Revive Your Old PC
Times are tough, you need your computer more than ever, and your old laptop or desktop is just not cutting it. Don't buy a new machine, follow these steps to revive your ancient machine.
With the recent announcement of Windows 11, people have been talking about the unrealistic hardware requirements that come with this "upgraded" operating system. As you're deciding whether you want to purchase a new computer to get the latest and greatest, let us provide you with an alternative that might be within your budget and may end up being a fun project.
Did you know the most significant contributing factor to degrading performance in a laptop or desktop is the hard drive? Did you also know the second most significant factor is insufficient memory. That's right, it's not just humans suffering from degraded performance due to insufficient memory as we age. :) The third most significant contributing factor is the operating system, and as we mentioned earlier, the next version of Windows makes this point abundantly clear.
With a little patience, a new hard drive and some additional memory, you can revive your old pc or laptop and extend its life for another 2 to 3 years. And if you opt for a liberty friendly Linux operating system, you'll enjoy even better performance and a spy free tool you can use in this digital age. This article is long, so we've attempted to make navigating it as easy as possible. You can bookmark the page, or go to the Resources section below and print the pdf version of this article as a reference for your upgrade project.
Table of Contents
We will start with an overview to provide a high level summary of the important key points:
- Determine your current machine make and model.
- Determine, based on the information from step 1, what type of hard drive your machine can handle, most likely it will be a Sata3 2.5" SSD.
- Determine how much ram your machine can handle, and how much you want.
- Determine which operating system you are going to go with: either stick with Windows or Free yourself with a Linux Distribution .
- If you're keeping Windows, make sure you gather your Windows Product Key.
- Gather the tools you need.
- Acquire the parts you need.
- Replace/Add your new hardware.
- Install/Clone your Operating System.
- Restore your data.
- Screw Driver with a mini bit that matches your case. This is most likely a philips head, but some laptops/desktops have special security screws they use. Consult your manufacturer's documentation.
- Static discharge wrist band tool to protect your machine from static electricity while you're working on sensitive components
- New SSD Drive, either a 2.5" SATA III drive or an M.2 Sata or NVMe (PCIe) drive.
- New Memory Modules (Optional but recommended)
- USB to Sata Adapter to connect your old drive and transfer data.
- USB Thumbdrive at least 8GB in size.
1. The Hard Drive
You may ask, why would the hard drive of a computer be the most significant contributing factor to diminishing performance of a computer? First, it's the starting point for accessing all the data residing inside your computer. It's where the operating system is stored. So when you turn your computer on and it starts to boot into your operating system, the machine has to read the data off the hard drive first before it can complete the process of booting. The speed with which your hard drive responds to those requests for data determines how fast that operating system can be loaded and made accessible to start using.
Second, it is the device to which your computer is saving your documents. The computer doesn't move on until it confirms the data is actually written to the drive. The faster the drive can write data, that faster your computer moves on to the next task. Additionally, If the drive is running out of space, or the data on the drive is spread out all over, this can add to the time it takes for older drives to find and then retrieve data. It is for these reasons that you need a fast, sufficiently sized, Solid State Drive (SSD) in your old(er) laptop or desktop. There are a lot of great articles on the difference between SSD drives and so we will simply offer this advice. Try to determine which category you fall into when choosing the best drive for your computer upgrade using the following rules:
Consumer - This is for the individual who uses the computer for casual purposes. Maybe you check email, surf the internet, or do light document editing, but nothing too heavy on a daily basis.
Pro - This is for the individual who does a fair amount of work. Perhaps you edit a lot of photos, create a lot of documents on a regular basis and maybe do some light video editing. If you are a person who is heavy on work and needs the machine to be reliable for at least five years, you want a pro grade hard drive.
Enterprise - This individual is a heavy user, who does a lot of document editing, photo and video processing and deals with large amounts of data on a regular basis. This type of work causes a lot of read and write activity, and thus requires a drive that will last through all that wear and tear.
500 GB is the minimum size that we would recommend for an upgrade like this. It might sound like a lot of storage, but it's not by today's standard. If your budget just can't afford at least this size, then you could get away with a 250+ GB drive, but we would highly recommend at least a 500 GB drive.
Drive Interface Type
One additional determination you need to make is the interface type your computer can accommodate. All laptops and desktops manufacturered in the last 12 years can accommodate SATA 3 drives. Sata drives have two main form factors in use today: 2.5 inch drives that are 7mm thick and M.2 drives that resemble a memory stick with the interface on the end, rather than the long edge. Newer laptops, within the last 3 to 4 years can most likely accommodate NVMe PCIe drives. These drives are much faster than SATA drives, but require a very specific type of port in order to use them.
When you consult the documentation of your laptop or desktop model, the main question will be: Does this machine have an m.2 NVMe slot? For desktops, if it does not have one, you can add one with a special PCIe card. If it is a laptop and does not have one, you will need to go with a 2.5 in SATA ssd drive. For more detail on the differences in drive interface types, here's a fairly concise article.
Memory is a bit more straight forward. There are two main types of memory and two form factors to worry about depending on age of the machine and type, i.e., laptop or desktop.
Your machine will either take what is called "DDR3" which is an older type of memory or "DDR4" which is the newer mainstream memory type that most newer machines, within the last 3 to 4 years, use. This is a very important thing to determine.
Memory Form Factor
If you have a laptop, you are going to use what is called "SoDIMM" memory. This is a smaller form factor and is designed typically for mini pc's and laptops. For your desktop, you are going to use a regular DIMM, sometimes referred to as UDIMM. There are other types of DIMM form factors, but most of them refer to server grade devices.
Step One: Determine Your Current Memory Configuration
In Windows do the following:
- Open Task Manager - Easiest Way is to click the Windows Icon and just start typing "Task Manager" and choose the task manager in the results. Here are Twelve Other Ways to Do it
- On the left side of the Task Manager, click on "Memory"
- On the main part of the screen, look for the "Speed", "Slots Used", and "Form Factor".
- Make note of these details, you will need them later to confirm memory details.
Step Two: Determine your computer model
Most machines have the model number printed on a tag somewhere on your computer case. Most laptops it's on the bottom, desktops usually have a tag on the top or the back. But if you cannot find the Model of your machine visually looking at the case, you can use a utility in Windows Called "System Information."
The easiest way to open:
- click the Windows icon on your screen or the button on your Keyboard,
- Search for "System Information" and click on it to open
- Once System Information Opens, under System Summary, look for "System Model" in the list of details.
If for some reason, Windows does not show your system model, you can use your motherboard model instead. In the same System Summary screen, look for BaseBoard Manufacturer, BaseBoard Product, BaseBoard Version.
Step Three: Find compatible Ram
Now that you have the number of slots and which ones are filled and the model number of your machine, go to your favorite Memory Manufacturer's website and use their memory finder tool. We recommend Crucial or Kingston. Between the two of these manufacturers, you should be able to determine compatible options for your specific hardware:
There are other memory providers out there as well, here are a few that you may want to check out, here's a well curated list of memory manufacturers.
3. The Operating System
This is where the topic can become "political" in some circles. Bottom line, stick with what you're comfortable using. If that's Windows and you don't mind a little spying on the side, then stick with Windows. If, on the other hand, you're the adventurous type and like to maintain control over your privacy, have fun learning something new, and have a really fast, secure and customizable experience, we might suggest trying out one of the popular Linux Distributions for beginners:
- Ubuntu: Widely used, great support network.
- Linux Mint: Extremely easy and stable to use.
- Zorin OS: Beautiful simple interface, very fast
- MXLinux: Gaining popularity.
- Manjaro: Extremely stable, a bit more on the technical side.
Here's a great article outlining differences between various Linux desktop flavors. The good thing about Linux operating systems is the choices you have. The bad thing about Linux operating systems is the choices you have. At the end of the day, if you pick one of these above, you will not be disappointed. Each one of these distributions has very good documentation on how to install their operating systems. So definitely reference that documentation if you decide to go this route. IN all cases you will need to follow the instructions to create a <>Bootable USB for Installation of your Chosen Operating System.
If you're sticking with Windows and you have what is called an "OEM" machine, like Dell, HP, Lenovo, then your hardware should automatically pick up your license key. If you're not sure about this, before you remove your hard drive, use the following handy tool to extract several Product Keys from your windows installation. You can also follow this Microsoft Article if you would rather keep it simple.
Next you will want to decide if you want to just clone your hard drive as it is currently, or start with a fresh install of Windows and then migrate your data. If you are moving from an older version of Windows, say Windows 7, then we would recommend installing a fresh version of the latest Windows Operating System. Otherwise, if you are already on Windows 10, you can clone the hard drive and then restore it.
4. The Upgrade
Okay, now we have the operating system, the new hard drive, the memory and tools we need to perform the upgrade. Consulting your manufacturer's hardware documentation, you are ready to open up your system and get to work.
- Disconnect all power sources.
- For a laptop, remove the battery after unplugging the power chord from the device.
- For a desktop, unplug the power chord from the back of the PC.
- Ground your body using the anti-static wrist band, by attaching the the aligator clip to a metal object. DO NOT connect this clip to any part of the motherboard, memory, hard drive, or power supply. If you do not have anything metal close enough, you can connect to a portion of the desktop case as long as it's metal. For laptops try to find something that will work, like an aluminum can or something that can be used as a path for any static electricity coming from your body.
- Open your device's case by following the instructions from your manufacturer's documentation.
- Find your machine's hard drive and disconnect the SATA and power cables from the hard drive, leaving the cable connected to the motherboard. Note: Usually laptop SATA and power cables are in a single form factor and can be a cable or a port the drive plugs into. Desktops will have two separate cables.
- Remove the existing hard drive based on your manufacturers instructions and replace it using the instructions in reverse with your new SSD drive.
- Connect the new hard drive back to the SATA and power feeds, paying attention to the orientation of the SATA and power ports.
- Find the Memory Modules on your motherboard and follow the instructions from the manufacturer's documentation to upgrade your memory.
- Once you've completed the hard drive and memory upgrades, replace your machines cover(s) and restore the power sources, by plugging back in the power source.
- Next, before turning your machine back on, place the USB thumbdrive with your chosen Operating System into a usb port on your machine.
- Power on your machine and make sure the USB drive is detected by your Bios. Depending on the make and model of your machine, you may need to consult the documentation. You will be looking for either Boot Menu, Boot Options, Temporary Boot Devices, or something similar to that language. We've included links to instructions on how to do this for the most common manufacturers below:
- Follow the instructions for your Operating Systems Installer. Usually the defaults are perfectly fine and recommended. Unless you know what you're doing, we suggest sticking with the "Next...Next...Next...Finish" approach. If you are deciding to clone your existing Windows environment, check out Crucial's Free Cloning tool.
- Next, boot into your new operating system and install your favorite software.
- Attach the old hard drive using the SATA to USB adapter from the tools needed section.
- Copy your old files to your new machine.
Hopefully this article has provided enough guidance to get started with upgrading your current machine. It's a great way to save some money, keep some electronic waste from the landfills, and improve your overall experience with an aging machine. If you have suggestions or questions we would love to hear from you using the feedback button at the bottom.
To recap, we've put together this list of resources as a handy reference throughout your upgrade project.
- Printable version of this guide
- Crucial Upgrade Advisor Tool
- PC Manufacturer Support Pages (Make sure you have your serial number and/or model number)
- Memory Finders
- Hard Drive Models
- Other Resources for your Linux Journey
- Upgrade Kits from Stapel
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Nate is the Founder and CEO of Stapel, LLC