If a part in a MacBook breaks or needs to be replaced, it’ll likely require an expensive trip to the Apple Store. If the same thing happens with the Framework Laptop, it’s more like disassembling (and rebuilding) a Lego set in the comfort of your own home.
That’s the philosophy behind the debut product from Framework, a startup that wants to fix consumer electronics by letting you, well, fix your own electronics. While popular products from Apple or Microsoft may require serious technical know-how to bust open and repair, the Framework Laptop (which starts at $750 if you want to assemble it yourself and install either Windows 10 or Linux, or $999 if you want it pre-built with Window 10 installed) takes the total opposite approach. Each part of the laptop is made to be opened up, repaired, replaced, and swapped around with relative ease.
It’s a lofty idea, but does it truly differ from the competition and, more importantly, is it a good laptop?
Fixing tech isn’t always easy
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of how the Framework Laptop works, it’s important to understand the “Right to Repair” movement and how it applies to many consumer laptops.
Over the years, major products like the 2019 MacBook Pro and the Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 have been criticized for intentionally being very difficult for people to fix at home, even if they know how to do it. Major components like batteries will be glued down so they’re tough to remove and replace manually, or companies will void warranties if you’ve attempted DIY repairs, for example. To its credit, Microsoft has backtracked on requiring company oversight for repairs, though it’s an exception among big tech companies.
The Right to Repair movement aims to change that by pressuring companies to make their devices more repair-friendly. This past year has seen some legal successes in this regard, with New York requiring device manufacturers to make repair resources available to consumers and the Federal Trade Commission going after shady warranty tricks.
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To glean some insight on this ongoing issue, I spoke with Nathan Proctor, senior director of the U.S. PIRG’s Right to Repair campaign. As he explained it, a lack of easy reparability serves to not only fatten tech companies’ bottom lines by forcing first-party repairs, but also contributes to the significant amount of e-waste generated by discarded devices each year. In 2021 alone, the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Forum estimates the world will generate more than 57 million tons of e-waste.
“We know that manufacturers benefit when they control the repair market either because it forces us to buy new stuff or go to them,” Proctor said. “That results in less stuff getting repaired, repairs costing more money, and more stuff ending up in the waste stream.”
In other words, keeping and maintaining a laptop for years on end rather than replacing it on a regular basis is one way individuals can help stem the e-waste problem. But as sites like iFixit (which rates tech products based on reparability and publishes repair guides) demonstrate, you can’t always just trust laptops from big-name brands to accommodate home repairs. Sometimes you get the 2019 MacBook Pro with all its adhesive annoyances and sometimes you get the 2021 model, which is comparatively much more friendly thanks to pull tabs for battery removal and less adhesive.
Buy it. Use it. Break it. Fix it.
Credit: molly flores / mashable
Earlier this year, when iFixit made the Framework Laptop the fifth laptop in the site’s history to score a perfect 10 out of 10 on the repair scale, it caught the tech world’s eye.
What sets it apart is that it was built to be taken apart. To help with this, Framework included a special screwdriver in the box that fits naturally with the five screws on the machine’s backside. Simply unscrew them all until they make a clicking noise and you can effortlessly lift up the entire keyboard and touchpad panel to reveal the laptop’s innards. From there, you can actually scan QR codes on each component, like the battery and mainboard, which takes you to an online guide with step-by-step instructions for removal and replacement.
Beyond that, the bezel around the 13.5-inch display is magnetic, so you can easily pull it off to make any display fixes or necessary changes.
“The ability to kind of configure the ports how you want it, I think people underestimate how personal that is.”
The most novel feature of all, however, is the modular port system. There are four total USB-C ports on the laptop, with two on each side recessed underneath the keyboard. Just about any port you could want, from USB-C to USB type-A, HDMI to Display Port, and so on can be housed in a little USB-C dongle that fits seamlessly into these slots. If, for example, you’re done casting the laptop’s display to a TV via the HDMI port and need to transfer some data, simply hold the release latch on the machine’s underside, slide that dongle out, and replace it with the microSD reader. Framework sells these dongles on its site for $9 to $19 apiece, but our review unit came with all of them.
If you aren’t already convinced of how cool and eminently useful that is, take it from iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens. I spoke to Wiens to get a sense for how a longtime device repair enthusiast feels about Framework’s design philosophy and he didn’t mince words about the importance of swappable ports.
“I am continually frustrated by laptops that only have USB-C or, you know, have HDMI instead of Mini DisplayPort,” Wiens said. “So the ability to kind of configure the ports how you want it, I think people underestimate how personal that is. You see how many dongles people carry around for their MacBooks because Apple has made it so difficult.”
But is it any good?
Credit: molly flores / mashable
Framework sells its laptop in three different pre-built configurations: The base $999 model, the $1,300 “Performance” model, and the $1,999 “Professional” model. There’s also that DIY model with a starting price of $750 which lets you choose the individual components yourself and put them all together upon delivery.
With all these configuration options, plus the ability to upgrade at will, the specs can sorta be as powerful as you want them to be. Here’s what Framework offers by default:
13.5-inch display with 2256×1504 resolution and 60Hz refresh rate
Intel Core i5 or i7 processor
250GB all the way up to 8TB storage (through user upgrades)
8GB to 64GB RAM
Windows 10 built-in (can also install another OS like Linux)
Any combination of four ports via modular port system
3.5mm headphone jack
1080p 60FPS webcam
I was frankly a little intimidated at first when approaching the Framework Laptop because I’ve never been one to build or maintain computers. Every time I look into building a gaming PC, for example, the cost and complexity of all the different parts scares me away. It’s with the tech coward’s perspective that I am happy to report the Framework Laptop is nothing short of an industrial design miracle for newcomers.
“I am happy to report the Framework Laptop is nothing short of an industrial design miracle for newcomers.”
Despite the fact that I’ve never busted open a laptop before, I was able to remove the keyboard cover with minimal instruction because Framework’s design is fairly foolproof. Not only do the five screws on the back make a helpful click to let you know to stop unscrewing, but they’re actually attached to the laptop itself. That’s right. Through a stroke of design genius, the screws holding the Framework Laptop together are functionally impossible to lose, even if you pull the whole thing apart.
The inclusion of the aforementioned QR codes on each individual internal part is another magnificent move. They link to easily digestible replacement guides on Framework’s website and, while I didn’t attempt any serious component swaps because I didn’t have anything to replace them with, the guides are good enough that I felt like I could pull it off. Plus, with magnets pulling components like the bezel and the keyboard cover down onto the chassis, putting things back together is just as easy as taking them apart.
Credit: molly flores / mashable
One of the most striking things about the Framework Laptop is that no matter what modifications you make, it’s as sleek and portable as any comparable laptop of its size. At 0.62 inches thick and 2.8 pounds, it’s almost exactly as thin as the 2021 MacBook Pro and 0.7 pounds lighter. Its keyboard is also excellent, with 1.5mm of key travel producing chunky, satisfying key presses that don’t make a ton of noise.
The display is also plenty sizable and sharp, though I wish there were a 120Hz refresh rate option available considering how costly even the cheapest model of the Framework Laptop is. There’s also no touch display option at the moment, in case that matters to you.
As for performance, again, different Framework Laptop owners are probably going to get wildly different experiences depending on how much RAM and which processor they choose to get. My loaner unit came with 16GB RAM and a Core i7 processor, and I have no complaints after using it as a primary work machine for a week. Web browsing, work applications, streaming, and video calls all functioned without a hitch.
On top of that, I was able to consistently get eight to nine hours out of a full battery charge, so it’s built to last through an average work day.
Great for now, but there are long-term questions
Credit: molly flores / mashable
Minor quibbles about refresh rates and touch displays aside, it’s tough to find anything to dislike about the Framework Laptop as it exists right now. Yes, it’s pricey, but sometimes a purchase is an investment. When I got LASIK surgery to fix my extreme nearsightedness, the high upfront cost was worth it because I wouldn’t have to spend the next few decades regularly buying new lenses and eyeglass frames (and also because getting lasers blasted into your eyes is one of the most cyberpunk things you can do).
You can apply a similar logic to the Framework Laptop: Spend $1,000 to $2,000 now and then, over the next several years, individually replace components as you see fit instead of spending that much money again on another new laptop three or four years later.
The only issue with this strategy is that Framework is a new startup formed in 2021 and there’s no guarantee it’ll be around to supply unique parts like the swappable ports down the line. Those fears are mitigated somewhat by Framework releasing open-source documentation for the port cards and supporting external development. Still, sometimes companies go away or compromise on their strategies over time, and third parties can lose interest, too. While I certainly hope that doesn’t happen to Framework, you can’t discount the possibility.
That being said, it’s not fair to judge a laptop too harshly now for something that might theoretically hamper its usefulness years later. After all, the whole point of this DIY exercise is to offer an alternative to big name-brand laptops that are built to become useless over time and are a nightmare to get fixed.
Overall, the Framework Laptop is an intuitive and novel approach to laptop design backed up by fantastic construction. If nothing else, it’ll be worth remembering if Apple ever steals the swappable ports idea and charges five times as much for it.