A Better Work-from-home Laptop

It is fair to say that 2020 has been… unique. For many of us who are fortunate enough to still have a job, there has nevertheless been huge upheaval in our work environment. In the rush to make homes ready for remote work (and learning) it is no wonder places like Officeworks quickly sold out of work-from-home related equipment, like laptops, at the start of this crisis. However, sometimes a whole new laptop isn’t exactly what is required. Sometimes, you just need to look at what you have with fresh eyes… and one or two fresh parts.

 

The Budget-friendly Laptop Performance Boost

There are two main components that are relatively cheap to buy, but that can breathe new life into an older laptop. Both are relatively easy to install, but one might not be possible on all laptops. The first is a Solid State Drive (SSD) and the second is a RAM upgrade.

 

Laptop Solid State Drive (SSD) Upgrade

Installing an SSD is one of the best ways to improve the performance of your laptop. And it doesn’t need to be expensive! The price of SSDs has been steadily dropping, while the capacities have been steadily increasing. PNY sent me the PNY CS900 480GB SSD, which is currently available at Mwave for $79. That is incredible!

 

Laptop upgrade PNY CS900 SSD

 

A quick scan of the user reviews on Amazon tells me two things – firstly, a LOT of people have used this drive to significantly boost the performance of their older computers. Secondly, a 4.8 star average review means we are on to a good thing for user satisfaction!

 

Why install a SSD?

SSDs are so much better than traditional spinning disk Hard Drives (HDDs) because they are able to achieve much faster read and write speeds. You will notice the difference firstly in the time it takes to boot your laptop, but also in how quickly programs open and run.

Replacing the HDD with the PNY SSD is usually a relatively easy task. Some laptops have a little cover (often with a single screw) that makes accessing the drive bay very simple. Others, like my ACER Spin laptop, need the entire back cover removed. This was still a straightforward task, it just meant a few more screws had to come out.

In most cases, this PNY SSD will be replacing a 2.5″ HDD. They are almost identical in size, so space shouldn’t be an issue. They also use the same power and data connections (known as SATA), so it should just go ahead and slot right in. There may be a couple of small screws used to hold the drives in place. On my laptop, the new PNY SSD lined up perfectly and screwed right in where the old drive came out.

 

Laptop upgrade PNY CS900 SSD
The old HDD compared to the new PNY CS900 SSD. They are almost identical in size.

 

How to install a SSD

There are several methods for transitioning from a HDD to a SSD. The two main ones are to clone the old hard drive or to run a fresh installation.

Cloning means you keep everything from the old hard drive and move it to the new hard drive. It is good for people who want to keep things just the way they are, while benefitting from the huge speed increase. If that is the route most attractive to you, then PNY offer a SSD upgrade kit that makes the process simple. It includes useful hardware, as well as necessary software for ensuring the cloning process happens smoothly.

Because I store all of my photos and documents on a NAS, I’m opting for the fresh install option. This gives me the opportunity to start again and optimise my settings – almost like getting a brand new laptop (without the extreme price tag)! It is extremely easy.

 

The laptop motherboard. The HDD/SSD sits under the foil-like cover in the bottom-left corner. The RAM module is under the cover next to the fan.

 

    1. The first task is to MAKE SURE EVERYTHING YOU WANT TO KEEP IS BACKED UP. I cannot stress this enough. BACK UP.
    2. Create the installation media on either a USB flash drive or a DVD. I don’t have a DVD drive, so my options are pretty straightforward. Creating the installation USB was easy – I just followed the instructions on the Microsoft website.
    3. Next is to remove the old HDD. The procedure for doing this will vary, depending on your laptop. Chances are that someone has done this before you and made a video of it for YouTube. It may not necessarily be the most riveting or polished video, but it should give you a good understanding of the inner workings of your laptop, if you are a little uncertain. You may also find it handy to consult your device’s manual or website. Make sure the laptop is disconnected from the power and remove the battery.
    4. Take the old drive out and reconnect the new PNY SSD in it’s place. Replace any casing and the battery. Plug the power cable back in.
    5. Reinstall the operating system. This was even easier than I had expected. I just inserted the USB stick, turned on the laptop and waited. After a little while the ACER symbol showed, then a short while later the Windows installation window appeared. A few quick options, then connection to the wireless network and adding my Microsoft Account and I was back in business. There was no need to reinsert a product key – aparently these days it is all linked to the laptop’s hardware. I thought it would be simple, but I genuinely wasn’t expecting it to be this quick or easy.
    6. Set things up the way you like them and enjoy the newfound speed!

 

The power and data connection. It plugged out of the old HDD and into the new PNY CS900 SSD easily!
Laptop upgrade PNY CS900 SSD
The connection on the PNY CS900 SSD

This really was a fast and easy process. For those of you lucky enough to have easily accessible hard drive bays, the process is even simpler than it was for me.

 

Tangible benefit?

I don’t have a fancy lab to run tests and benchmarks, in fact I’m still not exactly sure what a benchmark is when I come across one in reviews. I do, however, have an on button and a stopwatch.

My first test was to time how long it takes my laptop to turn on and load the Edge web browser (including entering a profile PIN). With the HDD it took two minutes and eight seconds to turn on to the desktop, then a further 46 seconds to load Edge. Not the end of the world, but all those minutes add up to hours of lost time over the weeks and months. The improvement with the PNY CS900 SSD was profoundly noticeable. The laptop loaded to the desktop in 12.18 seconds and Edge was up and running in under two more seconds.

I cannot understate the difference this makes. The laptop feels new. In fact, it feels better than new because this is better performance than I have ever experienced from the device. For under $100, this is an upgrade that just makes sense.

 

Laptop upgrade PNY CS900 SSD

 

My second test was to wake from sleep and load a web page. For some reason, my laptop with the HDD installed is crankier than a toddler when it’s naptime is cut short. The first time I tried this test, it did not end well. The login screen appeared within fifteen seconds, but after entering my pin… Nothing. Just a blue screen with a cursor and an occasional loading symbol. After five minutes, I gave up and performed a hard reset.

Sadly, this is too common an occurrence with this laptop. Booting from sleep is a lottery – sometimes it begrudgingly wakes up (over about 30 seconds) and performs its tasks. Sometimes it wakes, but stutters and stops in a way that is only fixed by a restart, and sometimes it just refuses to come out and play.

With the PNY SSD installed, the laptop reached the desktop in 3.83 seconds from sleep. Better yet, it was up and raring to go – none of the prior sluggishness was anywhere to be seen. Remember, that includes time to insert my PIN – something every user should do. This result was repeatable too. It didn’t matter whether I had placed the laptop to sleep or if it had just dozed off on its own accord, the laptop has consistently responded in a spritely manner when waking from a sleep state.

Did I mention the upgrade to a PNY CS900 SSD makes sense yet?

 

Laptop RAM Upgrade

A RAM upgrade is usually even easier than a HDD replacement in many circumstances, with one (big) caveat – it is increasingly difficult to buy laptops with replaceable RAM. The reasons for this are not entirely clear, but it is most likely to reduce manufacturing costs and to aid in the relentless quest to produce the slimmest devices possible.

With my ACER Spin 3, I am sadly stuck with soldiered RAM. This is a little frustrating as I was assured that the RAM was upgradable by both the salesman and some misinformation during my internet research. It’s not the end of the world, but if I was able to upgrade my RAM, I’d do it in a heartbeat with PNY Performance DDR4 2666MHz Notebook Memory.

 

PNY RAM

 

If you are able to upgrade your laptop RAM, there will usually be two slots. One of them will be filled with the current RAM module. The manufacturers website should give a guide to the maximum upgrade possible, but you don’t necessarily have to max it out to enjoy the benefits. If I could upgrade my RAM, I would be aiming for the 8-16GB range.

You can either add a module to the empty slot or remove the existing module and insert two new ones. What you do depends on the performance boost you hope to achieve, as well as the budget you have. Conventional wisdom on RAM encourages “pairing” modules for the best performance. That being said, you will still see an improvement by simply filling the empty slot.

 

An empty RAM slot in a laptop. This was accessed by removing one screw and a cover.

 

You do need to make sure you are using the correct RAM for your device. Most newish laptops will require readily available DDR4 RAM, while older laptops will need DDR3 RAM. Your laptop manufacturer’s website should provide some guidance with this.

 

Tangible benefit?

RAM stands for Random Access Memory. It is your system’s short-term data storage. RAM operates at much faster speeds than hard drives (and even SSDs), enabling quick access to all those programs and tabs that you have simultaneously open.

Adding more RAM makes the operation of the laptop smoother and enables more programs to be open concurrently without freezing/stuttering. It is great for those of us who like to have a couple of browsers with a load of tabs open at the same time as an email program and OneNote or Teams. The most frustrating part of my work day is time wasted waiting for a program to load, so a RAM upgrade is money well spent.

Are hardware upgrades better than purchasing a new laptop?

To a certain extent this depends on the laptop in question. If it is extremely old, then probably not. But if it was purchased within the last 6-7 years then there is a good argument for investigating an upgrade.

There are a lot of variables that come into play with computers, so your mileage may vary compared to mine. However, it is a pretty solid bet that replacing a spinning disk HDD with a Solid State Drive will result in noticeable and worthwhile gains. Same with the RAM – if you are dissatisfied with the performance of your current machine and a RAM upgrade is an option, than it is a cost-effective solution.

To put it into context, I would have to spend $799 (on sale from $999!) on the HP Pavilion x360 to get a new laptop that has similar specifications to my current, upgraded ACER laptop. Both have an i3 processor, but the 1080p IPS screen on my laptop is superior to the HP. The HP comes with 8GB RAM, compared to the Acer’s 4GB (although the ACER has an added 16GB of Intel Optane memory), but it only has a 128GB SSD.

I’d take the $80 upgrade option every day of the week. Had I been able to upgrade my RAM to 16GB, then for around $200 I would have a laptop far more capable than anything that I could find on the market for under $1300.

That is outstanding value in anyone’s book. So before you rush out to buy a new laptop, consider the upgrade path instead.

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