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Want better laptop battery life? Hardware upgrades are much better than software tweaks for improving power efficiency. Unfortunately, not all mobile computers offer easy component upgrades. Most full-sized laptops are upgradeable though, and the process takes surprisingly little time or effort. Ultrabooks, on the other hand, require a bit more elbow grease to upgrade.

Four components are relatively easy to upgrade:

  • Hard drive
  • WiFi card
  • Bluetooth module
  • Battery upgrade

I also illustrate where these parts lie on an HP Pavilion 17. The upgrade process normally involves just a few screws and a single removable panel, for a full-sized laptop. Smaller notebooks, such as Ultrabooks (what’s an Ultrabook? What Is An Ultrabook & Can It Succeed? [Technology Explained] What Is An Ultrabook & Can It Succeed? [Technology Explained] Remember when the word laptop described virtually every mobile computer on the market? The choices were certainly easier back then (because there was simply less choice available), but today there’s a far wider variety including... Read More )  may require considerably more effort.

rear of laptop

The Endlessly Rehashed Software Packages

I won’t cover Linux optimizations and/or Windows software tools, as they receive vast amounts of coverage. Saikat published a still-current article in 2009 on the top 21 laptop battery life improvements 20 Ways To Increase Laptop's Battery Life 20 Ways To Increase Laptop's Battery Life Read More . The most relevant: Turning down screen brightness and optimizing your laptop’s operating system for power consumption. For Windows 8 tablets 7 Ways To Improve Battery Life on Windows 8 Tablets & Laptops 7 Ways To Improve Battery Life on Windows 8 Tablets & Laptops In Windows 8.1 battery-saving features moved! Otherwise they are similar to options seen in previous Windows versions. Learn more to make your tablet or laptop battery last as long as possible. Read More , the process is quite similar.

Easy Hardware Upgrades

Solid State Drives

A common myth: All SSDs (what’s an SSD? How Do Solid-State Drives Work? [MakeUseOf Explains] How Do Solid-State Drives Work? [MakeUseOf Explains] Over the past few decades, there has been a considerable amount of work in the field of computer hardware. While computer technology is constantly improving and evolving, rarely do we experience moments where we simply... Read More ) drain less than traditional, platter-based hard drives. The truth: Some SSDs drain very little and some drain a tremendous amount. The same remains true for regular hard drives. On average, SSDs drain less than hard drives. But a number of SSDs will drain substantially more.

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Installing a new SSD on most full-sized laptops will require removing the rear chassis cover and detaching the hard disk drive from the SATA connector. It takes me around 5 minutes (actually less) to swap the drive out. You will also need to either clone your operating system How To Clone Your Hard Drive How To Clone Your Hard Drive Copy the entirety of one hard drive to another. It's called cloning, and it's an important process if you want to replace or upgrade the primary hard drive in your computer. Cloning isn't the same... Read More or reinstall it.

solid state drive example

Anandtech did a run-down of modern SSD power consumption. They found that Samsung drives tended to consume less power than, for example, drives from OCZ. Hard drives consume power in (mostly) two kinds of ways – either while idle or active. Active consumption tends to run higher for spin-up hard drives (because they need to literally spin their drive up) than for SSDs. SSDs, on the other hand, may suffer from higher idle (and sometimes active) power consumption, since it packs the equivalent of a miniature computer (which includes RAM, multi-core processors and more).

That kind of hardware requires a substantial amount of overhead, although it’s also why SSDs gallop ahead of hard disk drives. SSDs tend to inhabit the extremes of power consumption. Some can burn as much as 5-watts per hour while active. Others consume around 1 (or less).

For power consumption, I recommend any 840 or 850 Samsung drive. In theory, the 850 series, which uses a smaller nano-meter production process, along with “3D”, stacked memory cells, should offer among the highest efficiencies in power consumption. Early reports substantiates this, as Anandtech rates the 850 as the third most power efficient drive.

For more information, check out our guide to SSDs.

solid state drive example

Wireless-AC and Bluetooth 4.0

Fortunately, most modern laptops use what’s called a “mini-PCI-express” (or mPCIe) module for WiFi and Bluetooth access. Most budget mobile computers use older mini-PCIe cards which combine Bluetooth 3 along with 802.11n wireless. These drain substantially more than the latest standard, Bluetooth 4 and 802.11ac. Both standards require compatible peripheral devices in order to receive power savings.

azurewave broadcom bcm9452

The majority of older and budget laptops include single-band Wireless-N cards. The standard which replaced Wireless-N is 802.11ac (Wireless-AC), which offers dual-band support and often comes packaged with Bluetooth 4.0.

There’s two Wireless AC mini-PCIe Cards that are easily available for not much money. I’ve tried both in Linux (Ubuntu 14.04 LTS) and they worked out-the-box:

  • Broadcom Azurewave BCM9452 — $36.99 via Amazon
  • Intel 7620 — $31.85 via Amazon

 

Before buying, double-check whether or not your laptop supports mini-PCIe cards. Also make certain that your router can broadcast Wireless-AC and peripheral devices support “Low Energy” Bluetooth 4.0; if they don’t, you won’t realise any power benefits.

Changing out an mPCIe card requires just a few steps. You must first remove the rear chassis cover and unscrew the mPCIe module from the motherboard, detaching the antenna cables. You then insert the new module, reattach the cables and screws. After updating drivers, connect to the 5 GHz band. From then on you will see fairly good returns on battery life for most kinds of browsing. However, your signal quality directly relates to the power efficiency of the module. While 802.11ac’s Beamforming technology improves signal quality, if you suffer from a poor connection, you won’t see any improvement in battery life.

mpcie wifi card upgrade

Alternatively, if you only want to upgrade Bluetooth 4.0, you can purchase a USB dongle that’s Bluetooth 4.0 capable. Dongles cost less than $10 and offer plug-and-play support in Windows 8.1.

soundbot sb340

Battery

Some laptops offer extended batteries. Because the amount of space inside of a battery is limited, manufacturers oftentimes use more energy dense batteries. A little known secret about full-sized laptop batteries is that they’re actually composed of multiple, smaller batteries. The most common: The 18650. 18650s come in a variety of energy densities, often ranging from around 1,000 to 5,000 mAh.

18650 litium ion battery

Contact your laptop’s manufacturer to see if higher density packs are available. If not, you can always roll the dice on eBay (albeit risking a laptop fire, if extremely low quality batteries are used).

laptop battery

Components You Probably Won’t Want to Upgrade

CPU/APU Upgrade

To get better battery life from a CPU processor, you would need to downgrade. On top of that, many lower-powered CPUs may use the same wattage as a faster model. Each model of CPU offers a socket, of which two kinds exist: Soldered and socketed. Socketed models can swap out. Soldered are literally bonded to the motherboard socket.

Intel’s most efficient CPUs, unfortunately, can’t be swapped out as they are of the soldered variety; and upgrading the socketed models won’t offer any battery life improvements. Downgrading is the only option – but you need to check on a case-by-case basis with the manufacturer.

Many modern AMD laptops use an upgradeable standard, but as I understand it, the latest Kaveri architecture (FP3) only supports soldered connections, meaning they also cannot upgrade.

Oftentimes upgrading a laptop CPU requires an almost complete disassembly of the laptop. Also, laptop CPUs can cost extra or require that you recover a module from a wrecked laptop. Furthermore, many laptop CPUs come direct die-to-heat sink connected, so disassembly entails a chance of accidentally smashing the CPU die. Finally, each motherboard has its own special rules for compatible CPUs – in the end, you will gain little in battery life, lose performance and waste a great deal of time.

2014-03-10 23.15.43

Screen Technology

A very small handful of laptops can upgrade their screen technology – a select few 10.1-inch notebooks can upgrade to a day-light readable Pixel Qi screen, for instance. These screens use a fraction of the energy of an LCD screen while at the same time providing daylight readability. The company now makes displays for drones, due to a lack of consumer interest.

Otherwise, screen upgrades (or downgrades) don’t exist for most models. Even if you do find one, the gains likely won’t exceed the amount of effort required in replacing the screen.

Conclusion

Upgrading your hard drive to a low-power SSD (and not a high-power consumption SSD), along with swapping out the Bluetooth/WiFi module, will yield significant gains to battery life. My HP Pavilion 17 jumped from a paltry four hours of battery life to around seven hours after upgrading all three parts to the latest standard. However, also keep in mind that your browser (don’t use Chrome), the number of tabs open and other considerations take a big chunk out of operational battery life.

Got any other battery saving hardware upgrades? Let us know in the comments.

  1. gregzeng
    September 13, 2014 at 5:13 am

    Notebooks have cooling fans which turn on automatically.
    1. Decreasing this means allowing air flow under & out of the laptop.
    2. Installing SSD can decrease noise & heat generation too.
    These two methods might assist battery life, IMHO.

    • Kannon Y
      September 14, 2014 at 8:24 pm

      That's something that I hadn't thought of. Reducing the overall system heat would require less usage of the system fan. Great point!

  2. Kannon Y
    September 11, 2014 at 5:45 pm

    Thanks for sharing John. I wasn't sure about the 5,000 mAh batteries (the so-called nanowire technology allows li-ion 18650 batteries to hit 5,000 mAh). If they're manufactured by Ultrafire, I'd say that probably aren't nanowire.

  3. John Williams
    September 11, 2014 at 4:43 pm

    Laptop battery packs are made up of seperate cells.
    "18650s come in a variety of energy densities, often ranging from around 1,000 to 5,000 mAh."

    A good quality Sanyo or Panasonic 18650 is usually 2600mA. Protected cells have individual charge control in each cell - which takes up space, limits the capacity, but reduces the possibility of fires.

    Many laptop batteries are built up of 18650's with no protection, because the overall battery has the overcharge and fire protection. Quality branded Panasonic cells rise to 3600mAh using the space where the cell's circuit was.

    Beware of Ultrafire or Trustfire as there are many forgeries. Any 18650 claiming to have 5000mAh capacity should ring alarm bells. The energy density of Lithium chemsitry is finite in the volume available in an 18 x 65mm cylinder. 5Ah would need a bigger barrel.

    Fire protection comes from using a genuine charger, and a genuine battery. The extra 2 hours battery life you just won by fitting unbranded Lithium chemistry could burn your house down!

  4. Dalsan M
    September 11, 2014 at 12:29 pm

    As far as the comment about going to 1.35v memory instead of 1.5v, I have done so in my netbook (a single 8GB stick) about a year ago from a single 2GB 1.5v stick and noticed close to an hour running time increase. At that time, the battery was two years old and holding around 7 hours charge, though I was able to undervolt the processor when I first got the netbook to get up to almost 11 1/2 hours. Now , at almost four years old, I get about 4 1/2 hours. Between all of these tweaks and upgrades, one should get close to double the battery life. When I have the chance, I'll go with an SSD, and probably see at least an hour increase in battery life along with a big performance increase.

  5. dragonmouth
    September 10, 2014 at 10:04 pm

    I guess my question was a bit confusing. SSDs have a limited number of read/writes. I'm thinking of using an SSD instead of a hard drive. What kind of lifetime can I expect from the SSD?

    • Kannon Y
      September 11, 2014 at 1:02 am

      That's a good question, DM. Oh geez, and boy is it complicated!

      It depends on the drive, the firmware reliability and the kind of flash memory used. I would suggest just looking at the Mean Time Between Failures numbers, provided by the manufacturer. And then estimate how many writes, in terms of data, you make per day to the drive.

      Most manufacturers set a warranty at around 30 terabytes of lifetime writes (or something in that ballpark). The average user is writing something like 6GB per day to their hard drive (IIRC). Over a five year period, the warranty works out to something on the order of 16 gigabytes of writes per day.

      OK, so that's pretty hard to do. However, several key components can really screw an SSD up. For example, if you (and you use Linux) use sleep or hybrid-sleep and have lots of RAM, every time the systems goes to sleep, the RAM gets written to the hibernate file. Say you have 16 gigabytes of RAM and sleep it three times a day. And write about 6GB per day to the hard drive. That works out to 54 gb of writes per day. Well, you've successfully voided the warranty in a year and a half.

      On top of that, if the firmware isn't updated, there could be a serious hole being burnt into the memory that you aren't aware of.

      For these reasons, I would advocate only going with PROVEN manufacturers who don't mess around with warranties or firmware updates - so Samsung and Intel are pretty much at the top of the list. Out of the two, Intel offers the most reliable drives.

    • dragonmouth
      September 11, 2014 at 11:44 am

      Thanks, Kannon.

  6. Jason C
    September 10, 2014 at 8:45 pm

    Nice work! I really enjoyed the article. I think you could safely add upgrading your RAM to the list. Adding RAM is not only a huge benefit to the user experience; an added bonus is less swapping to the disk, regardless of whether it's an SSD or not, which uses less power.

    • Kannon Y
      September 11, 2014 at 12:36 am

      Hey Jason, thanks for the comment and compliment!

      I debated internally about adding another stick of RAM (when upgrading) - there seem to be two schools of thought on the issue: The first is as you wrote. The second is that any amount of RAM over 4GB is unnecessary for most users and that a second stick of RAM increases power consumption slightly. I have heard anecdotes that a single stick of 1.35v RAM consumes around 2-3 watts per hour in most laptops. That probably translates into a few minutes of battery time. :-)

      However, if it stops the OS from writing to the page file, that probably greatly eclipses the added stick of RAM. I'm not sure what to do in this case - should users set a static page file, optimized to minimize its use? I'm really not sure. Hopefully users read your comment, though, so they can make that decision on their own.

      Thanks for the comment!

  7. dragonmouth
    September 10, 2014 at 7:56 pm

    While an SSD may be battery-friendly, how long a life can I expect from one if I swap it for an HDD?

    • Jason C
      September 10, 2014 at 8:50 pm

      There's no guarantee, but I've been actively working in the PC industry since 1996 and I've seen hard drives fail after being in a desktop for a week. I've also seen laptops with their original hard drives still working after 10 years. You can't do much of anything with a 10 year old laptop, but still - it's the point.

      Typically, though, the average lifespan I've experienced myself is 6 years without a failure (so far). Just make sure you have a good backup and you'll be ok even if your drive catastrophically fails.

    • Godel
      September 11, 2014 at 10:16 pm

      There are two parts to the question: how much data can be written to the SSD before the cells wear out, and how long will the general control electronics last?

      SSD cell endurance will NOT be a problem for normal users, barring some rare pathological states. I saw a report about Opera browser writing many gigabytes of data a day due to some strange configuration problem. I think they may have fixed that since.

      The article in the following link proves the point about write endurance.

      http://techreport.com/review/26058/the-ssd-endurance-experiment-data-retention-after-600tb/2

      The other part is general brand reliability. Even though they have since been sold to Toshiba and standards may have improved, I wouldn't touch an OCZ drive with a barge pole based on past performance. Memories linger.

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