One of the best ways to perk up the performance of an older laptop is by increasing its memory. Most of the time, the process of adding RAM is little harder than changing a light bulb. But not every laptop is easy to upgrade, and some modern thin-and-light units can’t be upgraded at all—you have to buy the laptop with as much memory as you expect to need for its lifetime. Here’s a primer to upgrading your laptop with additional RAM.
Can You Upgrade?
The first thing to do when you’re considering a memory upgrade is to verify that your laptop supports it. Then you need to determine how much memory you can add. Typically your BIOS and motherboard constrain the amount of RAM that you can add to your laptop. Every model is different, so consult your user’s guide, search the Web, and read up on your laptop’s specs at the vendor’s website to figure out whether you can safely increase the amount of memory on your machine. While you’re doing this research, identify the steps involved in opening your laptop case and swapping out the memory modules safely.
Next, you need to investigate how your currently installed memory is configured across the slots. For example, your laptop may have only two memory slots, both containing 256MB modules to achieve your system’s current 512MB capacity. To get to 1GB, you would have to buy two 512MB modules. Alternatively, you might have a single 512MB module and an empty memeory slot, in which case you would need to add a second 512MB module to reach 1GB.
Last but not least, you need to know the type of memory that your laptop uses—PC133, DDR, DDR2, DDR3, or whatever—and its speed. Your laptop’s documentation should contain this info, but you can also find it on the startup screen. If you don’t see it, try pressing the Pause, Break, or Tabkey while your system is booting, to freeze the boot or show the boot info. You can also find the memory type in the BIOS. Most often, you must press Delete, F2, or another function key early in the boot process in order to enter the BIOS.
Should You Upgrade?
If your laptop is running on no more than 512MB of RAM with Windows XP or no more than 1GB of RAM with Windows Vista or Windows 7, you should upgrade. You’ll notice a significant difference in system performance after upgrading to 2GB with XP or Vista, or to 4GB with Windows 7. Once Windows has completed its caching chores, menus will display quicker, windows will pop open faster, and your overall computing experience will be smoother.
Use the Windows Resource Monitor to see how much memory Windows is using and (after you upgrade) how much faster your system runs with more memory.
Beyond 4GB, only Windows 7, with its smarter caching will produce meaningfully better performance with more RAM, though the extra speed can be hard for the user to discern. If you work a lot with video, especially high-definition video, you may find that upgrading your Windows 7 laptop to 6GB, 8GB, or 16GB (if your system supports it) can help significantly. Note that only the 64-bit versions of any Windows OS can make full use of memory beyond 4GB.
Memory Replacement Tools and Techniques
Tools: To replace or upgrade your memory, you’ll need (at minimum) a good small-head Phillips screwdriver. In some cases, you’ll also need star-patterned torx drivers. Your best bet for versatility is a swappable-head screwdriver with various slot, Phillips, and torx heads of different sizes; you can buy these at most hardware stores. Spudgers—plastic tools designed to pry open pressure-fit parts—are perfect for separating the top and bottom portions of a laptop and for removing and adding memory modules. They’re also great for separating cables from the motherboard, as they’re nonconductive and provide insulation against static electricity. Thin-nose angled tweezers help in removing screws from deep wells, and a magnifying glass can be handy for examining small connectors.
Handling memory: Never touch or grip memory modules by their gold-plated edge connector. This connector is the electrical doorway to the memory chips, and any stray voltage (such as static electricity generated by dragging your shoes across the floor) can damage the memory. Always handle the memory modules by the sides, and be cautious. Wear a grounding strap if you have one available.
The smaller SODIMM memory modules that laptops use are normally held in place by two retaining clips, one on each side. The clips are often perpendicularly spring-loaded. To remove a SODIMM, you must gently pry them back to the side with a finger or small tool, preferably the aforementioned spudger.
For spring-loaded slots, carefully pry back one spring at a time until that side of the module pops up slightly and the spring is no longer able to seat properly. Once you’ve disengaged both retaining clips, you simply slide the module backward to remove it.
Inserting a module is even simpler. With the module tilted up at a slight angle, slide it into the SODIMM slot; then press down on the top/back of the module. With spring-loaded clips, you should feel it click into place. An additional frame or cover may mount over SODIMM slots to hold the memory in place; if so, a screw or two will hold the cover in place, and you should have no trouble removing them.
Laptop manufacturers often come up with proprietary and seemingly clever ways of inserting, removing, and replacing hardware, so the technique outlned here may not work in all cases. But they all amount to variations on a theme, and you can probably figure out their quirks fairly easily. If you run into trouble, leave a comment on this article so that the PCWorld community can share their expertise.