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The Future of Laptop Upgrade Ability? 67

oki900 asks: "With laptops becoming more modular, and the use of mini PCI or PCI express cards for most of the components, are we going to start to see more third party upgrade options for laptops. I know that currently a lot of laptops use mini PCI or PCI express for LAN/WLAN cards and some even for the sound cards. It's also becoming more popular to use mini PCI express for the video cards. What will this mean for laptop consumers in the near future and how far will this trend go? Are we going to soon be able to easily upgrade the processors in the laptops as well?"
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The Future of Laptop Upgrade Ability?

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  • by yagu ( 721525 ) * <yayagu@noSPAM.gmail.com> on Monday May 22, 2006 @09:57PM (#15384960) Journal

    My laptops have failed around key components. And virtually all of them suffered one or more of:

    • power adaptor connector failure. I don't know why these are made the way they are, but there's got to be a better way. Nothing is more susceptible to failure than a rigid plastic and metal plug embedded in the connector receptacle. And, no matter how careful you are someone or something else will come along and give it a good knock. (One machine I have had this break twice, and both times the entire motherboard was replace (under warranty, thank goodness).)
    • screens. These need to be more modular and repairable. The most common problem I've seen is a rogue ribbon connector working its way loose from constant opening and closing of the laptop, sometimes even breaking. (Also, for improved resolution, it'd be nice to see this as a DIY option.)
    • battery failures
    • heat and meltdown failures
    • keyboard failures (this would really be nice to standardize and modularize! As of now, my solution is, unless I have to use the laptop keyboard, I hook up a wireless keyboard -- it turns out to be a great solution, but kind of invalidates the notion of "laptop".)

    Of the above, battery failure is easy... they usually are modular and easy to replace, though way pricier than necessary (IMO).

    The monitor and adaptor problems are trickier. I think for there to be a future in upgradeable and modular laptops, these would have to be improved (snap in video screens, ruggedized connector ports?).

    Laptops are highly specialized and customized marvels of engineering and required trick engineering just to get all of the pieces in the box (ever try disassembling one and getting it all back together?).

    As components are increasingly tiny in size, and laptops do become more modular, they'll have to become less proprietary and more open architecture -- something I'm not sure manufacturers are wont to do. (I'm thinking laptop manufacturers are more interested in branding, and not pushing sale and profit out to component makers.)

    Until laptops as an integrated unit can withstand the everyday rigors and liver longer, "upgrading" (other than memory and maybe disk) may be throwing good money after bad.

    • by samkass ( 174571 ) on Monday May 22, 2006 @10:09PM (#15385006) Homepage Journal
      power adaptor connector failure. I don't know why these are made the way they are, but there's got to be a better way.

      There is. [wikipedia.org] These connectors are truly great. Not only does it protect the socket from bending, MacBook from being yanked onto the floor, and people from tripping, but because it can be attached either way and pulls itself into the socket magnetically, it can be connected easily in pitch darkness and is impossible to connect incorrectly.
    • Hinges. There really isn't much you can do about this, but 20 years in we should be able to make a laptop hinge that isn't structurally supported by the plastic casing.

      Batteries. Yes, batteries were mentioned above, but they deserve repeating. It would be roughly $400 to replace the battery in my old IBM laptop, a laptop which resells on craigslist for about 100. If laptops are to survive, replacing the powersource (which will die in about 3 years) needs to become a heck of a lot cheaper. Can we just s
      • hard drives come in standard sizes, so they're halfway there.

        i think a low-power laptop would be pretty neat, maybe have it run on AA batteries, embedded processor (perhaps arm or elan), and flash disk. that would solve a lot of the problems, but unfortunately not for more practical machines..
      • Crap, why just hardware? Take it to another level and think BIOS as well.

        I have a not-so-budget Averatec that was my first notebook ever. The multi-drive went bad and needed to be replaced just to reload the f**king OS. I even talked to Phoenix BIOS support if they have an upgrade available, and they told me that the manufacturer controls the BIOS selection and upgradeabilty. Not only that, just try to buy a replacement drive!

        IF I could have booted from a USB drive to do a reload, I would have NEVER se

        • "Good luck finding One (1) laptop with the ability to boot from a USB device. I know I have spent hours in stores restarting most of the major's and some of the minor notebook brands to look in the BIOS for that ability... no luck so far."

          I'm going to assume here that you have not considered a USB floppy drive as a potential "fix" for this.
    • my laptop (acer aspire 1520) inverter went and it's out of warranty so the only way to get it fixed is to send if off to Acer and get charged a massive service charge for a part that only costs a fraction of that. However it's extremely rare and I can't get hold of it so I'm caught between a rock and a hard place. Basically what I'm saying is that laptop companies know your laptop is going to fail and that chances are it's going to be a part only they can fix, so they have a captive audience who has no choi
    • I guess you are not using Thinkpad nor MacBook?

      Thinkpad's power receptacle is not as sophisticated MagSafe, but at least it is standalone, screwed to the chassis by itself, and not soldered on the system board.

      Keyboard is just ~$40 for Thinkpad, which IMO it is very reasonable and ...actually I would say cheap, given that quality.
    • We use our laptops for 3 years before replacing them with new models. During those three years all repairs are taken care of by the manufacturers under support contracts. After this peiod the old PC's are either reemployed internally in non-critical applications or cleaned up and sold off to employées.

      When the over 3 year old laptops we have kept break down they are sent to our corporate junkyard. We mix and match pieces when we can to salvage one a few out those that are broken.

      When looking over the

      • I think you should re-examine the "3 years and out" mantra. Things have changed a bit in the past few years with regards to how fast technology is advancing. CPU speeds are somewhat stagnant (but dual-core does present a sizeable increase in performance).

        Our old standard was:
        - Every 2 years for power users (1/3 of our users)
        - Every 3-5 years for non-power users (2/3 of our users), hand-me-downs from the power users

        I'm one of those power users. Yet when my turn came up in 2004, I passed on the upgra
    • Having opened up a broken LCD screen and repaired it myself (had to resolder a new mini fluorescent tube to the power connector), I've always wanted to see a way of improving the lifetime of the LCD screen.

      The first way would be to have a fluorescent tube in a cartridge that could be slotted out of the base of the display. Alternatively, having more but smaller tubes could also be an option. Or even have the display completely detachable so that it could be used as a LCD monitor even if the rest of the lapt
    • Laptops are highly specialized and customized marvels of engineering and required trick engineering just to get all of the pieces in the box (ever try disassembling one and getting it all back together?).

      As a matter of fact, I have. I'd never buy a Dell laptop again, but the one thing I will say about it is that they are fantastically easy to service. After taking it apart twice for the experience (and to clean kool-aid out of the keyboard), I could have my Inspiron 5150 down to parts in five minutes, tops
      • For what it's worth, Dell doesn't build or engineer any of their own notebooks- they (like most other companies) farm out the design and build contracts to manufacturers like Compal, Quanta, etc.

        The 5150, in fact, is well known for having a manufacturer's defect which Dell refuses to acknowledge, so the fact that yours is working is a good thing! They are relatively easy to disassemble, but that has nothing to do with Dell.

        So one Inspiron model you buy might be from one Taiwanese manufacturer, but the next
    • Screens can be pretty modular. My ThinkPad had a bad inverter - almost all the leads broke right near the inverter, not something that happens due to mechanical stress (read, shoddy design). Apparently, it's endemic for my particular model. On the other hand, it's pretty easy to fix. About a dozen screws, a couple connectors, and it was all done.
    • Was this laptop a Compaq? I've found that many of their Presario models would have problems due to the power receptical coming loose from the motherboard. The only thing holding them in place are the solder connections. At first the machine will only charge up if the some tension is placed on the power cord so that the connector is pushed against the broken contacts on the motherboard. Eventually, it won't work at all. This was fixed with a threaded DC jack from Radio Shack. Solder it to the motherboa
  • The normal way... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by creimer ( 824291 ) on Monday May 22, 2006 @09:57PM (#15384962) Homepage
    One piece at a time? Seriously, if you're replacing more than a few parts, buying a whole new laptop might be the best solution.
    • For five years I ran several tower units. If it weren't for the ability to upgrade and replace separate parts they would have been far too expensive for me. Now that I've switched to laptops I'm seeing the same problem. If I have to replace these things I'll have a financial wall to climb over that I'd rather not have to climb. It sure would be nice to be able to easily replace the components in these things. It would certainly be cheaper... and it would be very nice to have a modular laptop case that
  • I doubt it (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tlambert ( 566799 ) on Monday May 22, 2006 @10:11PM (#15385011)
    I doubt it.

    Most laptops are seriously limited by form factor of the particular cards it's expected to accept in such a slot - in general, they are not full sized cards, but as small as they can make them, and potentially oddly shaped, if they are on an internal connector.

    The other limitation that a card could throw way off kilter - particularly, a display card replacement - is the thermal budget. You're already seeing vendors selling laptops that *must* have power management to enable them to run within their thermal budget when the ambient temperature is higher than some minimum below which there is no throttling required (say 60 degrees Fahrenheit).

    Putting in a very large, high thermal output graphics card, even if it would fit (see first paragraph) will at best blow your thermal budget; at worst, the heat pipes for the card, even if they happened to hput the hot spots in the same place, would be unlikely to be able to dissipate the load - either because they are undersize, or because they share their heat sinks with other components that are already pushing them at their effective limits.

    So I seriously doubt you are going to have a lot of component upgradeable laptops available. There might be one or two niche vendors that over-engineer their thermal envelopes so they can handle upgrades, but... expect them to be much heavier in general, for the "generic" heat piping and sinking, and to potentially be noisier, if they also end up with higher air flow fans to cool above the expected default configuration load.

    I don't think the "Road Warrior" market is big enough to support someone like a Dell or an Apple building and marketing one of these monsters.

    -- Terry
    • Alas, most of the consumer goodie purchasing world is not like us.

      It makes engineering sense and seems simple to spend a few extra pennies or dollars to make devices accessible for repair like the toasters and radios of the past. Upgrading iPod batteries without worrying about cracking the case or replacing a dim laptop screen would be great.

      Most of the world lacks the talent and desire for this kind of work. And paying someone with the talent is cost prohibitive.

      So I don't see it happening in the consume
    • Nothing's stopping you from gluing an LCD to the outside of a standard LCD case!
  • The industry wouldn't let anyone make a purely modular laptop, people wouldn't have much reason to upgrade. I don't buy a laptop because I don't want a locked down pc. If you want portable, buy a shuttle and get a car adapter. Or a external power source.
  • by JanneM ( 7445 ) on Monday May 22, 2006 @10:17PM (#15385026) Homepage
    I think that becoming more modular than now is probably not feasible. You have so tight constraints on heat dissipation, for instance, that adding a higher-performance graphics card, or higher clocked cpu could well end up killing your laptop. And with everybody wanting the smallest, lightest package possible within their other design constraints, I don't really see manufacturers adding "spare" capacity in any but the largest, heaviest desktop replacement machines.

    You do have quite a bit of upgradeability with PC cards, USB2 and upcoming high-performance connectors. These connectors are easy to design for, in the sense that the manufacturer knows the highest allowable poser draw, heat dissipation and so on. I don't think you'll ever see real modularity beyond that.

    Instead, there's been a pretty steady trend the past few years that the highest possible performance is no longer as important. It used to be you needed to upgrade your machine with every new high-impact game, or every new version of your word processing app. Purely anectotally, this does not seem to be the case anymore; a three year old machine is still perfectly able to run just about everything you want to throw at it. And for laptops, the upgrade cycle is definitively dampened by other constraints; the newest version of my (soon) two year old machine has an 1.3Ghz cpu rather than mine 1.1Ghz, and the integrated graphics are presumably a bit faster.

    So, my feeling on this is that instead of becoming a lot modular, it's becoming steadily less important to be upgradeable in the first place. There's little point in being able to upgrade the CPU if the original one is still well in the game after three or four years, when you'd be thinking about replacing the machine anyhow.

    Those who want to have all the latest and greatest are most likely to use a desktop in any case, since the absolute performance of a fast tower machine is going to kill any laptop, and at a lower cost. That's where upgradeability makes sense.
    • I think upgradeable laptops are pretty much here (or as far as they're going to get). Most upgrades are simply more RAM or larger HDs and those are already pretty easy. Sure, video upgrades would be nice, but I don't view laptops as being gaming system powerhouses. CPU upgrades are a pipe-dream (and generally a waste of fundage) because RAM technology and motherboard technology has usually changed enough to make it better to upgrade all 3 in tandem.

      a three year old machine is still perfectly able to r
  • The new MacBooks do exactly that: http://youtube.com/watch?v=8c6ckjy-gdY [youtube.com] (excuse YouTube, a friend sent it to me).
  • Intel is introducing the Verified By Intel initiative. In essence, (3) ODMs (Asus, Compal, and Quanta) are now making interchangeable parts for a VBI laptop.

    With cross-brand interchangeability (take an Asus screen and put it on a Quanta chassis with a Compal battery, for example) I expect upgradeability to become more prevalent.

    Oh, and you can strip this thing completely in less than 15 minutes. Not available from our "friends" at Dell.
    • Oh, and you can strip this thing completely in less than 15 minutes. Not available from our "friends" at Dell.

      I can actually strip a Dell down to nothing and have it back together in less than 10 minutes. Dell laptops are easy to take apart and put together. They are very modular and easy to repair. My complaint with them is that the cases are made of a lightweight material, too lightweight. The display easily gets bruised.

      That said, what I'd like to see is a standard form factor for the motherboard. It
    • link to back up your wild claims
    • You know who makes Dell's laptops for them, right?

      That's right, Quanta. ;)
  • Try replacing the mini-pci wireless card on your laptop with another brand. 10 to 1 says your laptop won't boot unless your manufacturer also offers that exact card (same PCI-ID) with your same laptop model (or one sharing a bios).

    The slot-ness is for the vendor, not for you. They typically lock down what cards you can put in there, and unless you're willing to hack your bios's list of ids...
    • "Try replacing the mini-pci wireless card on your laptop with another brand. 10 to 1 says your laptop won't boot unless your manufacturer also offers that exact card (same PCI-ID) with your same laptop model (or one sharing a bios)."

      I've never really found that to be the case, at least with the castlenet and wistron-nweb cards I've worked with.
    • Maybe I got lucky, but I was able to pull an Intel "Centrino" Mini PCI wireless out of my Toshiba M200 and replace it with a Dell Truemobile 1300 Mini PCI wireless unit I got on eBay. It worked out great once I got the laptop back together again- installed the new drivers and off I went.

      At the time Intel's wireless solution would not play nice with stuff I wanted to do (not sure if that is still the case). NDIS problems made it incompatible with NetStumbler and it was also impossible to switch to "promis

    • Try replacing the mini-pci wireless card on your laptop with another brand. 10 to 1 says your laptop won't boot unless your manufacturer also offers that exact card (same PCI-ID) with your same laptop model (or one sharing a bios).


      It depends on the manufacturer. It's a prime example of DRM that is here, today, and a royal pain. IBM and HP lock down their laptops like this. Dell does NOT. See here [vandewege.net] for more info...
  • If nothing else... (Score:2, Informative)

    by Enderandrew ( 866215 )
    I think laptops can be desktop replacements for the casual computer user, so I'm certainly glad to see a basic upgrade path. Laptop HDDs, memory, processors, PCI cards, video cards, etc. are all becoming more and more common.

    If nothing else, I'm sure in the corporate world this will help out a great deal. We have a shit-ton of P3 laptops in our corporation with 256 megs of memory. Getting them to run XP is a pain, though it can be done. It is just very slow.

    The ability to upgrade the memory continued to
  • The problem with upgrading laptops it the motherboard as many things are intergrated onto it, you can upgrade to a certain extent with hard drives, more ram, no procesor, wifi card but graphics is harder. And motherboards are the most common laptop killer, seeing as they often cost more to buy to repair one that to buy an entire new laptop.
  • This has already been done. Everyone remembers the ECS Desknote. A laptop that was 'barebones' and you had to add a processor, memory and hard drive.

    Oh wait. No, nobody remembers them. They were WAY WAY too expensive and with the limitations on upgrades that a desktop also has, it was pointless. Face it, by the time you are ready to upgrade the CPU on your desktop, you also need to upgrade the motherboard. And the memory. And some of the time, even the video card was due.

    I found some Desknotes being
  • The (by now quite ancient) Inspiron 8000 and related series are very easy to upgrade. I had an 8000 for about 4 years, during which time I replaced the keyboard, CPU (upgrade), LCD panel (upgrade), display (twice, hinges broke), fixed optical drive (CD/DVD->DVD+-RW), hard drive (twice, once due to failure and once for upgrade). Last year I got the shell+mobo of an 8200. I reused the hard drive, optical drive, and display from my 8000, got a keyboard, processor, memory, and the cheapest graphics card I
  • by Rinkle ( 976608 )
    Have any of you guys heard of MXM? http://www.nvidia.com/page/mxm.html [nvidia.com]
  • At the rate of changes in socket, bus, and chipsets I think "the upgradable computer" is dead. I would rather have a cheap motherboard with good, for a change, graphics chips built in. Give me a motherboard with an nForce4 chipset, 7.1 sound, 2 7900 graphics chips, and at least on nic. Put it on a mini-atx format. Charge me 70% of buying the components seperately and I'll be happy.
  • When the speed of manufacturing improvements is such that the motherboard isn't out of date by the time a new GPU or CPU comes out that improves performance while maintaining the same heat signature... that's when upgrades in laptops and other small form factor PCs will happen standard.

    Until then it will be up to 3rd party niche companies to provide upgrade paths to people who just need a little more performance out of their 2 year old laptop, if the OEMs will allow it.
  • With computers are dropping in price so quickly, computer companies like the idea of an all-in-one computer kit that they sell you, and after a few years, you buy a whole new kit. They don't want to sell you a $500 computer that you upgrade in perpetuity. They want you to buy a $500 computer every year or two.

    With laptops, this is almost a give in. Dell and Apple and all the rest don't want you to upgrade your video card or networking cards, or find ways of upgrading the CPU or ram, etc, they want you to

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