Framework’s modular laptop is uncontroversial on purpose


Framework is a laptop designed, from the get-go, to be modular and repairable by every one of its users. Created by Nirav Patel, formerly of Oculus, the machine aims to demonstrate that there is a better, more sustainable way of doing things. It shouldn’t be that, if your tech fails, you either have to buy a new model, or let the manufacturer’s in-house repair teams charge $700 for a job that should’ve cost $50. After all, if we’re going to survive climate change, we need to treat our tech more sustainably and keep as much as possible out of the landfill.

It says so much about how consumer technology has changed over the last two decades that Framework even exists. The idea that a repairable, modular laptop is somehow a radical proposition is outrageous given what lurks inside. And some corners of the tech world may think that users will need to put up with agricultural performance and looks in exchange for longevity. That’s why the best word I can use to describe Framework’s first, eponymous, machine is uncontroversial. The only time you’ll need to understand that this machine is repairable, is if it breaks.

It’s worth noting that Framework hasn’t invented the repairable laptop, or even the idea of modular expansion ports. The latter was common in laptops through to the late ‘00s and, even today, many enterprise laptops from the likes of HP and Lenovo have clear, detailed repair guides and easy-to-access spare parts. Framework isn’t claiming credit that it doesn’t deserve, but it is here, much like Fairphone, to show everyone that we shouldn’t tolerate the default.

There’s nothing spectacular, eye-catching or otherwise attention-seeking about the design of the first Framework laptop. Walk past it in a hurry and you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for any other 13-inch notebook made in the last half a decade. The aluminum body (made with up to 50 percent post-consumer recycled aluminum) makes it look like an old-school MacBook. From the front, it’s unmistakably a Windows laptop, but again, there are no steampunk flexes here. It’s only when you’re looking at it off-angle that you can tell something’s different.

Rather than having ports stacked tight at the top of the mainboard, each side of Framework’s deck has two wide voids. Peer inside and you’ll see a USB-C port just visible buried deep in the machine’s guts. These voids are designed to house four “expansion cards” which can be swapped in depending on your need (so long as you press the release button on the bottom).

Each card offers a single port, connecting to the laptop over USB-C, and is designed to eliminate the need for a dedicated dongle. In the standard setup, you’ll get a quartet of USB-C cards — and you’ll need at least one for charging — but there are a number of others available. That includes options for USB-A, DisplayPort, HDMI and a microSD Card reader. You can also order an expansion card with additional external storage, with 250GB costing $69, and 1TB setting you back $149. Framework says that users can lobby for different cards in future, so all of those folks grousing for a full-size SD-card reader can get cracking.

Nestled between the ports is a small, white LED which lets you know when the machine is connected to power. Oh, and there’s a dedicated 3.5mm audio jack.

My one complaint about the look of this thing is that the sides of the deck artificially taper in to make it look thinner than it really is. Because the base flares out underneath almost immediately, it looks a bit like it’s cheating. It would have been nicer if Framework had embraced the pleasant squareness of its design, rather than trying to disguise it.

In terms of build quality, the only thing to add is that the machine has a lot more flex than its contemporaries. This is, broadly speaking, the one benefit of these all-in-one, glue-heavy machines which are difficult to repair. The Framework, by comparison, squeaks and creaks when you twist the case, and you can see the dividing line between the keyboard and the rest of the deck as you do so.

The 13.5-inch, 3:2, 2,256 x 1,504 display is lovely, and I feel like these days displays are so hard to mess up that there’s little more you can say about them. The backlight will push up to 400 nits, which is certainly the standard you’d expect from laptops in this class. Given that this machine is designed for productivity work you’re not going to come away with bleeding eyes if you stare at this for hours each day.

Framework, from the outset, made it clear that it wanted to nail the fundamentals of what makes a good laptop. Naturally, a good keyboard is key, especially given how much time people will be spending on this thing each day. Here we’ve got an old-fashioned, uncontroversial chiclet keyboard with 1.5mm of travel and a soft (ish) landing. This was the standard for a good keyboard a decade ago, and little has changed, although the landing here is a little bit too soft. Clearly, this is a machine that won’t irritate other people when you’re typing on the train, but the quiet key presses come at the expense of some sharpness.

The trackpad, meanwhile, is similarly standard-issue, it’s a good size, with a satisfying click when you push it down and it’s reactive when you tap it. It couldn’t be much bigger given the size of the laptop’s deck, nor is it obtrusively placed. This is a satisfying thing to use, and I found myself defaulting to it rather than to my mouse, which almost never happens.

The Framework laptop is equipped with a 1080p, 60fps webcam with an 80-degree field of view, and it’s one of the best built-in webcams I’ve seen. Founder Nirav Patel told me that he had always intended to use a high-quality webcam, and felt vindicated by the pandemic. And either side of the webcam are hardware privacy switches to disable both the webcam and the microphone. These are “soft” switches that cut power to those components rather than physically obscuring the lens, and putting them on the top bezel is a strong flex, but not one I’m opposed to.

I have fewer nice things to say about the side-firing 2W speakers that are broadly, generically, sort-of okay. The sound coming out of them is tinny, weak and muddy, with bass so weak that Budweiser seems strong in comparison. If you’re going to be using this as the center of your audio/visual world, then invest in a decent pair of speakers or headphones.

The model that I’m testing is the $1,399 “Performance” model, which is packing Intel’s Core i7-1165G7, 16GB RAM and a 512GB SSD. All of the models, no matter the price, come with Intel’s Iris Xe graphics with no option for adding a discrete GPU. And certainly, in the week I used it, I don’t think I saw any lag or stuttering, and it handles undemanding games well enough. Benchmarks don’t tell the whole story, but in PC Mark 10’s standard score the machine averaged at 4927, outperforming a machine like the Surface Laptop 4.

As for battery life, I certainly didn’t find myself dashing for the nearest outlet while using this machine. In our standard rundown test, with display brightness set to 65 percent and an HD video looping, the Framework lasted 7 hours 46 minutes on its 55Wh battery. That’s enough to get you through a working day, but I would have vastly preferred it to crawl past that eight hour mark. A lot of machines in the 13-inch category can now get closer to 10 hours, and Intel’s Evo program insists upon it if your laptop has an HD-only display. The higher res screen probably offers Framework enough of a pass, but it’s something to bear in mind.

In terms of real-world performance, I spent about a week using Framework as my primary machine. Knocking around with Spotify open, several Chrome tabs and Slack all at once and I didn’t feel things dragging too much. A title like Fortnite, runs buttery-smooth on Medium settings and feels about right for this sort of work-first machine. Certainly, if you’re looking for a machine that can do work and (light) play, this will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with many ultrabooks in its class.

Like the modular, repairable Fairphone, Framework ships with a Torx T5 screwdriver in the box, and every screw uses that same head. Five screws are all that connect the top of the laptop’s deck, containing the fingerprint sensor, keyboard and trackpad, to the rest of the base. Pull that off, and you can then gently pry off the display bezel, which is attached to the screen with a series of magnets.

Once inside, you’ll spot that every component is labeled, with a QR code which links to friendly, iFixit-style repair guides. Construction isn’t vastly different from any other laptop, the company hasn’t left big pockets of space to aid repairability. In many ways, this is the best thing that this machine can do: Show consumers (and manufacturers) that making laptops easy to repair is very easy… if you try.

Framework shipped with its default US keyboard but, in a separate package, the company sent over a UK-format keyboard and top deck. I didn’t need to change it, and ordinarily I wouldn’t start disassembling a review laptop, but Framework said people should feel free to “poke around in the guts of the project.” So, with a sense of giddy empowerment, I thought I might as well swap units to see how easy, and safe, it was to swap the keyboards.

Armed with my screwdriver and the documentation, I was able to unscrew the mounting bolts which hold the top deck to the rest. Once lifted off, I had to unplug one clearly labeled ribbon cable, pop the replacement keyboard back on and screw everything back together. This process took me three minutes and 54 seconds, which would have been half the time had I realized sooner that the screws were captive, and so were designed to be held inside the laptop’s body.

I have never felt more confident that I could repair this machine, and that this should be the default for all consumer laptops. Imagine, for instance, when a very famous laptop maker decided to use a different keyboard technology for its most popular machines. A keyboard technology that was found to be notoriously unreliable despite a number of revisions. Now imagine how many machines wouldn’t need to be sent back for repair, and the countless hours of working time lost to them, if it was this easy to replace the keyboard at home.

More crucially, if your laptop does get too slow for you to use, you can (with patience) swap out the mainboard, which houses the CPU (and, by extension, the integrated graphics). The idea being that in several years’ time, if your speakers, display, keyboard and everything else are working fine, why replace them. Unfortunately, buying this machine does require you to trust that the company will be around long enough to make good on that promise.

Framework is releasing four versions of this machine, a $749 DIY edition which lets you choose a wide number of specs yourself, or provide your own. In the ready-to-use category, however, you have a $999 base model with a Core i5-1135G7, 8GB RAM and a 256GB SSD. Then there’s the Performance model, which for $1,399 gets you a Core i7-1165G7, 16GB RAM and a 512GB SSD. Topping the chart is the $1,999 Professional edition, with a Core i7-1185G7, 32GB RAM and a 1TB SSD.

Given what Framework is offering here, it doesn’t make sense to just compare this machine to others at those $999, $1,399 and $1,999 price tiers. Instead, I checked iFixit’s chart of laptops which scored well on the repairability charts. One of the best performers was HP’s EliteBook 840 G7, which scored 9/10, and has a common screw format and easy to replace components. The 2021 version of that machine, the G8, will set you back $1,879 for a 14-inch FHD display with a Core i7-1165G7, 16GB RAM and a 512GB SSD (or it would, but it’s out of stock).

One problem with reviewing this machine is the desire not to bang on too much about The Context. We need to be able to judge this thing on its merits and, in that regard, it’s a pretty good laptop, certainly at this price and with this performance. What will motivate you to buy one, at least right now however, is the idea that you may be able to run this thing for years. If a component breaks that isn’t on the mainboard, you should be able to find a replacement. And you should be able to swap it in without any soldering or other such expertise. Many of the other parts are standard and easily removed, so when you need more RAM, a bigger SSD or faster WiFi, that should be an easy job. And, really, that’s what you’re paying for: The hope that you can use this device without complaint not just for the next few years, but maybe the next decade.

[Read More…]