Simple, Economical Ways to Refresh An Old Laptop

My primary laptop is an HP 8510p. It’s about thirty months old..and I don’t yet hate it…which is a sure sign that it was truly a nice machine when I first got it. This was my second HP laptop after a long history of using Dell models. Given any choice at all I won’t ever go back to Dell.

Under normal circumstances my employer would agree to replace the machine after three years (36 months) use. Some companies, like Exxon-Mobile where my brother-in-law works, would push that out to 48 months. When a laptop gets to be four years old it’s usually very slow & compared to current technology. It becomes a source of frustration. At least for my activities, which are graphics heavy, there’s a very real argument for a 36 month upgrade cycle.

However, these are not normal times. We’ve curtailed our spending in many ways and I now doubt that this machine will be upgraded at 36 months. We need to see signs of a stronger economy, specifically stronger broadcast industry, before we get back to such a routine.

That said, I make pretty heavy use of a laptop. I use it just about every day, even when I’m in my home office. Of course, the very fact that I travel a lot means that they take something of a beating. If I’m going to need to keep this machine in service for another 18 months it occurred to me that I should take some steps to give it a cheap refresh. If you’ve never done this you should give it some thought.

After 30 months of typical use there’s a strong case for replacing the battery. The run-time on battery power decays a little with every charge-discharge cycle. After a couple of hundred charges I find that run-time can be down to half of what it was when new. A replacement battery runs $40-50. It’s an affordable thing to do, especially if you find yourself on long flights where battery power is most useful.

The second aspect of my refresh plan is a little less common….I replaced the keyboard. I was actually compelled to do this as a couple of keys stopped working. Not a problem if I simply avoid the use of “a” and “s.” Yeah, right.

I found a replacement keyboard for $18. Installation of the new keyboard required only a small Philips screwdriver and took less than 5 minutes. I consider this move dirt cheap considering the improved user experience it provides. It’s a lot like having a new machine.

Of course, you could also up the amount of memory in your machine. If you don’t have 2 GB of RAM stop what you’re doing right now and order enough to get to that point!

I consider 2GB of memory the minimum for use with a 32 bit OS such as Windows XP or even Windows 7 32-bit. Memory is now so cheap and anything you can do to avoid using virtual memory (swapping to disk) will enhance your experience using the laptop. That implies that you can extend the working lifespan of the system.

Since I bought this system with 2 GB of memory I don’t really see any value in pushing it higher. At least not as long as it’s running XP. If my employer wants to push me into Windows 7 then a new laptop would seem the more prudent approach to that migration.

If you had a very small disk (say under 80 GB) you might consider upgrading that to something more capacious. These days I’m seeing 160 GB disks as baseline, and 500 GB as desirable. But even then disk size only matters of you really need it. Consider your use case for the machine in question.

There’s a limit to what I will spend to refresh an older system. In my mind that limit is about 25% of the cost of a new system. Even so, with a thorough cleaning, new battery and new keyboard my aging HP laptop is now a lot nicer than it was just a couple of weeks ago. It’ll go another 18 months without causing me frustration.

P.S. – some time ago I did mention that I was going to trend into a little more general technology topics, and not be so exclusively voip-centric. This kind of thing is what I meant.

  • Greg

    Another good tip is to clean out the fan. They get packed with dust over the years and it makes the unit get hotter and the fan louder. A can of compressed air is cheap and can help blow out the fan without even taking the case apart. Sometimes you can get to it while you have the keyboard off as well.

  • Great tips. I had no idea it was so inexpensive to purchase a replacement keyboard. Your post is very timely because I just had a key break off last week. My laptop (and only computer) will turn five this year!

    Here’s another tip. You no doubt know this already but I am astonished how many people I meet don’t. Most computers come with system restore discs, or a program that will help you to make them. First, back up all your important files, because they’ll be deleted in the process. Then, run the system restore disk and your computer will be restored to its factory default state – it’ll be just as you took it out of the box. Not bad for what will amount to probably 20 minutes’ time.

  • Great points… here’s another. I had an IBM T42 laying around that I hadn’t used since ’07. It was simply to slow… XP made it run at Grandma speed, and once reformat/reinstall stopped improving the speed, it was time to put it in the closet. I’m not going to get into the windows / linux / mac debates… I’m more of a linux/max person now, but regardless… when jaunty came out, I decided to test it on that ol’ laptop.

    Normally I’m a centOS user, but centos and IBM wireless have notoriously not been the best of friends. I will say that loading ubuntu on that laptop pumped new life into it. And now, I have a great system laying around that can be used for almost anything.

    Just my .02.

    • Fred,

      Agreed, that’s a good approach for some people. I have Ubuntu on my old desktop just to have a linux playground.

      Sadly, I suffer the typical chicken/egg issue with linux. I need to know more about it to be able to do what I require. I also need greater support for Win32 applications, which again would require me to know more about Linux, wine, etc.

  • John

    Sticking to a budget of 25% of a new laptop seems reasonable. Might I ask what your budget for a new laptop is? I only ask because I’ve ranged over the years from about $700 to $3,500. My high-dollar systems, with proper OS and application maintenance, have had no problem remaining competitive for 60 months. For a significant performance boost I would suggest outfitting your aging laptop with a SSD hard drive. I was this close to buying a $220 Transcend 160GB SSD with an “old-school” PATA / IDE interface yesterday.

    • John,

      I can certainly see a truly cutting edge system going a longer distance. My laptop budget is defined by my employer. They historically go in the $1400-1600 range.

      When I learned this a few years ago I asked to be able to buy my own machine. I took that budget and bought the best machine I could from the HP SMB outlet. They remarket overstock and returned systems. Thus I was able to buy the same corp model but much better spec’d. Occasionally I can get the Mobile Workstation models (p designation) for the same price as normal systems. They always have more memory, faster CPU and larger disk….for the same budget.

      I’ve been really happy with this approach. In fact, our US CEO has asked me to buy a number of systems this way.

      As to the SSD, I wholly-heartedly agree. If I had an older top-end system I’d definitely consider that path. I almost ordered one in my new netbook, but it pushed the price over my limit for that project.

  • RichP

    Nice article. I would add to that list possibly replacing the hard drive. Some of the older laptops came with slow 4200rpm drives. Also, similar to the batteries I think Hard drives tend to slow down with age. New 5400rpm drives can be had for $45(250GB) and 7200rpm can be had for $55. If your data storage needs are modest you might be able to find a small SSD on sales as well.

    • Those are good ideas as well. In the case of my existing HP8510p it already has a 160 GB 4200 RPM drive which is adequate. In my new netbook I came within inches of ordering an SSD, but it drove the cost just beyond my reach.