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How (And Why) To Build Your Own Laptop

How (And Why) To Build Your Own Laptop
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We at Tom’s Guide don’t typically deal much with screwdrivers. We’re busy being gadget geeks that love to unwrap a new and complete device from its packaging. These gadgets tend to be viewed as “black box” items. This means that usually, you use them as they come. Short of adding memory, the interior of a laptop is a dark, mysterious, and fragile place for most of us.

So, why would anybody want to build a notebook? First off, it’s cool and satisfying, like building your own car. We assembled our first notebook five years ago, back when Centrino was a new word. There’s no brand on the outside, and the sticker over the keyboard merely reads “notebook.” (We still use this notebook every day. A home-brewed system is every bit as dependable as a branded one.)

When people ask what kind of notebook it is, and we explain that we built it, most are very impressed. They apparently don’t know that building a notebook is about as difficult as setting up a food processor and much easier than cooking a three-course meal.

Another reason to build a laptop: flexibility. When you order a notebook, you’re usually stuck with a short list of options. True, a do-it-yourself notebook currently isn’t as open as a build-it-yourself desktop PC is. For instance, you usually have no say in the graphics components once you pick the “shell,” meaning the main unit containing the motherboard and LCD display. But if you want a certain solid-state drive (SSD) or an ultra-low-voltage CPU, most notebook vendors don’t offer a choice. Fortunately, because you’re building from scratch, you can pick whatever you want.

Here are the parts we chose to build our demonstration unit with: OCZ’s DIY 15" Gaming Notebook, a 250 GB OCZ Apex SSD, and a 4 GB RAM kit (2x2GB) of OCZ PC2-6400 SO-DIMM memory. We used a Core 2 Extreme X9100 mobile processor.

While we went with wall-to-wall OCZ parts here, you don’t need to. That’s the whole point of DIY. OCZ does offer a list of validated components for its shell, but any shell should work with any format-compatible parts. For example, if you get a shell that takes SATA drives, any 2.5" SATA hard drive or SSD will be fine. You’re still stuck with the shell manufacturer’s short list of optical drive options, but the list will get longer over time. To start your shell quest, try searching for “barebones notebook” or “whitebook shell” online.

Most modern notebooks provide access to internal components through two or three panels attached to the shell’s bottom. Older models may have you working through bottom panels as well as removing the keyboard, which is considerably more difficult. Double-check this before you buy. We like that the OCZ unit only has two bottom panels, which makes access to where you add the components simple and easy.

See that reddish smudge in the lower-left corner of our image? We left that visible to remind you to keep track of the thermal adhesive on the bottom of the CPU heatsink fan (HSF). OCZ ships its HSF with protective tape over the adhesive for the CPU, but there was no tape shielding the adhesive on our unit. When we set the HSF down, the thermal adhesive stuck to the table. Not only is this unsightly, but it could affect the bond between heatsink and underlying chip. So, be careful.

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  • 0 Hide
    firemage , March 11, 2009 2:50 PM
    My laptop is a MSI whitebook, wish i could get a better heat sink unit but it works.

    -G
  • 1 Hide
    gm0n3y , March 11, 2009 5:46 PM
    I can only find a handful of barebones notebooks online. Anybody know of what the best options are? The cheapest one I could find is close to $700. Throw in ram, cpu, and HD and you're looking at over $1000.
  • -1 Hide
    gm0n3y , March 11, 2009 11:04 PM
    Looked at the site and their 'notebook matrix'. Their notebooks are pretty ugly and they don't have any prices listed.
  • 0 Hide
    zacktheperson , March 11, 2009 11:42 PM
    I considered building a notebook, but after some research, I discovered that it would cost about $200 more than if I bought a preconfigured system with similar specs and an operating system.

    For disassembly of laptops, I recommend drawing a rough diagram of the notebook on a piece of paper and taping the screws in the corresponding places on the diagram. That way you not only keep all your screws, you know where to put them when you are done.
  • 2 Hide
    Anonymous , March 12, 2009 12:26 AM
    Zack - I found the same thing when I was shopping for a laptop at the beginning of the year. That's why I ended up going with the OCZ laptop that just so happens to be featured in this article (maybe not the exact one, I don't know, mines the one with the ATI mobile 3650 512mb card). I bought from newegg and ended up right about $1200, including accessories.

    I really like the laptop, but here's the biggest problem you'll find with it: ONE YEAR WARRANTY and no option to upgrade. Sure, the parts you buy will have their own warranties, but hope and pray nothing happens to the rest of the laptop after that first year...I know I am. This in and of itself may be enough concern for most people to go with something pre-built, at least with those you can pay for extended warranties and theft/accident protection plans.

    Second biggest problem, the battery. The 15" OCZ laptops ONLY have 6-cell batteries. You can't get anything bigger. The 17" ones do go up to 9-cell but that's it. My battery life with normal usage (not gaming) is 2 hours max.

    Other than those two big things it's really a great machine, great design, and great everything. I wish they'd go even further and let you put whatever graphics card you want in there.
  • -1 Hide
    runswindows95 , March 12, 2009 2:52 AM
    Personally, I found it cheaper to buy one off the shelf. Then again, I just use a laptop to check my email and type on the go.
  • 0 Hide
    quantumrand , March 12, 2009 3:01 AM
    Ok, that's it! I've now decided never to listen to anything Tom's Guides says again. These authors are ridiculously biased (either from corporate plugging or personal fanboyism).

    DYI notebooks have been around for years. Both MSI and Asus are strong competitors in the field. OCZ is a brand new contender, yet its the only one mentioned.

    I've been building DYI notebooks for years. You can fine tune your price/perfomance index nicely, but with these OCZ notebooks, you're stuck paying out the ass for a midrange notebook or paying out the ass and tearing out your rectum for a top performer.

    OCZ just isnt worth it.
  • 0 Hide
    quantumrand , March 12, 2009 3:03 AM
    Edit: Let me rephrase that last sentence. OCZ *DYI notebooks* just aren't worth it. I've always loved OCZ's ram.
  • -1 Hide
    Luscious , March 12, 2009 3:49 AM
    While it's not exactly DIY, HP does let you tinker with a lot of their notebooks thanks to their service and maintenance manuals which list all the parts and options that go into a particular shell. The downside is that their parts store is horrendously expensive ($50 for a 2nd hard drive bracket), some parts come packaged only with a bunch of others (internal BT cable as a cable kit) and while the manuals tell you how to disassemble and install the parts, you're on your own if you mess up the reassembly or cannot get it to work afterwards.

    I would cheerfully pay extra if HP allowed me to order the parts listed in their service manuals, I could send the unit in and have them professionally install whatever I needed.
  • -1 Hide
    kal326 , March 12, 2009 1:53 PM
    LusciousWhile it's not exactly DIY, HP does let you tinker with a lot of their notebooks thanks to their service and maintenance manuals which list all the parts and options that go into a particular shell. The downside is that their parts store is horrendously expensive ($50 for a 2nd hard drive bracket), some parts come packaged only with a bunch of others (internal BT cable as a cable kit) and while the manuals tell you how to disassemble and install the parts, you're on your own if you mess up the reassembly or cannot get it to work afterwards.I would cheerfully pay extra if HP allowed me to order the parts listed in their service manuals, I could send the unit in and have them professionally install whatever I needed.


    I bought a HP DV9548us in Aug of 2007, the service manual was extremely handy in swaping out the CPU. Granted even with a manual its a huge pain in the ass to replace since the chip is on the bottom side of the board. You basically end up taking the whole notebook apart to change the chip, which is why when I did it I put the fast chip in it I could.

    So far I've swap from a T5550 1.67Ghz C2D to a T7700 2.4Ghz C2D, bumped the ram to 4GB and replaced the main 120GB 5400 Hitachi with a 320GB WD Blue. Should keep the machine running fine till its eventually replaced in a year or two.
  • 0 Hide
    Tomsguiderachel , March 12, 2009 2:22 PM
    quantumrandOk, that's it! I've now decided never to listen to anything Tom's Guides says again. These authors are ridiculously biased (either from corporate plugging or personal fanboyism).DYI notebooks have been around for years. Both MSI and Asus are strong competitors in the field. OCZ is a brand new contender, yet its the only one mentioned.I've been building DYI notebooks for years. You can fine tune your price/perfomance index nicely, but with these OCZ notebooks, you're stuck paying out the ass for a midrange notebook or paying out the ass and tearing out your rectum for a top performer.OCZ just isnt worth it.


    Hi Quantumrand,

    We used OCZ for the photoshoot, and that's about it. We specifically mentioned in the story that we are not endorsing any particular hardware for this purpose--this article was a How To piece, not a review. For a How To, it doesn't much matter which hardware we demonstrate with. Based on the feedback today, perhaps we will consider doing a "bang for your buck" piece on which DIY Laptop hardware is the best value. We made no such remark about OCZ or any other manufacturer in this piece.

    Thanks for reading,
    Rachel Rosmarin
    Editor of Tom's Guide
  • -1 Hide
    gm0n3y , March 12, 2009 6:12 PM
    If MSI is a good choice, please direct me to a website that sells one of the barebones notebooks. I haven't been able to find one. So far the only half decent price I've seen on any barebones notebook has been this one:

    http://ncix.com/products/index.php?sku=30406&vpn=OCZNBIS15DIYA&manufacture=OCZ%20Technology

    And its only OK because its $425 off with rebates ($550 from $975).
  • -1 Hide
    kittle , March 12, 2009 7:15 PM
    ok so how is this that much different than going to dell or lenovo or hp and configuring your own laptop?
    Granted with a DIY notebook, you get the hands-on satisfaction of "I BUILT that" ... but other than that, whats the point???

    Price and learning aside, what can one do with a DIY laptop that you cannot do with a configurable one from a Lenovo, Dell or hp (and others)?
  • -1 Hide
    quantumrand , March 12, 2009 9:02 PM
    gm0n3yIf MSI is a good choice, please direct me to a website that sells one of the barebones notebooks. I haven't been able to find one. So far the only half decent price I've seen on any barebones notebook has been this one:http://ncix.com/products/index.php [...] TechnologyAnd its only OK because its $425 off with rebates ($550 from $975).


    I think MSI is a great DIY choice. I've built one for a friend and one for myself over the years, and I have to say they were my favorite.

    First off check this list for a model you like: http://www.msicomputer.com/NB/product_index.asp

    Then paste the model number into google shopping. Thats how I do it. Although sometimes MSI has a link that gives various vendors that sell their products.

    Personally, I'd go with the MS-1651, with the 1680x1050 screen (1280x800 isnt near enough for my tastes) and 9600m GT.

    rkcomputers.net carries a lot of barebones stuff, though it's been a good 6 months since I've hunted for a DIY laptop, so I'm not sure if they'll have the best deals or not anymore.
  • 0 Hide
    quantumrand , March 12, 2009 9:19 PM
    kittleok so how is this that much different than going to dell or lenovo or hp and configuring your own laptop?Granted with a DIY notebook, you get the hands-on satisfaction of "I BUILT that" ... but other than that, whats the point???Price and learning aside, what can one do with a DIY laptop that you cannot do with a configurable one from a Lenovo, Dell or hp (and others)?


    The point is that you can hand pick the components you use. FOr example, with Dell and HP, you're stuck with their generic RAM, but with a DIY, you can go for OCZ or Kingston or whatever. You can get a HDD with a 32MB cahce instead of whatever model Dell/HP use. In the end, you're paying about the same or even less for top quality compoents.
  • 0 Hide
    captaincharisma , March 12, 2009 9:56 PM
    HP or dell may not have some components or brands that you are looking for in your notebook also you get to control what programs go on it from the start. also upgrading the CPU down the road will be easier sense the brand name laptops do not give you access to the cpu socket without taking off the keyboard
  • 1 Hide
    JimmiG , March 12, 2009 11:11 PM
    The reason I build my desktop computers myself is mostly price/performance and being able to hand-pick components and upgrade bit by bit. It's just so much more affordable and flexible than being stuck with some proprietary HP mini-chassis with the bare minimum PSU and so on.

    The reasons for me building a laptop would be price and easy of upgrading, but looking at the options, it looks like it's neither cheaper nor does it allow for easier upgrading.

    Price: If you only need a basic laptop you can find a complete system for what some of those barebones kits cost. Not to mention netbooks that sell for well under $300 now. Maybe if you wanted to build a "gaming laptop" that would normally cost many thousands, you can save a few hundred. I don't know..I use my desktop system for gaming.

    Upgrades: By the time you want to upgrade to a faster CPU, there will have been new chipsets released, new RAM speeds, new sockets, new everything. Even if you were able to upgrade to a significantly faster CPU three years from now, the system would be GPU limited because you're stuck with the same GPU.

    So I got the "How" bit of this article, but not the "Why" bit.
  • 0 Hide
    williamvw , March 13, 2009 3:34 AM
    OK, so now you've all got me curious. Since I've been working with whitebooks over the last few years, I've usually found that, on a mid-level to higher-end config, I can get near or below what a big name OEM system would run. Mea culpa: I didn't run the numbers before writing this story to see if that was still true. Our emphasis was on the process of creating a notebook. Still, I'm curious to run an experiment.

    I got on two big etail sites tonight, TigerDirect and Newegg, to grab some numbers. I didn't hit eBay or Amazon Stores or any of those other places where you might save (a lot) more money. Nor did I consider going with used components. Here's what I found (before shipping):

    TigerDirect:
    OCZ shell as shown in article, except w/o WLAN and with NVIDIA 8600M GT graphics = $469.99 after rebate
    Intel 4965AGN WLAN = $39.99

    Newegg:
    320GB Fujitsu 7200 RPM, OEM = $79.99
    2x2GB Mushkin DDR2 800 SO-DIMMs = $39.99
    Intel 2.4 GHz Core 2 Duo T8600 = $219.99

    Sub-total: $849.95

    I could be wrong, but that seems pretty good for those specs. I just tried to configure an HP Compaq 6730s with similar specs (albeit slower HDD) and, subtracting $100 for Windows, still came out over $400 higher.

    Getting apples to apples is tougher than it looks in these comparisons, but I still stand by our original idea. If you're picky about your components, as I am, you CAN save money going DIY. Is DIY always cheaper? No. You have to shop aggressively and know what you're looking for. But again, price is only part of the reason to go DIY. Other factors can be...priceless. :-)
  • 0 Hide
    marraco , March 13, 2009 1:51 PM
    [We at Tom’s Guide don’t typically deal much with screwdrivers. We’re busy being gadget geeks that love to unwrap a new and complete device from its packaging]

    Can't believe...

    ...if true, then you need to get a screwdriver NOW.

    I mean, almost ANYTHING in tomshardware is about DIY.

    ... and time ago, notebooks are more abundant that desktops, so of course, your readers want to read about DIY notebooks (and DIY anything)
  • 0 Hide
    Tomsguiderachel , March 13, 2009 3:38 PM
    marraco[We at Tom’s Guide don’t typically deal much with screwdrivers. We’re busy being gadget geeks that love to unwrap a new and complete device from its packaging]Can't believe......if true, then you need to get a screwdriver NOW.I mean, almost ANYTHING in tomshardware is about DIY.... and time ago, notebooks are more abundant that desktops, so of course, your readers want to read about DIY notebooks (and DIY anything)

    Marco,
    This site is not Tom's Hardware. This site is Tom's Guide, which (I know it confuses people) has a whole different point than Tom's Hardware. Hardware is for PC DIY/overclocking/components price/performance discussion. Tom's Guide is for checking out the newest trends in consumer electronics. Glad I could clarify for you :) .

    Thanks,
    Rachel Rosmarin
    Editor of Tom's Guide
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