Before investigating the option of upgrades or replacement, it is advised that users clean up their computer software to try and speed up their system. Often times software and programs that have accumulated over time have slowed down the system from its optimal performance. Because of this, users should try some maintainence to help speed up their PC.
With the average lifespan of a laptop being between two and five years, it can be really difficult to spend a significant amount of money to replace a unit that can still function if it only had a few upgrades. Unlike the simple cost comparison of upgrading versus replacing a desktop, laptops have other considerations such as portability.
To get a better idea of if one should upgrade or replace their aging laptop computer, I've put together a list of the various components within the laptop that may be upgraded and how. This will give you a better idea if it is feasible to upgrade your laptop or if you should instead replace it.
Out of all the internal components for a laptop, the memory is about the only item that users will have much luck with upgrading. Most laptops feature small doors on the bottom that can be removed and provide access to the memory modules. Typically this is a low cost option for upgrading and one that is not very difficult to do.
Memory upgrades will vary in cost depending upon factors such as the type of memory that your system uses and the amount that you intend to purchase. A good starting place for looking into upgrading PC memory is my Computer Memory Upgrade article. Installing memory is quite easy and the steps can be found in my DIY article.
Some laptop computers have hard drive bays that can be accessed via removable trays. Most systems of this nature are sold to corporate or business clients but some consumer systems have them as well. By removing the tray, the existing drive can be replaced with a larger capacity 2.5-inch SATA or ATA drive. It is important to install a drive that uses the same interface as the notebook. The big drawback to this is that it is a replacement and all data and software will need to be reinstalled on the system.
For those that don't have a removable tray, there is the option of external hard drives that connected via a USB, FireWire or eSATA port. The main issues with these are size and power. 3.5-inch desktop units that provide lots of space can be used, but they typically are large and require external power. Smaller 2.5-inch units are available that will run from the power of the USB port. 1.8-inch units are also available that are extremely small but they provide limited space.
Similar to the hard drive case, some laptops use media bays for the CD or DVD drive. If your system has such a design, it is possible to buy replacement or upgrade media drive units from the manufacturers. For all other laptops, external USB CD or DVD drives can be purchased and used. Once again there is the issue of power and size for the external drive unit. Blu-ray drives are also becoming available but they tend to have higher hardware requirements for playing back Blu-ray movies.
Whether it has been external storage, networking, graphics, external ports or audio, laptops could use a PC Card to plug it into the computer and expand its capabilities. There are two types of card slots used on today's computers: Type II and ExpressCard. Both of these types of card slots allow for a wide range of computing expansion capabilities but the most frequent is for networking. For example, older computers without wireless networking can add a wireless PC card to their system to connect their computers into public WiFi networks.
Type II slots and cards have been on the market for some time and are readily available for most functions. The newer ExpressCard design comes in two sizes. The smaller 34mm cards will work in the 54mm slots but not the other way around.
The vast majority of laptops computers now ship using an integrated graphics solution. This will severely limit the ability of the laptop to use 3D graphics features. The problem is that these solutions cannot be upgraded as they are built onto the motherboard. Some computers have what is called a MXM graphics slot, but finding modules to fit into such an interface is near impossible.
All is not without hope though. Several companies have announced that laptops featuring an ExpressCard slot will be able to purchase an external unit that allows for the use of a normal desktop PCI-Express graphics card with an external monitor. This is not really a mobile solution as it requires extra power and a monitor, but it can greatly extend the life of a laptop that is relied on heavily for graphics. A few such options have made it to market but they are extremely expensive and difficult to find.
For the most part, it is pretty much impossible to replace or upgrade the CPU of a laptop computer system. They tend to be buried inside of the system and require far too much technical expertise to replace. If the processor is an issue with a laptop, generally it will require the whole laptop be replaced.
Time to Replace?
Even though users have a greater range of options for upgrading a laptop than they did in the past, most of those upgrades are external devices. This adds extra bulk when transporting a laptop and some devices may not even be possible to use when the laptop is without external power. As a result, I suggest that most people only do these upgrades if they do not have the money to replace their laptop or if the laptop is used in a fixed location.
If you are replacing your laptop, be sure to dispose of your computer properly. Most local governments now have rules regarding electronic waste that require specific methods of disposal. Be sure to check out my Computer Recycling article for information on how to dispose of old computers and parts.