DIY Laptop Upgrades

Pimp Your 'Book ¶ 

So you want to max out your Mac laptop. Great. But where do you start? Laptops are the same as desktops, right? Not exactly. Can you upgrade the graphics card? Nope-- not without replacing the logic board. Processor? Not usually, although there are some exceptions. What's left? Why the hard drive, optical drive, and RAM, of course.

Upgrading these 'Big Three' can yield HUGE performance boosts. We'll walk you through the ins and outs of all three, showing you what will work in your 'Book and how to perform the upgrades yourself.

RAM ¶ 

RAM is the fastest, easiest, most bang-for-your-buck upgrade out there. RAM is a no-brainer--if your machine is slow and you're not sure if you need more RAM, you probably do. You can upgrade the RAM yourself in just about any Mac laptop in 10 minutes. We covered RAM upgrades in depth in our RAM Upgrade FAQ. It's important to make sure that you order the correct type of RAM for your computer.

Hard Drives ¶ 

Apple used to ship most laptops with slow, 4200 RPM hard drives--although they've recently switched to 5400 RPM. (We'll refer to 4200 RPM as 4K, 5400 RPM as 5K, and 7200 RPM as 7K drives for convenience.) For reference, 4K drives generally top out at 20 MB/s, 5K drives hit their max at about 30 MB/s, and the screaming new 7K drives can hit 40 MB/s on a good day. That's a big performance difference.

Fast drives used to have a bad reputation for poor battery life and high noise levels, but that's not really true anymore. Faster drives pull a little more power (7K drives pull about half a Watt, or 25% more, than 5K drives), and are slightly noisier. You're unlikely to notice either of these, however. What you will notice is the price--right now, 7K models often carry a 50% premium over 5K drives.

Until Apple released the MacBook line, all of its laptops used 2.5-inch wide ATA drives (sometimes called IDE). You'll also see references to the height of the drive, such as 9.5-mm. Although some older 'Books can fit taller drives, 9.5-mm is the standard and works in everything. The new MacBook and MacBook Pro machines use the faster SATA (Serial-ATA) connection, but the drives are the same physical size. Make sure you buy the right kind of hard drive for your computer.

The largest laptop hard drive available right now is a 5400 RPM 500 GB from Samsung, while the fastest are 320 GB 7200 RPM from Seagate, Western Digital and Hitachi. What's more important to you, raw speed or storage capacity? You have to decide if it's more important to be able to store twenty-two weeks of 320kbit MP3s on a 500 GB drive, or sacrifice a little storage to squeeze every ounce of performance by adding a screaming 7K drive.

Optical Drives ¶ 

Apple has shipped laptops with optical drives ranging from old-school CD drives to the new, 8x DVD-burning, 24x CD-writing, 8x DVD-reading bliss of the SuperDrive. Fortunately, you can upgrade the optical drive in most PowerBooks & iBooks. With some computers, like the PowerBook G3 Pismo and PowerBook G4 Aluminum models, it's as simple as dropping in a new 8x SuperDrive. With others, specialized brackets and cables are required, but not too hard to come by. If the drive you purchase doesn't have an Apple logo on it, then you'll need a third party driver called PatchBurn to make it work. PatchBurn is compatible with OS 10.2 through 10.4. As of 10.5 PatchBurn is no longer necessary.

A buyer's note: When you're shopping for an 8x SuperDrive, pay attention to whether it's a double-layer drive or not. Double-layer discs can store 8.5 GB, as opposed to 4.7 GB on a standard disc. There's a price for that, of course--double-layer discs cost about $2 each while single-layer discs can be had for under $0.30 apiece.

Can I do it myself? ¶ 

Yes--if you're not afraid to get your hands dirty. Some machines are harder than others, but with the correct tools, repair manuals like my company's Fixit Guides, and a little bit of elbow grease, you can upgrade your computer yourself. There's nothing like the sense of accomplishment and ownership you get from working on your own machine.

The exact tools required vary by computer, but the most common tools you'll need are the Phillips #0 and #00, and the Torx T6 and T8 screwdrivers. You can find these tools at Radio Shack or Sears.

Will I void my warranty? ¶ 

It depends. Apple's warranty has an exclusion clause that states: "This warranty does not apply... to damage caused by service (including upgrades and expansions) performed by anyone who is not a representative of Apple or an Apple Authorized Service Provider." So your warranty is still valid if you install a new hard drive yourself--as long as you don't damage anything. If you do, the warranty won't cover that damage. You should still be eligible for coverage for other unrelated issues.

In fact, Apple has been shifting to more user-installed warranty fixes, where they ship you the replacement part and have you perform the repair yourself. From the warranty: "If a hardware defect arises... Apple may request that you replace defective parts [yourself] with new or refurbished user-installable parts." Apple has been doing this more and more lately in an effort to save money.

Of course, if you don't want to worry about warranty issues, you can always buy your upgrades online, and then take them to a local Apple tech to install it for you.

Conclusion ¶ 

Upgrading your 'Book is one of the best investments you can make. You can extend your current machine's life by a couple years and still run Photoshop faster than a new MacBook. All of the upgrades we've discussed are available through Mac dealers online (full disclosure: My company, iFixit, sells such upgrades and provides free installation manuals online).

Bio: Kyle Wiens' last article on RAM upgrades (Feb, 06) convinced him to upgrade to two 1 GB PC2700 DDR SODIMMS in his PowerBook G4 17". He is also the CEO of iFixit, a laptop and iPod parts retailer, and co-author of the DIY repair Fixit Guide series.

NOTE: This article was originally published by Macworld on 1/5/2007 and has been adapted for http://iFixit.com

Comments Comments are onturn off

you forgot to mention intel based processors

willpower101, · Reply

Quote from willpower101:

you forgot to mention intel based processors

The processor is not upgradeable, as processors and graphics (whether discreet or integrated) in most if not all notebooks are soldered onto the logic board... So if you want to upgrade your processor from Power PC to Intel (Or just get a faster one) you must purchase a new notebook.

clil16, · Reply

new airport cards with n instead of 802.1 b/g would be an improvement, providing you have a router sending n wireless signals.

lol1492, · Reply

I'm not trying to drive people away here, but here's an upgrade that I have REALLY enjoyed:

http://www.mcetech.com/optibay/

I don't use my optical drive all that often, though I still have use of it via a bus-powered firewire enclosure. Having two internal HDs on my aging machine has added YEARS of usefulness to my old machine. I've got a gargantuan Aperture library, large music library, tons of Logic files, and plenty of elbow room on my second drive, leaving my faster original drive clear enough for large scratch disk space operations in Photoshop and rendering programs. People who do a lot of video editing could find a lot of usefulness in this internal storage too.

iFixit has better tear-down instructions than MCE ever gave, but the BTO sled for you second HD is very useful. A second HD is something I think a lot people who visit this site could really appreciate.

danviento, · Reply

Is it possible to upgrade a late 2008 15" MacBook Pro with newer logic board? Thanks.

Chuck, · Reply

Quote from Chuck:

Is it possible to upgrade a late 2008 15" MacBook Pro with newer logic board? Thanks.

No, the logic boards are made for the specific model and will not work (Fit) in other ones. However it is possible to replace the logic board with one for the same model but with a faster processor and more video memory depending on which configuration you currently have. Now finding that logic board is a different matter.

clil16, · Reply

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