Yes, it’s possible to improve the performance of an aging laptop. What’s better is that there are at least three things you can do that won’t cost any money. And while there’s a lot less under the hood of a laptop that you can replace when compared to a desktop, there are two (sometimes three) hardware upgrades you can make that can make a big difference.Disable the modem if you don’t use it. Many, if not most modems have Winmodems inside rather than hardware modems to cut costs and save battery power. But when you’re not using that modem, its device drivers are hogging memory and they could even be stealing precious CPU cycles. Right-click My Computer, hit Properties, click Hardware, then click Device Manager. Expand the part that says Modems, then right-click on your modem and select Disable.
Disable any other hardware you don’t use. If you don’t use your laptop’s serial and parallel ports, disable them in your BIOS. The speed difference may or may not make a difference depending on the age of your laptop, but if you’re trying to squeeze every last bit of speed from it, this can help.
Disabling your sound card if you don’t use it usually makes a noticeable difference, regardless of your laptop’s age. The sound hardware on most laptops is CPU-intensive.
Experiment with your display’s color depth. Usually you don’t want to change the resolution on a laptop, but you can change color depth to a lower setting and see if it helps. Paradoxically, picking the lowest setting doesn’t always yield the highest speed. And sometimes, depending on the video chipset, the fastest setting is the highest one. Still, it’s usually worth spending 30 minutes experimenting.
Max out your memory. With any laptop, you want to be hitting the swap file (virtual memory) as little as possible. Laptop hard drives are slower than their desktop equivalents–5400 RPM drives are pretty much impossible to buy on the desktop anymore, but a 5400 RPM disk is a high-end drive in laptop land–so the performance hit with virtual memory is more painful.
So the easiest upgrade you can make for an aging laptop is to yank out whatever replaceable memory is inside and install the largest modules that will work in their place. Be sure to check compatibility, as many laptops are picky about memory size and/or speed. Buying from a place like Crucial that guarantees compatibility is a good bet.
If the laptop is so old that Crucial doesn’t stock memory for it, or if the memory is just prohibitively expensive due to obsolesence, there’s always the secondhand market (Ebay and the like), but check the seller’s return policy, and always buy brand-name memory such as Crucial or Kingston. Generic memory very frequently causes problems. In 10 years of repairing, installing, and building computers, I’ve seen maybe 10 bad name-brand memory modules, total. When one of my clients or employers has used generic memory, at least 25% of it ended up failing on my watch. Some was dead on arrival, while some worked for a while but quickly developed problems.
I’m all for generics most of the time–I have generic oatmeal and off-brand coffee for breakfast, wash my hair with generic shampoo, I brushed my teeth with generic toothpaste this morning, I’m wearing private-label pants as I write, I put generic mustard on my sandwiches, and when I have a headache I take generic ibuprofen–but generic computer memory is a waste of money.
Upgrade the hard drive. Boot times and the time it takes to launch applications software greatly affects how we perceive a computer’s speed. Each generation of hard drive generally is much faster than the last, so replacing a hard drive in an aging laptop can give a huge boost.
Hard drive speed is more complicated than just buying the drive with the fastest RPM. Even buying the drive with the fastest RPM, lowest seek time, and biggest cache doesn’t necessarily always yield the fastest drive, but it will get you close. Since anything close to the top of the performance curve is likely to saturate the IDE bus at its peak speed in an aging laptop, that’s good enough when you’re buying an upgrade.
One caveat is that a lot of BIOSes on older laptops won’t recognize a monster hard drive. A rough rule of thumb is that anything from 1999-2000 or older will max out at 32 GB, and laptops from 1997 or so will max out at around 8 GB. Do a Google search on your model of laptop and words like “hard drive” and “bios limitation” to see the largest drive your laptop will support. Be sure to search Google Groups in addition to the Web. Sometimes you can get a BIOS upgrade to support larger drives, but often you cannot.
What happens when you install a drive your system can’t handle can be unpredictable. Sometimes a 40-gig drive will just show up as a 32-gig drive. Other times the system won’t boot at all. So it pays to do some research first.
CPU upgrades. These can be dicey on a laptop–sometimes the CPU is soldered to the board, and sometimes it’s not very accessible. Even when you can get to the CPU, mobile CPUs cost more than their desktop equivalents and are harder to find. Still, sometimes it’s possible to replace a CPU in a laptop. If you have an adventurous spirit and lots of hardware know-how, it might be worth searching Google with the model of your laptop and the words “CPU upgrade.” Again, search Google Groups in addition to the Web.