Framework’s new lightweight modular laptop delivers on its promises
When we originally covered startup Framework’s ambitious plans for a fully repairable, modular laptop aiming to compete on even ground with industry champions like Dell’s XPS 13, it seemed like quite a long shot.
The company’s proposed 13-inch laptop was to be its very first product and include custom-built hardware features no other company had ever offered—most notably, four modular bays replacing the usual collection of hardwired laptop I/O ports. Each bay features a deeply recessed USB-C port that can accept a module offering the user an external USB-A, USB-C, DisplayPort, HDMI, or MicroSD port.
Designing and building a feature like that is a big risk—doing so for the first time while planning to compete evenly with industry-leading compact laptops like Dell’s XPS 13 in weight, width, thickness, and price raised our eyebrows so far it hurt. But we’ve spent several days with a review unit—and Framework has satisfied all of its major claims. Its new laptop isn’t perfect, but it’s a solid competitor that lives up to its promises.
|Specs at a glance: Framework 13-inch laptop, as tested|
|OS||Windows 10 Pro / Ubuntu 21.04|
|CPU||3.0 GHz 4-core Intel i7-1185G7 (4.8GHz boost)|
|RAM||32GiB DDR4-3200 (64GiB maximum)|
|GPU||Intel Iris Xe (integrated)|
|SSD||Western Digital Black SN850 1TB NVMe|
|Battery||3572 mAh / 55 Wh|
|Display||13.5-inches at 2256×1504, 100 percent sRGB gamut, 400+ nits brightness, non-touch|
|Price as tested||$2,100|
When buying a Framework laptop, a new customer can select one of three pre-built configurations or go “DIY” and select each individual part themselves—although the DIY build also requires assembly on arrival. Our biggest questions about Framework revolved around the physical design and its promised repairability, so of course we went DIY.
Our DIY build basically shot for the moon—it features the company’s fastest CPU offering (Intel i7-1185G7), 32GiB of fast RAM, a 1TB SSD, and even Intel Wi-Fi 6E. Checking almost every box (we opted not to buy a Windows 10 license or the maximum 64GiB RAM the laptop can handle) resulted in a $1,900 price tag—although we’re listing the system above as $2,100 retail, since we used Windows 10 for the majority of testing.
If you want the same build including a copy of Windows at a lower total price, the Professional trim features all the same hardware and a Windows 10 Pro license for $2,000—or Linux users can do what we did, skip the Windows license entirely, and save $100 off the Professional package’s cost.
One component you don’t have any options with is the display—it’s a 3:2 aspect ratio 2.5k design, glossy and non-touch, featuring 400+ nits brightness and claimed 100 percent sRGB color gamut. We measured the display’s maximum brightness at 418nits; we were not able to scientifically test the sRGB gamut.
Although we weren’t able to directly measure sRGB gamut, we can say that deadmau5’s psychedelically colorful video Pomegranate was obviously more vibrant on the Framework’s display than on a 24-inch HP VH240a monitor, which itself claims only 72 percent sRGB gamut.
The DIY Framework arrives significantly disassembled—the motherboard is in a mostly assembled laptop, but the NVMe SSD, Wi-Fi card, and system RAM are sitting brand-new in their own little boxes, along with a selection of Framework’s custom I/O modules. That means DIY’ers have some work to do—but opening up the Framework to add all the components is a fantastic experience for veteran PC mechanics.
The first step is removing five Torx T5 screws from the bottom of the laptop, using an included driver. All five screws are captive, meaning they stay attached to the laptop even after fully unscrewed. Once the screws are fully loosened, the next step is turning the laptop upright again and opening it up as though for normal use.
The next step is simply lifting the entire top plate of the laptop—including keyboard and touchpad—straight up. With the bottom Torx screws loosened, the only thing holding the top plate in position is a bunch of small magnets; there are no plastic latches or tabs to tease loose. Next, stick a finger in the loop on the single ribbon cable connecting keyboard and touchpad to the motherboard and lift straight up—then put the top plate, with keyboard and mouse still attached, aside for later.
With the motherboard fully exposed, sockets for two RAM DIMMs, an M.2 NVMe SSD, and an M.2 Wi-Fi card are boldly labeled, free of obstructions and easy to fill. Even attaching the fiddly little antenna leads to the AX210 Wi-Fi card wasn’t as much of a chore as it typically would be, due to the wide-open design of the laptop. We routinely work on large mid-tower machines that are more difficult than this travel-size laptop!
After inserting RAM, SSD, and Wi-Fi, it’s time to close the Framework back up again—a process just as pleasant as disassembly was. Gently press the connector for the keyboard/touchpad cable straight down into its socket, then place the top plate on the motherboard. After a little gentle wiggling, the magnets in the chassis pull the top plate firmly into position with an audible click—and the only thing left is re-tightening the five Torx T5 screws on the bottom, again with the included driver.
If you have trouble separating components, the T5 driver has a perfectly functional plastic spudger on its reverse tip—but we don’t think many people will need it. Even though the top plate fits tightly onto the chassis, the absence of latches or tabs made separating it with nothing more than a thumbnail quite simple.
Now that the laptop proper is assembled, it’s time to fill the modular I/O bays. We selected one USB-A module, one HDMI module, and two USB-C modules. Applying firm, smooth pressure inserted three of four modules easily—but we had a slight misalignment with the HDMI module, requiring a bit of wiggling to resolve.
Our difficulty with the HDMI module seemed to be a result of it and the bay we chose for it being at extreme opposite ends of the laptop’s mechanical tolerance specification—the HDMI module operated smoothly in all three other bays, and all three of the other modules operated smoothly in the bay we’d selected for the HDMI module.
Although we got the HDMI module inserted into the one bay that didn’t like it relatively easily, we’d recommend less experienced users consider just trying a different bay if they encounter the same problem—there’s not much point in fighting a minor misalignment unless you absolutely need that one module to go in that one bay and nowhere else.
When each module is fully inserted, the user hears and feels a satisfying tactile click—that’s a retention lever engaging. To remove the modules, you need to press a release button on the underside of the laptop and work a thumbnail between the back of the module and the front of its bay.
A moderate amount of force is necessary to remove a module, even with the release button pressed. We found the level of snugness ideal for parts that are designed to be somewhat infrequently swapped—the installed modules don’t feel like loosely attached accessories, they simply feel like a normal part of a normal laptop.
Unfortunately, we did have one non-mechanical problem—the laptop was supposed to ship with a USB Windows 10 installer, with Framework’s drivers slip-streamed into it. Ours arrived without the installer, so we tried using our own—but the laptop for some reason refused to recognize it as a bootable device. We worked around this by using another 1TB NVMe SSD with Windows 10 already installed on it, then performing a factory reset.
After factory resetting our own pre-installed Windows 10 NVMe, we just needed the drivers—which weren’t yet available on Framework’s support site. Reaching out to our Framework contact got us a direct download link for a single 800MiB driver bundle, which solved our remaining software problems.
First impressions—actual use
With hardware, operating system, and drivers installed, the Framework laptop is a solid competitor. We weren’t very fond of its 3:2 aspect ratio, which makes the laptop noticeably deeper than a competing Dell XPS 13—but we know many readers love the nearly square displays, and if you like the aspect ratio, there’s a lot to like about the display. It’s sharp, bright, and offers more vivid colors than the majority of laptop displays we’ve tested.
We found the keyboard and touchpad pleasant but unremarkable. The keyboard’s worst feature is the usual compressed arrow-key layout; beyond that, we had no complaints with it—it’s nicely tactile, and we immediately touch-typed quickly and accurately with it.
The touchpad features multi-fingertip gesture support, along with physical detents to left-click and right-click like it’s ten years ago; it’s accurate and stays cool when the device is under heavy load. Fingerprint reading isn’t built into the touchpad—instead, it’s built into the square LED-lit power button on the upper right of the keyboard.
In normal use, the laptop is cool and quiet—but pushing it hard with a half-hour multi-threaded Cinebench run forced it to spin up its fans. Under maximum load for several minutes, the keyboard heats up noticeably—but, thankfully, the touchpad and surroundings (where one might rest a palm with some weight) remain as cool as when the laptop is unloaded.
We didn’t find the heat at the keys actively uncomfortable—but if your workload involves pushing the system to its absolute limit for long periods, the noticeably too-warm keys during such a run may be something to think about. After completing a run, the keyboard temperature returns to normal within a moment or two.
Moving on, we’re happy to say that the modular bays are even better in use than they were during assembly—we needed to plug and unplug USB-A and USB-C devices quite a lot, and doing so doesn’t feel any different than it does on a well-constructed “normal” laptop.
Atoms Lanka Solutions