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Is your laptop old, slow, and has the hardware never been upgraded? Working on a slow computer can be a real drag. Before you buy a completely new one, however, you should consider ways to give your old friend a new life and decide whether it's worth to upgrade or repair your laptop. In addition to a fresh installation of Windows, upgrading the RAM and adding an SSD is pretty easy and can make a major difference!
Not sure whether you can upgrade hardware all by yourself? Don't worry, it's probably not as complicated as it may seem. While not every part of a laptop is easily accessible, the laptop RAM is often super-easy to exchange. Check whether your laptop has an access hatch for the RAM on its back or whether the back cover or keyboard is easy to remove to expose the RAM. If it's not instantly visible, consult the manual or the manufacturer website. Once you know how to physically access the RAM, the hard part is to figure out how much RAM you need, and which type of RAM is compatible with your laptop. So let's go over the basics and see what you really need, before we dive into the actual handicraft.
What is Laptop RAM and Do I Need More?
RAM stands for Random Access Memory. It is also known as physical memory; virtual memory is explained in the next paragraph. RAM is used to temporarily store information of running processes and tasks. The more RAM is available, the more processes can run simultaneously.
Performance issues occur when the available RAM is exhausted. To free up memory for active processes and tasks, the system starts to write excess data, i.e. information of idle processes or tasks, to the hard drive (virtual memory). When the user returns to an idle process or task, the system must first free up RAM, then fetch the data of the requested item from the hard drive and load it into the RAM. Since hard drive read/write speeds are significantly slower than RAM read/write speeds, the user experiences lag.
If you frequently experience lag when you want to switch from one program to another, adding laptop RAM will probably give your system a significant boost.
How Much RAM Do I Need?
This depends on what you do with your computer and the amount you can add is limited by the type of operating system you have.
All 32-bit Windows operating systems support a maximum of 4GB RAM. Windows 7 Home Basic 64-bit is limited to 8GB RAM, Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit can use a maximum of 16GB RAM. All other 64-bit versions of Windows 7 support up to 192GB RAM. The regular edition of Windows 8 64-bit is limited to 128GB RAM, while the Professional and Enterprise editions both support up to 512GB RAM. A full overview can be found on this Memory Limits for Windows Releases page.
Now that you know the maximum RAM your operating system supports, let's find out what you currently have. In Windows, click the keyboard shortcut [CTRL] + [SHIFT] + [ESC] to open the Task Manager. Switch to the Performance tab and check what it says under Physical Memory (MB). Total indicates the amount of RAM currently installed on your system.
If your total RAM is less than what your system supports, you have room to upgrade. And if your RAM is maxed out, you have reason to upgrade. Keep the Task Manager open and see how your RAM performs over time as you continue using your computer.
You can assess how much information is written to virtual memory using the Performance Monitor. In Windows 7, go to START, type perform into the search field, and open Performance Monitor. Under Monitoring Tools, click Performance Monitor, then click the green + symbol to add another variable. Pick Paging file from the list and click the Add >> button at the bottom. Click OK and watch. This will give you an idea how much RAM you really need.
Generally, 2-4GB should suffice for normal web browsing and text editing. 8GB if you run multiple programs simultaneously and/or keep a lot of browser tabs open. More only if you run memory-intensive programs.
What Type Of RAM Do I Need?
Before you can upgrade your memory, you need to figure out which type of RAM is compatible with your laptop. The most convenient way to look into your laptop and determine what will fit, is to use Crucial's Memory Advisory or System Scanner Tool. For the first you need to enter laptop manufacturer and model, while the former is an executable that scans your system and automatically determines matching hardware. Both tools are available from the Crucial homepage.
Kingston offers a similar service for searching the right type of memory. You can search by system/device, memory part number, or memory type. Unlike Crucial, Kingston actually had my laptop model listed and recommended a compatible module.
If you are unsure about your laptop model, I recommend running Crucial's system scanner. It will show you what type of memory stick you are using right now and recommend a new module based on that. My laptop, for example, has one 4GB memory stick, thus one of the two slots is available.
Crucial's system scan detected a DDR3 PC3-10600 RAM stick and offered a respective module. The result came with several notes about things to keep in mind. Kingston on the other hand determined that a DDR3 1333 MHz RAM stick is compatible with my model's memory slots, but didn't provide further details or recommendations.
The key pieces of information here are DDR3 PC3-10600 and 1333 MHz. A wrong type of RAM (e.g. DDR2 instead of DDR3) won't fit into your laptop. And to get optimal results, be sure to buy a RAM with a matching clock rate (identical MHz count to the one you already have). Also keep in mind that laptop RAM modules are significantly smaller than those for desktop computer, hence they are called SO-DIMM for small outline dual in-line memory module. Don't accidentally buy the wrong type of DIMM.
Here is a summary of what you need to know:
- Type of RAM, i.e. DDR, DDR2 or DDR3
- Amount of MHz supported by your laptop
- Physical size (SO-DIMM for laptops)
Obviously, both Crucial and Kingston offer these free tools because they want to sell you their respective RAM modules. And both manufacturers offer good deals and high-quality hardware. However, with the information gathered from their tools, you can safely shop at eBay or Amazon or your local electronics store. I purchased my Kingston 8GB RAM kit from Amazon.
Theoretically, I could have upgraded to 8GB RAM by adding on additional 4GB module. However, this can cause performance issues due to RAM incompatibilities. In the worst case, your system won't boot or one of the modules won't be recognized. If you want to keep the original RAM module and if you are not comfortable with adjusting settings in the BIOS, you need to find a second module of the exact same make, i.e. same frequency, latency, and voltage. Because it's too easy to mess this up and because changing BIOS settings to fix incompatibilities can be complicated, you will often hear the recommendation to buy a completely new memory kit and remove the old memory stick. It's the easiest and safest choice.
How Can I Fix BIOS Settings In Case I Have a RAM Mismatch?
If you have two laptop RAM modules with mismatched frequency, latency, or voltage, your BIOS will harmonize the settings and default to the lower value. That's if it recognizes both modules or boots at all. To prevent a loss in performance, you can overclock your RAM. Do this at your own risk!
Before you add the new RAM, boot into your BIOS and check whether you can adjust RAM latency, frequency, or voltage. If that is not possible, find out whether you can upgrade your BIOS.
If RAM settings can be changed, set the higher values of the two modules. Again, you are overclocking the RAM at your own risk! Particularly increasing the voltage can damage the hardware. Save and exit the BIOS and proceed as described below.
How Do I Add New RAM Modules?
Once you hold the new RAM modules in your hands, there is no escape. Now you must lay hands on your laptop and add the new hardware. The exact procedure will depend on your individual laptop model. I previously demonstrated how to salvage hardware from an old HP Compaq nw8440 and showed you where the RAM modules sit and how to release them.
Today, I will briefly show you how to do the same with a Sony Vaio VPCCB laptop. If you have a different laptop model, I recommend visiting the manufacturer's website to find a manual or instructions for your device. Before you take apart your laptop, make sure it is turned off, unplug the power cable, take out the battery (if it's removable), and ground yourself.
Locate the removable plastic cover that covers the RAM compartment. There are typically two compartments; the larger one holds the hard drive. Release the screw of the smaller cover and remove it. This should expose one or two RAM slots of which one or both can be filled. To release the module, pull back both sides of the frame on its left and right.
To insert a new RAM module, slide it into the slot in a ~45° angle, be sure it really sits in the slot, then push it down. In my case, the upper slot would resist the RAM module until I had found the right angle first. With the lower one, however, the module just slid in as I pushed it in and down simultaneously.
You know that you inserted the modules right when the little notches on the sides of the RAM module align with the small protrusions of the frame.
And that's it! Put the cover back on, tighten the screw, and boot your computer.
You can enter the BIOS before you boot into Windows to check whether the RAM was recognized and whether there are any additional options you can enable. My new RAM was recognized fine and there were no extra options to choose from.
The procedure of upgrading the laptop RAM is straight forward, technically easy, and can give your system a huge performance boost. Since most users max out the RAM before the CPU reaches capacity, a memory upgrade is usually smarter and equally effective as getting a new computer. And besides, it's a lot cheaper and you don't have to worry about migrating your data.
Have you ever upgraded computer hardware yourself and what was your experience?
Image credits: Snail on Keyboard via Shutterstock