Older laptop: upgrade memory?
May 20, 2010 1:29 PM   Subscribe

I inherited a barely-used 2004 Dell laptop, Pentium M 1600 MHz, 30 GB hard drive, Windows XP, Mobility Radeon 9000, 512 MB RAM. Is it worth reformatting and upgrading the RAM to its 2 GB max (at $100), for a few more years of basic internet and Open Office, or as a whole will it forever lag in current-and-near-future contexts? It could be a decent tool for my commuter days as an undergrad, though it is currently far too slow going to be productive or entertaining. Thanks for ideas!
posted by methinks to Computers & Internet (17 answers total)
I have a laptop with similar specs (Pentium M 1.8 GhZ, 60 GB drive, 1 GB RAM, onboard video, came with XP) that still does lots of good stuff for me. I bought it several years ago and it was a handy mobile word processing/web browsing companion all through my undergrad career. Windows was somewhat slow on it, but it does everything I could ask of it with Ubuntu. Obviously there's no gaming pep, nor will the very old onboard Intel video decode HD for me, but I still get plenty of use out of it as a traveler and sitting on the desk next to my main PC as a sort of really-smart second monitor.

So, long story short - consider Linux to play around with if you have any interest and Windows is slower than you'd like. Expect plenty of use for the 'net and openoffice.
posted by Rallon at 1:41 PM on May 20, 2010

The thing is, you can buy a new laptop that will blow this out of the water for somewhere in the $300-400 range.

And you can probably sell this one on CL for at least $50 or so, which would do two things: 1) Defray the cost of the shiny new one. 2) Make sure someone is still getting some use out of it, so you don't feel you're consuming wastefully for its own sake (if you worry about those sorts of things)
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:45 PM on May 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


My husband has been going on a 2002/3 Dell laptop until very recently, and only upgraded because it had no battery and he could no longer even play games that were 3-4 years old (he's a late adopter). He was doing just about everything he needed to on this computer. My own laptop is from 2006, and running great with 2GB ram.

If you don't game heavily, you can get a lot more than basic use -- it will likely play movies (my 2004 laptop with a similar processor and less ram did) both from DVD and online, it will run OO and all your basic office stuff, it will play simple games (like online java games). You may find that you can't multi-task -- I can't run Picasa and a java game at the same time without having the game slow down like crazy.

If you are going to be commuting as a student, a laptop will be an invaluable tool for taking notes and working on papers on the go. You may not even need a RAM upgrade, so long as you run programs appropriate for your system -- don't try to run the latest MS Office, for example, but run Word 2000. In 2002, I was using a 486 laptop running Windows 3.0 and it worked great for taking notes, working spreadsheets and writing -- I just made sure that any file I wanted to open on the laptop was saved in a format compatible with Word for Windows from c1996.
posted by jb at 1:48 PM on May 20, 2010

The RAM is certainly going to be the problem as it is now; 2Gb will bring a massive improvement in speed with XP.

For the uses you've mentioned it ought to be perfectly fine. Don't expect to play any recent games on it or use the latest versions of high-end graphics packages, but basic wordprocessing and browsing don't require much computing power.

For $100 you're unlikely to find anything better. Of course you could get something fast and new for 3 or 4 times the cost; but if you're not going to be playing games on it, you're unlikely to see 3 or 4 times the performance.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 1:49 PM on May 20, 2010

Actually, this is probably a fine computer for the basic needs. To this day I run a 1.8 gig centrino in a dell laptop.I'm not heavily into gaming so video is not as important to me. I use it for word excel and outlook as well as internet, not just browsing, but remoting into a server I run for a local company when I'm on the road.

I would recommend considering a cheap new hard drive. With the moving parts it is the biggest point of failure in older Dells, in my experience. Last thing you want to do is decide to rely on this for a few years then find out 3 months later that you were running a hard drive way past the mean time between failures and lose your data.
posted by quietfire at 1:57 PM on May 20, 2010

I agree with those who say you should upgrade - I've got a first-gen macbook with a dead screen that has similar specs to your system. Upgraded the RAM to 2 gigs, and now I use it as my primary home computer (hooked up to an external monitor) with no problems.

If you'll actually be using this thing as a laptop, though, do yourself a favor - check the battery life. If a replacement battery will be expensive, it might make more sense to get a new machine.

Also note - six years is around the point where you might expect a cheaper laptop hard drive to start failing. You said this thing has been only "barely" used, so you might be all right - but consider the possibility that you might need to drop sixty or seventy bucks on a replacement drive in a year or two.
posted by Mr. Excellent at 1:59 PM on May 20, 2010

Why would a 2 GB RAM upgrade cost $100? Are you paying someone else to install the RAM for you?
posted by zixyer at 2:06 PM on May 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Max out the RAM. Always max out the RAM.

Beyond that, defrag, tweak out the system (get rid of bloatware, disable services, defrag, clean the startup items, etc.), consider a replacement hard drive.

Those are powerful enough specs to run XP pretty well, and do all the usual stuff, and, as others have said, if you're not into playing modern games, this computer can have plenty of life left in it.
posted by box at 2:47 PM on May 20, 2010

I think its because the ram is ddr right? that its so expensive? i feel the pain for ram. it sucks :/

It all depends on how much money ya got. A new laptop will be better than that laptop. But that laptop will work just fine for you when you max out the ram. The 1.6 ghz wont melt any faces. But if your just going to do office work. It will be fine. That hard drive could be upgraded too. If you get any size hard drive that runs at 7200rpm, it could also really help with speed. that 30gig hard drive probably has a small cache and it probably runs at 5400rpm.
posted by NotSoSiniSter at 2:57 PM on May 20, 2010

2GB of RAM in 2x1GB pieces (not sure what kind of memory you have, but it's not that important) should run ~$50 USD. If you need a very basic laptop then it's a fine investment. As others have mentioned, the battery may be pretty run down at this point and that will probably cost more than $50 to fix.
posted by GuyZero at 4:02 PM on May 20, 2010

A D600 by any chance? I have nearly the same thing, and it's pretty damn kickass for its age. The Pentium-M processors (as opposed to the Pentium 4-M or Pentium III-M) are lean and mean. I used it as my main computer up until a year or so ago.

The only caveat is, as above, if you have to spend more than $150 or so, it's not worth it. (OK, it is if you don't have the $400 to buy a replacement.) Think of it this way? $150 would buy you another 12-18 months until

You might be better off nixing the extra RAM and getting the fastest HDD upgrade you can find. In that vintage, the drive is probably a 4200 rpm drive. Upgrading to a 7200 rpm drive may well double the apparent speed, and cost you the same or less in battery life/heat. (I just did the same with my current Dell, going from the ~1 year old 5400 RPM drive to a $70 Seagate with 7200rpm and drop sensor, and the speed increase was noticeable, even with 4gb of ram.)

Usage tip: see if turning all the XP visual fancy stuff makes it zippier. It did for me. It's like Windows 2000 on 'roids.
posted by gjc at 4:14 PM on May 20, 2010

You might be better off nixing the extra RAM and getting the fastest HDD upgrade you can find

Completely disagree. If you only have 512 MB of RAM, XP will be swapping constantly. A faster hard drive will only be a significant improvement if you already have sufficient memory; sufficient being 1 GB or slightly more for typical web/email/word processing use.
posted by zixyer at 4:38 PM on May 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I still have a 2002 Toshiba laptop with an old Celeron and 512MB of RAM. It runs Open Office and surfs the internet fine (although I replaced XP with Ubuntu a few years ago). I also use it on vacations as a DVD player.

I wouldn't bother doing anything processor-intensive on it, but it does more than I need for everyday use. If you MUST use XP, a RAM upgrade is a good idea, but probably not 100% necessary given that your processor is already faster than mine.
posted by coolguymichael at 4:45 PM on May 20, 2010

If you mainly use it for Open Office and web surfing have you considered Ubuntu?
posted by Artw at 4:55 PM on May 20, 2010

Response by poster: Excellent feedback, folks. I appreciate it.

Yes, the DDR RAM I could locate that consistently rates as reliable is about $50 per each 1 GB stick, and slightly less for off-brands that apparently sometimes aren't recognized by the system (or mislabeled) as 1 GB.

@gjc yes, it is a D600! And it is a small-ish 4200 rpm hard drive, which I'm sure is compromising.

I sure have wondered about Ubuntu, for a long time, just still unsure if I truly have it in me to tinker so thoroughly. Maybe this could be a between-semester platform for that experiment, next winter.

Or, if basic upgrades don't suffice for my uses, I could pass it on to another relative who just needs a basic surfing pc. As long as it has a feasible few more years for someone, it may justify a couple of parts.

Thank you, all.
posted by methinks at 5:45 PM on May 20, 2010

Can you get one stick? 1.25 or 1.5 GB is not going to be dramatically different from 2 GB for most purposes, I think.
posted by alexei at 6:15 PM on May 20, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks, alexei. Good idea. I'll start with one new stick of ram and see if that is enough.
posted by methinks at 11:10 AM on May 21, 2010

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