Some time ago I posted about installing Windows XP onto my new Acer Extensa 5620-6830 laptop. It's a nice little machine- the price was right, and standard specs aren't bad. But here's some information that could be helpful to anyone with this budget best Buy laptop and wants to get the most bang for their buck!
This guide will cover tips for upgrading, maintenance, plus tweaks and tricks specific for this and other similar model laptops. Learn how to double your battery life, what hardware can be replaced, and if it's smart to do so. In conjunction with my other Instructables, this has some valuable tidbits specific to notebook computers.
Step 1: Memory (RAM & Hard Drive)
The Extensa 5620-6830 comes with 1GB of DDR2 memory. That's two sticks of 512MB. This unit technically supports 4GB; 2 x 2GB modules. However, unless you're running a 64-bit operating system (if you have to ask how you'd know, trust me... you're not) then only about 3GB will be usable. There's no fix for this, it's just a fact. All standard 32-bit operating systems are coded this way.
Due to this, I decided to purchase two 1GB modules (making 2GB total). I find that to be plenty sufficient; I've never run out of memory in XP. Keep in mind, Vista will use about 1GB just to boot and run. You'll want to buy 667Mhz modules. There are 800MHz modules out there, but 99% of laptops on the market can't operate at that frequency. You'd be paying extra money for nothing, plus risking incompatibility.
There is an obvious single "hatch" on the bottom of the unit through which we access nearly everything- wifi card, RAM, hard drive, and CPU. You'll need a small philips-head screwdriver to open this. You shouldn't have to apply force once the screws are out, though take note of the plastic tabs along one side.
The stock hard drive is a TOSHIBA MK2035GSS 200GB drive. It runs at 4200RPM, has an 8MB Cache, and uses Perpendicular Magnetic Recording (PMR) combined with Tunnel Magneto-resistive Recording (TMR) Head Technology. All that jargon supposedly means it's roughly as fast as a 5400rpm drive. I find it acceptable. There's faster drives out there, but is it worth wasting the $165 on a 200GB 7200rpm drive just to replace the original 200GB? You'd see a lot more heat, less battery life, and a big chunk out of your pocketbook.
The choice is yours, but I'm waiting for a faster (or equivelent-speed) 320GB drive.
Step 2: Bluetooth/Wifi
While our 5620 has a front switch and light for Bluetooth, the actual module is not installed. Supposedly you can get one from Acer themselves... but be prepared to pay a small fortune. And know the part number. And likely have it shipped overseas.
There's two options for adding Bluetooth. If you're going to wait for overseas shipping anyway, why not buy a cheap ($6.99) little low-profile USB bluetooth adapter from DealExtreme (which works fine under both Windows and Mac). It takes awhile to arrive, but the one I got was cheap and works great. Best of all you don't have to crack your laptop open.
Oh, not scared of taking apart your Acer? Okay then. Roughly under the mousepad on the top of the motherboard is a small four-pin plug. If you can find a small plug to fit it, and are decent with a soldering iron, then you can modify a USB Bluetooth adapter to fit here. An easier way is to buy this pre-made off eBay for about $25. Just do a search for "acer bluetooth," and make sure the plug has a four-pin.
Why do you need Bluetooth? You don't. But it can be nice for transferring file to and from your cellphone, or using a wireless mouse. Plus it makes that switch on the front of your laptop actually do something!
The Wifi card is an Intel 3945 802.11a/b/g Mini-PCIe (PCI Express) card. It works just fine, but eventually you could switch to an 802.11n one to match your newer router if you wish. I ended up swapping mine out with a spare 802.11b/g Atheros card from a junk Toshiba for my own reasons; the good news is, there's no Bios whitelist issue that stops other cards from working.
Step 3: CPU (hardware)
The stock CPU, at first glance, is nothing special. It's a Intel Core 2 Duo T5250; that's 1.5GHz on a 667MHz bus with a 2MB L2 cache. It uses the new Socket P design, however. That's a good thing for a number of reasons.
This uses the Meron core, and supports a bus up to 800MHz. That means for $250-ish, you can replace your T5250 with a T8300- that's 2.4GHz, a 3MB cache, and a decent FSB bump. They both run at 35W, so in theory your battery life and heat output won't suffer. The T8300 is also a 45 nm cpu, as opposed to the original 65 nm T5250. This specific upgrade has been reported to really beef things up- even Vista goes from 4.x to 5.x scores.
If that's a bit too pricey for you, save $40 and grab a T8100. That ones a 2.1GHz, also with a 3MB L2 Cache, also running at 35W. Between the smaller architecture, higher FSB, and 600Mhz speed increase, at just over $200 it could be worth the money to you.
I'm personally not in a hurry to upgrade, for various reasons. Using XP, the dual core 1.5GHz runs fine for me. I've also been watching the prices drop and speeds increase on Socket-P cpu's. I will eventually upgrade, but why rush? The longer I wait, the cheaper (and faster) a cpu I can get for my money.
The cpu can be swapped out through the bottom 'hatch' without a ton of difficulty. I can't give step-by-step instructions as I haven't done this, but I don't see any huge hurdles to overcome. I would just make sure you have a thin coating of Arctic Silver (or something equivelent) to replace any old thermal paste / pad residue. Enthusiasts sometimes actually redo this themselves simply to improve heat dissipation on their stock cpu's.
Step 4: CPU (software)
That's right- software for your cpu.
The stock T5250 cpu has another nifty, little-known characteristic. If we take advantage of it, we can make our laptops run cooler and gain battery life! This cpu was used in a lot of notebooks, being one of the most 'budget' cpu's for the Socket-P design.
Old-school overclockers will understand over-volting. Basically, you're running a cpu on more voltage that it is designed for. This increases heat, uses more power, and shortens the life of the chip. Why do it? To get things running faster- to burn the candle on both ends, so to speak. It's a combination of getting the most for your money, and a plain geek-rep do-it-for-the-sake-of-doing-it challenge. It's almost never a wise idea for laptops... or your warranty.
The opposite concept is under-volting. The idea is that all cpu's do not require the full manufacture voltage to run. Lowering the voltage creates less heat, uses less power, and (if anything) extends the life of the chip! What's the down side? On most cpu's, if you lower the voltage too much it will cause instability (read, BSOD).
But here's where our little "budget" chipset really shines.
Using Right Mark CPU Clock Utility, you can lower the voltage as far down as it will go. Instead of a deafult 1.25v, our T5250 cpu can be run at a mere 0.95v! Doing so decreased my cpu temps by more than 10C, and increased my battery life by 15-20 minutes. Get the walkthrough on the changes here; for any other cpu, follow the instructions exactly. Only the T5250 has been proven to usually be 100% stable at the lowest voltage settings. Just to be safe, I have mine set as shown in the picture (slightly higher per each multi), though I ran for a solid week at the minimum voltage with no problems. If you notice any instability under high load, simply bump the higher multipliers up a notch or two.
Step 5: Misc. Tweaks
These are a collection of tweaks I learned over the past few months using this laptop. Most of them should be applicable to other makes / models.
Tweaking the video:
The X3100 Intel video is hardly for gaming. However, there's a few things you can do. First off, it is advertised as having "Up to 252MB" of shared graphics memory under Vista. Installing XP, it becomes 384MB! Not a bad upgrade (either the increased video memory or the faster OS) ;)
To get a little more of an edge, download and install the latest driver from Intel. Open Graphics Properties. Under Display Settings, hit Power Settings. Here you can improve things (slightly) by being more energy-wasteful. Under 3D settings, you can also change the "Driver Memory Footprint" to High, which supposedly may help.
Tweaking the performance:
I've already written an XP tweak-guide, so I'll keep this short. Get rid of all those background / startup applications, defragment your drive overnight every few weeks, uninstall / delete things you'll never use, Turn off System Restore unless you actually use it, and turn off Automatic Updates! If you have 14 taskbar icons next to your clock, it takes five minutes to boot up, and you keep getting "low disk space" warnings, you don't need new hardware. You need an hour of easy software maintenance.
Tweaking the battery:
A while back I forgot the charger for my laptop when I left for work. Bugger, I thought, I can get an hour, maybe a little more out of this battery! What on earth will I do for the next 3+ hours till I can run home on lunch?
Everyone's usage will differ, but here's how I stayed chatting and surfing online for three hours, just using the ~6 month old stock battery.
First, I used the under-voltage trick. Remember, less voltage, less heat, less power consumed.
Secondly, I have Windows Power Options set to Max Battery. Not only does this keep standard hardware use to a minimum, but it runs the T5250 cpu at 997Mhz instead of 1.5Ghz while unplugged. If you're websurfing or typing, 2/3 of the CPU is plenty.
Thirdly, I used XP's Hardware Profiles to create a super-battery-extending profile. The how-to from Microsoft is here for setting up Profiles. I created a new one, rebooted, and entered it. Setting the timer at 5 or 10 seconds instead of the default 30 might keep you from gnashing your teeth in impatience during startup. Now the fun begins...
We open the device manager and start disabling anything we can live without for the next three hours. DVD drive? Not needed. PC Card slot? SD card? Firewire? Webcam? Disable them all. Since I'm on Ethernet and have the volume muted, I disabled Wifi and the audio card as well.
I then turned the brightness down as far as it would go, and closed every application but the Firefox tabs I was using. Turning off the auto-hibernate at 3%, I managed to chat on Meebo for three hours and seventeen minutes- at which point I ran home on lunch and grabbed my charger. I keep the Uber-battery profile just in case this happens again, or I need to finish / retrieve some work with the last trickles of power.
Step 6: Final Thoughts
This laptop turned out to be a smart purchase. It has future upgrade-ability, has held up well the past half a year, and is pretty easy to work on. As I previously stated, the Intel X3100 graphics are the weak point here, but for the light- or non-gamer like me, it's sufficient. My screensavers look good anyway! ;)
What's next for my Acer? I'll likely add in the Bluetooth module I built and call it good for another six months. I've kept myself busy with other projects, including building my NES PC, and installing / dual booting OS X Leopard, which runs surprisingly well on this 'budget' machine...
... but that's another Instructable ;)
About the author:
CharredPC is a freelance IT geek, most recently specializing in repair and resale of laptops. He enjoys tearing down the wall of ignorance between end-users and the 'experts' that charge hundreds for poor service. When not servicing laptops for everyone he's ever met on the west coast (including their families, their neighbors, their dogs, and anyone else they so kindly offer his services to), his hobbies include electronics, satellite, streaming web video, British sci-fi, and occasionally writing tech Instructables.