Framework’s first big laptop update lets you switch out the brain of your system.
The company is keeping what it said it would do in the beginning.
The framework came out last year with the promise of making laptops that you could upgrade yourself with just a screwdriver and some patience. Now, a year after it first came out, the company is sending out its first set of upgrade kits to keep those machines up to date. It’s a good start, as the group keeps its promises to make a machine that is modular and easy to fix and to include existing users in any future changes to the system. After almost effortlessly switching out the first-generation mainboard for its replacement, I can say that we’re getting close to a whole new era in computing.
Framework sent over a model from the year 2021, which was powered by an Intel Core chip from the 11th generation. This was done to show how easy it is to upgrade. In the package, but in a separate box, there was a brand-new 12th-generation (Alder Lake) Intel Core chip that was attached to a mainboard. Simply put, the idea is that you can take out the mainboard, which has the CPU and I/O and keep almost everything else the same. The existing RAM, SSD, WiFi card, battery, audio equipment, screen, and so on can all be used until they break or need to be upgraded in some other way.
A Torx T5 screwdriver is needed to upgrade or replace any part inside Framework’s chassis (included in the box). Changing the mainboard is the most complicated upgrade you can make since you have to take everything else apart to get to it. The framework makes guides for you to follow that look like iFixit, and every part is either color-coded or labeled. Each unit also has a QR code that lets you access tutorial videos and helps pages to help you get where you need to go.
The company said earlier this year that it was going to make three new mainboards for people with different budgets. For $499, you can get an i5-1240P from the 12th generation, and for $699, you can get an i7-1260P. You can buy the Core i7-1280P for $1,049 if you want to always be on the cutting edge and have the money for it. That’s a lot, but the argument is that it would cost you more to buy a whole new laptop. Still, I don’t think users will go crazy for these annual upgrades. Instead, they will probably look for a new mainboard every two or three years to stay current.
I don’t really have a problem with the upgrade process, but I do want to point out a few things. If you have never done this before, it will take you much longer than the 15 minutes that the how-to guide says it will. You’ll get faster with practice, but I think these guides need to be a little bit more friendly to people who are just starting out. Also, I’m not a big fan of ZIF connectors, which require you to gently slide a ribbon cable no bigger than your fingernail into the right hole. Especially since they’re small, and I’d be afraid that a sneeze at the wrong time could cost you $699.
The framework is also putting out two other products that show how much it cares about its users and wants to make sure that OG buyers don’t get left behind. The first is that the company is putting out a 2.5-gigabit Ethernet adapter, which is its first new expansion card. In a word, this is very cool. Instead of the usual all-metal body, it has a clear plastic shell that makes it look like a special edition Game Boy from the 1990s. The cyberpunk style also hides the fact that the Ethernet port is much bigger than the other expansion cards. It sticks out of the side of your laptop in a cool way, but that’s because it needs to be that size.
That helped me a lot during my installation since I couldn’t connect to the internet after my first upgrade because I didn’t have the WiFi driver (thanks, Microsoft). (This has been fixed, but it shows one of the problems with testing hardware for a long time before it’s available to the public.) Fixing the problem by slamming in an Ethernet port and connecting it to my network was a godsend. Not only that, but it’s another step toward making the laptop more like a Swiss Army knife, just like all the spare expansion cards the company sells.
The top cover is the last part. Now, when the machine came out last year, I didn’t have many complaints about how much it bent. But Framework’s engineers weren’t happy, so they changed the display enclosure to be CNC-milled from a solid block of aluminum. It gives the frame a little more strength and comes with all new Framework laptops sold from now on. It is also included in the mainboard replacement kits. But, again, the company doesn’t want to leave existing customers who don’t want a new CPU on the fence, so you can also buy a stand-alone top cover for $89. If the company can keep its promise to always bring along existing buyers, it will gain a loyal fanbase.
Lastly, now that the upgrade is done, users need to figure out what to do with the old mainboard, which they no longer need. The framework gives users open-source plans for building desktop-style enclosures for the boards to encourage re-use, and hobbyists are already using them as the basis for their own super-cool mod projects. For example, GitHub user Penk made this retro Mainboard Terminal that looks like it fell out of the back of a Fallout book. If I didn’t have to send all of this back and I knew how to build things, I’d probably try to build something really cool myself.
And maybe that’s the other thing Framework can keep giving: the idea that users should feel like they can get their hands dirty again after being told for so long that they can’t touch their machines.