Framework’s first major laptop upgrade lets you swap your system’s brain

·Senior Editor
·5-min read
Engadget

Framework launched last year with the promise of building laptops that you could upgrade yourself with little more than a screwdriver and some patience. Now, 12 months after making its debut, the company is shipping out its first round of upgrade kits to keep those machines up to date. It’s a good start, as the outfit makes good on its pledges to make a modular, repairable machine and to bring existing users along with any future tweaks to the system. After almost breezily swapping out a first-generation mainboard for its replacement, I can say that we’re getting close to a brand new era for computing.

In order to show off how easy it is to upgrade, Framework sent over its 2021-era model, which was powered by an 11th-generation Intel Core chip. In the package, but in a separate box, was a brand new 12th-generation (Alder Lake) Intel Core chip attached to a mainboard. The idea, put simply, is that you can pull out the mainboard which holds the CPU and I/O, while preserving pretty much everything else. The existing RAM, SSD, WiFi card, battery, audio gear, screen et cetera, can all be reused until they break or otherwise need upgrading as well.

Upgrading or replacing any component inside Framework’s chassis requires you to use a Torx T5 screwdriver (included in the box). Naturally, replacing the mainboard is the most involved upgrade you can make since it requires you to pull apart everything else to gain access to it. Thankfully, Framework produces iFixit-style guides for you to follow, and every component is either color-coded or labeled. And there are QR codes on each unit which link to tutorial videos and support pages to help you get where you need to go.

The company announced earlier this year that it would offer a trio of new mainboard options catering for different budgets. $499 gets you a 12th-generation i5-1240P, while $699 gets you an i7-1260P. If you are eager to live on the cutting edge at all times, and have the cash to spare, you can opt for the Core i7-1280P for $1,049. That’s steep, but the argument goes that buying a whole new laptop would cost you more. That said, I don’t expect users to go mad for these annual upgrades, but more likely look for a new mainboard every two or three years to keep up to date.

As for the upgrade process, I have, not necessarily a gripe, but a couple of things that are worth flagging. If you are coming to this as a novice, you’re going to take far longer than the 15 minutes promised in the how-to guide. With practice, you’ll get faster, but I think these guides need to be a teensy bit friendlier to the unenlightened amateur. Similarly, I’m not a big fan of ZIF connectors, which require you to gently slide in a ribbon cable no bigger than your fingernail into the necessary fixing. Especially since they’re small, and I’d be worried that one mis-timed sneeze would wind up costing you $699 of your own money.

Image of Framework's 2.5G Ethernet Expansion Card
Image of Framework's 2.5G Ethernet Expansion Card

At the same time, Framework is launching two other products that show its commitment to listening to its users and making sure that OG purchasers aren’t left behind. The first is that the company is releasing its first new expansion card, which is a 2.5-gigabit Ethernet adapter. This is, in a word, very cool, ditching the standard all-metal body for a transparent plastic shell that makes it look like one of those special edition Game Boys from the ‘90s. The cyberpunk aesthetic also helps to cover the fact that, in order to accommodate the Ethernet port itself, it’s significantly larger than the rest of the expansion cards; it sticks out the side of your laptop, but in a cool way.

That came in pretty handy during my installation, since a missing WiFi driver (thanks, Microsoft) meant I couldn’t connect to the internet after my initial upgrade. (This has since been resolved, but one of the pitfalls of testing hardware long before it reaches the public). Being able to slam in an Ethernet port and hook it up to my network to resolve the issue was a godsend. Not to mention that, like all of the spare expansion cards the company offers, it’s another step toward making the laptop something more like a Swiss Army knife.

And then there’s the top cover. Now, I didn’t have many complaints about the amount of flex in the machine when it launched last year. But Framework’s engineers weren’t happy, and so redesigned the display enclosure to be CNC-milled from a solid block of aluminum. It adds some extra rigidity to the frame, and is available as standard on all new Framework laptops sold going forward, as well as being bundled in the mainboard replacement kits. But, again, rather than leave existing customers who don’t want a new CPU on the fence, you can also buy a standalone top cover for $89, and if the company can keep with this commitment of always bringing existing buyers along, then it’s going to earn a devoted, and loving fanbase.

Finally, with the upgrade finished, there’s the small matter of what users will do with the now discarded mainboard. Framework is offering users open-source plans to build desktop-style enclosures for the boards to encourage re-use, and hobbyists are already using them as the basis of their own super-cool modding projects. GitHub user Penk, for instance, has built this retro Mainboard Terminal that looks like it’s fallen out the back of a copy of Fallout. If I didn’t have to send all of this back, and I had any sort of skill at building things, I’m fairly sure I’d be trying to build something super-cool myself.

And perhaps that’s the other gift that Framework can keep giving: the notion that users should feel empowered to get their hands dirty after being told that their machines have been off limits for so long.

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