There have been numerous attempts throughout gadget history to make modular devices a thing. Of course, you can build a traditional desktop PC, but what if that level of customizability was possible for everything? Google teased Project Ara, a modular smartphone with swappable component packs, which all but faded into obscurity. LG followed suit a few years later with its semi-modular Android device, and that smartphone didn’t sell well. Other companies like Fairphone continue to carry the flag for modular devices, but they struggle to get any mainstream traction.
Considering the track record, I’m struggling to maintain any hope that the Framework laptop will have a chance. It’s a wholly thought out, fully modular laptop that you can put together yourself at a starting price of $750. And even if you don’t desire to swap out components embedded deep in the motherboard, you can buy any of the three pre-configured versions of the Framework laptop and trade out the ports as you need with expansion cards.
The premise behind this laptop is that it’s entirely user-serviceable, which the industry desperately needs as supply chains are struggling and planned obsolescence reigns supreme. But the Framework laptop is clearly in the beginning stages of its product life. It will need to find a firm footing for it to become a consideration over any of the dozens of other ready-to-go laptops on the market.
All the Basics
From the top down, the Framework laptop looks like any regular notebook. Its design doesn’t particularly stand out in the sea of gray PCs that already exist, but a simple look makes it easier to customize down the line. You can swap out the frame around the laptop display to add some color and liven up its look.
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On the back of the Framework laptop is a giant logo, with its full name staring you down from the inside. When you flip over the computer, you’ll see the keys to modularity, with release switches for each expansion slot and T5 bit screws that you can undo with the included screwdriver-spudger tool. You can remove the bottom panel to reveal the motherboard.
The Framework laptop is available in three configurations. Framework sent me the $1,400 Performance version for review, which includes an Intel 11th-generation Core i7-1165G7 and 16GB of RAM, along with 512GB of storage. There’s also a Base version for $1,000 with an i5-1135G7, 8GB of memory, and 256GB of storage. The top model is the Professional version, which costs $2,000 and includes a Core i7-1185G7 processor, 32GB of RAM, and 1TB Storage. All three models are compatible with WiFi 6 and run Windows 10.
Then there’s the Framework Laptop DIY Edition, which starts at $750 and lets you choose from a broader set of options, including up to 64GB of memory and up to 4TB of storage. The laptop is available with Linux out of the box if you’re so inclined.
All laptops have 13.5-inch displays sporting a 3:2 ratio and a 2256 x 1504 screen resolution. There’s a 1080p camera right above the display with a hardware privacy switch, along with a switch to turn off the internal microphone. There’s also a 55Wh battery inside, along with two 2W speakers and two microphones. The power button has a built-in fingerprint scanner, which is convenient though I had trouble getting it to recognize my index finger on the first try every time.
The Framework laptop has four swappable expansion slot bays, two on each side. The upside is that you can insert only the expansion card you need with the necessary port, but the downside is the Framework laptop doesn’t have ample ports like some of the Chromebooks I’ve been reviewing. You’ll have to choose between a USB-C and HDMI port in some instances or whether to get extra storage through a microSD slot or other hard drive. I set up the Framework laptop with microSD and an HDMI port on the right and a USB-A and USB-C slot on the left. The headphone jack is embedded in the laptop frame on the left, right above the expansion bay.
Now Swap It Out
Even if you don’t choose the fully DIY version of the Framework laptop, the swappable expansion cards offer an element of customization that you won’t find with a traditional notebook. The modules themselves look like accessories you’d buy to plug into an Android device. They have USB-C on one end and the port on the other. They insert into their respective expansion bays similarly to the way you’d push an old-school game cartridge into the console, complete with a bit of resistance. You have to be careful to get them in there straight, but once they’re locked in, they feel securely seated.
As I mentioned earlier, you can take apart the laptop with the included Framework screwdriver-and-spudger combination tool. Framework offers visual documentation that’s easy enough for a first-timer to follow along. Once you’ve disconnected the computer from the power source and taken out the expansion cards, unscrew the five screws on the laptop’s bottom to reveal the internal motherboard. From there, you can disconnect the touchpad cable from the mainboard, unplug the laptop battery, and disconnect the speaker and audio flex cable. You can even take out the display, webcam, and wifi chip. I especially appreciate the ability to swap in RAM with any traditional laptop-sized memory sticks, which is a party trick I used to employ back when I had a MacBook Pro that let you do the same kind of outpatient surgery. I miss those days, but we traded them in for thinner, lighter laptops that weren’t user-serviceable. Taking apart the Framework laptop is a reminder that a notebook is a flat array of the same components running in a desktop tower at the end of the day.
In the future, when the Tiger Lake processor that’s currently soldered inside the Framework laptop becomes obsolete, you’ll be able to replace the mainboard and get back to computing in no time. Framework says the mainboard is fully functional by itself outside of the system, so technically, you’d just be buying the insides rather than the whole kit and caboodle. Framework will be offering the mainboard on its own in its marketplace, though it’s unclear what updating the entire system will look like. At the very least, you wouldn’t be throwing away the chassis, monitor, and expansion cards.
A Laptop Like Any Other
I wasn’t initially too concerned about benchmarking the Framework laptop since it’s running on similar components to other notebooks on the market, namely the Samsung Galaxy Book Pro and Razer Book 13. All three laptops run on a Core i7-1165G7 processor and offer between 8GB and 16GB of RAM, with the Framework laptop utilizing the latter. But regardless of the considerable memory size, the Framework laptop trailed behind the Samsung and Razer notebooks in my benchmarks.
The Framework laptop scored only slightly better in Geekbench 5 than the Galaxy Book Pro and only in the single-core test. Its results were on par with the Razer Book 13’s score for the multi-core test, though it was the lowest of the three in Geekbench’s overall compute test. The Framework struggled to keep up with the WebXPRT test, and it was merely middle-of-the-road in Handbrake, taking about 13 minutes and 36 seconds to encode a video compared to Samsung’s 12 minutes and 29 seconds. The Framework’s battery life is also too short. It lasted five hours and a few minutes before it petered out in Gizmodo’s battery rundown test. For comparison, you can snag a $999 M1 MacBook Air that’ll last you 14 hours on a charge.
Overall, the disparity in performance numbers between the three laptops wasn’t so significant that I was worried about whether the Framework laptop could handle my daily tasks. But I do wonder if its numbers would have ranked better if it didn’t run so hot. Throughout the benchmarking process, I clocked the Framework laptop running at around 108 degrees Fahrenheit. At some points, the computer felt too hot to touch.
Framework crammed in what it dubs as an “unusually large” 65mm x 5.5mm cooling fan with dual 5mm heat pipes and a copper fin pack to help cool the CPU. The Framework laptop certainly does work on cooling itself, which I can tell because it’s loud enough to become a noisy distraction. I’ve only ever experienced this kind of fan activity with high-performance gaming laptops, which I expect from those machines since there’s also a GPU inside that needs temperature regulation. There are performance settings built into Windows 10 that can help a bit with how often the fans ramp up, which is how Framework suggests dialing down the fan noise. But even at the lowest setting, the thermometer was clocking in 96-degree temperatures around the function keys.
The Framework laptop has a standard Intel integrated graphics chip, so don’t expect to do much gaming beyond the occasional virtual card game. I ran a few gaming benchmark tests for posterity, and the Framework laptop kicked out a measly 17fps in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. It’s definitely not worth the noise the fans will make as you’re trying to navigate a scene.
If it weren’t for the hot chassis, I would have typed more blogs on the laptop’s comfortable backlit keyboard, with which I managed to type up to 98 words per minute. The trackpad is a little underwhelming, so I opted to use an external mouse to navigate for a smoother ride. Of course, both the keyboard and trackpad are swappable, with different languages and layouts available as you need.
Why Not Take a Chance on a Modular Laptop?
Framework isn’t the first to propose a modular computer for the masses. There have been attempts from other brand names, including Intel’s NUC 9 Extreme Kit. Gaming laptop manufacturers have also flirted with swappable components, though in cases like Alienware, the parts were proprietary and too specialized for general appeal.
The Framework laptop has its share of kinks to work out, so I wouldn’t immediately consider it for an upgrade. And while its prices aren’t outlandish, if I were to buy a new laptop right now, I’d probably stick with a brand I know. The Framework laptop offers an awkward port selection to make way for its expansion slots, and it doesn’t have the best battery life. It’s also concerning that the computer runs so hot. It’s possible it has to do with the way heat dissipates throughout the laptop chassis, and that’s the trade-off for a laptop with removable parts.
There’s also the question of whether hardware support will extend into future generations. Framework says it’s working with silicon vendors so that its laptop mainboards can be upgraded in the future. If you do buy a Framework laptop, you’ll have to opt in to receive updates on parts for purchase. There are also plans for a marketplace where users will be able to resell parts and modules they may have created themselves.
After reading all this, if you decide that this is a plunge you’d like to take, and you’re not afraid of shelling out $750-$2,000 for an experiment, prepare yourself for a ride. At the very least, the Framework laptop puts the concept of approachable modular computing out in the world in a way that others have struggled with. It would be nice to see some of the major laptop manufacturers get on board with the concept, especially with the right-to-repair movement now swiftly gaining more traction under President Biden. Laptops are choice machines because they save on space and deliver the same performance as a desktop PC. Framework’s laptops might not be the best option, but we should normalize the concept of upgrading your laptop’s components instead of the whole laptop.
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