Many people admire netbooks for their portability, but no two models are exactly alike, and each reflects different trade-offs. A system with a great laptop battery may have a horrible keyboard arrangement; a model with a solid-state drive might be out of your price range; or a unit with killer specs might be missing 802.11n connectivity. All of these are common problems, but they don’t have common solutions.
Due to their diversity, netbooks don’t share a standard upgrade path as typical desktop PCs do. Each model is unique in what you can do to it, and the procedures are as varied as the netbooks themselves. If you plan to upgrade your machine, you’ll need to hunt down the instruction manual or – in the case of trickier upgrades – a community of users to walk you through the process. That said, possible netbook hacks range from five-minute routines to soldering-gun-based surgeries. Following are seven hacks for a Dell e1505 – one of the more tweakable netbooks we’ve come across. The first three hacks are easy, and the other four are intermediate. While your mileage (and procedures) will depend on your own netbook model, this guide should give you a good idea of the kinds of upgrades that are available (and suitable) for your machine and your skill level.
1. Insert a better battery
In PC World testing the Dell Inspiron E1505 Battery survived for about 3 hours, 34 minutes. That’s not too shabby for a four-cell battery, but you can do better. Though you may find a few guides online that describe how to create a laptop battery by using a number of aftermarket batteries wired together, that method is a recipe for disaster
Instead, we found an Nine-cell, 6600mAh battery on udtek.com that’s entirely compatible with the existing connections (and size) of your Dell e1505. At $191 it’s by no means cheap, and if you’re prepared to order offshore you can do a lot better with a US$69.99 battery from udtek.com, who ship worldwide. With an nine-cell battery you’ll double the longevity of your netbook – provided that you aren’t bothered by the inelegant mass sticking out from underneath it. To replace the laptop batteries, just flip your netbook upside-down, move the two switches from the locked icon to the unlocked icon, and then push up on the battery tray.
2. Upgrade the OS
If you want to install a new operating system onto your netbook, you certainly can: you simply pop the CD/DVD into any external USB optical drive and install away.
Want to dual-boot your netbook? Grab the GParted utility, by downloading the .iso file for its LiveCD at udtek.com and then burning the file onto a disc. Insert that disc into the external optical drive, restart the netbook, and enter the BIOS to change the boot settings for your machine. Boot off of the optical CD/DVD drive first, and GParted will load. Right-click on the primary partition and select Resize/Move. Microsoft recommends that you have at least 16GB of space for Windows 7; if you were hoping to use that OS but your netbook has too little room, your experiment ends here. For any OS, if your netbook does have space for it, enter a new partition size of your choosing. Click Resize, and you’ll see the newly unallocated space sitting to the right of your primary partition in GParted’s graphic. Right-click on this area and select New. Enter zeros for ‘Free Space Proceeding’ and ‘Following’, select Primary Partition under ‘Create as’, and click the add button.
If you prefer not to use an external optical drive, you can follow the same steps for using GParted and installing the new OS with a simple USB thumb drive.
3. Rearrange the keyboard
Does your laptop keyboard’s default layout conflict with the muscle memory you’ve built for desktop keyboard layouts? You can pop an offending key off of your netbook by wedging a tiny screwdriver under the key and gently applying upward pressure. As long as the keys you are swapping are the same size, you can interchange them as you please.
Once you’ve made the physical transformations, use the Sharp Keys utility (udtek.com) to reassign your OS’s interpretations of the keystrokes to the appropriate keys. Alternatively, if you don’t mind a bit of visual confusion, you can leave the physical keys exactly where they are and use this helpful application to redefine their purpose.
4. Replace the hard drive
What’s worse: the underwhelming capacity of a typical solid-state drive inside a brand-new netbook, or the price difference you’d have to pay to get a larger drive in your preconfigured netbook build? Here’s a way around both of those nightmares. First, when you’re building your netbook on the maker’s website, select the lowest-capacity drive available (or if you have no configuration options, buy the netbook as is). Next, consult user forums (see “More resources” on page 85) to get a clearer sense of which aftermarket solid-state or magnetic hard drives are compatible with your unit. Finally, grab a screwdriver.
For the Dell e1505, flip the netbook over and remove the two screws that secure the large back panel into place (since it’s in the centre, it’s hard to miss). Pry off the panel with your finger or with the tip of a screwdriver. With the Dell e1505 battery facing north, you’ll notice a set of four electronic pieces inside the machine; those are the hard drive, the memory, the network card, and a space for a 3G card (if you bought your e1505 from Vodafone it will have the 3G card installed). You should see a pair of screws securing the tiny flash-memory circuit board into place in the upper-left quadrant. Unscrew them, and the SSD should lift up. Pull it out, insert its replacement, and tighten the screws.
5. Upgrade the RAM
Memory is one of the main areas of a netbook where system manufacturers can increase their profit margin. Don’t let a netbook maker empty your wallet by selling you RAM that you can find elsewhere for a lot less. In the case of the Dell e1505, we bought the bare minimum of RAM that we needed to complete the configuration: 512MB. To upgrade RAM, first open the netbook’s back and look for the existing memory. On the e1505, it’s in the upper-right (with the battery facing north).
On the RAM module you should see its specifications. You can either purchase the same type of RAM in a larger size (in our case, a 2GB stick of DDR2 SODIMM running at 533MHz) or check the manufacturer specs for your netbook to discover its maximum supported speed. The difference between DDR2-4200 and DDR2-5300 memory is almost unnoticeable, but there’s no sense in maxing out with DDR2-6400 memory if your netbook can’t support its full speed.
To replace the memory, push outward on the two clips holding the RAM in place near the notched groove on each side. The RAM will pop up toward you for removal. Insert the new memory and push it into place. When you start up the machine, quickly press the appropriate key to access the system BIOS (for the Dell Mini 9, it’s the 2 key). Head to the main tab and confirm that the system recognises the new memory.
6. Upgrade the Wi-Fi
Upgrading the internal Wi-Fi capabilities of a netbook from 802.11g to 802.11n sounds as though it should be easy. In theory, you’d simply buy some laptop accessories such as a miniature wireless card, pop off the back of the netbook, shuffle its components, and start enjoying the increased functionality and speed of the new card.
Alas, in reality it isn’t that simple. Just because a Wi-Fi card looks as if it will fit in your netbook, that doesn’t mean the card is compatible with the netbook’s OS/motherboard combination. But even before that, you have to deal with the issue of size. When purchasing a new Wi-Fi card, you need to know whether your netbook can support a full-height or half-height card. Remove the back of the netbook and look for the existing Wi-Fi card. A full-height card is long and rectangular, similar in shape to an SD Card for a camera. A half-height card is stubbier and resembles the shape of a CompactFlash card.
As for the particular brand of card, there is no hard-and-fast rule for determining what will be compatible with your netbook model. A card that looks perfect on paper may not work with your unit’s configuration. Instead of using trial and error, search the internet for stories of other people’s successful Wi-Fi upgrades of the same netbook model. It’s the best way of improving the odds that the card you pick will actually work.
Once you’ve cleared that hurdle, installing the card is easy. On the Dell e1505, for example, remove the netbook’s rear cover. The Wi-Fi card is in the centre-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, and remove the card from the slot. Insert the new card, reinsert the screws to tighten the card 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 the motherboard, you might have to remove a motherboard standoff to permit a solid fit.
If the operating system can’t find the new card on the next boot, install the drivers for the particular Wi-Fi card you bought. You should be able to find the drivers on the company’s website; if not, you might have to install drivers from a third-party netbook manufacturer whose product uses the same network card.
7. Overclock the CPU
Overclocking represents the pinnacle of system upgrades that an average user can perform without physically deconstructing the netbook. It’s also among the more dangerous upgrades for netbooks, given that these miniature systems don’t come with the best cooling systems. In the case of the Dell e1505, the passive cooler protecting the processor from thermal overload is no match for frequency tweaking, and it’s probably for the best that we couldn’t find a way to overclock this tiny PC.
Other netbooks are a bit more flexible in this regard. Owners of Dell e1505 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 and you want to update its BIOS, you’ll discover that MSI officially supports your overclocking habit. Still, these waters demand careful navigation (or strict avoidance) lest you wreck your netbook and condemn it to an inglorious end.