Upgrade Your Netbook! 4 Lab-Tested Ways to Boost Performance

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Your Upgrade Path to Netbook Self-Realization

There’s no denying that netbooks possess many positive attributes, as evidenced by their meteoric rise in popularity. But all the attention garnered by their portability and low cost can’t mask the deep and troubling performance that netbooks suffer.

The fact is, there are undeniable trade-offs inherent to a sub-$400 computer. You’re just not going to get the same performance from a netbook as from something that costs three times as much. Slow single-core Atom processors; middling hard drives; pokey, undersized SSDs; and only 1GB of RAM rob the netbook of its potential.

But there is hope. Whether you have an old Eee PC with a 12GB SSD or a new netbook with an Atom N280 chip and a 160GB hard drive, you can make substantial improvements without forking over too much dough. We’ll show you first-hand how netbooks can overcome their humble beginnings. We’ll upgrade a typical older netbook—an Eee PC 901 with a 4GB SSD soldered on the mobo and an 8GB PCI-E SSD—as well as a brand-new Toshiba NB205, to show how every netbook, from bottom-of-the-barrel to top-of-the-line, can benefit from upgrades.

Consider this your guide on the journey to netbook empowerment.

Uplift Your Memory

Pep up your load times and app performance with more RAM

Adding more RAM is nearly always the cheapest and easiest way to upgrade your netbook. In order to get netbook pricing for Windows, manufacturers limit them to 1GB of RAM. Fortunately, most netbooks have easily accessible RAM slots and use standard 200-pin DDR2 SODIMMs.


We used a 2GB DDR2/667 SODIMM from Corsair for our upgrades. It costs less than the Twilight Blu-ray release.

For less than $25 online, you can buy a 2GB DDR2 SODIMM to replace the 1GB in your netbook—most have a single SODIMM slot, so you can’t just add another 1GB, and the Atom platform is limited to 2GB of RAM. We bought a 2GB Corsair ValueSelect DDR2/667 (PC2-5300) module—the Atom N280 platform in new netbooks has a 667MHz front-side bus; older netbooks with the N270 chip have a 533MHz FSB and will underclock the RAM.

In nearly all netbooks, replacing the RAM will take less than five minutes. First, power down your netbook and remove the battery. On the bottom of the chassis will be one or more panels that can be removed to reveal the RAM and/or hard drive, usually fastened with Philips-head screws. Open the panel and find the SODIMM. Release the clasps that hold it in, and the module should pop up slightly. Remove it and line up the 2GB SODIMM and slide it into place, then close the panel, replace the battery, and boot your netbook. Press F2 during setup to go into the BIOS and make sure the RAM registers, then boot your computer normally.

On the Toshiba NB205, the RAM slot is easily accessible from the bottom of the netbook's chassis.

We upgraded the RAM in an older Asus Eee 901 and a brand-new Toshiba NB205 netbook and immediately saw the difference. The improvement was particularly noteworthy on the 901, which, thanks to its anemic low-cost solid state drives, has been the slowest netbook we’ve tested to date. Before the RAM upgrade, it took the 901 1,441 seconds to run through our Photoshop benchmark, compared with the 673 seconds it took the Toshiba NB205. But with 2GB of RAM, the 901 plowed through in a (comparatively) zippy 1,163 seconds—that’s nearly a 24 percent improvement. The NB205, on the other hand, dropped just 13 seconds with its RAM upgrade, due to its faster standard hard drive.

BENCHMARKS
Eee 901 w/1GB RAM
Eee 901 w/2GB RAM
Toshiba NB205 w/1GB RAM
Toshiba NB205 w/2GB RAM
Photoshop CS3 (sec)
1,441
1,163
673 660

Accessing Your Inner Hardware

So what makes a netbook a good candidate for an upgrade? Easy access to the parts you’ll be replacing, of course. Most netbook manufacturers know that just because their customers bought a computer with just 1GB of RAM doesn’t mean that they’re going to keep it at 1GB, and so most netbook models come with easy-to-remove RAM and hard drive panels. Often all you’ll need is a Phillips screwdriver and a few minutes of your time. But not always.

Easy-upgrade candidates include the Asus Eee 901, 1000, 1000HA/HE models, Lenovo’s S10 series, and newer Acer Aspire One-series netbooks, as well as most Samsung, HP, and Dell netbooks.

Some netbooks, however, make swapping out parts more difficult, if not impossible. Toshiba’s NB205 has easy-to-remove panels, but the hard drive panel is secured with TORX-6 screws, not Phillips-head. MSI’s Wind U123 is upgradeable, but you’ll have to take off the entire bottom of the netbook, held in by 10  screws. The Eee 1005HA has a panel for the RAM, but no hard drive access (or removable battery).

And some models are downright evil: The first Acer Aspire One, the Eee 1008HA, and current-model Seashell Eee PCs require a full tear-down, including keyboard and motherboard removal, to get to the RAM and hard drive. Avoid these if you ever want to upgrade.

Transform Your SATA Hard Disk Drive

Why settle for stock when you can have greater speed and/or capacity?

Although early netbooks shipped with slow, low-capacity Mini PCI-E solid state drives, the vast majority now come with standard 2.5-inch SATA drives—usually 5,400rpm magnetic hard drives with 120GB to 160GB of storage. And that means that you have plenty of options: You can trade for a faster, higher-capacity hard drive, or a much faster solid state drive. Because solid state drives have no moving parts, they are sturdier and less prone to shock failure than standard hard drives and typically use less power. Unless you want to spend an arm and a leg on a high-capacity SSD, though, you’ll probably have to sacrifice storage space for speed.

We took our brand-new Toshiba NB205 (with a 2GB RAM upgrade in place) and tested it first with the stock Toshiba 160GB 5,400rpm drive, and then with a 64GB RunCore Pro IV SATA SSD ($250, www.runcore.com ), as well as a 500GB Seagate Momentus 7200.4 HDD ($130, www.seagate.com ). However, any standard 2.5-inch drive will also work.

Seagate's Momentus 7200.4 is speedy, roomy, and only drains the battery a tad faster than a 5,400rpm drive.

Replacing your hard drive, provided you can access it, is easy. All you need is a 2.5-inch external USB-to-SATA enclosure and a trial version of Acronis True Image Home 2009. Put the new drive into the enclosure, plug it into your computer’s USB ports, and then image the drive (see below for more details on this).

Adding the 500GB Seagate Momentus 7200.4 drive to our netbook gave us a big boost in capacity, modest gains in performance, and a minor drop in battery life. With the Seagate, our netbook’s Photoshop benchmark time improved five percent, and its PCMark05 HDD subscore went from 4,268 to 5,167. Read speeds increased from 47MB/s to more than 80MB/s, while we lost around 20 minutes of battery life—from 6:30 (hr:min) to 6:10.


RunCore's Pro IV SSD ships with an external USB-to-SATA enclosure; for drives that don't, enclosures are easy enough to find online.

The RunCore drive’s gains were more impressive. RunCore’s Pro IV SSD uses the same Indilinx controller as the blazing-fast Patriot Torqx drive we tested in September. It also gets bonus points for coming with an external SATA-to-USB enclosure. With 2GB of RAM and the RunCore SSD, the NB205’s Photoshop benchmark time improved by eight percent, while the PCMark05 HDD subscore shot from 4,268 to a whopping 20,339. And no wonder; the RunCore’s average sustained read speed exceeded 100MB/s—more than twice the speed of the original drive. Random-access time plummeted from 18.1ms to 0.3ms. We didn’t see as much battery life improvement as we expected, though: In our battery rundown test, the RunCore-equipped NB205 bested the standard loadout by a mere four minutes. Similar SSDs will offer similar results.
BENCHMARKS
Toshiba 160GB HDD
RunCore 64GB SSD
Seagate 500GB HDD
Photoshop CS3 (sec)
660
614
636
PCMark05 HDD
4,278
20,339
5,167
HDTach Avg Read (MB/s)
47.5
103.4
80.3
HDTach Burst (MB/s) 109.6
105.1
106
HDTach CPU Utilization
11%
12%
11%
HDTach random access (ms)
18.1
0.3
17.3
Battery Life (hr:min)
6:27
6:31
6:10

Affirm Your (Drive) Image

So you’re all ready to swap out your netbook’s old hard drive and replace it with something better. But reinstalling your operating system, programs, and files can be a real pain in the ass, especially since you don’t have an optical drive. Rather than messing with all of that nonsense, we’ll show you how to use a drive imaging program to make an exact clone of your netbook hard drive. It’s easy and cheap, and you can be ready to go as soon as the new drive is installed in your computer.

First you’re going to need a way to connect the new drive to your computer. Refer to the “Transform Your Hard Disk Drive” and “Empower Your Mini PCI-E SSD” sections of this article to determine your specific path.

Cloning your old drive directly to the new one is the fastest way to upgrade your netbook's storage.

Once your new drive is connected, you can use the free trial of Acronis True Image ( www.acronis.com ) to clone your old hard drive to it. The trial is fully functional for 15 days; the full version is $50. Download and install the trial, then run it and hit Utilities in the left-hand menu. Click “Clone disk,” then select the Manual radio button. You’ll be prompted to select your source disk, then your destination disk, then the method of cloning. We stuck with Proportional, but you can also do As-is or Manual, and then resize your partitions later with a partition manager like EASEUS Partition Master ( www.partition-tool.com ). After you confirm your choices and start the imaging, you’ll be prompted to reboot. After the reboot, Acronis will continue working and notify you when your drive is ready. Then just swap it for your old drive and go! Acronis even clones the boot sector for you, so you’ll boot into Windows automatically.

Empower Your Mini PCI-E SSD

Huge performance increases await you

So, you were a netbook early adopter. You grabbed a netbook with a tiny Mini PCI-E SSD, like the Asus Eee 901 we reviewed in December 2008. You don’t mind the tiny keyboard, and you love the battery life. But gosh, having just 12GB of molasses-slow storage is painful, and there’s no room for a 2.5-inch SATA drive. Fortunately, several manufacturers make netbook-specific Mini PCI-E SSDs. We swapped out our Eee 901’s original drive with two aftermarket Mini PCI-E SSDs to see if we could wring some more performance out of the machine. In both cases, we left in the 2GB RAM upgrade from the beginning of the article—it’s such a cheap and easy upgrade that we recommend every netbook owner do that first.

Both RunCore and Super Talent make Mini PCI-E SSDs specifically for 900-series Eee PCs. We tested RunCore’s 64GB Pro SATA Mini PCI-E SSD ($220, www.runcore.com ), and Super Talent’s Mini PCI-E 64GB MLC SSD ($205, www.supertalent.com ). If you have a different Mini PCI-E netbook, both vendors sell find aftermarket SSDs for devices.


The only tricky part is making sure you don't lose or strip out the screws holding the drive in.


Cloning your C: drive to a Mini PCI-E drive can be tricky. The RunCore drive has a USB port on it, making cloning easy, but the Super Talent doesn’t. Eee 901 users are in luck, however; though you’ll eventually use your new SSD as your C: drive, you’re actually replacing the 8GB D: drive—the C: drive is non-removable. Power down the machine and remove the battery, then unscrew and remove the access panel on the bottom of the chassis, and unscrew the two Phillips-head screws holding the SSD in place. Remove the old drive, then slot the new SSD into place, and boot Windows normally, then follow the drive imaging instructions in the sidebar below. The cloning process will make your new SSD the active drive, but it wouldn’t hurt to verify the boot order in the BIOS first.

Both solid state drives offered much better performance than the pitiful SSD the 901 ships with. How much better? Try nearly 100MB/s reads compared to just 30MB/s pre-upgrade. Both SSDs halved the time it took the 901 to complete our Photoshop benchmark, even after the RAM upgrade, making it (finally) competitive with other netbooks. The Super Talent performed slightly better than the RunCore on this test, but the RunCore drive scored higher in PCMark05’s hard drive subscore: 9,912 PCMarks to the Super Talent’s 7,514. Both far outstripped the stock SSD’s measly 1,879 PCMarks. Surprisingly, battery life actually increased by about 40 minutes when using either upgrade drive.

Either drive is a must-have addition to your Eee 901, and they’re comparably priced. If we had to choose, we’d go with the RunCore. It’s slightly faster, and the USB port makes it easier to use.

BENCHMARKS
Stock 12GB SSD
RunCore 64GB
Super Talent 64GB
Photoshop CS3 (sec)
1,163
648
630
PCMark05 HDD
1,849
9,912
7,614
HDTach Avg Read (MB/s)
30.7
97.6
96.6
HDTach Burst (MB/s) 33.7
116.8
111
HDTach CPU Utilization
3%
8%
7%
HDTach random access (ms)
0.5
0.2
0.3
Battery Life (hr:min)
4:50
5:30
5:30

Open Your Mind to a New OS

After you've upgraded your netbook's hardware, give it some souped-up software

Chances are that your netbook came bundled with Windows XP. While this is a perfectly fine operating system, it was designed for desktop use, so it probably has more overhead than you need for your netbook. You should be running lightweight productivity applications on your netbook, not memory-hogging design suites.

Windows 7 and several specialized Linux distros are better suited for light mobile computing, and upgrading to these alternatives is fairly easy. You just download the installation disc image, mount it on a CD or USB key, and boot the install wizard from your netbook’s BIOS. Some of these operating systems even have a Live CD option, which lets you try the OS without partitioning or overwriting your existing software.

We take a look at some popular Windows XP alternatives for netbooks. While there are pros and cons to each, you might find an OS among them that better suits your needs, or at least piques your interest in experimentation.

Windows 7 RC

While Vista is simply not an option for netbooks, Windows 7 is. Microsoft’s newest OS is essentially a root-level fix for Vista, solving some of the most common complaints, such as User Account Control and boot speed. That said, the customization options are similar to what you find in Vista. Windows 7 has features designed for the current era of mobile computing. Netbook users will probably want to use the Basic or Home Premium editions when the full release is available on October 22.


It's nice that netbook users have a choice of using Microsoft's newest OS, but it can feel a little oversized on a small screen.

As is, we found that the UI design in Windows 7 isn’t optimal for netbook use. At 1200x600 resolution, the buttons and menus take up too much screen real estate.

While we can’t say Windows 7 is a memory hog (in fact, it’s quite snappy with just one or two apps running), it is overkill for a netbook. At its core, it’s still designed to support a robust selection of applications, such as Adobe Photoshop and ProTools. It’s a multitasking behemoth that taps in quite well to the processing power of Intel’s multicore CPUs, and is far heavier in terms of disc-space usage than some of the alternatives. In tests over several days with Windows 7, memory problems became an issue—you’ll definitely want more than 1GB of RAM if you plan on using it. But Microsoft’s OS does have one huge advantage over Linux alternatives—you won’t find better software compatibility than with Windows.

Ubuntu Netbook Remix

Ubuntu Netbook Remix ( http://www.ubuntu.com/GetUbuntu/download-netbook ) is a variant on the popular Linux distro, but sports a new UI design and runs without some of the overhead of big brother Ubuntu 9.04, such heavy-duty built-in apps meant more for desktop than mobile use.

Ubuntu Netbook Remix is remarkably easy to use. The main interface places all common functions and tools on one screen, a stark departure from the relatively blank desktop of Ubuntu 9 and Windows (or OS X, for that matter).


Ubuntu Netbook Remix offers a scaled-down UI that's suitable for netbook screens, but retains all the functionality of the full Linux distro.

We were impressed with Ubuntu Netbook Remix and its ability to run all open apps smoothly, even on machines with just 1GB of RAM. However, Ubuntu doesn’t come with any applications that aren’t Open Source. As such, several very common formats aren’t supported out of the box, including MP3, MPEG2, and Flash video. If you want to enable these formats in Ubuntu’s included media players, you can do so in one fell swoop by installing the package ubuntu-restricted-extras using your package manager.

We love this OS because it works well with many apps open, has some of the best UI features (such as a main screen designed for folks who are unfamiliar with Linux), loads and boots quickly, and looks simple and elegant.

Moblin

Moblin ( http://moblin.org ) is the new netbook operating system originally developed by Intel and now part of the Linux Foundation. Moblin’s main claim to fame is that it’s designed to facilitate access to Web 2.0 sites such as Last.fm and Twitter (with built-in controls right on the taskbar). The OS uses a zone concept, which organizes apps in special areas based on typical uses making it easy to switch between them quickly. During our test, it became clear that Moblin is still in the development stage. We had lots of problems getting the distro to work correctly—it occasionally crashed when we started to the browser. Fortunately, crashes do not freeze the entire system; you just see a pop-up dialog box that asks you to send in feedback.


Intel's Moblin has lots of potential, but its streamlined interface is hindered by minor development bugs.

The interface is slick, but requires some adjustment for Windows users. The toolbar drops down from the top of the screen, and there are icons for browser, status update, zones, applications, and IM. What is refreshing—and unusual—is that Moblin doesn’t really look like an OS, instead it mimics the look and feel of a website. The extra features for Twitter updates and IM are great, and there are plenty of extra apps including calculators, schedulers, and a media player. What Moblin lacks are full word processing apps—and there’s no clear way to add one. (In our tests, the Moblin library for adding apps did not let us install OpenOffice.) As an early beta, Moblin has a raft of problems, including a lack of USB key support (we tried about six of them) and problems playing even basic MP3 files.

Moblin does not pretend to be a full-featured OS, but that is also what makes it attractive to netbook owners who crave speed and don’t mind sacrificing extra features. As such, the customization options are few—you can change wallpapers and themes, but Moblin lacks the depth of interface tweaks found in Windows or Ubuntu.

We’re optimistic about Moblin’s prospects, but the nascent OS needs work before we’ll be willing to permanently commit to it. Ubuntu Netbook Remix has the leg up, but we do prefer the Moblin look and feel to the other contenders.

Slax

Slax ( www.slax.org ) is a light Linux distro that’s suitable for netbooks, but has a few weak spots that need to be ironed out before it’s ready for prime time.

Visually, Slax looks like a traditional KDE-based Linux distribution. For personalization, Slax includes a theme manager and the ability to change colors, but most of the work involved with customizing the UI falls to the end user, who must wade through a lot of options to get the right look and feel. We prefer the easier theme controls in Windows 7. In many ways, the controls for personalization in Slax are a throwback to older Linux distros; they’re just not as slick or user-friendly as those in more modern distros.


If you can maneuver your way around the KDE environment, you'll like Slax for its tiny footprint and speedy applications.

Functionally, we were disappointed by the lack of native support for PDF documents and Flash movie files, a sign that the OS has fallen behind other options. However, there are plenty of apps included with the distro, including OpenOffice tools and the Evolution mail client.

Jolicloud

A final option is Jolicloud ( www.jolicloud.com ), a hybrid OS from the creator of the Netvibes.com web aggregator. Based on the Ubuntu Netbook Remix distro, the OS offers some truly innovative features, but for the most part works almost exactly like Ubuntu.

The idea behind Jolicloud is that it is a consolidated and streamlined gateway for accessing open-source and web applications. Jolicloud’s lets you install free software like Skype and Dropbox in much the same way you would on an iPhone or with Google Android. Compatible apps are listed in a dashboard—which also reports the latest Jolicloud news and support forum info—with an Install button. When you click Install, a small progress bar appears. The idea is that you can click this option and then perform other tasks, although in the beta we tested, as soon as we left the dashboard the install would stop. Still, it’s a novel idea because new users don’t have to figure out the relatively complex process of installing applications—a big barrier for new Linux users.


As its name implies, Jolicloud relies heavily on cloud-based applications, so its best utilized when you're connected to the Internet.

Jolicloud also lets you create links to common web services, such as Facebook and Twitter. It would have been much more impressive if Jolicloud actually included custom apps for the sites—similar to those you find on modern smartphones.

Once you close the Jolicloud dashboard, the OS operates exactly the same as Ubuntu—there are no discernible differences in terms of the interface, speed results, or apps you can load. Jolicloud shows promise, and you can try it out by signing up to get a beta invite at Jolicloud.com.

Netbook Gaming: Yes, You Can!

Sure, puny screens, single-core processors, integrated graphics, and the lack of an optical drive make netbooks incapable of running today’s—or even last year’s—blockbuster games. But not all great games are graphics hogs, and there are plenty of masterpieces, today’s or yesteryear’s, that will run just fine on a netbook.

Digital distribution is your friend. Steam ( http://store.steampowered.com ) and Good Old Games ( www.gog.com ) are just two ways to download delicious netbook-capable games directly to your drive on the cheap. One note: Some games might not support netbook resolution (1024x600) without some manual configuration editing.

Like casual games? Great news! PopCap’s casual-blockbusters Plants vs. Zombies and Peggle run great on netbooks and are both available on Steam. Plants vs. Zombies is $10 and Peggle Complete is just $15. Indie physics puzzler World of Goo is also on Steam for $20.


Plants vs. Zombies is a wildly popular and whimsical tower-defense game that happens to run great on your netbook.

Your new netbook is also a perfect excuse to revisit the great games of yore. Good Old Games has a huge collection—from the original Fallout and Fallout 2 to Duke Nukem 3D ($6 each). And LucasArts has begun releasing its enormous back catalog of adventure games on Steam—at press time, that included LOOM, The Dig, and Indiana Jones & the Fate of Atlantis ($5 each). Steam also has the Game of the Year edition of Deus Ex for just $10.

If you have old copies of Blizzard games like Diablo II and Warcraft III, you can enter your CD keys into your Battle.net account and download them, or pay $20 for a fresh digital copy of either ( www.blizzard.com ).

If you’re itching for some twitchy multiplayer frag fests, Quake Live ( www.quakelive.com ), a free-to-play browser version of Quake III, runs great on nearly any netbook.

You won’t be playing Crysis, but there’s plenty of gaming action to be had on a netbook.

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