Whether you have a 4-year-old notebook or a shiny new system you bought yesterday, you can dramatically improve your PC’s performance and productivity value for less than the cost of a nice dinner out. For less than $100, you can purchase your choice of significant hardware upgrades that will allow you to get more done in less time and put off buying a new system for several more years.
There is no single upgrade that will improve your digital life more than going from a standard hard drive to an Solid State Drive (SSD). If you’re still using a 7,200 rpm or (gasp) 5,400 rpm drive, you’re wasting precious seconds of your life every time you boot, open a file or a launch a program. Instead of twiddling your thumbs while the old-fashioned turnable-like head spins inside your hard drive, you can be up and running in your favorite programs, including heavy applications like Photoshop, in just a few seconds.
When we took a 5-year-old Dell Latitude D630 running Windows Vista on a 2.4-GHz Core 2 Duo CPU and tested it with both its original 7,200-rpm hard drive and a speedy Kingston HyperX SH100S3 SSD, it felt like we were using two different computers. On PCMark Vantage, a synthetic benchmark that measures system performance, upgrading to SSD raised the D630’s overall score from 3,210 to 4,693 and its HDD score from 2,666 to 16,715.
In real-world tests, the Latitude D630’s Vista boot time decreased by around 20 percent, falling from an average start time of 37.3 seconds to 31 seconds. When we tested the launch times for five popular applications (Photoshop CS5.1 opening to a 400MB TIF, Adobe Reader 10 opening to a 500 page PDF, Excel 2007 opening to a 20,000 row worksheet, Mozilla Firefox 14 and Word 2007 opening to a blank document), each program opened about three times faster after the SSD upgrade.
|Application||Hard Drive Open Time (sec)||SSD Open Time (sec)|
|Adobe Reader 10 (opening to PDF)||6.1||2.3|
|Photoshop CS 5.1 (opening to TIF)||28.6||9.6|
|Excel 2007 (opening to large worksheet)||8.4||2.8|
To see how much benefit an SSD provides on a new notebook, we opened some of the same applications and timed them on a 3rd Generation Intel Core i7 notebook, both with a 7,200 rpm 750GB hard drive and the same Kingston HyperX SH100S3 SSD. Even with a much newer, faster processor, launch times were 2 to 4 times faster after the upgrade.
Today, you can get a 120 or 128GB SSD for well under $100. A quick glance at popular retailers such as NewEgg, Tiger Direct and Amazon shows some budget-oriented SSDs like the OCZ Agility 3 selling for under $90 while the Samsung 830 Series, the winner of our Fall SSD roundup, can often be found on sale for $99 or less. If you require more capacity, you can find a 256GB drive for as little as $150.
Read More: How to Install an SSD in Your Notebook
The more RAM your notebook has, the less time it must spend writing to the Windows paging file on your hard drive (or SSD) to help make up for a lack of a physical memory. Since physical memory is infinitely faster than even the fastest SSD, you want to avoid your system needing to use that paging file whenever possible. Even better, if you have some memory to spare, you can create a RAM disk which will load your favorite programs much faster than even a speedy SSD.
Most of today’s notebooks come with 4GB of RAM and moving from 4GB (or less) up to 8GB can provide significant performance gains. If you have DDR3 memory, the standard type since 2009, an 8GB kits (2 x 4GB DIMMs) will cost you $40 or less.
Since most notebooks have just two slots for RAM and come with both filled, you’ll probably have to remove your existing RAM. However, if you do have a free slot, the cost of a 4GB DIMM is around $20. To find out what kind of memory your notebook takes, either consult your owner’s manual or visit an online RAM configurator like the one on Crucial Memory’s home page. Removing and replacing RAM on most notebooks is as simple as unscrewing a door on the bottom of the system, popping out the old chips and popping the new ones in.
To show the benefit of increased memory, we ran PCMark 07, a leading synthetic benchmark, on an Intel 3rd Generation Core i7 CPU, with both 4GB and 8GB of RAM installed. With 8GB installed, the benchmark returned a score of 3,398, about 9 percent higher than the mark or 3,121 it provided with 4GB on board.
We also tried configuring 4 out of the 8GB as a RAM disk, using DataRAM’s free RAMDisk software. With some of our favorite programs installed on the RAM disk, we were able to cut open times in half from what they were on a 7,200 rpm hard drive and reduce them even further when we paired the RAM Disk with an SSD.
|Application||HDD Only (sec)||HDD / RAM Disk (sec)||SSD Only (sec)||SSD w/ RAM Disk (sec)|
|Adobe Reader 10 (opening to large PDF)||7||3.6||3.5||3.1|
|Excel 2010 (opening to large spreadsheet)||10||4.1||3.7||1.9|
|Photoshop CS 5.1 (opening to 400MB TIF)||22.1||9.7||5.5||4.8|
Read More: Turn Your Extra Memory Into a RAM Disk
You can never be too rich, too thin or have too many pixels on your desktop. If you’re just relying on your laptop’s single screen, you’re slowing yourself down, because you can’t fit enough windows on the screen at once.
Just imagine this situation. You’re working on a PowerPoint presentation in one window while using data from an Excel sheet that’s in another window, looking up some facts on the Web in your browser and keeping track of your email in a fourth window. Every time you switch windows — either by hitting ALT tab or by navigating to the task bar — you’re wasting a good 2 seconds and taxing your short-term human memory because you have to remember the contents of a window that’s now covered over.
With an external monitor attached, you can add a whole second desktop, which can either show one full screen window or two half windows that are docked next to each other. These days, you can get an 18.5- or 20-inch monitor today for $80 to $100. A quick survey of online retail sites shows several 20-inch, 1600 x 900 monitors priced at just under $100 and 18.5-inchers with 1366 x 768 resolutions starting as low as $80. If you’re willing to splurge, you can find a 1080p, 22- or 23-inch monitor for well under $150.
If you want a monitor you can take with you on the road, you can find a portable, USB-powered monitor such as the 15.6-inch AOC e1649Fwu for under $100. However, we prefer the lighter, more portable, but more expensive $174 Lenovo ThinkVision LT1421.
If your notebook is more than three years old, it may have an older 802.11g wireless radio, which is significantly slower and less reliable than the current 802.11n standard. With 802.11n, you move from a theoretical maximum of just 54 Mbps to 150 or 300 Mbps, depending on your router and radio.
While the stepping up from 54 to 150 Mbps probably won’t improve Web page loads, it will enable you to transfer files a lot faster within your home or office network. That means better streaming from your media center, better backups to connected storage drives and faster copying of photos to and from your family members’ PCs. If you have an extremely fast fiber optic broadband plan such as Verizion’s 300 Mbps FIOS Quantum, you’ll see a boost in video streaming and file downloads. No matter what you’re doing, you’ll also see an increase in range, making it easier to get a strong signal when you’re further away from the router.
The good news is that you can get an 802.11n Wi-Fi dongle that plugs into one of your USB ports for under $20. For just $10, Rosewill’s $9.99 RNX-MiniN1 802.11n dongle offers speeds up to 150 Mbps and is so tiny that it looks like one of those nano receivers that come with some wireless mice. The $16.99 Rosewill RNX-MiniN2 sticks out a little bit more, but offers up to 300 Mbps and is still short enough to stay attached to your notebook when you stick it in your bag. If you don’t already have an 802.11n router at home, you can purchase one for as little as $25 for a 150 Mbps unit or under $50 for a 300 Mbps model.
To see just how much additional throughput you get from upgrading to 802.11n, we used the Netperf benchmark to test an old Dell Latitude D630 laptop with its native 802.11g Wi-Fi, and then with the Rosewill RNX-MiniN1 and the faster Rosewill RNX-MiniN2. Though our results on the small file transfer were well below what’s theoretically possible even with 802.11g, there was a clear difference in performance between the three adapters.
Read More: Which Dual-Band Wi-Fi Router is Best?
If your notebook provides over 12 hours of endurance, perhaps you can live without more battery life. Whether you’re sitting on an airplane or lying on the couch, you don’t want to have to worry about finding and tethering yourself to an outlet.
Unfortunately, in LAPTOP’s tests, the average mainstream notebook provides just five and a half hours of endurance at 40 percent brightness. Even worse, more and more new systems come with sealed batteries you can’t replace, so forget about buying an extended unit or carrying a spare.
However, for around $70, you can purchase an external notebook battery such as the $69 Veho Pebble Pro. I’ve been using the Pebble Pro for a couple of months now and found that the 13,200 mAH battery provides another several hours of charge to my notebook while, at just 14 ounces, barely adding any weight to my bag. Because the battery comes with 10 different connectors, it works with nearly any brand of PC notebook on the market and is able to charge a phone or tablet at the same time.
Mac users can opt for pricier Hyperjuice Mini external battery, which retails for $169.