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I recently switched over to a desktop computer, and after years of using laptops almost exclusively, it still feels novel that I can easily crack open my gaming PC’s case and swap out parts. Now, a startup called Framework has built a framework modular laptop that would—at least on paper—allow people to easily change just about any part, including the external ports, the internal components, and even the display.
This story was originally published in February 2021 and has been updated
Framework’s machine looks like a typical high-end modular laptop. It’s 0.6 inches thick and weighs just over 2.8 pounds with a 13.5-inch screen. The spec sheet includes familiar parts like Intel’s 11-gen Core processors and Windows 10 Pro. When it comes to connectivity, however, things get more complex and unique.
The ports on the side of the machine live inside swappable modules called expansion cards. Each one is about the size of a matchbook, and they come in a variety of types, including USB-C, USB-A, HDMI, Display Port, a MicroSD reader, or even additional solid state storage. The process to swap them is simple: pop out one module and slide in another.
The internal components promise similar modularity. Laptops are typically locked down tightly, with many components glued into place. Framework modular laptops, however, claims users can upgrade just about everything inside including the RAM (up to 64 GB) and solid state storage (up to 4 TB), and battery. The company has promised to even release new mainboards down the line so people can upgrade to the latest generation CPUs without having to ditch their entire machine.
While the upgrades are an appealing sales pitch, the repairability also makes this a very attractive idea. Laptops are notoriously difficult to repair for professionals, let alone DIY enthusiasts. Designing a laptop is like a high-stakes game of Tetris in which companies have to cram many delicate components into increasingly small spaces, while still leaving enough room inside for the cooling system to prevent everything from literally melting down. It also has to survive the rigors of constant jostling in and out of laptop bags. As a result, laptops often have internal components glued in place.
While Framework’s modular laptop swap-friendly initiative will make repairs and upgrades much easier, it will have to prove itself when it comes to durability. Moving parts provide opportunities for failure, and Framework has more of them than an average machine. Some of the solutions seem very clever—the bezel around the display attaches magnetically, for example—but will have to prove themselves in the real world where computers take all kinds of abuse.
Durability isn’t the only challenge a machine like this will face. While some components like RAM and SSDs are readily available with broad compatibility, early Framework adopters will have to trust that the company will continue to support the project down the road. Other companies have tried similar initiatives with specific components. In 2019, Dell’s Alienware brand offered Area 51m laptops that promised simple processor and graphics processor upgrades. But, the program ran into problems almost immediately. In order to make the CPU swaps easy, Alienware included a socket that fit standard desktop chips. However, Intel changed the socket specs in the following generation, which made moving up to a new processor impossible.
Dell also created an entire system for offering GPU upgrades, but the first version of the Area 51m isn’t compatible with new versions of the graphics modules, so upgrading to new versions it out of the question there, too.
While continued commitment from Framework is essential for its product to remain viable, the company says that it’s also looking to open up the platform to partners, which would allow for third-party accessories to enter the mix. That could take some of the pressure off of the company itself if the partner program can gain momentum.
As history has shown us, Framework’s goals of a truly modular laptop are extremely ambitious, but the benefits are obvious. If you bought a laptop last year, for instance, you probably have a Wi-Fi 6 module inside, which was the state of the art at the time. Since then, however, Wi-Fi 6E has appeared, promising improved performance that won’t be available to older hardware. It would be nice to be able to make a simple swap.
Framework is currently offering preorders on its machines, which start at $999 for pre-built options. The base model includes an Intel Core i5 processor, 8 GB RAM, and a 256 GB SSD. The $1,399 mid-level model includes an Intel Core i7 processor, 16 GB RAM, and a 512 GB SSD. The high-end $1,999 model includes a faster Core i7 processor, 32 GB RAM, and a 1 TB SSD. The DIY version starts at $749 and offers most of the same spec options. The machines start shipping this summer.