A simple – and cheap – way to breathe new life into your old laptop

My ThinkPad R50 just hit its fifth birthday, and the years haven’t been kind to it. When it was new, the notebook was reliable and fast, and it traveled with me to many places throughout the world.

Today, it’s slow and prone to annoying shutdowns. Plus, it has a broken key, its fan sounds like a 747 taking off, and the case looks like it went five rounds with Lenox Lewis. It can all be fixed, but is it a good investment to revamp a notebook that’s worth about $350?

It sure is, because I’m going to give this old notebook a new lease on life for about $125 – a bargain, considering what it would cost to replace.

I’ll show you how I cleaned it up, replaced its slow and overloaded hard drive, installed extra memory, replaced the keyboard, and gave it a software tuneup. Not one of these tasks took me more than 15 minutes to do; altogether they took around an hour.

While it’s all about reviving my ThinkPad R50, these techniques will work on just about any laptop. You’ll need to investigate where the RAM is stashed, what kind of hard drive it uses and how the keyboard is attached.

If you haven’t backed up your data or defragged your hard drive lately, it could take you two or three hours longer than it took me, but it’s absolutely worth the time you’ll put into it.

When I finished my notebook rejuvenation, I benchmarked the system using FutureMark Corp.’s PCMark 05 tests to see how much extra performance I squeezed out of the old notebook.

Turns out my little project yielded a very stable ThinkPad that performs 30 per cent better than when I started.

Here’s how I did it.

 

Step 1: Add memory

One of the quickest, easiest and least expensive ways to improve a notebook’s performance and reliability is to put in more system memory. Five years ago, the 256MB of RAM that came soldered to the motherboard was sufficient. Today, with operating system updates and more demanding applications, it’s a drop in the bucket. Figure that it will take about five minutes to add memory.

My ThinkPad has one slot for adding memory and uses PC2700 SODIMM modules. I put in a 512MB module that cost about $30, tripling the amount of system memory to 768MB. (I used Infineon memory, but any brand would have worked.) I could have added a 1GB module, but at $75, it would have eaten up most of my budget and wouldn’t have given me much more computing power.

How to do it

Ironically, the first step in this hardware project involves getting and loading the CPU-Z utility. Among other things, this nifty program shows how much memory is installed and its key specs.

Go to the Memory tab, and write down the frequency and other information that’s listed; we’ll need it later.

Unscrewing the memory compartment’s trapdoor.

Next, shut off the system, remove the battery and find the trapdoor underneath the system where the RAM is hidden. It’ll probably have a logo that looks like a circuit board.

After unscrewing and removing the cover, slide the new module into the slot, making sure that the gap in the board lines up with the plastic divider.

If it doesn’t fit, don’t force it. Try wiggling it a little or angling it in.

Sliding in the new module.

Once the module is seated, snap it down, locking the board into place. The eraser end of a pencil is the perfect tool to use to make sure nothing delicate breaks.

Finally, start the system up and run CPU-Z to make sure that the new memory specs match the original specs; the only number that should change is Size, which should now read 768MB. Now, sit back and enjoy the extra performance.

 

Step 2: Upgrade to a bigger, faster hard drive

In 2003, I couldn’t imagine filling up the ThinkPad R50’s 40GB hard drive. What a difference five years makes – today the drive is chock full of everything from MP3s of sound effects (for my son’s elementary school play) to hundreds of Word documents (everything I wrote for five years).

Rather than using a ThinkPad replacement drive, I installed an off-the-shelf 80GB Seagate Momentus 5400.2 drive for two reasons. The 80GB ThinkPad drives are low-performance 4,200-rpm units, and they cost about $125, which would bust the budget in one move.

At the other extreme, a high-performance 7,200-rpm drive would have also cost too much — plus it would’ve used so much more power that it would’ve probably cut my system’s battery life by half an hour. By contrast, the Momentus 5400.2 drive uses the same connection interface as the original drive, spins its disks at 5,400 rpm and costs around $50. It offers a nice balance between power and cost.

 

How to do it

Before you do anything, back up the drive’s data. You can use an external drive and software like Symantec Corp.’s Norton Ghost or Paragon Software Group’s Drive Backup to transfer the data from one drive to another. An hour is a good estimate for a 40GB hard drive’s initial backup, but it depends on the program being used and where the data is being saved.

I made a resolution to stop being a digital pack rat, so I started from scratch with a fresh Windows installation. I saved the key files I’ll need on a DVD and wiped everything else clean. All told, it took me about 15 minutes because I got rid of much more than I saved.
The actual task of swapping a hard drive takes only a few minutes. Start by unscrewing and opening the hard drive cover on the side of the laptop and pulling out the old drive.

Removing the old drive.

After removing it from its drive caddy, put it aside — we have plans for this puppy. Finally, screw the new drive into the rack and slide it into place.

Screwing the new drive into the rack.

The fresh drive doesn’t have an operating system on it, so that’s our first task. When you start up the machine, have the Windows (or system-restoration) disc in the CD drive. I lost the discs that came with the R50 long ago, so I used a basic Windows XP disc. When you do it, have the license code at hand because you’ll need it to load the software.

If you’re a little daring, consider trying Linux instead of Windows. It’s particularly seductive here because it requires far less resources than Windows and will run like a sprinter with our new parts. For more information, see “The Linux Way.”

Finally, install all your favorite applications, bring over the backed-up data from the external drive or DVD you saved them to, and it’ll be good as new — even better.

 

The Linux Way

Rather than trashing the dinky 40GB hard drive I took out of the R50, I recycled it to run Linux. Now I can swap between a Windows XP system and a Linux one by just changing the drives and starting the system up.

On eBay, I bought a spare hard drive caddy for $3, which makes switching between the new 80GB drive and my old 40GB drive quick and easy.

How to do it

The first step is to download the operating system. I really like Ubuntu’s Linux, and not just because it’s free. The essence of Ubuntu is its community of programmers who put the operating system together and support it.

The latest Ubuntu Linux software (Version 8.04, a.k.a. Hardy Heron) can be downloaded from Ubuntu’s Web site; it’s all free, and it comes with three years of support. At 700MB, it easily fits onto a CD. If you’re not up to converting an .iso image and burning it to a CD, fill out the online form, and the the discs will be mailed to you. You won’t even have to pay for shipping.

Start up the notebook with the installation disc in the CD drive, and the software takes over. Answer a few questions about language, time zone, networking and other details, and Ubuntu does the rest. It takes about 20 minutes. (Microsoft Corp. could learn a thing or two about streamlining operating system installation from Ubuntu.)

My R50 loves Linux. Because the resource requirements are so much lower than XP’s, the revamped system is even more responsive running Linux. It also starts up in just 45 seconds, about half the time as Windows with a faster hard drive.

 

Step 3: Replace the keyboard

Just about every old notebook has one thing in common: The keyboard has picked up crumbs, dust and things that make your skin crawl. Plus, my R50’s “T” key stopped working about a month ago, so I decided to just replace the keyboard entirely.

How to do it

A notebook’s keyboard is one of the easiest parts to get. Just search the Web for your notebook’s model, and you’ll usually have your pick of dozens of sellers. (See “Parts Is Parts” for a list of likely sources.) If you shop carefully, you can get the keyboard for about $45.

All told, it takes about five minutes to remove and replace. For this job, use a small Phillips screwdriver to loosen and remove the three screws on the bottom of the laptop. No surprise, they’re marked with a keyboard logo. At this point, the keyboard should be loose. Slide it toward the screen, and gently pull it up from the front.

Pulling out the old keyboard.

Carefully disconnect the keyboard cable from the motherboard, and put the old keyboard aside. At some point, you might need to cannibalize it for spare keys or a cable.

Your last task is to plug the new keyboard cable in, slide and snap the keyboard into place, and tighten the three screws.

Sliding the new keyboard in.

Fire up the notebook and make sure it works. If it doesn’t, you’ll see a warning at start-up. Most likely that means the cable isn’t fully plugged in.

 

Step 4: Clean that machine

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Before I inserted the new keyboard, I noticed five years of accumulated dust bunnies and much worse. So, while it was still wide open, I cleaned out the R50’s insides. About 5 minutes is all it took.

This is the most important part of extending the longevity of a notebook, because if garbage is blocking the cooling fan, the system can overheat. I suspect that this was responsible for the R50’s unexpected shutdowns.

Getting out the dust bunnies with compressed air.  

 

How to do it

With the keyboard off, go through every nook and cranny with a can of compressed air. I suggest wearing a dust mask and doing this chore outside because the dust — and everything else trapped inside the case — will fly. I guarantee that you’ll be amazed at how much junk comes out.

After that, I attacked the R50’s loud fan. I pulled a wad of dust out of the fan’s blade, but I decided to be thorough because it’ll likely be another five years before it gets cleaned again. After loosening the three screws that hold the copper heat pipe onto the processor, I blew even more detritus out. The fan blade now turns silently.

 

Parts is parts

To get everything you need to rebuild an old notebook, the Web is your parts counter. It’s all out there, from memory to hard drives. Here are a few of the most popular places to get the spare parts you’ll need.

  • Notebookparts.com: This outlet has a good variety of components, including hard-to-find batteries and accessories.
  • Spare Parts Warehouse: This site with a great selection starts by asking you what make and model you have, then gets down to details with a list of available parts.
  • NB Components.com: Start on the left column of the site, where you can either pick your notebook brand or type of part. Then, dive into the details.

A word of warning: Shop around, because a notebook part that costs $100 at one site could just as easily go for $25 at another.

It’s now time to clean the case. Lenovo Group Ltd. recommends using dilute dishwashing soap, but it can’t cut through the grime that has probably built up on your notebook’s case. I prefer something a bit stronger, like Fantastik.

By the same token, a good way to get rid of scratches is to use a mild abrasive, like toothpaste or Soft Scrub, but in both cases, rinse the cleanser off with a damp sponge or paper towel when you’re done.

Don’t use any of these harsh cleansers on the screen. There are several name-brand spray-on cleaning fluids for LCDs, but they’re generally nothing more than a 50:50 mix of isopropyl alcohol and distilled water; both are available at any drug store. Just spray a little on and wipe it clean, but make an effort to get into the corners and clean the display frame. Your eyes will thank you.

 

Step 5: Give your software a spa day

Now that all the hardware was upgraded and clean as a whistle, it was time to reinvigorate the R50’s software. (This is especially important if you don’t replace the system’s hard drive, because a lot of digital flotsam and jetsam build up over time.)

How to do it

Defragmentation is important because Windows (and other operating systems) scatters files across the sectors of a hard disk. This makes it time-consuming to put the data together when it’s needed, putting a drag on performance.

Defragging moves the data around and consolidates it.
Just go to Windows Explorer, right click on the drive, and select Properties at the bottom of the list. In the Tools tab, click on Defragment Now. The rest is pretty much automatic, but set aside an hour or more if you haven’t done this essential piece of maintenance recently.

Defragging the drive.

To prevent out-of-control fragmentation, schedule regular defragging sessions when you’re not likely to be using the computer, such as every Tuesday at 3 a.m. Go to Scheduled Tasks in the Control Panel and add a task to start the wizard.

Next, click Browse, navigate to the Windows/system32/ folder, select defrag.exe and click Open. Finally, choose whether you want the autodefragging to take place daily, weekly, monthly, when the machine is started up or when you log on. All you need to do now is pick the day and time for the task to take place, type in your password, and click Finish.

Error checking can find physical faults in a hard disk, like a scratch or a place where the magnetic coating has worn away, and then avoid them. Figure about 15 minutes to error-check a 40GB drive and twice that for an 80GB drive.

Starting Check Disk. Click to view image gallery.

In Windows Explorer, right-click on the drive, select Properties, go to the Tools tab, and click on Check Now. Check the boxes marked “Automatically fix file system errors” and “Scan for and attempt recovery of bad sectors,” and click Start to start the Check Disk software. Because the software needs to have the exclusive use of the drive, you might have to restart the computer to run Check Disk.

Managing memory is especially important with Windows XP, which is a resource hog even with 768MB of RAM. In other words, every bit helps.

Memory Washer. Click to view image gallery.

I like Right Utilities Inc.’s Memory Washer because it’s a powerful program that can increase the amount of available memory and shows where memory is being wasted. It shows not only how much free memory you have but also how many Windows processes are running. In about one minute, Memory Washer freed up 15MB of memory on my R50.

The 1.9MB download is available for free and lasts 15 days as trial software; if you like it, pay the $15 to license it.

30% faster — and no longer embarrassing

All told, the hardware and software changes I performed to revive my R50 yielded a 30% gain in performance based on Futuremark’s PCMark 05 benchmark.

More to the point, the fan now works properly, so the system doesn’t shut down on its own. It’s clean, and I’m no longer ashamed to use it in public. Not bad for an hour’s work and about $125.

Revamping a ThinkPad R50

 

Before

After

CPU

1.5-GHz Pentium M

1.5-GHz Pentium M

RAM

256MB

768MB

Hard drive capacity/speed

40GB/4,200 rpm

80GB/5,400 rpm

PC Mark 05 score*

1,182

1,536

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