Many people strongly prefer the small size and portability of a laptop PC compared to a desktop PC. This smaller size and portability does cause some performance trade-offs compared to a desktop machine. Despite this, many people either can’t or simply prefer not to get a new or different machine, and they are stuck with what they have now. At the same time, they may be unhappy with the performance they are getting from their current machine. If that is the case for you, how can you improve laptop performance?
Laptop PCs Are Not All The Same
Depending on the age, specifications, and features of your existing laptop, you will have many different options available to you if you want to improve laptop performance.
Worst Case Scenario
For example, a worst case scenario would be a 13″, “thin and light” laptop from a major PC vendor. Many machines in this class offer virtually no upgrade, expansion or configuration options. Most laptops in this class have either a 2C/4T or 4C/8T, 15W “U-class” mobile CPU, depending on the age and original cost of the machine. Many machines like this only have 8GB or 16GB of RAM.
An example of this is shown below. This is from a Lenovo Yoga 900 with an Intel Core i7-6500U from Q3 2015. This was a pretty high-end “thin and light” machine from that era that has 16GB of RAM and a single 512GB SATA SSD. It cost about $1500.00, but it is very slow by modern standards.
Machines like this often have their RAM soldered in, and their storage is also not user upgradeable. Most of these type laptops only have integrated graphics, and the CPU is also not user upgradeable. Finally, there are usually very few available performance-related settings in the BIOS.
With a machine like that (which is very common and popular), you will be limited to mostly software changes and fixes. You will also be at the mercy of the system vendor for things like driver and firmware updates.
Best Case Scenario
A much better situation from a flexibility and upgrade scenario is a larger, heavier gaming or workstation oriented laptop. These will be more expensive along with being bigger. Because of this, fewer people will have this type of laptop.
If you do have a larger laptop like this, you do get some benefits for performance. Machines in this class will have an “H-class” mobile CPU that might use 35-45 watts (or more). They will usually have a 4C/8T CPU, but could have up to an 8C/16T CPU, along with four RAM slots instead of two. You will also usually have a discrete GPU instead of integrated graphics. Finally, you are more likely to have multiple drive bays instead of only one.
From an upgrade perspective, most larger, performance oriented laptops will let you upgrade your RAM and storage. A few machines like this will even let you upgrade the CPU and discrete graphics, but that is fairly rare. In addition, machines like this usually expose more tweaking options in the BIOS.
So What Can I Actually Do?
That depends on where your machine is on this spectrum from worst case to best case. With worst case, no hardware upgrades are possible, and there may be fewer BIOS tuning options. But with a best case scenario, you will probably be able to upgrade your RAM and storage, and maybe even the CPU and GPU (if you are very lucky).
But you may be unable or unwilling to do any hardware upgrades. Maybe it is a company-owned laptop, or maybe your financial situation precludes spending any money on computer hardware. If that is the case, what can you do?
Here are some things you can do that don’t cost anything (besides your time).
- Plug-in your laptop!
- Nearly all laptops will run considerably faster plugged in compared to running on the battery
- Make sure you are using the Windows High Performance Power Plan
- This has less effect when you are running on battery, but it still helps some
- If you are running Windows 10, make sure you are on the latest version
- This is currently version 20H2
- Newer versions usually have low-level performance improvements
- Look at the Startup tab of Windows Task Manager and think about disabling some items
- This will improve startup time and reduce resource usage
- Go into your BIOS and see if there are any performance-related settings you can change
- Make sure hyper-threading/SMT is enabled
- Make sure Turbo Boost is enabled
- See if you can have the fans running faster/more often
- Check your documentation for other performance-related settings
- Your laptop vendor may have software utilities that let you change performance settings
- Consider updating your BIOS to the latest version
- I would normally always do this, but security fixes for Intel processors often reduce performance quite a bit. You will have to decide whether security outweighs performance.
- Update your firmware and drivers to the latest version from the laptop vendor support site
- Use vendor specific drivers if possible
- For example, the Samsung NVMe driver for a Samsung NVMe drive instead of the Windows NVMe driver
- Another example would be the latest NVIDIA driver for a discrete GPU instead of what Windows Update installs.
- Uninstall unnecessary software that may be using resources
- Another option is temporarily shutting down services you don’t need at the moment (such as SQL Server)
- Free up space on your HDD or SSD
- Both HDDs and NAND-based SSDs perform better when they have ample free space
- Windows Disk cleanup can help with this
- Consider using a laptop stand with cooling fans
- Many laptops will get quite hot under a sustained load, and throttle quite heavily
- You can use “canned air” to blow out any air intake or exhaust vents
Looking at Task Manager below, there are several items that could be disabled.
If your laptop allows any component upgrades and if you are willing and able to spend some money, then you have a few more options.
Your first priority should be maximizing your RAM. Look at the documentation for your machine, and/or do some research and find out what kind of and how much RAM you can use. Get the fastest RAM that your CPU and chipset will support.
Smaller laptops usually only have two RAM slots, and depending on the CPU, you will be limited to either 16GB, 32GB or 64GB of RAM. You want the fastest RAM your processor and chipset will support. You also want identical RAM in both slots if possible, so that all of it runs in dual-channel mode.
Larger laptops often have four RAM slots, so your maximum capacity will go up to 32GB, 64GB or 128GB, depending on the CPU. All of the other guidance for RAM still applies.
Next is improving your storage performance. Use tools like CrystalDiskInfo and CrystalDiskMark to identify exactly what kind of drive(s) you have and how fast they are. Unfortunately, many OEM drives in laptops, whether they are HDDs, SATA SSDs, or even NVMe SSDs are low cost and low performance.
If you have an old fashioned magnetic HDD, swap it out for a good SATA SSD. You can usually use the free data migration software that works with your new SSD to clone your old drive. A SATA to USB 3.0 adapter makes this pretty easy.
With NAND-based flash SSDs, larger capacity models will have better performance than small ones from the same model line. A good minimum size is 500GB, but 1TB is better.
If you have an M.2 NVMe drive, figure out if it is a fast one or not. Many OEM M.2 NVMe drives have miserable performance compared to better aftermarket models. A premium M.2 NVMe drive might be 2X-3X faster than some OEM M.2 NVMe drives.
CPU and GPU Upgrades
If you have a high-end, modular laptop that allows CPU or GPU upgrades, look into that. Be prepared though, since your laptop vendor is probably going to gouge you for those upgrades!
If your laptop has Thunderbolt 3 support, you may be able to use an external GPU enclosure that lets you run a desktop GPU connected to your laptop. This is a pretty rare feature though.
As I have discussed, there are many things you can do for free to any laptop that will improve its performance. Depending on your laptop and your budget, you may have some other options.
If after doing all of this, you are still unhappy with the performance of your laptop, you may have other options. This could include:
- Getting a new, faster laptop or a used, but newer and faster laptop
- Considering getting a desktop machine of some sort
I have a recent post that talks about why desktops are better for performance than laptops.
But I completely understand if you still prefer a laptop! What other ideas do you have for improving laptop performance?
If you have any questions about this post, please ask me here in the comments or on Twitter. I am pretty active on Twitter as GlennAlanBerry. Thanks for reading!