Laptop tips: Add RAM, recycle a hard drive

Learn how to add memory to a laptop, turn an old laptop drive into external storage

It's been almost a year since I served up some nice, hot laptop tips (see "Laptop Q&A: Power Off Quickly, Fix Sticky Keys")--and that's inexcusable. I'll make it up to you this week with some useful advice on adding memory to a laptop, turning an old laptop hard disc into an external drive, and using your laptop's power settings effectively.

Add RAM to a Laptop

So my dad was griping that his Acer Aspire 9300 laptop takes forever to boot. I inspected it for spyware, excessive startup programs, and the other usual suspects, but everything checked out.

Then I remembered that the machine is about three years old and wasn't a powerhouse to begin with. So I checked the RAM. Bingo: It has only 1GB. Windows Vista needs at least 2GB to run smoothly. (So does Windows 7, but I've seen it run reasonably well on less.)

Upgrading a laptop's RAM may sound like a big deal, but it's actually the single easiest upgrade there is. The only challenge lies in determining how many RAM modules your system currently has and what kind they are.

To find out, turn off your system, unplug it, remove the battery, and flip it over. You should see at least one panel that can be removed with a small screwdriver. Consult your manual if you can't find the one covering the RAM sockets--or just open them all. Here's what you're looking for:

Most laptops have two sockets. If only one is occupied, just buy a module that exactly matches the existing one and drop it in. That'll effectively double your RAM.

If both sockets are filled, you'll have to replace both modules. In the case of Dad's Aspire, for example, it had a pair of 512MB modules for a total of 1GB of RAM. We elected to replace them with a pair of 1GB modules for 2GB total. (What to do with the displaced RAM? EBay, of course!)

Not sure what kind of memory your laptop takes? Head to a site like Crucial, which can identify nearly every make and model. (Of course, once you know what you need, you can shop around to find the best price.)

Recycle an Old Laptop Hard Drive

Inexpensive hard drive enclosures are ideal for recycling old laptop drives that have been replaced by higher-capacity models.

An enclosure is essentially an external case for that internal drive, one that lends it a USB interface. When all is said and done, you'll have a compact USB hard drive you can use for backups, extra storage, transporting files, and so on.

More immediately, an enclosure lets you easily restore your data onto the new drive--a simple drag-and-drop operation. With that done, you'll have to decide if you want to wipe the drive or keep it intact (you know, "just in case").

When shopping for an enclosure, make sure to choose one that offers the proper kind of interface for your old drive. Again, if it's more than a few years old, it's probably IDE. Any newer and it's more likely to be SATA. In either case, you should be able to find one for just US$10-15. I recommend hitting sites like Meritline and Newegg.

Learn Your Laptop's Power Settings

My aunt recently told me about a problem with her new laptop: Whenever she'd step away from it for more than a few minutes, she'd close the lid. Upon returning, she'd open the lid, only to be faced with a blank screen and no response from the mouse or keyboard.

Want to know why? The default lid-closing action for most laptops is to put the system in Sleep mode, and Windows is notoriously bad at waking up properly. I advise most laptop users to use Hibernate mode instead, as it's much more reliable when it comes to waking up.

You see, Sleep (aka Standby) puts your system into a low-power state, allowing you to pick up where you left off (in theory, anyway) after just a few seconds. However, a PC in Sleep mode continues to consume battery power, so it's not uncommon to return to a "sleeping" PC to find that it's just plain dead. Or, in my aunt's case, unresponsive.

Hibernate, however, saves your machine's current state to a temporary hard-drive file, then shuts down completely (much like Off). When you start it up again, it loads that file and returns you to where you left off--no booting required.

Both ends of the Hibernate process take a little longer than sleep mode (usually 10-20 seconds, in my experience), but you avoid any of the issues that can arise when Windows suddenly loses power.

And as noted, sleep mode is notoriously flaky. If your system refuses to wake up properly, you'll end up losing whatever documents and/or Web pages you had open. Consequently, I recommend using hibernate most of the time.

If you've got a hassle that needs solving, send it my way. I can't promise a response, but I'll definitely read every e-mail I get--and do my best to address at least some of them in the PCWorld Hassle-Free PC blog . My 411: hasslefree@pcworld.com . You can also sign up to have the Hassle-Free PC newsletter e-mailed to you each week .

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