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Your portable PC may have seemed packed with features when you bought it three years ago, but now it’s sorely lacking in just about every way. Should you toss the machine you paid nearly $2,000 for in the bin or consider upgrading your system? We’ll help you answer this question.

Unlike desktop computers that come apart like a stack of Legos to be reconfigured when the next processor hits the market, portable PCs are—shall we say—slightly less flexible. You can’t just can run down to the nearest computer superstore and pick up an extra hard drive, more random-access memory (RAM), or an upgraded processor to pop into your machine. Instead, each portable PC has expansion options of its own, a fact you’ll quickly discover when you embark upon answering your upgrade questions.

Older Can Be Better.

Although it might be hard to believe, the older your laptop is, the more up-grade options you’re likely to have. That’s because the length of time a machine has been on the market correlates to the time third-party vendors have had to develop the upgrade options. Similarly, the more popular a machine, the more likely you’ll find the upgrades you desire. A no-name portable PC purchased three years ago from a company that has long since gone out of business is not likely to give you much leeway for upgrading. In this case, it’s better to buy new and count your blessings that your portable lasted this long without needing any serious “out-of-warranty” repairs.

Don’t overlook that in today’s competitive computer market, entry-level machines from major manufacturers, such as Toshiba and Hitachi. It’s something to consider when debating whether or not to upgrade that old portable.

When To Upgrade.

There are many instances when it makes sense to invest in an upgrade for your portable PC, especially when it comes to storage and memory.

RAM. If you’re just looking to add extra memory (RAM) to your portable PC, then by all means do so. This is the easiest and most effective upgrade you can make. Either seek out extra RAM from your portable PC’s manufacturer or contact a third-party company such as PC Upgrade ( +02 9906 4533) where you’ll find old and new portable additional RAM options.

Hard drive. Upgrading your computer’s hard drive might sound daunting, but it is not necessarily impossible. You have many options, including upgrading your portable’s internal hard drive or adding an external storage device. The more convenient choice for most users is to upgrade the internal hard drive. However, unless you have a relatively popular machine (such as IBM, Toshiba, NEC, or Digital), you could have tough time finding these devices.

If these solutions don’t appeal to you, there’s always the option of an external drive connected via the parallel port, SCSI (Small Computer System Interface) port or PC Card slot. If your portable has a standard Personal Computer Memory Card International Association (PCMCIA) slot that supports either one Type III card or two Type II cards, you’ll be able to use a PC Card-based hard drive.

External drives have a couple drawbacks here: You won’t have room for an additional PC Card (such as a modem or network card) and the space available in these cards is somewhat limited. On the plus side: PC Card hard drives are extremely durable, and they can be easily used in any machine that supports a Type III card. 

Unless your portable PC is extremely old, it’s likely to support an external storage system such as the popular Zip drive from Iomega. This device will give you the ability to move 100MB of data. Just plug the drive into your portable’s parallel port, and you’re in business.

If your portable PC has a removable CD-ROM and diskette drive, you may be able to use Iomega’s Notebook Zip, which fits into the multipurpose bay slots of Toshiba, Compaq, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard portable PCs. With a Zip drive installed in your machine, you won’t have to labor with cables and connectors. For information about Notebook Zip drives, visit the Iomega Web site. To purchase the drive, contact an Iomega reseller such as CNF.

You also can go the traditional route with a standard external hard drive that attaches via a parallel, SCSI, or PC Card port. This allows you to transfer your data to any machine you desire at the expense of a lack of portability, as most external hard drives require a power supply.

Battery. You wouldn’t trade your car in because its ashtray was full, so don’t toss your portable PC because your battery no longer works. This component is probably the most likely to be replaced during the lifetime of your portable PC. You shouldn’t expect your battery’s lifetime to be more than three or four years. If you’ve owned your portable PC for a couple of years, you’ve probably noticed your battery pack is dying quicker each time you boot up your PC.

Unless your machine is extremely dated, you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding a new battery for it. You may even get lucky and be able to upgrade from the older nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries to the newer lithiumion (Li-ion) ones, which gives you more battery life per square inch.

PC Card slot add-ons. PCMCIA card slots are the most universal input device a portable can have. If your portable is equipped with one, you will be able to add all sorts of hardware, including a hard drive.

Typical PC Card devices include modems (internal modems can be upgraded) and adapters for connecting to a network. This slot can make a seemingly obsolete portable more youthful by adding multimedia capabilities, including a CD-ROM drive and 16-bit audio. You also can add a joystick for heavy-duty game playing.

Docking station. To give your portable a little more flexibility when it sits on your desk, consider buying a docking station. A docking station replicates your portable’s present ports while perhaps adding some additional functionality, such as extra PC Card slots and Industry Standard Architecture (ISA) card slots, for example.

When To Not Upgrade.

There are times when upgrading your portable will be too costly to bother with. Though it’s worth spending a few hundred dollars to keep your original $2,000  investment in working order, it doesn’t make much sense to throw bad money after good by upgrading costly components in a machine that has otherwise seen its day.

Display. If you’re suffering from a poor portable display, your options are limited. Perhaps you opted for the passive-matrix (or dual-scan) screen over the more eye-pleasing active-matrix display for cost reasons. Or, worse yet, maybe your active-matrix display suffers serious pixel outages.

With an active-matrix display, pixels are made up of three dots (red, blue, and green) and if pixels go bad, the result can be a disturbing burst of color on a portion of the display. In this case, you’re not likely to find much solace from your portable PC’s manufacturer because your warranty probably has expired when something like this occurs. Replacing a portable PC’s crummy display is too expensive. Instead, you should either purchase a new-and-improved portable computer or an external monitor to use with your computer.

Processor. There are quite a few companies out there that are willing to upgrade your portable PC’s processor. In the past, this type of upgrade would have been impossible, but with today’s technology, it’s feasible. Whether it’s prudent is a whole other issue.

Most CPU upgrades offered here were for the AMD 133MHz and 150MHz 5x86 CPU. If your portable still sports an old 486DX processor from Intel, you’ll want to look into this upgrade option, as it promises to make your machine four times faster.

This process is not for the faint-hearted, as the technique involves removing the soldered CPU using a specially designed hot jet tool that shoots hot air (up to 700 degrees) over the pins, without destroying the CPU and the surrounding chips on the motherboard. Once the original CPU is safely removed, a new and more powerful CPU is inserted and resoldered. You won’t be performing this upgrade at home, of course, so you’ll have to live without your machine while it visits the repair shop for its operation.

A Worn-Out Machine.

If your portable is three or four years old, it might be time to throw in the towel. If your machine didn’t come with a PCMCIA slot or a CD-ROM drive, you’re likely to feel as if you’re living in the Dark Ages of computing. Just about every program comes on a CD-ROM nowadays, so unless you opt for an external PC Card-based CD-ROM drive (which means you better have an available PC Card slot), you’ll be hard-pressed to find good uses for your portable PC.

If your computer is beat up from too much wear and tear, you’ll probably want to consider a new model. If, for example, your portable’s keyboard has had coffee spilled on it one too many times, or the keys have been destroyed by aggressive typing, you can plug in an external keyboard while sitting at your desk, but your portable PC is no longer portable.