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In-Car Computers: Upgrade or Replace?

Aging laptops could considerably slow down your ability to work, and improving your hardware might not cost as much as you think.

September 28, 2010  |  by Tim Dees - Also by this author


Computer memory (RAM) is often confused with disk storage capacity. RAM is where the information the computer is processing at any given moment resides. RAM is made of solid-state memory modules (often called "sticks") with no moving parts, very similar to the USB flash drives that many people carry in their pockets or around their necks. Disk storage is usually (but not always-read on) contained within a spinning "hard drive" that holds the software, operating system, and data files the computer uses.

If your computer is crashing when too many applications are running or there is a lot of processing going on, a RAM upgrade might fix the problem. Most portable computers have two slots for RAM, and one may be empty. Upgrading or adding RAM is easy to do, and not especially expensive.

Accessing the RAM slots is usually done via a small panel on the underside of the machine. Once you get to the RAM slots, note whether all (there may be more than two) of them are occupied by the memory sticks. If all are occupied, you will have to replace all of them with bigger (in terms of capacity), faster sticks. If one or more of the slots is empty, you can add a stick, but you must add exactly the same kind and capacity of memory as resides in the other slot. In most cases, you can double the RAM in a system with an upgrade. There's some help on identifying and replacing memory modules at

Hard Drives

Most public safety computer users don't run out of hard drive space unless they're storing a lot of music, video, or photos on the drives. Other data files don't take up all that much space. To see how much space you're using, click on the "Computer" icon of your Start menu for a display of the drives on your machine. If they're nearly full and the files stored there are authorized, then you can use an upgrade.

More likely, the hard drive on your machine has crashed. Hard drives in laptops are designed to take a lot of abuse, but they are mechanical devices and all of them will eventually fail. Hard drives are also user-replaceable, but some of them are more of a challenge than others. Check with your vendor to see if this job is something you want to tackle.

If so, search online for a compatible replacement. There is not as much of an aftermarket for laptop hard drives, so they're a little harder to find and may be more expensive than a comparable desktop-size drive. Consider buying one of the new solid-state drives (SSDs) that are essentially high-capacity flash drives, with no moving parts. These are very fast and very reliable, but much more expensive than the traditional spinning-disk drives. If you're replacing hard drives frequently, they may be worth the extra investment.

Replacing the drive is usually a matter of unplugging one and plugging in the other. Remember that your data, including the operating system, will go with the old drive. If you can't back it up, you'll need the installation or restore CDs that came with the computer.

If the old drive is functional, you can "image" the drive and then copy the image onto the new drive. This allows you to pick up where you left off, with everything intact. There are a number of commercial drive imaging software packages on the market, Norton Ghost being the most popular (and expensive). There are also free programs that do exactly the same job. One is Clonezilla, an open-source package available at If you have Windows 7, there is a drive imaging application built into the operating system.

Drive images have a file extension of *.iso, and they're around the size of the used capacity of the drive they're made from. There is an excellent chance they won't fit onto a CD (700 MB capacity) or DVD (4.7 GB capacity). You may need to use an external hard drive or a network drive to store the drive image.

Having a good drive image on hand is a good idea, anyway. Once you get a machine set up just the way you want, image its drive. If one of your employees decides to install their favorite game or some other files or applications you don't want there and the machine isn't running right as a result, you can format the drive and restore it to its pristine state with the image. It's also a great way to set up multiple computers with the same operating system, applications, and files.

Input Devices

Keyboards, touchpads, and other input devices are easy replacements if you can get the parts. These are usually vendor-specific, so you're tied to the manufacturer. The task itself is easier than you might think. As a rule, anything involving me and moving parts is a recipe for disaster. When a key on my Lenovo ThinkPad fell off, I thought I'd have to ship the machine to the manufacturer. Instead, they sent me a replacement keyboard and I had the job done 15 minutes after it arrived. Some of this stuff is a lot easier than you'd think.


If you do decide to replace rather than repair or upgrade, don't just toss the old hardware in the dumpster. Computers contain all sorts of heavy metals and other hazardous waste no one wants in their landfill. Most computer retailers can direct you to a proper computer recycler who can dispose of the hardware properly.

One final word of caution: Make absolutely sure that any hard drives in your castoff computers have been wiped of all their data. Just deleting the files doesn't do it. The information needs to be deleted and overwritten with random data.

More than one government agency has had its sensitive information fall into the hands of bad guys when they surplused their old computers. If you're not sure how to wipe the drives, drill holes through them and hit them with a 20-pound maul a few times. 

Tim Dees is a retired police officer and the former editor of two major law enforcement Websites who writes and consults on technology applications in criminal justice. He can be reached via [email protected].

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