Framework laptop

Teardown: Framework laptop

Image credit: Framework

A right-to-repair upgradable ultrabook – at last.

At £999, Framework founder Nirav Patel wants to place his company at the forefront of a gathering – and overdue – trend. As he noted when the company went public with its first product in February 2021, “It’s time for long-lasting products that respect your right to repair and upgrade. We’re bringing this philosophy to notebooks this year and to additional categories as we go... we can’t wait to build a better consumer electronics industry together.”

That first laptop is an aluminium-clad 13.5-inch ultrabook, weighing just 1.3kg at a thickness of 15.85mm, with a 2256x1504 display and a 1080p webcam. The company has shipped its first five batches of North American orders, with a UK launch date to follow.

Owners can switch in new memory, replace the mainboard and draw from a range of modules that the company is rolling out from itself and third parties via an online marketplace. The ports can be changed at the release of a catch with slots for any four ‘Expansion Cards’ offering USB-A, USB-C, Display Port, MicroSD and HDMI. Even the bezel can be changed according to your preferred colour.

As an ultrabook, the Framework Laptop is not cheap, but nor is it priced out of range. A pre-assembled model costs from $999 (£740) to just over $2,200 depending on configuration (with a $100 deposit to secure the pre-order). It runs Microsoft Windows 10 (Home or Pro), can store up to 8TB, with RAM from 8GB to 64GB depending on how powerful an Intel 11th-generation Core i5 or i7 processor the owner requires. There is also a DIY assembly version starting at $749 and the option for Linux as well as Windows.

In either case, the laptop comes in its recyclable packaging with a combined T5 screwdriver/spudger for assembly, repair and future upgrades. Full assembly is considered a ‘moderate’ challenge and takes roughly 20 minutes.

The idea of not simply a fully repairable but also continuously upgradeable chassis would seem well aligned with the zeitgeist. The disposal of high-technology products is a source of ongoing environmental concern and, within both the EU and USA, the coming year is likely to see ‘right to repair’ legislation move forward at transnational and national levels (the UK has instituted its first ‘right to repair’ laws also but so far covering essentially major domestic appliances).

For these laws to stick, the assumption is that while customers should have more rights to choose how they get their devices fixed, that repair process itself also needs to be simplified. Somebody has listened.

Opening the Framework laptop involves simply unscrewing five standard screws on the base, turning the unit over and gently folding out the keyboard assembly. At this point, you can begin to see just how far the company has gone towards its goals.

Every major module is labelled by name and has a QR code. Scanning the code will take you to the Framework Marketplace for replacements and upgrades, and/or provide help for repairs.

Using the fan and heatsink assembly as an example, the images show how to remove the unit based on simple step-by-step instructions Framework has posted on its website.

Having powered off the laptop and allowed the unit to cool, the user removes the input cover (keyboard/trackpad/fingerprint sensor), unscrews the fan, unscrews the heatsink, unplugs the power cable to the fan, and removes the hardware. With the various screws also numbered, it is as easy as one, two, three. After checking for excess thermal paste and redundant thermal pads, inserting a new fan/heatsink involves basically the procedure in reverse.

Some operations are slightly more difficult – but still rated only ‘moderate’ by the company. These include inserting a new mainboard or a new fingerprint reader. Nothing feels as though it will be especially daunting given the clarity of the support Framework provides (and the company deserves kudos for that almost as much as it does for the cleanliness of the actual hardware design).

The doyennes of repairability at iFixit were certainly impressed, scoring the laptop at a full (and insanely rare) 10-out-of-10. Though its team did offer one warning, when discussing Framework’s hope that upgrades will go as far as the next generation of Intel processor and beyond.

“We’d love to see it happen, obviously. But we’ve seen the sad version of this story play out before. A company comes forward to disrupt the market with their repairable products. We get our hopes up, but the company ultimately doesn’t care long enough to make the upgraded parts or it has to compromise its repairability to stay relevant in the market,” said teardown engineer Taylor Dixon.

“I will say Framework is the most promising version of this story that I’ve seen in a long time but it’s just a hard puzzle to crack. So, be careful with your expectations.”

It is a fair caveat, but already Framework is taking steps to show that it will be a long-term supporter of its products and philosophy. For example, the company has already moved to secure its supply chain – most notably by swapping in a new audio codec – and thereby satisfy pre-orders.

And so far, the product reviews have also been good, notwithstanding some notes that the push for so modular a design means the Framework Laptop runs a little hotter than rivals and is slightly behind on some benchmarks. But there are always going to be trade-offs – what matters is that the benefits (and influence) may be greater.

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