Laptops aren’t as easy to upgrade as desktop PCs. In fact, newer laptops are becoming harder to upgrade — but you still may be able to upgrade your laptop with more RAM or a solid-state drive.

It’s generally a bad idea to buy a laptop with plans to upgrade it later. Buy the hardware you need to avoid headaches later. Some laptops can be upgraded fairly easily, but do your research here.

Desktops vs. Laptops

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When you build a desktop PC yourself, a typical case will come with plenty of room inside. You can open it by twisting a few screws and get easy access to all the hardware in the case. Components you install aren’t permanent, but can be removed and replaced later. Even if you buy a prebuilt desktop PC, its motherboard may come with empty RAM slots and empty PCI Express slots so you can install more RAM and expansion cards. Some manufacturers may try to make upgrading their prebuilt desktop PCs more difficult, but even those PCs aren’t as difficult to upgrade as the average laptop.

Laptops are different. You don’t build your own laptop — instead, you buy a prebuilt laptop from a manufacturer. They build a custom chassis (case) for the laptop and choose components that will fit that case. Modern Intel Ultrabooks and Apple MacBooks are becoming increasingly thin and light, and they aren’t designed to be user-upgradable.

Barriers to Upgrading a Laptop

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Here’s what often stops you from upgrading a laptop:

  • Design: Many laptops just aren’t designed to be opened. Take Microsoft’s Surface Pro 2 for example — you need to use a blow dryer to melt the adhesive around the display and open it up. Once you get inside, you’ll find a tightly packed together mess of components — the battery is also adhered to the case, so you can’t easily replace that. Apple’s MacBooks can be opened with a screwdriver (theoretically — they use proprietary screws), but you’ll find a tight mess of components with the battery glued in place, too.
  • Opening It: Even if opening your laptop is possible, it may not be a pleasant experience. Laptops have many components tightly packed together, so you may have to remove many other components from your laptop before servicing a specific component. For example, Microsoft’s Surface Pro 2 has over 90 screws inside it!
  • Soldered on Components: Some devices come with components soldered on. For example, MacBooks come with the CPU, GPU, and RAM soldered onto their logic board (or motherboard, as PC users call it). You can’t just remove any of these components and install a new one. (Soldering is the process of applying a melted metal material at high heat to two objects. The metal cools and the two objects — RAM and motherboard, in this case — become joined together by the metal. In other words, you can’t just remove a component because it’s fused to your motherboard.)
  • Warranty: Even if you can open your laptop and replace some of the components, most laptop manufacturers argue that this will void your warranty. If your laptop can easily be opened, you may have to remove a warranty-voiding sticker to get inside. The manufacturer may look for evidence you’ve tampered inside your laptop if you ever send it back. They’ll want to deny your warranty claim if they find any evidence you could have caused the problem. In theory, the manufacturer should have to honor the warranty whether you’ve opened the laptop or not if the problem isn’t your fault. But many PC manufacturers provide notoriously bad customer service, so good luck arguing that point with them!

Common Upgrades That Can Work

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Many laptops can be upgraded in a few common ways. These upgrades will be easiest on older laptops, which are bulkier and often more upgrade-friendly.

  • Install More RAM: If your laptop’s motherboard has available RAM slots, it may be easy to buy another stick of RAM and pop it in. If your laptop’s RAM slots are full, it may be possible to remove the current sticks of RAM and install new sticks of RAM with more capacity. Some laptops (generally older, bulkier laptops) actually came with a special memory panel located on the bottom of the laptop, which you could easily open up to access the RAM slots on your motherboard. Be sure to buy the correct type of RAM for your laptop if you’re going this route.
  • Upgrade to an SSD: If you have a laptop that came with a slower mechanical hard drive, you may be able to upgrade it to a faster solid-state drive fairly easily. This process will involve opening up your laptop, removing the current hard drive, and installing the solid-state drive in its place. You’ll either need to create a copy of your operating system drive first or reinstall Windows afterward. Some larger laptops may have multiple hard drive bays, but don’t count on that.
  • Replace an Optical Drive With an SSD: If you want to keep your laptop’s internal drive and install a solid-state drive, you may be able to replace the laptop’s optical (CD, DVD, or Blu-ray) drive with a solid-state drive. You’ll need the appropriate enclosure that allows the SSD to fit into the optical drive bay for this.

CPU and GPU upgrades may be possible on some laptops, but these will be harder. You’ll need to make extra sure to buy compatible components that will fit your laptop and be supported by its BIOS. Different CPUs and GPUs generate different amounts of heat, so your new components may generate too much heat for the fans and cooling solutions that came with your laptop to handle. These are all problems you’ll need to think about.

Do Your Research

So, can you upgrade your laptop’s RAM or install a fast solid-state drive? Do your research! Look around online to see if your model of laptop is easily upgradable and if other people have upgraded its components successfully. Check exactly what type of RAM, solid-state drive, or other components your laptop supports.

Some laptop manufacturers provide service manuals that will walk you through the process of opening up your laptop and removing various components. Do a search to see if your laptop has an official service manual you can use. If not, you may find an unofficial guide for opening up your laptop and installing components written by another user.

Be sure to check the process ahead of time and see whether you’d feel comfortable following the instructions. Some upgrades will be much more difficult than others.

You shouldn’t buy a laptop with plans on upgrading it. Ideas like, “Well, the RAM is a bit on the low side but I can always add more later,” or, “I’ll install a solid-state drive to speed it up,” can’t be taken for granted like they can with a desktop PC. Do your research ahead of time to see if this is even possible. Even if it is possible later, you may want to seek out  a laptop with your desired amount of RAM or a good solid-state drive and buy that instead, as it will save you a headache later.

Many laptops are still upgradable, but we’re moving toward a future where most computers won’t be user-serviceable.

Image Credit: Ray Weitzenberg on Flickr, Ambra Galassi on Flickr, Christoph Bauer on Flickr, Mark Skipper on Flickr, Joel Dueck on Flickr

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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