Teardown - Framework Mainboard

Teardown: Framework Mainboard

Image credit: Framework/Richard Sutherland

The upgradable laptop specialist is launching new mainboards and wants you to reuse the old ones.

When we looked at the upgradable Framework laptop in December 2021, the ease with which it can be assembled, fixed, or undergo a main component swap earned it a rare 10 out of 10 score for repairability from iFixit. All that for a unit that offered the clout of the 11th generation of Intel processors.

Its upgradability is now going to be put to the test. Framework is about to offer mainboards for Intel’s 12th generation (pre-orders were available as this was published). As before, you will be able to buy assembled and configurable laptops, or put one together yourself – a comparatively straightforward process. Just as important, you can install one of the new mainboards to beef up an existing Framework chassis.

This raises an interesting question. Framework wants to promote computing that puts as much emphasis on recycling as it does on repair. To that end, CEO Nirav Patel is encouraging transferring over old mainboards to cyberdeck projects. “We also want to ensure we’re reducing waste and respecting the planet by enabling reuse of modules,” he says.

Framework started supporting cyberdeck designs based on its mainboard before this first processor upgrade.

For makers, the company has had a GitHub repository for several months. It provides such support as 2D CAD and electrical documents and two printable 3D reference designs. One is for a VESA-mount holder that can be connected to a monitor or television and the other is for a small desktop case.

The Framework Marketplace also offers off-the-shelf parts such as bottom and input covers and batteries (though the board can be powered over USB-C). Everything is then open source.

Already Framework has begun to build a maker community like that around the Raspberry Pi. Its ideas will, Patel hopes, encourage others to either start with mainboards from scratch or, now even better, repurpose them as the company adds the latest processing modules.

Two interesting projects – also available on GitHub – give some idea of what is possible.

Richard Sutherland has posted the documentation for a slab-style laptop, the kind that was popular before the segment settled on clamshell designs. “I really wanted a TRS-80 model 100 when I was young, so this sort of design was a big influence,” he explains.
He augmented the mainboard with a battery, custom mechanical keyboard, Wi-Fi module, solid-state storage, 16Gb of memory, a 7-inch IPS display and speakers. “I ended up using the mainboard with their battery rather than roll my own power solution as it has solid capacity and is already designed to work with the onboard power management,” he notes.

Sutherland sees the project as a “guided tour” of what might be possible and discusses his experiences in depth on GitHub at brickbats/framedeck.

Penk Chen, who styles himself as a “digital nomad from Taiwan”, also took a retro approach. He has posted a design for a fully featured PC with a 5-inch circular (1080x1080) display. “And yes,” he adds, “it runs Spacewar!” It also, for some of us, feels like hardware from the imagination of the great Gerry Anderson.

Patel’s project combines the mainboard with a connector board and an OLKB Preonic keyboard (an ortholinear design intended to maximise efficiency), thus leveraging off-the-shelf parts. The case is manufactured on a 3D printer and held together by 5x2mm magnets (though he notes that others “might want to add holes for screws & other cut-outs to utilise USB4 ports”).

Details of the parts Chen has used and 3D STL and STEP files are available at his GitHub repository, penk/MainboardTerminal. “Everything works out of the box with [Linux] Ubuntu 22.04 LTS, which is nice,” Chen adds.

There is a lot going on here that is still not for the casual consumer. 3D printers remain niche rather than mass-market items, and some confidence in assembly is necessary (though Framework’s main laptops do have a range of plug-and-play inserts that simply fit into slots on the side). At the same time, Framework is building an ecosystem to make it easier both to put together a laptop, and to take modules that are intended to be used in combination and then build on them.

The idea that design needs to move beyond repairability and sustainability and much further into reuse is timely. While we all appreciate that new generations of processor, OS and software can make things faster and more extensive across each product generation, it is still true that most consumer products are only used to a fraction of this extra capacity – gaming notwithstanding, but those guys have been into configurability for a long time anyway.

Meanwhile, Richard and Penk, really cool work. Who’s next?

Framework: key components

Penk Chen's concept computer, exploded view

1. Display
2. Mainboard
3. Connector board
4. Keyboard
5. Rear assembly
6. Printer reel
7. Display assembly
8. Keyboard assembly and base

Teardown - Framework screen, inline

Image credit: Framework/Penk Chen

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