Framework Laptop review: A functional and futureproof 13 inches - CNET
Are you old enough to remember when laptops had removable batteries? Frustrated by mainstream laptops with memory soldered to the motherboard and therefore not upgradable? The 13.5-inch Framework Laptop taps into that nostalgia, addressing one of the biggest drawbacks in modern laptops as part of the right-to-repair movement. It was designed from the ground up to be as customizable, upgradable and repairable as technologically possible. That’s a lot of -able, and boy does it deliver.
It features four expansion card slots, slide-in modules that snap into USB-C connectors, socketed storage and RAM, a replaceable mainboard module with fixed CPU and fan, battery, screen, keyboard and more. It’s a design that makes the parts easy to access, all while delivering solid performance at competitive prices and without sacrificing aesthetics.
- Almost completely configurable and upgradable
- Smart and functional design
- Practically no performance sacrifices
- 1,080-pixel, 60 frame per second webcam with camera and mic shutters
- Opens 180 degrees
- Looks relatively generic
- No Thunderbolt 4 yet
The laptop’s in preorder now for the US and Canada, slated to ship in small batches depending upon the configuration. Core i7-based systems are expected to go out in August, while Core i5 systems won’t be available until September.
Prices for the Framework Laptop start at $999 for the prefab Core i5-1135G7 model with 8GB RAM and 256GB SSD, $1,399 for the Core i7-1165G7 Performance model with 16GB RAM and 512GB storage or a vPro Core i7-1185G7 Professional model with 32GB RAM and 1TB storage. Framework expects to expand into new regions by the end of the year; $999 converts to roughly £730 or AU$1,360.
You can only buy the entry model with 8GB RAM and a 256GB SSD; if you want 16GB, my recommended minimum for running Windows, you’ve got to upgrade it yourself. You can buy a 250GB ($69), 1TB ($149) or Micro SD ($19) expansion card if you want an easier way to add storage, but performance won’t be as good as the NVMe SSD.
The default pricing on all configurations is for four USB-C modules, but you can mix and match ports from USB-C or USB-A ($9 each) and DisplayPort or HDMI ($19 each). Although the laptop only accommodates four expansion cards, you can buy as many as you need to swap in and out.
I love being able to switch the side a given port is on based on where the attached cable is; no more winding the USB-C power around because the adapter’s on the other side or struggling to gain another inch or two out of the HDMI connection because the monitor’s on the left, not the right. Yes, you can hook up to a dock for more ports, but I’ve run into too many devices that insist on connecting directly to the port.
If you’re feeling DIY, prices start at $749, but that basically just gives you the CPU and chassis. If you toss in the entry levels of memory and storage (8GB and 500GB) four USB expansion cards, Wi-Fi, power adapter and Windows. it works out to $1,109. The DIY model adds Linux to the list of operating systems you can install, and doesn’t restrict Windows Pro to the vPro model.
A thing of inner beauty
Modular has been done before, but everything in this system is replaceable, upgradable and repairable. Many laptops let you upgrade memory or storage and replace the screen. With the Framework, in addition to the ports you can swap out the mainboard, touchpad, keyboard, speakers, battery… anything you can think of. Don’t feel like doing it yourself? Framework is publishing all the information necessary for a repair shop or IT department to not just swap parts, but to perform repairs.
Beyond that, though, Framework has put a ton of thought into addressing all the pain points you might encounter in pursuit of upgrades; you could probably change out any part without looking at a manual. It comes with a tool that has screwdriver on one end — a combo Torx T5 and Philips head — and a wedge on the other for prying parts apart, plus some spare screws. Many of the screws are captive, an important consideration because they’re tiny. Magnets hold the interchangeable screen bezel on.
Nothing is buried under other parts, so everything’s easy to get to. Each Framework part has a QR code and short URL to take you to all the info you’ll need about it and the labels on the standard parts (memory and SSD) are easy to read.
And Framework has managed this feat without making the laptop thick or unwieldy. It’s not the skinniest kid on the block, but it’s hardly chunky at 15.9mm (0.6 inches) and 2.3 lbs (1.3 kilograms). The drive to make the thinnest possible laptop is partly responsible for the irreparability we’re stuck with today, anyway.
Nor are there compromises on the components, which include fast WD Black SSD, a 1080/60fps webcam — still not great, but better than most of the 720p models in today’s laptops — a bright sub-QHD resolution sRGB screen (the same one that’s in the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Titanium Yoga, albeit without the touchscreen overlay), surprisingly comfortable backlit keyboard and large touchpad.
Though it doesn’t yet have Thunderbolt 4 expansion cards, that’s not a technology problem. It’s got the same dual Thunderbolt controllers as most Intel 11th-gen laptops, along with the PCIe 4 storage and Wi-Fi 6. And it delivers competitive performance for the money.
My biggest reservation about the Framework Laptop is how proprietary many of the modules are. That’s technologically necessary, but in the past has choked modular designs. The beauty of this system, though, is that even if you never need to replace a part or find you can’t, you’re still no worse off than if you’d bought another company’s laptop. Nor do I see it posing a significant threat to the bottom line of any of the big laptop manufacturers. But if it can nudge them into rethinking their designs, we’re all better off.