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?) may require considerably more effort.
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. The most relevant: Turning down screen brightness and optimizing your laptop’s operating system for power consumption. For Windows 8 tablets, the process is quite similar.
Easy Hardware Upgrades
Solid State Drives
A common myth: All SSDs (what’s an SSD?) 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.
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 or reinstall it.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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).
Components You Probably Won’t Want to 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.
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.
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.