Upgrading a Windows Vista Laptop

Chances are that if your laptop has Windows Vista installed, it could be upgraded to make it perform better. The following experience highlights this.

A co-worker said her daughter’s laptop was acting kind of slow and would I take a look at it to see if anything could be done? I was more than happy to oblige since I know that over time, computers can get filled with junk files, old unused programs and too much stuff in the Startup folder, which really slows things down.

The initial thing I noticed when I received the laptop (an Acer Aspire 5315) and started it up was that it was running Windows Vista.

Ugh. Vista is nice to look at, but notoriously slow. Also, there was only 1GB of system RAM installed, which may be fine for Windows XP, but not nearly enough for Vista (or Windows 7 for that matter). I will discuss adding RAM in a moment.

Start with the software

First things first, I ran through my standard Windows “Spring Cleaning” regimen described here in a previous post on freshening up Windows. That recovered a few MB of hard drive space. Not a lot, but every bit helps before running a defragmenter. Surprisingly, there were not a lot of surplus items in the Startup folder, or hidden away in the registry to run at startup (the free version of WinPatrol is handy to have for this task). The next step was to turn off some of Vista’s visual effects, like window animations, the fading in and out of menus and such. All of these effects take a little system time and resources to implement. To adjust these, I clicked on the Vista start button (this works in Windows 7 too) and type system in the Search box. Then, look for System in the list of results and click on it. You will get this screen (my screen capture is from Windows 7, but it looks the same in Vista):

Here on this screen, you have a few choices to make: Let Windows choose, Adjust for best appearance, Adjust for best performance, or Custom, in which you can uncheck all the visual effects you don’t want or use. Then click OK to apply your changes and close out of the window. For this Acer laptop, I unchecked all animations, fades, and the “show windows contents when dragging” effects. These are the most-used effects, so changes here would be noticeable.

Free PC Matic Scan

Software-wise, I had done all I could do to squeeze the most performance out of this Acer Aspire. On to hardware!

Here comes the tricky part….

Laptops have been notoriusly hard to upgrade from a hardware standpoint, based primarily on their construction. A regular desktop PC is a box with lots of space and slots to play with, and all it’s parts are removable right down to the CPU on the motherboard. Laptops, on the other hand, are typically closed systems and what you get when you purchased it is what you are stuck with for a few years until you decide to purchase a new one. Thankfully, laptops of the last few years have become more user friendly from an upgrade standpoint. Adding system RAM is easier and upgrading to a larger capacity hard drive is not too difficult either. A change of CPU may even be possible, but that is wading into dangerous waters if you do not know what you are doing. Better to stick to a RAM upgrade initially.

RAMp it Up!

RAM stands for ‘random access memory’ and it is often confused with hard drive storage memory. Suffice it to say that information stored in RAM is temporary; hard drive memory is permanent (until you delete a file or the drive is erased). RAM is faster for the computer to access than the hard drive is, so Windows will look for data in RAM first. Many programs (including Windows) load portions of themselves in RAM so they are quicker to start and access. Therefore, theoretically, the more RAM you have, the faster your system should be or appear to be.

But how to know if you can upgrade your existing RAM, or even what kind to buy?

The best place to start is to see how much RAM you currently have in your laptop. To find out, click the Start button and type system information in the search box. Then click on it in the search results and you will see a System Information window with lots of info about your laptop’s hardware. Look for “Installed physical memory (RAM)”:

System Information

Now that you know much RAM you have, go online and see if your laptop’s manufacturer has the information you seek. Many, such as Dell, Lenovo, Acer, etc. have an area of their support page where you can look up your particular model. You will be looking to find the maximum amount of RAM the system can handle (2GB, 4GB, or so on) and what specifications the RAM should be: DDR2, DDR3, etc. Hopefully you can find it there. The next step is to see how the RAM in your laptop is configured. Is it one stick, two sticks? For example, 1GB of RAM could be 2 X 512MB sticks or one 1GB stick, 2GB of RAM could be 2 X 1GB sticks or one 2GB stick. You get the idea.

Armed with that information, it would be useful at this point, to visit a memory configurator such as can be found at sites like www.kingstonram.com or www.crucial.com. There, you enter the information about your laptop and it will tell you what RAM is available for your model. Here are Crucial’s results screen for the Ascer Aspire I am working on:

Click to enlarge

Pretty neat, eh? Crucial has done an excellent job on configuring this tool for a non-techie person to use. As we can see from this screen, 2GB is the maximum amount of RAM this Aspire can handle, and it would have to be in 2 X 1GB sticks. So, if I have one 1GB stick installed already, I only need to order one more to get my maximum of 2GB for this model. (I still cannot get over the price of RAM these days; back in the days of Windows 9x, it would literally cost hundreds of dollars for a stick of RAM and gigabytes of RAM was just a techno-dream then; we were still measuring on the megabyte scale then)!

One other peice of software I like to use on all my PCs is Belarc Advisor, which is a PC audit tool; meaning that it will look inside your PC or laptop and tell you more than you need to know about its installed hardware and software in under a minute. It is free and easy to install. For our purposes, it will tell you how your RAM is configured, and if you have any open slots for more. Very useful!

OK, now that we have all we need to know about RAM for our laptop, let’s get it installed!

OK Jim, where I stick this stick?

You will need to completely power down your laptop, not standby/sleep or hibernate. Disconnect the power cord. Turn your laptop over and remove the battery pack. Now, look for a removable cover held down by a few screws. One will be likely be for the hard drive and the other for RAM access. Check the instructions for which cover to remove. If you cannot find any instructions on the manufacturer’s site, then do an Internet search. Use exact terms like “how do I install RAM in my <insert laptop make and model> laptop?” and you may even get a YouTube video on how to do a RAM installation on your exact make and model. If I had a video cam, I would create one myself.

Here’s a look at the bottom of the Acer Aspire I am working on:

Acer ASpire 5315 Bottom View

Acer ASpire 5315 Bottom View (Click to enlarge)

The above picture was taken with the new stick of RAM installed. In this model, it sort of piggybacks the original stick of RAM underneath it. This is not an uncommon arrangement due to limited space in a laptop. This Acer has a large door to remove; my Lenovo has a RAM access door the size of a playing card and held down by two screws. However, my LenovoT510 has RAM installed under the keyboard as well as in the bottom of the laptop; it all depends on the total amount of RAM a laptop can hold and how the manufacturer has arranged the internals. Usually, the RAM under the keyboard is where RAM should be upgraded first, then move on to the bottom slots. Again, an Internet search of your make & model will help you out here.

RAM is quite easy to insert; it just takes a pit of patience. It usually slips in on a slight angle, then snaps down into place with small holding arms on each side to help secure it. Once it is firmly in place, reinstall the cover, insert the battery and attach the AC cord. Then start it up. Once Windows has loaded, go back to the System window (as shown previously) to see the amount of RAM you now have working for you.

Now, did you notice any difference in Vista’s speed? Hopefully you did!

For more tips on speeding up Windows, have look at the article “Three Ways to Freshen up Windows” here as well as these related posts: