Laptops: Should you upgrade or replace?

When you've owned your laptop for two or three years you'll find yourself wondering whether or not you should buy a new one. Although it might be time to go browse our reviews to find a replacement, don't write off that old system just yet. With a little money and a bit of technical know-how, you can grant your laptop a new lease of life, or at least buy yourself a few more months. To determine if upgrading is the right decision for you, ask yourself the following three questions…

Will upgrading solve my problem?

If you're just encountering sluggish performance or you've run out of storage space, then the problem can probably be solved by either increasing your computer's RAM or replacing its hard drive. Other issues have more complicated solutions that may extend further than a basic part swap can fix. For example, if your laptop is unable to play Batman: Arkham City, it may be that you lack the necessary graphics processor, have insufficient RAM, are running short on hard drive space, or are experiencing a combination of all three. Solving this problem with an upgrade may not be possible (adding a discrete graphics card isn't always an option in a laptop), or may be prohibitively expensive or more complicated than you want to take on.

Do I know how to perform this upgrade?

Swapping out a part can be as simple as removing a battery and replacing it with a new one, or as complex as opening the laptop case or removing the keyboard. Always research a potential upgrade beforehand to determine if it's feasible given your equipment and comfort level when it comes to fiddling with the internals of a system. While broad tutorials are sometimes helpful, laptops vary widely in design and construction, so you'll want to find information for your specific make and model. Resources like iFixit's repair manuals and YouTube tutorials can be invaluable when deciding to undertake a repair or upgrade project.

Is upgrading cost-effective?

Is it worth it financially to upgrade a part instead of replacing the laptop? While replacing a laptop outright can quickly ring up a tab of several hundred pounds or more, individual components are often much more affordable. A battery replacement may run to just £20 or £30. Purchasing new RAM may be similarly cheap. A 500GB 2.5-inch internal hard drive can be bought from around £50, but a 256GB solid-state drive (SSD) upgrade kit may cost triple that price, or more. A laptop Blu-ray drive can set you back £60 or so, or it can be far more expensive, depending upon the exact model and whether you want disc writing capability. These expenses all grow rapidly if you take your system into a professional to do the work instead of upgrading it yourself.

If you've decided that upgrading is your best course of action, then the next thing to figure out is where you should start.

Battery

RAM

When your computer stores information, it has two options. Long term storage of files and programs occurs on your hard drive or SSD. Random Access Memory (better known as RAM) serves as immediately accessible storage for programs and information that are currently in use. Adding RAM lets you store more in this area, resulting in a faster operating speed, particularly when working with multiple programs, or in intensive applications like photo and video editors. Although not as easily accessible as in a desktop computer, laptop RAM is usually accessible via a panel on the bottom of the laptop, and will occasionally be placed behind the keyboard, requiring removal to access it.

For light use, such as web browsing and working with documents, 2GB of RAM is usually just about enough. Multi-taskers and power users, however, will want a bit more. For heavy media editing, gaming and the like, you'll want more than 4GB if your system supports it. (Some laptops support 12GB or more).

Because RAM is inexpensive and relatively easy to install (just open a panel and plug it in), this is one of the first upgrades you should consider. Most motherboards support only one type of RAM (DDR3 is the most common, but some older models may still utilise DDR2), but different capacities and speeds can be used together without problem as long as the modules' voltages are the same. Be aware, however, that when differing speeds are used, the laptop will be limited to the speed of the slowest RAM module. To get the most out of each gigabyte of RAM without paying for speed you can't use, try to match speeds.

Hard drives and SSDs

For faster performance, quicker boot times, and a slightly lighter laptop, swap out your hard drive for an SSD. Using flash memory chips similar to those used for RAM, an SSD can be installed just as easily as a traditional hard drive. There’s one caveat here: An SSD will be more expensive than a spinning hard drive on a per-gigabyte basis. Pay attention to prices and weigh the benefits of faster performance against the expense of an upgrade.

Optical drives

The days of laptops with modular optical drives have just about ended, but if you do own a laptop with a removable drive, you have two options. You may be able to find a compatible Blu-ray drive to replace an aging DVD burner, or you can replace the drive with an additional hard drive or SSD to further expand the laptop's storage capacity.

Whether or not this is a worthwhile upgrade depends largely upon what sort of drive is in the laptop, what replacement drives are available, and how much the total solution will cost. If the drive can be easily removed and replaced for a reasonable price, go for it. If not, consider an external drive as a stopgap measure until you have the opportunity to replace the laptop.

Keyboard, touchpad, and display

Although you can replace a laptop's keyboard, touchpad or screen, these are far from the most common upgrades. Replacing these parts may extend the usable life of the laptop, but you won't be gaining any capabilities that weren't there before. Swapping out this kind of integrated hardware can be especially pricey, so be sure to get an estimate before doing so – you might find it more cost-effective to simply buy a new system.

Motherboard and processor

Desktops may offer you the flexibility to replace both motherboard and processor, but laptops don't have the same space to work with, and rarely make either component easily swappable. Unless you're willing to undertake this project as a hobby, irrespective of expense and practicality, it's easier and usually less expensive to simply replace the laptop.

The bottom line on upgrading

Unlike desktop PCs, which offer space and flexibility to add and swap out components, laptops are much less upgrade friendly. They're generally expected to last two or three years, and even if some new RAM, bigger or faster storage, or useful peripherals extend this window by a year or so, you'll still find yourself falling further behind the current systems on the market.

To make the most of both your laptop and your budget, begin upgrades early and stick with the machine for as long as it meets your needs. But once it starts falling behind, replacing the system outright is usually the simplest and most affordable way to stay up to date with the rapid pace of technology.