Sunday, 2 October 2011

How-to: Upgrade your own Gadgets

Hammer and Spanner by Anna Cervova
Laptops, notebooks, netbooks, tablets and net-tops all fall into a class of gadget that is difficult to upgrade. The small size of the chassis and internal components, combined with the black arts of factory-assembling units that small often means that you get little or no opportunity to upgrade components such as memory, processors and disk drives.

That's not to say it's impossible. As we proved in the memory and disk upgrade of the JVC-mini, it can be done...


First thing to do is check your user guide or a service manual (you can find a good many of these on the Internet) for upgrade options and component parts before you go shopping. Don't necessarily believe the manufacturer who says it can't be done - they're in the business of protecting service warranties and paid upgrades, after all.

Going ahead, if you're lucky you will have access hatches in the case to get to disk and memory slots. If not, it can be a painful process of semi- or full dismantling. Memory and disk are often mounted to the underside of the main board in these devices.

Home Upgrade Essentials
Here's what you will need:
  • time, patience,
  • a clean, flat, well-lit working environment with lipped edges so parts can't roll onto the floor (a dinner tray will do for the latter)
  • a considered disregard for the manufacturers warranty. Home-hacking will usually invalidate any remaining warranty. If in doubt, leave things until this expires.
  • the right tools:
    * a set of electronics screw-drivers in a variety of lengths and head sizes, both flat and cross-head
    * narrow-nose pliers to grip the edges of cable connectors
      (and pick out the screws you dropped inside the case)
    * really narrow-nose pliers
    * surgical tape (to temporarily pin back cables and the like)
    * craft knife (when you need a really fine edge to lift stickers and labels)
    * an anti-static wrist strat to earth yourself against electro-static discharge when handling memory modules and other sensitive components 
  • And, of course, the right components - that is, compatible in specification, physical size and mount points - to fit in your gizmo. I trust you've ordered the correct parts on the basis of the original manufacturer's specifications, cross-referenced to third-party suppliers' sites by make and model*
  • a light-touch and a steady hand
  • good eyes and/or good spectacles. A watch-makers magnifying glass might do as a substitute.
*Here's a revelation, you seldom need to order expensive OEM parts from the device manufacturer. Very few electronics components are unique to individual devices; if you can find un-branded third-party substitutes, you can save a fortune. Google and Amazon are your friends in this.  

Disassembly Tips
  • If you can find a video or set of instructions online for your device, refer to them; forewarned is forearmed, even if you decide to do it your way. Forums, blogs and YouTube are good resources
  • Don't take other people's 'teardown' videos as gospel. Consider each step on merit
Specific DO's
  • Do wear an anti-static wrist-strap to earth yourself. Domestic carpets are a nightmare for building up electro-static charge. Don't spark-out your components.
  • Do mark the positions of all your screws on a clean sheet of paper - then punch the screws into it as a template. Not all 'identical' screws will fit back into any old thread on reassembly. Cross-threading is a real risk. Minimise it. This also means the screws won't roll away and get mixed up.
Specific DON'Ts
  • Don't pull any cables out by the cable strands - use the narrow-nose pliers to grip the plastic end connectors
  • Don't push tools into, or scrape them across the components or circuit boards.
  • Don't use excessive force. The components aren't rated for it, there's no need for it. Everything is a moderate push-fit, clipped or screwed together. Generally if it won't come apart yet, you missed something earlier in the tear-down. RC
Image: Spanner And Hammer by Anna Cervova