Apr 302012

Netbooks are cheap and slow by definition, and when they get even slower or broken with prolonged (ab)use, they can sometimes be more valuable in a different role than they were originally bought for. Even if it’s not worth investing too much in their repair, sometimes they can still be used in another way. Many of the options listed below can be combined with each other and give the netbook both better performance and use, however, before doing anything serious always remember to back up your data. Here are the ways to breathe new life into a netbook or an old laptop:

Reinstall Fresh

($0 cost)

As we keep installing more and more programs, screensavers, gadgets and utilities, they slow down even fastest computers, but like in our tax system, the little, hard-working guy pays the heaviest toll. If your netbook feels like it’s overloaded and you can’t clean it up, a wipe-off with a fresh installation of its operating system (OS) can speed it up (follow instructions in your manual and back up any data). Installing security patches and necessary software will require some time, so you may set this aside for several nights when you’re watching TV or doing something else with frequent breaks. Replacing Windows Vista with Windows 7 can make a netbook perform much better, but even more performance gain can be achieved with Ubuntu (next).

Install Ubuntu


Being a free, plug and play, very user-friendly (Mac style) Linux OS, Ubuntu can make many smaller, slower and older machines feel much faster. If your netbook was originally running the resource-hungry Windows Vista, you will probably feel a real bliss, while netbooks originally running Windows 7 won’t see such a big improvement. You may choose to totally replace the original OS, or keep it and go for the dual boot (recommended if you are doing this for the first time and have enough room) so you can switch between the old and the new OS and later give up any of the two as you wish. When it’s slow, “Ubuntize”.

Speed It up with RAM Upgrade


RAM is cheap and abundant, especially for older models. For example, I can find a 4GB RAM upgrade chip for my 1.5 year old laptop on Amazon.com for under $30. One of the first things I did some time after I bought my MSI 11.6″ netbook was upgrading it from 2 to 4 GB of RAM which is almost unheard of on netbooks. It didn’t get much faster because it already had a good amount of RAM, but it handles many windows open almost as good as my laptop. Most netbooks usually come with 1 GB and at those lower numbers an upgrade to 2 or 4 GB should bring far more performance improvement. Of course, first check if your netbook has an extra empty memory slot, or whether you need to replace the existing chip with one with more capacity.

Speed It up with SSD Upgrade


If you want to improve performance of a recently (last few years) made laptop or netbook, upgrading from the old-fashioned spinning hard disk to a solid state drive (no moving parts, similar to usb thumbdrive) gives the best return on investment (unless it has unreasonably low amounts or RAM and an ancient CPU). These drives are much faster than the hard drives, and considering that the hard drive is usually the slowest and weakest link in many computers, the benefits are felt system-wide. Even with insufficient RAM, using the virtual memory on a solid state disk will be much faster, which will noticeably improve user experience (just make sure there’s enough space because a full hard drive can bring any computer down to a crawl).

Convert Your Netbook into a Nettop


This can be done with any netbook or laptop, but it’s also a great new purpose for ones having problems with the battery, screen, keyboard or touchpad. You can make it stationary and connect it to a TV or a monitor and use it for simple tasks like internet browsing, email and document writing, which is basically what nettop stands for (interNET deskTOP). Depending on the netbook’s condition or location, you may need an external (possibly wireless) keyboard, and/or a mouse, but if you already have some spares, it’s zero investment. You can also go overboard and spend a hundred or more buckaroos on a new monitor, new keyboard, new mouse and a KVM switch (keyboard, video, mouse) to use multiple computers with same screen, but then you’re not only reviving the netbook but arming yourself with some serious equipment and hopefully getting upgrade and future-proof. It’s better and less expensive to buy good stuff once than to be frustrated and continue the upgrading process several times. (But then, why would anybody ever buy a netbook? I know, I’ve broken my own rules.) It costs you much more money in the long run, so it’s better to do it right the first time.

Convert The Netbook into a NAS Drive

$0-$150 (for external drive, if needed)

Same as above, if you have a dying battery, the netbook is still good when plugged in. If you have a broken screen, it’s still good when connected to a digital TV or a monitor. If its keyboard or touchpad is broken, an external mouse and/or keyboard will do, even temporarily until you install a remote connection option such as VNC or TeamViewer (the latter works only over the internet, while VNC works on local network). With sufficient storage space (such as a properly sized high speed external USB drive) you can convert that netbook to a small file server or make it a network attached storage (NAS) server for home or even small business.

Convert It into a Media Server


The only thing more exciting than converting your little “mule” into a media server would be converting it into a media center computer, but that can be done only with faster laptops and very few newer netbooks, powerful enough to deal with HDTV. If your netbook is not destined to ever leave home again, get an HDMI or VGA cable, connect it to your TV and start streaming, recording shows and using it as a DVR and media hub. If you’ll do some serious video recording and storing, you’ll also need more space, so you will need a fast external USB (at least USB 2.0) drive. But if it’s too slow to be a media center computer, your netbook can still be fast enough to be converted into a media server.

I’ve done more of the above combined. First I upgraded RAM on my wife’s netbook, and then when the screen broke we’ve been using it as a nettop, connected to our TV for both internet browsing and Skype video chats, and I can testify that with 4 GB of RAM and Windows 7 it leaves our PlayStation 3 browser in the dust, both speed, convenience and compatibility-wise. Since the TV is very popular, I occasionally connect it to my monitor and ergonomic keyboard/trackman when it becomes a great blogging station. This post was proudly started on it.

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