Five insane upgrades that you should never do

Just because you can do something, that doesn't mean you should. That old truism goes double for computers. But some PC geeks are so fanatical about performance, so doggedly determined to push their hardware to extremes, that they'll go to ridiculous lengths to wring a few more clock cycles out of their components or add a little more cool factor to their rig.

This article is dedicated to all those insane, irrational enthusiasts who defy all reason and common sense in the pursuit of PC glory. We've tried and tested five risky upgrades that no sane user should ever try. Don't get us wrong--these upgrades deliver genuine benefits. But they aren't for the faint of heart, as each is either time-consuming, expensive, or dangerous to your hardware. If you like to walk on the wild side, though, grab your screwdriver and follow along.

Replace Your Laptop's LCD Screen

Want better screen resolution, or maybe a glossy display instead of a matte one? Subbing in a new LCD panel for your old one is a bit extreme, but doable. This upgrade is one of the trickiest and most time-consuming laptop surgeries you can perform, with little guarantee that the new screen will work as it should. Still, if you do your homework in advance and select the right hardware for your machine, the payoff can be spectacular.

According to replacement-LCD supplier ScreenTek, upgrading a screen can, unfortunately, be a matter of trial and error. Whether a higher-resolution screen will work on your notebook depends on many factors, including the laptop's video card, cable, and firmware. And of course, the new display must fit in the space available.

Before you purchase a replacement, it's a good idea to talk with a sales rep at ScreenTek or a similar LCD reseller to see what screens are available for your notebook.

To replace the LCD on our Dell E1505, we first had to remove the laptop's hinge cover and keyboard, by taking out screws from the bottom and rear of the machine; then we had to unplug the antenna and video cables from the motherboard. Those steps allowed us to remove the LCD assembly from the laptop's main body. Taking off the small rubber bumpers on the front of the screen revealed screws beneath. We removed the screws and then pried the bezel away from the screen, gaining access to the bare LCD beneath. We had to work slowly: It's easy to snap the plastic on the bezel during this part of the disassembly.

Brackets on each side of the LCD hold it in place. After removing the screws and unplugging the cables, we finally took out the bare LCD and replaced it with the new one. Then we simply reversed the disassembly process to put everything back together properly.

Prior to reassembly, plug the cables in and boot the machine up to ensure that it's working correctly. If you don't get a picture, check that the cables are properly seated, and try again. If it still doesn't work, your notebook simply may not support that display resolution.

(If this risky upgrade is too nuts for your blood, check out five way easier laptop upgrades. Or, for more-concrete performance benefits, upgrade your laptop's CPU or graphics card.)

Lap Your CPU

Overclocking your CPU isn't particularly crazy. With a bit of care and common sense, anyone can squeeze a little extra speed out of their processor. But if you want to push your hardware to illogical extremes, you'll have to get your hands dirty. And that means lapping your CPU.

Lapping is a fancy word that machinists use for sanding. In this case, you'll be sanding the metal plate that sits on top of the CPU. This plate, known as an integrated heatspreader, serves not only to keep you from crushing your CPU core when installing a heat-sink-and-fan combination but also to transfer heat away from the processor. Sanding it to a flat finish ensures that it makes optimal contact with the heat sink.

But since the heatspreader's surface already comes machine-lapped from the factory, why repeat the process at home and risk destroying a perfectly good CPU? A reckless disregard for safe computing is one answer. But if you were to look at your processor through a microscope, you might be surprised at what you'd find. Though the surface may appear smooth and flat to the naked eye, your CPU's heatspreader actually contains many microscopic nicks, depressions, and other flaws that prevent it from making the best possible contact with your CPU cooler.

Thermal pads and pastes help fill in those imperfections, but only by lapping your processor to an ultrasmooth finish can you be assured of whisking away the most heat. Of course, you'll also be whisking away your warranty, but unless you're one of those sane people who run their processors at stock speed, you've already voided it anyway.

What You'll Need

You can find the coarser varieties of sandpaper at any local hardware store or supercenter; but for 1000-grit and finer sheets, you'll likely have to visit an auto-parts dealer. Look for variety packs to save on costs, and don't fret if you can't find full sheets--you need just about a foot of vertical space to work with.

Set Up Your Workspace

Lay down the pane of glass so that you have a completely flat, supersmooth surface to work on. A level kitchen table will also suffice, but so long as you're going to risk destroying a $100+ processor, will you really miss another $5 for a sheet of glass should something go wrong and your endeavor become an epic fail?

Grab a full sheet of 400-grit sandpaper and cut it in half, and then secure one of the pieces vertically to your work surface by placing masking tape around all four sides. Now might also be a good time to call your mother if you haven't talked with her for months. The resulting good karma might later make the difference between a cooler-running processor and one that refuses to boot.

Prep Your Processor

Because you'll be removing layers of nickel and copper from the heatspreader, you want to protect the CPU's circuitry from getting all gunked up. We're not just being OCD here; mixing metal flakes with internal circuits is not only a sure way to fry your processor, but it can also destroy your motherboard. To keep that from happening, take four strips of masking tape and butt each one up against the raised part of the heatspreader, folding the excess underneath the CPU. This will prevent any flakes from sneaking under the heatspreader (where the CPU core sits exposed) or dirtying up the contact points on the bottom as sand and metal start to fly.

Void Your Warranty!

Now you're at the point of no return. Place your processor on the sandpaper and gently guide it in long, straight strokes. Don't apply any pressure, and after 50 full strokes rotate the chip clockwise and repeat the process until you've completed a 360-degree rotation. Give both the sandpaper and the CPU a few blasts of compressed air, and then clean the heatspreader with a cotton swab and rubbing alcohol. Keep doing this until you've removed the nickel layer, then move on to the next-finer grit of sandpaper and start over. Do another 50 strokes in each direction, and so on.

Once you get to the 1000-grit sandpaper, your processor should be flat but not shiny. This matters because if you ruin your processor doing this trick, you'll be left with little more than an expensive keychain--and who wants a dull-looking keychain? Use the finer grits to obtain a reflective surface, cross your fingers, and then install the CPU in your system as you normally would. Don't forget the thermal paste!

By doing this mod, we were able to reduce the load temperatures on our Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 processor by 7 degrees Celsius, which will allow for some pretty hard-core overclocking, though not all gains will be that significant. If you're willing to roll the dice a second time, repeat the above process on your heat sink's base for an even better potential payout.

Push Your RAM to Its Limit

When it comes to overclocking, the processor and graphics card typically end up hogging the spotlight. Cooling manufacturers have crafted hundreds of different heat sinks designed to give obsessive PC enthusiasts an edge in pushing components well past their rated specs. Even case designers have jumped into the act, with special cooling ducts and other contraptions aimed at keeping the CPU and GPU chilly. That leaves RAM as the redheaded stepchild in the hardware family, but because we love all our components equally (and because we're just a little nuts), we're going to show you how to make those modules scream.

Enter the BIOS

You may be tempted to use a software-based overclocking utility to tinker with your system, but for hard-core tweakers the BIOS offers far greater control over a wider variety of settings. To get into your machine's BIOS, press the Delete key during the first seconds of boot-up. Depending on your motherboard or system vendor, you may be prompted to press a different key, such as F2 or Esc. Consult your manual if necessary, but you'll need to deduct 100 geek-cred points from your overall score.

Not all motherboard makers use the same type of BIOS, and even different models from the same vendor can vary. But one thing almost all have in common is that the overclocking settings, if offered, are typically clumped together under one menu. Look for labels such as MB Intelligent Tweaker (Gigabyte), Extreme Tweaker (Asus), Cell Menu (MSI), or other similar terms.

Eliminate Bottlenecks

As you increase your RAM's frequency, your CPU will ramp up in speed too. This can cause you to run into an overclocking wall prematurely, even though your RAM has room to spare. To prevent that from happening, locate the CPU Ratio Setting in your BIOS and drop your CPU's multiplier down at least two whole numbers, preferably as far as your motherboard allows. Using an Intel Core 2 Duo E8400, dropping the multiplier down from x9 to x6 decreases the CPU's clock speed from 3.0 GHz to 2.0 GHz, giving you plenty of headroom to play with as your push your RAM to absurd heights.

Next you'll want to relax your memory timing. If the latency settings are grayed out, change the DRAM Timing Control (or other similarly labeled item) from Auto to Manual. For DDR2, loosen the CAS Latency Time (TCL), RAS to CAS Delay (TRCD), RAS Precharge (TRP), Precharge delay (TRAS), and Command Rate (CMD) to 6/6/6/18/2T respectively, and for DDR3 set the same settings to 10/10/10/28/2T. Refer to your motherboard manual if you can't find these settings in your BIOS, and deduct another 100 points from your geek-cred score.

Cool It and Juice It!

Once you've eliminated bottlenecks and pushed your RAM's frequency as high as it can go, the real craziness begins. Increasing your RAM's voltage can give it more headroom--give it too much, however, and your modules will give up the ghost in return. Consider 2.4V and 2.2V the respective red zones for DDR2 and DDR3. To keep from involving the fire department, invest in an active-cooling product such as Corsair's Memory Airflow Fan; or if you really want to push the envelope, pick up a water block for your RAM and integrate it into your water-cooling loop (see page 5).

Once you've taken your RAM to the bleeding edge and survived, slap your PC's case back together and crank it up. If nothing melts or starts to smoke, you're solid.

Strip Your PC Naked

Most computer users (you know, the sane ones) will never open their PC's case. A few may take the initiative to upgrade their video card or add an extra hard drive--and if you're reading this, you've likely done at least that much. But some seriously hard-core PC freaks spend about as much time tweaking their hardware as they do using it. For obsessive upgraders like them, normal desktop enclosures simply don't cut it. In this section we'll explain how to join the ranks of the truly insane enthusiasts by moving your rig into an open-air test bench.

Bleeding Edge vs. Bleeding Fingers

Open test benches--usually made from a few pieces of glued-together acrylic--provide several advantages over the boring old PC enclosures you're accustomed to seeing. Having quick and easy access to components becomes a necessity for extreme tweakers who push their systems to the limit through overclocking, as well as for users who constantly swap out parts. Also, placing the system in an open-air environment can greatly improve its operating temperatures and increase performance by allowing more overclocking headroom.

The risks that come with a test-bench setup are potentially disastrous. Since all of the hardware is exposed, the possibility of physical damage to your computer--and serious injury to you--increases exponentially. Let's face it, accidents happen. And moving from a normal, enclosed case to an open test bench is a little like stepping out of an amored car, stripping down to your skivvies, and hopping on a motorcycle. The margin for error decreases to nil. Curious children or pets should not be allowed to venture near the computer and its naked parts.

Choose Your Weapon

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