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

Framework started last year with the promise of building laptops you could upgrade with little more than a screwdriver and a little patience. Now, 12 months after its debut, the company is shipping its first round of upgrade kits to keep these machines up to date. It’s a good start as the company delivers on its promise to make a modular, repairable machine and introduce existing users to the system with future tweaks. Having almost effortlessly swapped out a first-generation motherboard for its replacement, I can say that we’re entering a brand new era for computing.

To show how easy it is to upgrade, Framework sent its 2021-era model powered by an 11th Gen Intel Core chip. Inside the package, but in a separate box, was a brand new 12th Gen Intel Core chip (Alder Lake) connected to a motherboard. The idea, simply put, is that you can pull out the mainboard, which contains the CPU and I/O, while pretty much keeping everything else. The existing RAM, SSD, WiFi card, battery, audio devices, screen, etc. can all be reused until they break or otherwise need updating as well.

You will need a Torx T5 screwdriver (included) to upgrade or replace components in the Framework case. Of course, replacing the motherboard is the most expensive upgrade you can make, as you’ll have to disassemble everything else to gain access to it. Luckily, Framework creates iFixit-style guides for you to follow, and each component is either color-coded or labeled. And on each device are QR codes that link to tutorial videos and support pages to help you get there.

The company announced earlier this year that it would offer a trio of new motherboard options for different budgets. $499 gets you a 12th gen i5-1240P, while $699 gets you an i7-1260P. If you want to stay up to date and have enough cash, you can go for the $1,049 Core i7-1280P. That’s steep, but the argument is that buying a whole new laptop would cost you more. However, I don’t expect users to go crazy over these yearly upgrades, but rather look for a new motherboard every two or three years to stay current.

As for the upgrade process, I don’t necessarily have one gripe, but a few things worth marking. If you come here as a beginner, it will take you much longer than the 15 minutes promised in the instructions. You’ll get faster with practice, but I think these guides need to be a little kinder to the unenlightened amateur. Likewise, I’m not a big fan of ZIF connectors that require you to carefully slide a ribbon cable no larger than your fingernail into the required fixture. Especially since they are small and I would worry that a mistimed sneeze would cost you $699 of your own money.

Image of Framework's 2.5G Ethernet expansion card

Daniel Cooper

At the same time, Framework is launching two more products that demonstrate its commitment to listening to its users and ensuring OG buyers are not left behind. The first is that the company is releasing its first new expansion card, which is a 2.5 Gigabit Ethernet adapter. In a word, this is very cool as the standard all-metal body is replaced with a transparent plastic shell that makes it look like one of those special edition Game Boys from the 90’s. The cyberpunk aesthetic also helps obscure the fact that the Ethernet port itself is significantly larger than the rest of the expansion cards to accommodate it. It sticks out the side of your laptop, but in a cool way.

This came in pretty handy during my installation as a missing WiFi driver (thanks Microsoft) meant I couldn’t connect to the internet after my initial upgrade. (This has since been fixed, but is one of the pitfalls of testing hardware long before it reaches the public). Being able to slam an ethernet port and connect it to my network to solve the problem was a godsend. Not to mention that like all the replacement expansion cards the company offers, this is another step towards making the laptop more of a Swiss Army knife.

And then there’s the top cover. Well I didn’t have many complaints about the amount of flex in the machine when it was released last year. But Framework’s engineers weren’t happy and redesigned the display case to be CNC-machined from a solid block of aluminum. It adds extra rigidity to the frame and will come standard on all new Framework laptops sold in the future, as well as included in motherboard replacement kits. But again, instead of leaving existing customers who don’t want a new CPU by the wayside, you can also buy a standalone top cover for $89, and if the company can live up to that commitment of always bringing existing buyers with them, then it is deserve such a devoted and loving fan base.

Finally, when the upgrade is complete, there remains the small question of what users will do with the now discarded motherboard. Framework provides users with open-source blueprints for building desktop-style cases for the boards to encourage reuse, and hobbyists are already using them as a basis for their own super cool modding projects. GitHub user Penk, for example, built this retro mainboard terminal that looks like it fell out of the back of a copy of Stand out. If I didn’t have to send all of this back, and if I had any sort of building skill, I’m pretty sure I would try to build something super cool myself.

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

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Russell Falcon

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