Ten ways to upgrade your netbook

Due to their diversity, netbooks don't share common upgrade paths as typical desktop PCs do

Intermediate Upgrades

Upgrade the Hard Drive

Ten ways to upgrade your netbook

What's worse: the underwhelming capacity of the typical solid-state drive that comes with a brand-new netbook, or the price difference you'd have to pay just to get a larger drive in your preconfigured netbook build? Here's a way around both of those nightmares. First, pick the lowest-capacity drive you can purchase when you're building your netbook on the manufacturer's Web site (or, if you have no configuration options, just buy the netbook as it is). Next, consult the appropriate user forums to get a sense of which aftermarket solid-state or magnetic hard drives are compatible with your machine. Finally, grab your screwdriver.

On the Dell Mini 9, flip the netbook over and remove the two screws that secure the larger back panel into place (since it's in the center of the netbook, it's hard to miss). Pry off the panel with your finger or with the tip of a screwdriver. With the Dell Mini 9's battery facing north, you'll see a set of four large electronic pieces inside the machine; those are the hard drive, the memory, the network card, and a blank space for a nonexistent 3G card. You'll see two screws securing the tiny flash-memory circuit board into place in the upper-left quadrant. Unscrew them, and the SSD should lift up a little. Pull it out, insert its replacement, tighten the screws, and your upgrade is done!

Upgrade the RAM

Ten ways to upgrade your netbook

Did you know that memory is one of the main areas of a netbook where system manufacturers can jack up the price? It's true. Don't let a netbook maker empty your wallet by selling you RAM that you can find on the aftermarket for a lot less. In the case of the Dell Mini 9, we purchased the bare minimum of RAM necessary to complete the configuration: 512MB. To upgrade your machine's RAM, first open the back of the netbook and look for the memory. On the Mini 9, it's in the upper-right quadrant (with the battery facing north). On the RAM you should see its specifications. Either you can purchase the same type of RAM in a larger size (in our case, that came out to a 2GB stick of DDR-2 SODIMM running at 533MHz), or you can check the manufacturer specifications for your netbook to discover the maximum supported speed. You'd barely notice the speed difference between DDR2-4200 memory and DDR2-5300 memory, but there's no sense in maxing out with DDR2-6400 if your machine can't support its full speed.

To replace the memory, simply push outward on the two clips holding the memory in place near the notched groove on each side. The RAM will pop upward toward you for easy removal. Insert your newly purchased memory, push it into place, and you're set. When you start up the machine, quickly press the appropriate key to pull up the system BIOS (for the Dell Mini 9, it's the 2 key). Head to the main tab and confirm that the system recognizes the new memory. If it does, your upgrade is a success.

Upgrade the Wi-Fi

Ten ways to upgrade your netbook

Upgrading the internal Wi-Fi capabilities of a netbook from 802.11g to 802.11n sounds like an easy task at first. In theory, it should be. In theory, you should be able to purchase any old miniature wireless card, pop off the back of the netbook, do a quick shuffle of components, and enjoy the increased functionality and speed of the new card.

Alas, in reality it isn't that easy.

For starters, just because a Wi-Fi card looks like it will fit in your netbook, that doesn't mean the card is compatible with the operating system/motherboard combination. But before we even get to that, there's the issue of sizing. When purchasing a replacement Wi-Fi card, you need to know whether your netbook can support a full-height or half-height card. To verify this, remove the back of the netbook and look for the existing Wi-Fi card. A full-height card is long and rectangular, almost like the shape of an SD Card for a camera. In contrast, a half-height card is stubbier--it resembles the shape of a CompactFlash card (or, for that matter, a full-height Wi-Fi card cut in half vertically).

Once you've figured out the available space for a new card, you'll know what kind of card to get. As for the specific brand of Wi-Fi card, there is no hard-and-fast rule to determine what will be compatible with your particular netbook model. What looks perfect on paper might not work at all with your system's configuration. Instead of using trial and error, take the time to run an Internet search for other people's successful Wi-Fi upgrades of the same netbook model. It's the only way you'll be able to know, with 100 percent certainty, that the card you pick up will actually work.

Once you've cleared that hurdle, installing the card is an easy task. On the Dell Mini 9, for example, first remove the netbook's rear covering. The Wi-Fi card is located in the center-right of the system; it's the card with white and black wires (the antenna) running into it. Gently disconnect those wires, undo the screws holding the card in place, and remove the card from the slot. Insert the new card, reinsert the screws to tighten it into position, and reconnect the two antenna wires--note, however, that the specific card you buy will dictate whether you should reverse the wires as compared with their positions on the original card. Depending on the size of the card and the configuration of your netbook's motherboard, you might have to remove a motherboard standoff to make for a solid fit.

If the operating system can't find the new card on the next system boot, be sure to install the drivers for the particular Wi-Fi adapter you purchased. You should be able to find the drivers on the company's Web site; if not, you might have to install drivers from a third-party netbook manufacturer whose product happens to use the same network card.

Overclock the Processor

Overclocking represents the pinnacle of system upgrades that an average user can perform without physically deconstructing the netbook. It's also one of the more dangerous upgrades for netbooks, given that these miniature systems don't come with the best cooling. In the case of the Dell Mini 9, the passive cooler protecting the CPU from thermal overload is no match for frequency tweaking, and it's probably for the best that we were unable to find a way to overclock this tiny PC.

Other netbooks are a bit more flexible in this regard. Owners of Dell Mini 10 netbooks can rev up their CPU through the SetFSB utility. Users of earlier Asus Eee PC models can pick up the Eeectl utility, which permits them to alter the frontside bus within Windows and, consequently, up the speed of the processor. If you have an MSI Wind netbook and you want to update the BIOS, you'll find that that company officially supports your overclocking habit. Still, these are waters best navigated carefully--or not at all, lest you turn your netbook into a doorstop.

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David Murphy

PC World (US online)
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