboard and power supply (at which point you might as well go out and buy yourself a new notebook). Besides, the CPU on this Gateway was soldered in place. I located a replacement motherboard assembly for it for around $450, but it contained the same 1.13-GHz Pentium III Mobile CPU that I already had.

Chances are your laptop makeover won't be as extensive as mine. But if you want to breathe new life into an old road warrior, the job may be easier than you think. One more tip before you get started: Find a spacious, well-lit work area with a flat, level surface to perform the upgrades. I used my pool table—sorry, Minnesota Fats. You'll need a set of jeweler's screwdrivers to remove most of the components, as laptops use extremely small screws. While you're at it, have a few bowls or small containers on hand to collect all those screws; you'll need them to install the new parts.

Install a High-Gloss Display

Replacing your laptop's screen may seem like a job for the pros, but it's a fairly easy procedure that you can complete in less than an hour. A set of jeweler's screwdrivers is essential for removing the panel, however. I picked up a new 15.4-inch 1,280-by-1,024 replacement panel from ScreenTek, which has a huge list of screens for a variety of models. The panel sells for $249 on the company's Web site, www.screentekinc.com, and I paid an extra $50 to have ScreenTek apply the high-gloss PixelBright coating. Like Dell's TruLife coating, PixelBright provides better viewing-angle performance and sharper image quality than traditional antiglare treatments. Although the panel did not come with written installation instructions, the site offers an excellent step-by-step instructional guide and a downloadable video to help you out. Live chat and telephone support are also available for the technically challenged, and if you absolutely feel that you'll botch the job, ScreenTek will perform the installation free of charge—but you'll have to ship your laptop to it. If your screen is in perfect working order and you just want a high-gloss finish, send your laptop in, and for $100 it will put a PixelBright coating on it.

Installation is basically the reverse of the ­removal process, and is just as easy. The toughest part is lining up the hinges with the panel frame; it took me three tries to get it right. The whole procedure took just 45 minutes from start to finish—including the search for a latch spring that popped out when I removed the broken screen.