There are many 13-inch and 14-inch laptops out there, but very few offer many options for user upgrades. Framework, a San Francisco-based startup, sees an opening in the market there. The new 13.5-inch Framework laptop allows customers to upgrade and replace not only internal components (RAM, battery, storage), but also external components (keyboard, bezels, and ports).
If you’re very picky about your specs, you can also get a “DIY Edition,” including parts of your choice, and assemble the laptop yourself. I suspect most people will opt for one of the three pre-built systems Framework has to offer, which can then be customized as needed.
Beyond its customizability, the Framework is a pretty standard ultra-portable productivity. It’s a bit smaller than an M1 MacBook Pro, weighing in at 2.87 pounds and measuring 0.62 inches in thickness. The chassis is made from recycled materials. There’s a pretty bright 3:2 display (no touch option as of now) and a usable keyboard and touchpad. You get decent performance from Intel’s 11th generation processors, and good (but not exciting) battery life.
In other words, upgradability is the reason to buy the Framework laptop – there’s not much else to discuss here. And while it looks like a good package from where I stand, a lot of its value proposition depends on whether the company lives up to its promise to support the device for years to come.
The pre-built systems should cover most use cases. I tested the base model, which costs $999 and includes a Core i5-1135G7, 8GB of memory, 256GB of storage, and Windows 10 Home. The $1,399 Performance model has a Core i7-1165G7, 16GB of memory, and 512GB of storage, while the Professional model costs $1,999 for a Core i7-1185G7, 32GB of memory, and 1TB of storage, as well as Windows 10. Pro and vPro . Keep in mind that the last two models won’t ship until August, while the base model won’t arrive until September – you can pre-order all three now with a $100 deposit. DIY kits start at $749 and prices vary. based on the components you select.
The most unique advantage that the Framework offers is the ability to customize ports. The chassis has four slots, but you can order as many expansion cards as you want, including USB-C, USB-A, microSD, HDMI, DP, and storage expansion (250GB or 1TB). Framework says more options are coming. I got stuck in a USB-A, a USB-C, an HDMI and some extra storage, and it was a really easy task. The cards are essentially dongles – they slide right in and you can swap them out while the computer is on.
I was also able to exchange the black trims of the model I got for a pair of white ones. This took about 10 seconds. The top and side panels attach to the chassis via magnets and there are adhesive strips along the bottom, so it’s just a matter of peeling one frame off and sticking the other on – you can do it with the laptop running. (Framework claims the glue is reusable, so you can swap the edges back and forth.) You can also replace the keyboard, touchpad, and fingerprint reader, both individually and as a sheet.
Then you can take the keyboard off to tinker with the internal components – even the motherboard. This is easy enough to do, but one annoyance is that the chassis is held together with T5 screws, which won’t be fun with a standard Phillips screwdriver. (Framework says this is because the T5 avoids stripping problems that can come with Phillips screws.) If you don’t already have a kit with a T5 screwdriver, you’d better be careful not to lose the tool that Framework sends. with the laptop (and it’s small – I’m sure I’d lose it).
In theory, all of these replacement parts will be available in a centralized marketplace that is also open to third-party manufacturers. Each of the different components has a QR code that, when scanned, prompts a purchase page for part replacement. This marketplace isn’t live yet, so I can’t speak to what will actually be available there – Framework says it will be out in August.
That underscores one theme of this review, which is that so much of the value of this laptop depends on what its promised ecosystem and support network will look like. There are a few guides on Framework’s website – for setting up the pre-builds and DIY kit, bezel replacement, keyboard replacement, and motherboard replacement – but some processes people probably want, are still missing at the time of writing. For example, there is no manual for replacing the memory (you can find it in the manual for replacing the motherboard). According to Framework, that’s coming soon.
I also haven’t been able to find a list of supported parts, or a list of each screw and its size, which could make losing a screw a nightmare. Framework says the previous list is coming soon and will be adding screw specs to its repair manuals “as we go.”
The build quality of the Framework is slightly below the top contenders at this price; you pay a little extra for the Framework’s future-proofing promise. The whole thing has a plastic-like feel – it’s not cheap, but it feels closer to Acer Aspire than Dell XPS. And there is some weakness. In particular, there’s a bit of flex in the keyboard and a whole lot in the screen. (I was actually concerned about the latter breaking and didn’t put it on as much as I could.) And while I never worried about the magnetic edges falling off, they aren’t to hard to pull off, and I could definitely see them snagging on things or accumulating debris underneath. I like that recycled material is used here, including 50 percent PCR aluminum in the housing, “average” 30 percent PCR plastic, and 80 percent PCR packaging.
Another thing to mention is the 3:2 display. It’s one of the few parts of this laptop that isn’t currently upgradable; you’re stuck with a 2256 x 1504 non-touch panel. It reached a brightness of 391 nits in my testing, which is pretty good, and delivered a sharp image overall – and the 3:2 aspect ratio offers a lot more vertical space than the 16:9 panels you get on many 13 -inch will find notebooks. However, it is quite glossy and kicks back a bit more sparkle than I’m used to from panels in this price range.
I’ll go through the rest of the laptop; the takeaway again is that repairability is the Framework’s only real calling card. The keyboard is nicely backlit, has almost no bleed and is comfortable with 1.5mm of travel. There’s a 1080p webcam with a physical shutter – the image is an improvement over the traditional 720p laptop fare. But neither is so amazingly good that I would buy the Framework just to get it.
In terms of performance, the base model was fine. The bottom sometimes got nice and warm under my load of about a dozen Chrome tabs and apps, but it was never uncomfortable to use on my lap. Fans were occasionally audible, but mostly silent.
All three processor options come with Intel’s Iris Xe integrated graphics – there is no GPU option. The integrated GPU isn’t enough to run demanding games, but it should do well League of Legends and stuff. I did some light photo editing with no problems, although it wasn’t as snappy as I’ve seen on Core i7 machines.
Battery life was also acceptable, but unobtrusive. On average, I was working continuously for about six hours and 12 minutes with the screen at 200 nits of brightness. You can get a lot more out of these specs: we saw seven to eight hours of the Surface Pro 7 Plus, that is $300 more for a Core i5 model.
First and foremost, it’s admirable what Framework is trying to do. This is a laptop DIYers have been waiting for. And there’s certainly a lot here that’s promising. The ports and bezels are easy to swap out, even if you’ve never upgraded a computer – and that’s a legitimately unique feature. Plus, the fact that RAM isn’t soldered into a chassis of this size is in itself a win in terms of upgradeability.
But this community has been burned before. From Intel’s Ghost Canyon NUC to Alienware’s Area-51m, the virtual graveyard is littered with promised modular computers that never materialized because the company stopped making hardware for them. Dell was recently sued for allegedly promising the Area-51m R1 could be upgraded to future Intel CPUs and Nvidia GPUs, which it ultimately failed to do. This kind of device is hard to make and even harder to sustain over time.
I asked Framework how many generations of Intel CPUs it would support, and the company didn’t answer directly. A spokesperson stated: “We have been evaluating the upcoming silicon roadmaps and see nothing to worry us about compatibility with our current chassis. We will continue to support the existing chassis for the foreseeable future.”
Secure. But until I actually get my hands on an Alder Lake motherboard, I’m hesitant to get too excited. Whether the Framework is a good buy depends on whether the company is actually able to make progress with this chassis – how long it will keep releasing new modules and whether it is able to build a robust library of support materials. It also depends on how good the promised market is and how robust the component selections are. Those are the real benefits of this device. Without them, the Framework is usually a nondescript laptop with lots of QR codes.
Photography by Monica Chin / The Verge