Dear Lifehacker, I have a laptop — it's not too old — and I love it, but I'm thinking I could use a bigger hard drive, or maybe some more RAM. I wouldn't mind upgrading it myself, but I don't want to undo all of these screws just to find out the RAM is soldered down or the hard drive is under a bunch of delicate wires. How can I find out whether I can upgrade it before I crack it open? Thanks, Hesitant Tinkerer
Dear Hesitant Tinkerer,
You're right — many laptops, phones and other devices (even some desktops!) aren't designed to be easily serviced by individual owners, which makes hacking and upgrading our gear that much harder. Some laptops are a mess of glue and solder, with lots of tiny, specialised screws that make it impossible to open unless you have the right tools. Others are still user-friendly, and designed to give easy access to RAM, hard drives, optical drives and other components.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to work out which category your device fits in. Here's how you can figure out the status quo before you splash out on the components for an upgrade.
Inspect Your Device: Does the Job Look Easy To You?
The first thing you should do is give your laptop or phone a once over. Does it look like it's something you can get into easily? Are there any hatches or doors that are easily opened, either by hand or with the right screwdriver or tool? If you can easily identify a way to open your device or access its components, chances are you're looking at a service bay for memory, a hard drive, a battery, or other removable or replaceable components.
Lack of an obvious means of access doesn't mean you have no choices. If your laptop is a unibody model or your phone doesn't seem to have seams anywhere, it's time to look further afield.
Check The Manufacturer's Support Pages
The next place to look if you want to see what you can and can't do — at least from a manufacturer's perspective — is the company's help pages. Depending on the brand, the site may have detailed instructions on how to upgrade the RAM in your laptop or change the battery in your phone or tablet. For example, Apple has an entire knowledgebase section dedicated to upgrading memory in its various laptops. A little digging for your device's model number will often turn up manufacturer documentation that provides specific disassembly and upgrade instructions.
Similarly, search and ask around on support forums. If you're just thinking about upgrading the RAM or hard drive in your laptop, or you're curious how hard it is to replace a battery in your mobile phone or tablet, or you're thinking about adding a new hard drive to your old game console, ask on the manufacturer's forums. There are likely to be other people who have done it who can point you to detailed instructions elsewhere on the web or share their own experiences.
Head To iFixIt For Teardown Instructions And Tools
If you're confident enough to rip your machine open, iFixit is one of the best resources available. If you have a relatively recent model of laptop, game console, phone or tablet, the folks at iFixit have probably figured out how it's assembled, broken it down into its components, and written a repair guide that will show you how to fix or upgrade it. Those guides are incredibly detailed, with lots of photos to help you through each step of the process. If your device requires specific tools to open, iFixit will tell you so (and sells many of the more obscure tools through its own online store).
Another useful resource for detailed repair guides include Instructables. While you won't find specific instructions, the Fixit subreddit is a good place to post your DIY queries. For some devices, there may be more specific subreddits to check out as well (such as the Consolerepair subreddit for consoles or the TechSupport subreddit for PCs).
Weigh The Upgrade Value Versus Your Time
While we're all about DIY here at Lifehacker, there is a point where the time you invest in an upgrade may not be worth the energy or the money. If you're looking to extend the life of a phone by installing a new battery, consider the cost of the battery and the tools you may need to open it as well as the time it will take you to pry the thing apart. You may be better off just selling your phone and getting a new one, especially if it's your daily driver and you don't want to be without it.
When it comes to a laptop, the costs are higher, so it may make sense to spend a few hours trying to upgrade it yourself. However, if you find RAM soldered to the board, or an SSD that's not upgradeable, the time, energy and expertise required to replace those components simply may not be worth the hassle or the risk. You might be better off backing up your data, selling the device, and using the money towards the purchase of a newer laptop with the storage and specs you really want. Don't forget that your time and energy are valuable, and while getting your hands dirty is always fun, it may not always be the most efficient thing to do.
Hopefully we've given you some resources to use to see if your device is upgradeable, and how much hassle you're in for if you choose to do it. Good luck, and happy upgrading!
Got your own question you want to put to Lifehacker? Send it using our contact form.