Cheap Laptop Upgrade

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Upgrading memory & hard drive in an Asus F507M laptop (with mostly-broken keyboard). A €300-ish machine made significantly more friendly with €70 of parts and a couple of hours work (mostly research). Some tips if you want to do something similar.

Caveat: I use Ubuntu, no idea what might be different on other operating systems.

Background

A few years back I was doing a fair bit of travelling, for my main computer had a higher-end Asus laptop. The keyboard broke on it (coffee?) but I continued using it for a while with a USB keyboard. Then the hard drive interface broke (maybe wine that time). I made do for a while with an old laptop of my girlfriend at the time, but then that broke (laptop and girlfriend)…
I had a desktop machine in the music room but that had also expired (rodent pee on the motherboard).

I need a computer for work and sanity so went straight out and bought the cheapest laptop that looked reasonable from the local Moronics store. Another Asus, a little over €300. Slowww…

What made matters worse, the keyboard broke on this one too. A few dead characters. Coffee again? I popped it open, checked the connector (one of those awful thin plastic sheet things) – no change. The keyboard itself was mounted on the front panel with plastic welds (yuck!). I dunno, I don’t remember wrecking a keyboard with drinks before, it does suggest Asus machines are particularly porous.

So I detached it with a sharp knife, cleaned, put back together (hot glue). Lots of dead characters. Ordered a cheapo Bluetooth keyboard, USB mouse. I used this for a good while. No travelling, so wasn’t too bad, aside from a little performance frustration.

When I next got a little work contract I splashed out on a new desktop. Reconditioned, i7, 16GB memory, 500GB SSD HD – a little over €300 from Amazon. It flies! (I also fixed/upgraded the music room machine). I have a lovely spacious home office so this made for an unusually productive spring/summer. Laptop sat unused.

But it’s recently turned chilly. My main heating is a wood fire in the kitchen so it makes sense to be down there, cosy. Dug out laptop. Did I mention, slow… Extra-noticeable after getting used to a half-decent machine. Upgrade time.

Hardware

The laptop has Intel® Celeron(R) N4000 CPU @ 1.10GHz × 2, came with 4GB of memory and a 500GB magnetic hard drive. The boot time for Ubuntu was ages. If I was doing anything intensive and/or had a lot of things open at the same time you could hear the HD whirring away, so HD speed and cache memory seemed the bottleneck. (And if I need anything very processor-intensive I can always use the office machine, perhaps over SSH/remote desktop if appropriate).

I didn’t want to spend very much on this cheapo, slightly crippled (keyboard) machine. But being able to do things in front of the fire is a big convenience. Also I’ve been contemplating some kind of network storage for a while, as and when I get another laptop I could potentially use this one (with USB drives) in that role. So pulling a figure from the air, I decided €80 tops.

After having an SSD HD in my desktop that upgrade was a no-brainer. Crazy-fast boot time. The current laptop drive could go into one of the desktops or an external case, whatever. Were this laptop to break in some other way, the new SSD could go in another machine. The size wasn’t much of a consideration. I’ve got space on the other machines & 3 external USB drives.

Memory was a little stickier. For starters, I didn’t even know if the current 4GB was upgradeable. Even if it was, it might not be repurposeable at a later date.

Call it due diligence, I googled Asus F507M laptop upgrade. Yay! A YouTube video for a very similar model. That one looked identical inside, but started with an empty HD hole. The HD was an SSD on a card, M.2, new to me. I feel a little foolish here, it hadn’t occurred to me that the cases SSD drives often come in was pretty much redundant. The SSD card and (single) memory slots were on the underside of the main PCB. Mine had the same slots.

Amazon time. A compatible Corsair 8GB laptop memory card was €40. Ok, this is looking promising, bang on half my budget. I was a bit hesitant around the SSD drives, having never installed one as a card before. But adapter/case to make it operate like a regular SATA drive were available for about a tenner. A Kingston 240GB M.2 SSD card was available for €33. Yay!

Ordered, arrived promptly.

After being inside the laptop a few times already, putting these in took no time at all. I left the existing hard drive in place. After putting the thing back together again I switched on, it booted to the old drive fine and the upgraded hardware was visible – yay!

If you want to do something like this yourself

Laptops are a good example of devices intended by the manufacturer to be disposable rather than upgraded (or repaired when broken). That’s not cool. Can get very fiddly, but if you take your time it’s not difficult, no specialist knowledge (a few hours on Google) or experience (getting a splinter out of your finger) needed.

You will need:

  • data backup (I copied /home /danny to another machine, most important stuff is already backed up remotely already)
  • lots of googling, watch a few videos
  • patience
  • a big space with good lighting
  • a Plan B if it doesn’t work and/or you break the machine
  • a camera (phone fine) to take photos every little step of the way
  • tools :
    • decent screwdrivers
    • spudgers – plastic tools to pop cases open (there are really cheap kits of Amazon etc)

Tips

  • ask yourself if it’s the best idea, what you actually need (I should ideally have benchmarked the machine, but it was pretty obvious where it’s weak points were)
  • take your time!
  • take lots of photos, drawings & notes can help too – make your map back home, remembering where things went can get tricky, don’t get stuck up a mountain without a paddle
  • laying out the screws on a sheet of paper in the pattern they came out can save a lot of bad language (just remember which way is up)
  • spudgers make good guitar plectrums and vice versa
  • don’t smoke, drink or take hard drugs (cigarette ash, spillage, vomit and unconsciousness can all interfere with a smooth upgrade)

Software

I already had Ubuntu 21.04 on a USB stick, but here was my first potential issue – how to boot from it? To get into the BIOS meant pressing the F2 key on boot. Lucky, lucky, lucky : the F2 key still worked.

The BIOS, rather remarkably, worked with the USB mouse. The options were quite different from what I’m used to, there didn’t appear an option to boot from a USB as first priority, and rather worryingly, the new SSD drive wasn’t visible. But I soon discovered that if I plugged in the stick before switching on it showed in the boot drive list.

Ok, so into Ubuntu install. It did see the SSD drive!

So I opted for custom (calls it something different now) and went for a fresh install on the new drive. I don’t know if leaving a bit of unused space on an SSD drive is still a good idea, but only using 200GB won’t lead to hardship.

Here I encountered a funny issue. When it asked for admin user name & password, the Bluetooth keyboard wasn’t visible* so hunting amongst the keys for ones that worked created user gggggg with password gggggg. After that, was able to start the install. (A honeypot for bad actors I want to p0wn).

* it might well have been possible to boot into Ubuntu from the stick, associate Bluetooth keyboard and do the install from there

Mari had arranged to pick me up to go shopping, so I left it to it.

On returning, install appeared to have completed. Reboot button on screen…“Remove installation media and press «Return» to reboot”. Hah! Return key didn’t work. Power button did.

At this point I was a little concerned, I’d not told the BIOS to boot from the new drive. In fact it booted to a GRUB menu, Ubuntu first option. Having no return or arrow keys, I waited 10 seconds…

It booted into the new drive!!!

I’m not sure where the grub menu is loading from, I suspect the first drive, but after the 10 secs delay it boots ever so fast, so I reckon I’ll leave that as-is for now.

Since, I’ve done some of the little post-install fiddling : connecting Bluetooth keyboard (which I’m typing on now); adding a user with my name (tip : doing this through Ubuntu settings, it demands a 8+ char password.

I’d already taken a backup of the old drive. Apart from a few odd docs & images, I doubt there’s much there needs saving. I guess I could have set up the new drive by taking a disk image from the old drive and copying it to the new one. It didn’t occur to me at the time. But it’s so nice starting with a clean slate, configuring how I like it won’t take long and I can install just what I need when I want it.

Having the old drive in here is kinda convenient. It is unlikely to be needed for day-to-day storage so I reckon, once I’ve cleaned up what’s on it I can set up an automatic backup, always nice to have.

So here we are now, in front of fire with a much more usable machine. Very pleasing. Claudio likes to flop near me, but it’s obvious he’s happier on couch by fire rather than the office floor.

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