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Tutorial: Simple upgrades for your laptop

Install an SSD, more RAM and a Wi-Fi card

The low price of storage means it's feasible for most laptop owners to expand the capacity of their machines. But if you're going to the bother of installing a new hard drive, why not go one better and opt for a solid-state disk (SSD) instead?

SSDs cost more than hard disks, but they have the edge in all other respects. SSDs weigh less and are more energy-efficient. With no moving parts, they're also less fragile, and they're virtually silent in use, helped by their reduced dependency on a fan.

Performance-wise, going SSD can also pay dividends. A fast 2.5in notebook hard disk such as the Toshiba MK2554GSY can read data at around 58MBps and write at 56MBps. It has a random access (RA) time of 15ms - that's the time for the unit to ‘find' a randomly chosen piece of data.

The fastest SSD we've tested so far was the Samsung 256GB SSD , which has a read speed of 175MBps and writes at 160MBps. Its RA is just 0.1ms. Even the cheaper Imation 64GB SSD used here reads at 136MBps and can be written to at about 88MBps. Its RA is 0.2ms.

That's three times faster read times than the best hard disks, and 50 percent quicker writing speed.

But making the switch to SSD isn't the only component change worth making. We also outline how to upgrade your Wi-Fi and RAM.

Install a laptop SSD

Changing a laptop's hard drive needn't be traumatic - whether you're replacing it with another hard disk for increased capacity and faster performance, or trading up to a shiny new SSD, as we demonstrate here. But before you reach for the screwdriver, the following preparatory tips should ensure you don't encounter problems later.

First, you need to decide whether to clone the contents of your old drive to the new one or reinstall your operating system (OS), applications and files from scratch. The former is a quicker process, but reinstalling everything to a virgin drive can result in a cleaner and more reliable system.

Clone your hard drive: You can try one of several software options to make a complete copy of your internal disk, such as Acronis True Image HD, Paragon Drive Backup or Norton Ghost. Free apps are also available for Windows, such as Clonezilla. And for Apple OS X, try SuperDuper or CarbonCopyCloner.

Follow the software's instructions to make a complete copy of the disk, either to your SSD mounted in an external USB- or FireWire-linked drive caddy or to a separate USB hard drive from which you can restore the contents to the SSD later.

Install from scratch: To install a fresh copy of the OS, you really need the original installer CD or DVD. Unfortunately, not all Windows PC makers provide a bootable Windows install disc with your new PC. Instead, you may have to find the backup version on a hidden partition of the hard disk. From here you can restore your PC to factory defaults.

While this saves fiddling with CDs and removes the chance of losing the all-important disc, it's no use if the ‘clean' partition is corrupted by malware or there's a hard-disk failure. And if you rely on the manufacturer's version of Windows, you may find a heap of time-limited demos and assorted bloatware, which usually only serves to slow Windows down.

Either way, it may be worth contacting the retailer you bought your computer from, to see whether they can supply you with an original Windows install disc. Since you already own the licence to use Windows, a copy of Windows ought to cost no more than the disc it's supplied on.

Also remember that you'll need to install proprietary drivers in order to get the laptop's hardware operational. For example, you'll need software drivers for the graphics, wireless and Bluetooth cards, ethernet port and sound system. These could be installed from a dedicated CD provided by the manufacturer, or may be available online to download from the support section of the laptop manufacturer's website. The added advantage here is that you'll get the latest versions of the drivers, potentially increasing performance and/or reliability.

Even if you will be making a clean install of the OS and all your programs and personal files, it could still be useful to make a bootable clone of the current installation, if only to ensure you've got a copy of everything that's written to your hard drive.


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