Buying a used computer and upgrading it can get you most of the power you need at a fraction of the price (and environmental cost) of a new machine. But which upgrades get you the most value per dollar inside your battle-hardened system?
We get this type of question all the time from our readers. Mulling over your question inspired us to start a series on our blog, to answer these kinds of repair, upgrade, and nitty-gritty questions from readers. It’s called, imaginatively enough, Ask iFixit.
If your laptop hasn’t been modded since it was originally made way back when, there are likely a few things you’ll want to tackle.
Swap In an SSD
An SSD is the greatest upgrade you can make to any aged computer. Traditional hard drives (sometimes called HDDs) have long been a bottleneck in PC snappiness. Replacing that spinning drive with an SSD will make it feel like an entirely new machine. I am not exaggerating: the computer will boot faster, apps will launch faster, and if you play games, say goodbye to long loading times. This is the first upgrade you should tackle, hands down.
Thankfully, replacing a hard drive is pretty easy on most older laptops, MacBooks included—it’s just a matter of unscrewing the bottom case and loosening a bracket around the hard drive itself.
Once upon a time, SSDs were so small in capacity that this upgrade wasn’t practical unless you removed the optical drive and replaced it with a second hard drive for all your files. I did this myself, in fact: my first SSD was a measly 80GB, and it cost $200, so there was no way I could fit all I needed on just one drive. These days, you can get a 500GB SSD for half the cost of that ancient, tiny drive, so grab whatever SSD fits your needs and just swap out the old drive entirely. You never know, you might get a hankerin’ to watch that old DVD of Harold & Kumar go to White Castle someday.
Upgrade the Probably-Dying Battery
Once you’ve replaced the SSD, recommending the next upgrade is a bit trickier—a more if-this-then-that proposition. So consider these next two recommendations equal in terms of utility.
If it were me, I’d probably replace the battery next. If it hasn’t been replaced since the laptop came out of the factory, there’s a good chance it holds so little of a charge that it’s barely useful as a laptop anymore. You can buy a new battery for under $100, swap it in with a few screws, and get the freedom from wall outlets you’ve always dreamed of.
Add More RAM
Finally, that old laptop probably needs a RAM upgrade. 4GB is technically usable, but these days, 8GB is really the minimum I’d recommend for someone running Windows or macOS—especially if you use a browser like Google Chrome and open a lot of tabs at once.
Thankfully, an 8GB stick of RAM only costs $55 or so, and replacing it is so simple a baby T-Rex could do it (well, probably—I’m not able to test this theory). It won’t necessarily make your computer feel instantly faster the way an SSD does, but it’ll hopefully prevent some of the random slowdowns and hangups that you’d experience under a shortage of RAM when running a few apps at once.
(Technically, for best performance, you’ll want to spread your new RAM across all your RAM slots, though it doesn’t make a huge difference. If you’re particular like me, though, press Command+Space, search for System Profiler, and clicking on the Memory tab to see how many memory slots you have. Then you can divide your total RAM among those slots—e.g., two 4GB sticks instead of one 8GB stick.)
Give It a Good Cleaning While You’re In There
This isn’t an upgrade or a modification, per se, but while you’re inside the laptop upgrading the above parts, you might find that things are a little (or a lot) dusty. Blowing it out—especially in the fans, where dust can clog up the works—is a great way to ensure the longevity of your system. Most folks recommend compressed air for this, but it’s bad for the environment, so we recommend going with something a little more friendly. I think this little dust blower does the trick well enough for most, though if you need more juice, a Hurricane Canless Air machine is a more powerful alternative. Hold the fan with your finger so it doesn’t spin, blow out the dust, and make sure the vents, boards, and heatsinks are nice and clean. Your fan will be able to cool your laptop more effectively, hopefully leading to less noise and longer-lasting components.