How to Identify User-Upgradeable Notebooks

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Under the access panel of the Eurocom Tornado F5 gaming notebook.

If you’ve heard that notebooks have become less upgradeable over the years, we regret to tell you the rumors are true. Notebooks are increasingly becoming viewed as disposable electronics, to be used the way they are when purchased, and then replaced versus being upgraded. This product buying mentality may work for the average consumer or business user, but doesn’t if you’re the kind of person that likes to hold onto their products for as long as possible. In this article, we’ll take a look at what makes a good user-upgradeable notebook.

Want to know if you should upgrade your notebook? Take a look at our feature: How To Know If You Should Upgrade Your Notebook.

What Can I Upgrade?

The most pessimistic way we can answer this question is by saying nothing can be upgraded. It’s true for some notebooks; the Apple MacBook (2016) is a prime example of a completely un-upgradeable notebook, as literally no conventional part can be replaced, let alone accessed.

The Eurocom Tornado F5 is a high-powered 15.6-inch gaming notebook with upgradeable components.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have the Eurocom Tornado F5 (MSI 16L13). This is as upgradeable as notebooks get, nowadays. When we did a teardown during our review process, we found nearly everything was upgradable or swappable. That included the storage drives, system memory (RAM), processor (CPU), graphics card (GPU), and battery pack.

In essence, what can be upgraded depends on the notebook. Most of the notebooks on the market fall in between the Apple and Eurocom models we just mentioned with regards to what can be upgraded.

The Important Upgrades

In this section of the article, we’ll be looking at specific components of a notebook, and the ways you can tell whether they’re upgradeable or not.

System Memory (RAM)

Random Access Memory (RAM) is one of the most common types of computer hardware upgrades. RAM is the computer’s short-term memory; the more it has available, the better. In 2017, 8GB of system memory is optimal for most usage, whereas 16GB or more is better if you plan to run intense programs or multi-task with many windows at the same time. The advantage of a notebook with upgradeable RAM is that you aren’t stuck with how much it originally came with, and thus you don’t have to buy a new notebook if your needs suddenly change, and what your existing notebook has becomes inadequate.

Another benefit of having a notebook with user-upgradeable memory is the ability to repair it if the memory were to go bad. If the memory wasn’t upgradeable, you’d be stuck replacing the entire system board, at which point you would likely be better off getting an entirely new notebook. (That is, of course, assuming you’re out of warranty.) If the notebook’s memory is upgradeable, however, you could be looking at a two-digit repair bill.

Are you thinking about getting an extended warranty on your next notebook? Our feature article has the advice you’re looking for: What You Need To Know About Extended Warranties.

As it’d be nearly impossible to produce a list of notebooks that have user-upgradeable RAM, we’ll point out a few factors of notebooks with user-upgradeable RAM that you can use for reference. You’ll want to look in the technical specifications of the notebook you’re looking at for this information.

A notebook with these attributes usually has user-upgradeable memory:

  • If the notebook is offered with a variety of different RAM configurations. For example, 8GB of RAM as a single 8GB stick (1x8GB) or two 4GB sticks (2x4GB). Notebooks with soldered/non-user-upgradeable memory will usually be offered in just one or two fixed configurations. If the notebook you’re looking at is customizable, configure it to see what is offered.
  • If the technical specifications state the number of memory slots. These are often referred to as DIMM slots. Notebooks with non-user-upgradeable memory won’t have slots for memory.
  • If the notebook uses traditional DDR memory. See if the notebook’s technical specifications list the type of memory it has, e.g. DDR3L-1866 or DDR4-2400. A notebook that uses LPDDR3 memory is NOT user-upgradeable; LPDDR3 memory is permanently soldered to the notebook’s motherboard.
  • If the notebook isn’t an ultra-thin model. We’d classify these notebooks as anything under 0.8 inches thin. The thinnest notebooks on the market tend to be the least upgradeable. User-upgradeable memory requires thickness, and therefore is one of the first things to be sacrificed in the name of thinness. A business notebook, such as the Lenovo ThinkPad T470, is an excellent example of a notebook with user-upgradeable memory.

The more of the above attributes the notebook you’re looking at has, the better its chances of having user-upgradeable memory. If you just aren’t sure whether a given notebook has user-upgradeable RAM, feel free to leave a comment on this article and ask us! Better yet, post in our forum and get guaranteed advice from our experts.

Also be sure to check out our feature: How to Upgrade or Replace Laptop Memory

Storage (Hard Drive/Solid-State-Drive/SSD)

An M.2 Type-2280 (80mm) solid-state storage drive.

Besides RAM, storage is the other most common type of hardware upgrade for a computer. The main reason to replace your storage drive is if you’re out of space. There are other reasons, too; the storage drive is the slowest component in a computer, and therefore upgrading to a faster drive can greatly help your computer open apps and boot up faster.

The good news is that most notebooks have retained some level of end-user storage upgradeability. It’s the exception that a notebook would not have upgradeable storage; the Apple MacBook (2016) we mentioned earlier in this article is again a good example of one that doesn’t have upgradeable storage.

Here are our tips for identifying notebooks that have user-upgradeable storage:

  • If the notebook has a 2.5-inch drive bay. These traditional drive bays are going by the wayside, but it’s a safe bet that if a notebook has a 2.5-inch bay, you can install any compatible 2.5-inch storage drive inside. Whether opening up the notebook to do that is easy is another question; at the minimum, though, it is possible to upgrade it. A clear tell if the notebook has a 2.5-inch bay is whether it’s offered with a traditional hard drive, as opposed to just solid-state-drives (SSDs).
  • If the notebook has an M.2 slot for SSDs. Just like 2.5-inch bays, M.2 is a drive format. If the computer has an M.2 slot for SSDs, you can change out the drive for a different model. (Again, there’s the disclaimer that opening up the notebook to do so might not be the easiest thing to do.) Take a look at our feature to get in-the-know about M.2 SSDs: M.2 SSD Notebook Upgrade Guide. Keep in mind that not every M.2 slot can be used for SSDs.
  • If the notebook is offered with a variety of different storage drives. Computers with non-upgradeable storage will usually be offered in just two or three different configurations. An especially good tell for storage drive upgradeability is whether the computer is offered with multiple kinds of drives of the same capacity. For example, if a notebook is offered with a 512GB SSD, and an encrypted 512GB SSD, the chances are good that it’s a swappable drive.

Processor (Central Processing Unit/CPU)

This is going to be a very brief section, as the majority of notebooks on the market no longer have upgradeable processors. Intel switched to all-soldered mobile processors around 2015, making them non-upgradeable. In all fairness, CPU upgrades are rare enough; it’s a good feature to have in an enthusiast-level system, but for most of us, if the CPU we have is inadequate, the chances are that the rest of the PC is, as well. (As in, it’s time to buy a new PC. Here’s What to Look for When Buying a Notebook.)

The only CPUs that remain user-upgradeable are desktop-specific CPUs, as these are still socketed. (Let’s hope we didn’t just jinx ourselves!) Any mobile-specific CPU you’ll find will not be upgradeable. For Intel chips, the naming convention generally tells all. A chip ending in “HQ”, such as the Core i7-7700HQ, isn’t upgradeable, as it’s a mobile chip, and it’s listed as a mobile chip on Intel’s ARK site. However, the desktop version of that chip, simply called the Core i7-7700, is upgradeable, as it’s socketed. Need a quick way to figure this out? Go on a computer components store, such as Newegg, and search for the exact CPU. If you can find the CPU for sale, it’s sold on its own, and therefore upgradeable.

The number of notebooks available with a desktop CPU is very small. The Eurocom Tornado F5 (MSI 16L13) we discussed at the beginning of this article is one of them.

Graphics Card (GPU/Graphics Processing Unit)

An Nvidia MXM graphics card module for notebooks.

The outstanding majority of notebook computers sold today have integrated graphics. That means the graphics processor is integrated into the computer itself (typically the CPU), and not upgradeable. Unless your notebook has a dedicated AMD or Nvidia graphics card, your notebook falls into that category.

Even if your notebook has a dedicated graphics card, it’s unlikely to be upgradeable in any sense of the word. The only modern exception is the handful of notebooks that have an MXM slot. Have a read of our feature for more info on that: How to Upgrade Nvidia MXM Notebook Graphics Cards.

The Razer Core is an external graphics card adapter that connects via Thunderbolt 3.

However, with the introduction of Windows 10, you’re not necessarily out of luck if your notebook’s graphics card can’t be upgraded. (Trust us, it probably can’t be upgraded.) If your notebook has a Thunderbolt 3 port, it may be possible to use an external graphics card. The compatibility of these external solutions is, at best, up in the air. A mere handful of notebooks that are sold today have guaranteed compatibility. One of them is the Razer Blade Stealth, which works in tandem with the company’s Core external graphics solution. But the Core will run you $499, and you’ll still need to buy a graphics card to put inside. The market for external graphics solutions is indeed very small.

Nonetheless, the upgrade path is there if you’re willing to take a chance. Our How To Upgrade Your Notebook with an External Graphics Card feature article describes all the ins and outs.

Conclusion

Although today’s notebooks are much less upgradeable than they were in the past, there’s some consolation in the fact that most notebooks still retain some end-user upgradeability. The majority of notebooks on the market support upgradeable storage drives, and a good percentage also support system memory (RAM) upgrades. Whether the notebook maker has made the upgrades easy or not is another story; the bottom line is that the upgradeability is there … most of the time.

Upgrading the central processing unit (CPU) and graphics card in notebooks is generally not possible, with the few exceptions we pointed out in this article. If your notebook runs Windows 10 and has a Thunderbolt 3 port, however, it may be possible to hook up an external graphics card. But that’s an expensive proposition, especially considering compatibility isn’t guaranteed with many systems.

Our notebook buying advice is to embrace a little “Apple Store logic” and buy your notebook with the configuration you need for its lifetime. That may seem contrary to what we stated about user-upgradeable notebooks in this article; after all, why bother worrying about a notebook’s upgradeability if you’re never going to upgrade it? The first reason is that your computing needs may not stay the same. You may end up with a need for more storage, or want to run more demanding applications, and thus need more RAM.

The second reason is for part replacement. A notebook warranty is good while it lasts. If you’re the type of person that likes to keep a product for a long time, though, the warranty will run out, and being able to replace parts becomes important. If the RAM fails on a notebook with soldered memory, you’re looking at a full system board replacement, whereas it would be a simple RAM replacement if the RAM were upgradeable. In essence, it just depends on your usage. Ourselves, here’s to keeping our fingers crossed that notebooks retain some semblance of user upgradeability into the indefinite future. Our inner geek commands it so!


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