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.
Sadly, more and more laptops are now sealed units that don't allow the user to have any access to any of the internal components to upgrade. This is particularly true of the smaller systems such as the ultrabooks. Even though they don't have easy access, some of them may still be able to be opened for repair or upgrades but it requires more work and effort. I highly recommend looking at a site like iFixit to see if they have teardown or repair guides for your model laptop. I have used this to repair a hard drive in an out of warranty MacBook Pro 15.
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. This is especially true of recent laptops that have emphasized efficiency and portability rather than increased performance. As long as they continue to function, there isn't much reason to replace it with a new laptop. They can still benefit slightly by upgrading some of the internal components.
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. If you systems already has around 8GB of memory, memory upgrades will not really benefit the system much. If you happen to have a laptop with 4GB of less of memory, moving to 8GB can speed things up.
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.
Hard Drives/Solid State Drives
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 drive. The big drawback to this is that it is a replacement and all data and software will need to be reinstalled on the system.
If you have an older laptop with a hard drive, replacing it with a solid state drive may add a significant performance boost. The trick is that not all systems will benefit as much from a solid state drive upgrade depending upon the age of the system and type of interface. The SATA interface can come in three different speeds: SATA1 (1.5Gbps), SATA2 (3.0Gbps) and SATA3 (6.0Gbps). Check the specifications of your laptop before potentially upgrading to see if it will really benefit. Those with the SATA3 interface will see the best improvement while those with with SATA1 probably will wait to save the money and look into a new laptop. Check out my picks for best SSDs for potential replacement options.
When you replace an internal hard drive for a laptop, you will need to copy over the operating system and files. Some drive packages may include an external USB to SATA cable and some cloning software to make this process easier. If they don't, you will need to use any installation or recovery media from your laptop plus a backup software package to backup and restore your data. Apple users have it a bit easier as they can use the Time Machine and Disk Utilities with Mac OS X for this task.
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 to expand your storage space. 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. If you look at this option, you want to make sure you get a drive with sufficient space and a quick interface such as USB 3.0 for the best performance which is also backward compatible with older USB ports.
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 including those that do not have an internal optical drive, 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. Once again, portability is going to be an issue as you don't want to get a drive that is too large if you have to carry it around all the time.
There was once a time when laptops features internal card slots for expanding the capabilities of the system, but these have been replaced by fast external peripheral ports such as USB 3.0. As a result, there are not many laptops or even expansion cards available anymore. If you do happen to have a laptop with a PC Card or ExpressCard slot, you do have the ability to add improved networking, peripheral ports or storage options with relative ease. 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 developed solutions that allow an external video card to be plugged into laptops through high speed external peripheral ports. The downside with these solutions is that they are extremely expensive and not portable at all. They require external power and a separate display from the laptop one. This means they are really only useful at a desktop workstation. In fact, with the cost for these units, it is generally best to save the money towards a new laptop.
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 may have the ability to upgrade a laptop, most of the options are sadly external. 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 frequently in a fixed location such as a single spot in a home or at an office.
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.