How to Replace or Upgrade Laptop Memory

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A computer’s memory (called RAM) is one of the simpler components to replace or upgrade. Increasing the amount of memory is one of the most cost-effective ways to breathe life into an older system and extend its usefulness. We show you start to finish how to replace memory modules in a notebook computer in this guide.

Computer Memory: the Basics

A computer’s Random Access Memory (RAM) is a computer’s short-term memory. RAM is unrelated to the computer’s storage drive (often called a hard drive) where files are kept. A computer uses RAM to store data that programs and the operating system need to access quickly. The more RAM a computer has, the better its performance will be especially when running multiple applications at the same time.

Physically speaking, a notebook RAM module is a rectangular computer chip; the black squares on it are the actual memory chips and the green circuit board holds and connects them together. The gold pins on one edge insert into a dedicated slot on the computer’s main circuit board (the motherboard) and allow the computer to transfer information via electrical signals. Notebook computers typically have one or two RAM modules.

An interesting fact about RAM is that unlike hard drives or flash storage, RAM requires power to store data; once the computer is shut down, all data in RAM is lost. When the computer boots up, certain data is read from the storage drive into the RAM.

Generally the most important specification when buying RAM is the capacity (usually listed in gigabytes or GB). More RAM is better … period. It’s common for modern computers to come with 8GB or more. Beware when upgrading though; there is a limit on how much memory a computer can access. We’ll talk about that in the next section.

Disclaimers:

This DIY is meant to be a guide only; the steps are ambiguous to apply to the largest number of notebooks. In other words, the steps listed here are not step-by-step for any notebook in particular.

Follow this DIY at your own risk; NotebookReview.com takes zero responsibility for any damage you cause during an upgrade procedure.

 

Getting Started

We need two pieces of information to make a memory upgrade/replacement possible: the type of memory your computer uses and how much memory it can handle. Then we’ll look at some tips when shopping for memory.

What kind of memory does your computer use?

Use a freeware tool called CPU-Z to identify the type of memory currently in the notebook. Download the software here: http://www.cpuid.com/softwares/cpu-z.html

Installation instructions are listed on the page.

Go to the SPD tab and look at the “Max Bandwidth” option; per the screenshot on the right, my computer has PC3-8500 memory. That designation isn’t a make or model; it’s the specification of the memory (kind of like how “AA” is a type of battery). The type of memory you buy must match what’s listed there. Some computers can use multiple kinds of memory, but that’s beyond the scope of this guide. We’ll assume what your computer needs is what’s listed.

How much memory can my computer handle?

The simplest way to figure out how much memory your computer can address is to look it up on the manufacturer’s website; go to a search engine and type in the make and model of your computer. I searched for ‘HP EliteBook 8740w’; the first result was a link to HP’s website which had the product specifications, including the maximum listed memory. My computer has a maximum of 8GB via two 4GB modules.

The next simplest way to go about figuring this out is calling or emailing the manufacturer’s support line.

And of course, you’re always welcome to ask the experts in our forums: http://forum.notebookreview.com

How much memory can my operating system handle?

Like the computer itself, the operating system also has a limit on how much memory it can address; this limit may be higher or lower than what the computer can handle. This limit is chiefly determined by whether the operating system is 32- or 64-bit.

You can find whether your operating system is one or the other by pressing the [Windows Key] + [Pause] on your keyboard (yes, there’s a key that says “Pause” on it). Or use the more traditional route of right-clicking “Computer” on the desktop and clicking Properties; both methods will get you to the System Properties screen shown above and indicate whether the computer is running a 32- or 64-bit operating system.

What does 32/64-bit mean?

  • 32-bit: you’re limited to 4GB total memory
  • 64-bit: you’re limited to however much memory your computer can handle

If your computer is running a 32-bit operating system and you install more than 4GB (as I unfortunately did), only 4GB (at most) will be usable.

Where can I buy memory modules?

Memory is typically overpriced in traditional stores; a more economical choice is an online computer parts retailer or directly from the memory manufacturer. Only some manufacturers sell directly to consumers.

Should I buy a specific brand?

Many computer enthusiasts are loyal to certain brands; in reality there’s no specific brand that works better than others. Just make sure the memory you buy has a lifetime warranty.

Make sure you buy NOTEBOOK memory

If you’re buying memory for a notebook, it should be listed as memory for notebooks in the product description. Desktop memory is incompatible with notebooks.

Installation Process

The required tools for upgrading a notebook computer’s memory are a Phillips head screwdriver (a small one), a clean towel and a well-lit area.

First we’ll take some safety precautions.

  • Unplug the notebook
  • Place the notebook on the towel so it doesn’t get scratched
  • Remove the notebook’s battery (this may not be possible with all notebooks)
  • Hold down the notebook’s on/off power button for 10 seconds to drain any excess electricity

Most notebooks will have a process similar to what’s illustrated below.

Memory is generally considered a user-serviceable component; the access panel should be located on the bottom of the notebook. The HP EliteBook 8740w I’m using as an example has an access panel specific to RAM; take out the one screw, gently pop the cover and behold the RAM modules:

To remove a module, use your thumbs and gently push the white tabs on either side outward; the module will “pop” upward (pictured below, left).

Using your thumb and index finger, grasp the module and gently pull; be sure to pull it straight out in the direction it’s aimed (pictured below, right).

Once the module is out, be careful to avoid touching the gold metal pins at the bottom; oils from your fingertips can impede or damage the module’s performance.

Note: your notebook may have more than one RAM module installed; if you intend on replacing all of them, it’s best to remove all the modules at the same time.

Installing a memory module is the opposite. Pay special attention to the notch in between the module’s gold pins; the module will fit into the slot exactly one way. Once you have the module lined up, apply a small amount of pressure and push the module into the slot. When the module goes no further, reorient your finger and push the module sideways so the white tabs catch its edges and it snaps into place. It may require slightly more pressure than you’re use to for this to happen.

Once it’s installed, close the access panel.

Run Memtest86+

The newly-installed RAM will just work – there are no drivers to install or further configuration. However, testing the memory modules for integrity is very important because errors can happen during the manufacturing process. Windows 7 has a built-in memory diagnostics tool that will attempt to find errors in the memory: http://windows.microsoft.com/en-us/windows7/diagnosing-memory-problems-on-your-computer

Unfortunately, this tool built into Windows isn’t thorough; the ideal way to test memory is using memtest86+.

http://www.memtest.org/

Memtest86+ is a completely free memory diagnostic tool. You can either burn the *.ISO to a CD or create a bootable USB memory key.

Once you do either option, restart your computer with the media inserted; it should boot to memtest86+. Memory testing will begin immediately and continue indefinitely; to stop the testing, just push the computer’s power button. The testing should ideally be run for 24 hours straight (yes, that seems like a long time). If there’s even a single error detected, the memory is defective and should be RMA’d to the manufacturer for replacement.

If your notebook has more than one memory module and there’s an error with the memory, you’ll need to figure out which module is causing the problem. Remove one of the modules using the steps in this guide, re-run memtest86+ for 24 hours and repeat for the other module. Both need to be tested independently as both could have errors.

Note: many seemingly phantom issues with computers (crashes/freezes at random, any unexplained behavior) are caused by defective memory. Beware problems related to bad memory can occur at any time without warning which could mean a loss of important work or corrupted files. It’s vital that any new memory be tested extensively.

Conclusion

Upgrading your computer’s RAM (memory) is one of the most cost effective ways to extend the usable life of a computer. RAM is essentially the computer’s short-term memory; the more it has the better. When upgrading or changing a computer’s memory modules, it’s important to understand how much can be added. The new memory must be thoroughly tested after installation using a memory test program like memtest86+. All said and done memory upgrades are straightforward provided the process outlined in this guide is followed.

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