Framework laptop review: This DIY laptop wants you to take it apart and repair it
- 23 July, 2021 01:00
Framework wants you to take its laptop apart and repair it. Seriously. While most laptops are difficult to impossible to repair or upgrade, this debut product from Framework not only can be dismantled and upgraded, but the company actually encourages you to do it.
We took an early-production Framework laptop for a whirl. While we have some issues with certain design choices, we have to say it’s refreshing to see a laptop made for upgrading and serviceability.
For example, most laptop bezels and bodies are held together with plastic latches that snap the keyboard deck onto the bottom. While you can usually snap the two together after opening it to, say, swap out the SSD, do it enough times and the plastic latches will eventually break. Framework addresses this by using magnets to hold the bezel and body together. Once you’ve removed the five T5 screws on the bottom, you carefully pry the two pieces apart.
Framework’s screws use a T5 Torx head instead of the far more common Phillips head, which some will take as an anti-repair feature because few have Torx drivers. To its credit, Framework includes a T5 Torx tool with a plastic “spudger” on one end.
Go ahead, take it apart
With most laptop reviews, you start by testing it, and may gingerly open it up later to look inside. With the Framework, we did the reverse: We took the laptop apart before testing it.
And we don’t mean just opening it up. We actually decided to remove the laptop’s motherboard to see how easy it was. Hint: It’s easy. Really easy. That’s helped by the clear instructions Framework offers.
Interestingly, the design of the Framework laptop puts the pair of DDR4 SO-DIMMs and PCIe Gen 4 M.2 under the keyboard. This is typically the most unfriendly place to put the most common components people change on a laptop, because removing the keyboard and trackpad risks tearing delicate ribbon cables.
With the Framework laptop, though, it’s not a problem. As we said, loosen the five T5 screws on the bottom—but don’t remove them. That’s because they’re captive screws, held in place when loosened. This is a particularly rare detail among laptops, but Framework knows you’ll be opening up its products, so it’s thinking of your needs.
Once you’ve loosened the screws, you use the plastic spudger to pry up the keyboard, then remove a single ribbon cable that carries the connections from the keyboard and trackpad. In many laptops, the trackpad and keyboard are connected by their own cables, often so short that there’s barely enough clearance to remove them. Framework’s keyboard/trackpad cable is intentionally longer to aid and abet its user-tinkerer audience.
While Apple and some PC makers have moved to soldered down Wi-Fi, RAM, and even SSDs, the Framework is all modular. There are a few drawbacks, though. The Framework uses standard DDR4 SO-DIMMs, the kind you usually find in lower-cost laptops and larger gaming laptops. The LPDDR4 RAM that you typically find in ultra-portable laptops offers greater memory bandwidth and uses far less power when the laptop is in standby mode vs. DDR4. However, LPDDR4 is required to be soldered down, so it obviously doesn’t fit into the Framework approach.
Upgrade your motherboard?
Once you’ve removed the Wi-Fi module, display connector, audio connectors, and battery connector, five more T5 screws hold the motherboard in place. Removing a motherboard on a laptop is possible (well, unless it’s glued down), but it’s just never been quite this easy on an ultra-thin laptop.
Of course, you’re probably wondering, why even bother to remove the motherboard? For most laptops you’d do that only if a component on the motherboard died. With Framework, the pitch is you’d buy it with your 11th-gen Core i7 CPU and then upgrade it to the 14th-gen Core i7 down the road. While there’s no AMD Ryzen option available, there’s nothing to prevent it from being available down the road. Framework has said it’s open to it.
That’s another radical departure for any laptop maker. The business is largely built on your having to buy a whole new laptop when yours gets too old or breaks.
One feature left us less impressed: The upgradable ports. The company gives you four modular bays and lets you pick from an assortment of options, such as DisplayPort, HDMI, microSD, USB-A, and USB-C. You can put the ports anywhere you want. The modules lock into place with small, secure retention latch. (Oddly, while Framework calls the USB-C ports “USB-C,” they’re actually Thunderbolt 4, using the controller inside of the CPU).
On paper, this all sounds like a nifty idea. In practice we have some concerns. We’d rather just see USB-C on each side, plus one USB-A, because no one ever said they wanted fewer USB ports. Rather than making all four ports modular, we’d say let people swap out the microSD or HDMI or DisplayPort. Also, even though the modular ports are flush, the visible seam irked us.
One area where Framework probably won’t win any prizes is in style. Other than the cog-shaped logo on the lid and a small hinge, there’s not much pizzazz. No one will ever, ever confuse this with a Dell XPS, HP Spectre, Lenovo ThinkPad or other laptops you can pick out from 50 feet away. While people may deny it to your face, fashion and style drive much of the purchase decision of a laptop these days.
With the lid swung open, the Framework looks about as generic as those fake laptops they have in furniture stores to show off the new Ikea Blurg standing desk. But hey, if Crocs and Birkenstocks are popular, why not generic-looking laptops? Don’t be a fashion victim.
Instead, look at the display. The Framework offers a 13.5-inch glossy panel with a resolution of 2256x1504, and a dreamy aspect ratio of 3:2. That’s a taller aspect ratio than the typical 16:9 that mimics televisions. We’re a big fan of taller aspect ratios for doing actual work, rather than bingeing Netflix. Another great thing about the Framework’s panel is its fairly high pixel density of 3.4 million, versus a typical 2 million pixels on a 1920x1080 display. As a result, you can fit more windows into the screen side by side and be more productive. The panel is rated to hit 400 nits, so it’s fairly bright as well. It’s made by BOE and appears to be an IPS-style panel, offering excellent off-axis viewing and crisp detail.
And yes, because of the magnetic bezel, replacing the panel, should you break it, should be a breeze.
There’s also a pretty nifty feature for the laptop’s camera and microphone. First, the webcam is 1080p, which is higher-resolution than most laptops’ 720p models. What we really appreciate are the built-in cut off switches for both. We see plenty of privacy shutters on laptops today, and some even have dedicated mute buttons, but it looks like the Framework’s microphone can be completely cut off from the system. It doesn’t remove it from Windows Device Manager, but we believe it’s electrically dead once you throw the switch.
We’re still running performance tests on the laptop and a run-down of its decently-sized 55-watt-hour battery, so we’ll update our story once we have a full set of figures. We can already tell you the Core i7-1185G7 performs in line with competing laptops we’ve seen with the same CPU.
It doesn’t look like it gets the same internal polish you might get from an OEM, though. Many laptops today allow you to select different fan profiles and performance profiles based on tuning by the OEM. With the Framework, the OS and appearance of optimizations look, well, as generic as its shell.
If half the buyers of laptops care mostly for fashion, the other half care about price. We can tell you that if you think not having a big name on the laptop means far lower prices, well, that’s not necessarily true.
For example, The Framework laptop we tested has a Core i7-1185G7 with Xe graphics, 32GB of DDR4, 1TB WD PCIe Gen 4 SSD, and Windows 10 Pro, and it will set you back US$1,999. A Dell XPS 13 with the same CPU, 32GB of LPDDR4, 1TB SSD, and 3456x2160 OLED touch panel has a list price of US$1,749.
So yes, the privilege of having a laptop you can upgrade and repair to your heart’s content will cost you more. You could argue that it’s cheaper in the long run because you can upgrade the motherboard and CPU, but you’re still paying more up-front for the capability.
We have never started a review by taking a laptop apart, ripping its motherboard out, and then putting it back together and testing it. That’s because we would never expect a product to endure that without malfunctioning. That’s just not how laptops are made today.
With the Framework, the future is about doing your own repairs and upgrading what you need to, rather than throwing the entire laptop overboard. That makes the Framework a particularly special laptop that we hope—we really hope—starts a new trend in the disposable laptop world.