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How to Turn a Cheap Laptop Great

You can easily find a cheap laptop these days for just a few hundred dollars. Chances are, though, the machine is slow, taking longer to boot up than the time it took to deliver it to you. OK, I exaggerated, but seriously, these budget laptops are a pain to use.

The good news is you can spend a little more on an upgrade and turn one into great performers equal to those costing twice as much. But first, you need to pick the right laptop.

The Acer Aspire E15 is a good cheap laptop you can get.
The Acer Aspire E15 is a good cheap laptop you can get.

Picking the right hardware

You should look out for two essential components in a cheap laptop: the display and the processor (CPU). These are not upgradeable, meaning you’re stuck with what you get, so pick them carefully.

  1. Display: Most cheap laptops come with a display of 1366 x 760 resolution. That’s low, meaning you won’t be able to see much on the screen. For example, if you go to a website or open a spreadsheet, you will need to scroll up and down a lot. And when you watch a movie, the pictures won’t be very sharp, either. That said, make sure you get one with a 1920 x 1080 display (a.k.a. 1080p or Full HD). Other screen options like touch or IPS are nice to have, but not as essential and generally are only available on more expensive laptops.
  2. Processor: You want to get a computer that uses an Intel Core i3 or Core i5 CPU of the 5th or higher generation. Core i7 is even better but hard to come by at low prices. If you choose to go with an AMD processor, make sure it’s a 7th Gen AMD Quad-Core A12 processor or later. Generally, I’d avoid any other CPUs.

Also, note that system memory (RAM), and the hard drive should be easily replaceable or upgradeable. Replacing the hard drive is the essential upgrade that turns a slow laptop into a powerhouse.

Keep in mind that budget Windows laptops almost always come with a hard drive. If you find one with a solid-state drive (SSD), it will surely come with a terrible screen or processor. Not the right choice.

While researching this post, I bought the Acer Aspire E15, which I used as a demo for the upgrade process below. This computer has a Full HD screen and a Core i3 processor and costs less than $400 after tax and shipping. Get the same unit if you want to replicate what I do or want to save time.

An SATA-to-USB adapter will come in handy when you need to clone the internal drive of a computer.
A SATA-to-USB adapter will come in handy when you need to clone the internal drive of a computer.

Upgrade parts

To upgrade a laptop’s internal storage, you will need two components:

  1. A solid-state drive (SSD). I will use a 250GB Samsung 850 Evo, which is an excellent drive for this demo, but there are many other options. Any 2.5-inch SSD will get the job done, so pick one with the capacity you need. If you don’t intend to store a lot of data, you can get a 120GB drive for around $50.
  2. A SATA to USB adapter. This adapter allows you to connect a drive to a computer via a USB port. There are many of them, but this one will do. Or, if you intend to use the computer’s original hard drive as an external backup drive, get an external enclosure instead.
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You’ll also need a screwdriver, which most of us already have (most of the time, a small Phillips-head will do). That said, the upgrade parts will cost just around $100.

The upgrade

Now that you have a laptop and all the upgrade parts, here are the steps to turn that low-end machine into a powerhouse.

1. Turn on the laptop, go through with the initial setup, and create yourself an account to log in.

2. Download and install the free version of Macrium Reflect backup software. In my opinion, this is the best software to clone a Windows computer’s drive. It’s also a great backup software if you need to restore your machine to a previous state.

3. Connect the SSD to the computer’s USB port using the SATA-to-USB adapter (or enclosure).

4. Run Reflect and choose to clone the laptop’s internal hard drive onto the SSD. (Detailed steps are Detailed steps on this post.)

5. Turn off the computer, open its hard-drive bay, remove its hard drive, and install the SSD in its place. Close the laptop back up, and that’s it. See the slide show below for the details of this step on the Acer Aspire E15.

The upgrade steps in photos

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Plug the SSD into the computer via the SATA-to-USB adapter. Then use software to clone the internal drive into it.

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You just need to undo three screws to open the Acer’s laptop’s hard drive bay.

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Here’s the hard drive. It can be pulled out easily.

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The memory bay has a slot for another stick if you’re not happy with the existing 4GB.

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The original hard drive (inside a caddy) and the Samsung SSD will replace it.

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The caddy has now been moved to the SSD.

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And the SSD is now installed in the place where the hard drive used to be.

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Close the drive bay back up, and you’re done!

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Among other things, now the laptop takes a much shorter time to boot up than before, shown here via Boot Racer.

And that’s it! You’ll be amazed at how much faster the computer is now.

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