Modern consumer electronics, including phones, tablets, and laptops, rely on copious amounts of glue, security screws, plastic tabs, soldered components, and other design elements that make repair and service darn near impossible. Thanks to the likes of Apple, we’ve been sold the idea that this lack of serviceability was necessary in order to deliver devices that are thin, light, sturdy, and performant. The result is an electronics market dominated by devices costing upwards of a thousand dollars while being treated as essentially disposable.
It wasn’t always like this!
There was a time when PCs were a thing people built and maintained, replacing and upgrading components as needed to keep a device functioning. After all, who could possibly justify throwing away a whole machine just because a component went bad?
Well, for folks who are not aware, Framework is a new entrant in the consumer laptop space that has a unique and, to me, very compelling mission: to build a thin, light, high quality laptop that’s also highly modular, repairable, and critically, user serviceable.
For context, I’ve long been a big fan of Lenovo, and my daily driver up to this point was a Lenovo X1 Carbon I bought in 2017. The X1 is, at least in my opinion, the absolute pinnacle of PC ultrabooks. They’re small, light, fast, incredibly sturdy, and compared to the rest of the market, pretty user serviceable.
But when I heard about Framework and the mission of the company, I knew I had to give them a chance, so I decided to pre-order the DIY version of their first generation device. The following is a write-up of my impressions after a couple of days of use.
In short: while battery life leaves something to be desired, the Framework laptop compares extremely favourably with the X1 at a fraction of the price.
First, full disclosure, I’m not going to bother including a bunch of photos in this review. If you want to see pictures or video of the Framework you can find them all over the place. And I’m profoundly lazy. Not to mention a middling photographer at best.
In terms of size and weight, as far as I can tell, the Framework is right up there with my X1 Carbon. The device is very thin, light, and extremely sturdy, yet manages to achieve all that without compromising on ports or internal hardware.
The screen hinge is extremely solid with very little sway or vibration during active use. Resistance to opening and closing is just right, and the laptop closes tightly. And that hinge design is all the more remarkable for the roll it plays in repairability of the device, which I’ll be getting to in a bit.
Fans vent purely out of the bottom of the device, which initially had me a bit concerned. However, in practice, when the device is in the lap, the natural position of the legs ensures clear airflow. When placed on a desk, the laptop has rubber feet that provide 2-3mm of clearance for those vents.
Speakers on the laptop are placed at an angle toward the front of the laptop, though having never used them, I can’t say how good they are. Meanwhile, the camera and microphone assembly–which include physical kill switches–are placed at the top of the screen, which is certainly my preference.
Having chosen to buy the DIY model, I got a taste of just how user serviceable the Framework is, and I gotta say: I am completely blown away.
Just a few things that immediately impressed me (many of these have been discussed elsewhere but are worth a mention):
All screws in the bottom of the case are captive. This means that, upon loosening them, the screws stay attached to the case. You’ll never lose a case screw with the Framework.
Additionally, with the laptop turned over and the front edge facing toward you, the bottom left screw is special! When I first opened up the case I didn’t bother reading any guides, and I noticed something weird: when I was loosening the screw, at some point it started clicking and sitting at a weird angle. “Huh, must be a bad screw,” I thought. Then I finally read the guide and discovered something delightful: That screw, when it’s fully loosened, actuates a mechanism in the case that causes the keyboard panel to automatically pop up a bit, allowing you to get your fingers under the panel without any prying or fiddling. Fantastic!
Next, the keyboard and mouse panel are held down and aligned with magnets, not plastic tabs, and after lifting the keyboard off you’ll find it’s connected to the mainboard with a single cable. Moreover, the socket for that cable has a little plastic loop whose sole purpose is to give you something to grip when removing the cable.
Once opened, installing the storage, memory, and wifi card was an absolute breeze. Of course, as they’ve touted in their marketing and so forth, everything inside the case includes a QR code that takes you to relevant guides online.
As if that wasn’t enough, the screen bezel is a plastic piece attached with magnets. This makes it trivial to get access to replace the microphone/camera assembly or the screen. And that excellent hinge is designed in a way to make it very easy to remove that bezel and access cables and so forth. And did I mention it opens fully flat for easy access and cleaning?
In short, given my (limited) experience so far, it’s clear Framework has lived up to their repairability promise, with an incredible number of brilliant design choices, as well as small, thoughtful touches, all without having to compromise on weight, thinness, or quality. It really is a remarkable piece of work.
The Framework is an oddball in the industry, shipping with a glossy 3:2 display running at a resolution of 2256x1504. The display itself is beautiful and vibrant, and when run at full brightness, works well even in bright sunlight. My X1 literally pales in comparison.
I would’ve preferred a matte display option, but there’s already discussion in the forums about options for applying an aftermarket matte screen protector. And because the bezel can be so easily removed, it may be possible to install that protector behind the bezel, giving a nice clean appearance. I’ll definitely be looking for that in the future!
I was genuinely surprised how quickly I adapted (back) to a taller 3:2 aspect ratio. My X1 now looks weird and squat to me by comparison, and I’m a little aghast that I got used to such a cramped display. I absolutely love the extra vertical space I get on the Framework, and given what we know about ergonomics and typography, the narrower screen is much more suitable for reading and writing.
Keyboard, touchpad, fingerprint reader
I’ve long felt that Lenovo has produced some of the best keyboards on modern laptops, and compared to the Framework, they’re still the king as far as I’m concerned. That being said, the Framework gets so close! The key travel (which they report as a full 1.5mm) matches what we’re seeing on recent model X1s (though my X1C5 had a 1.8mm key travel, so a little deeper). Similarly, Framework has gone with a flat key profile, though I prefer something with a bit of a scoop. The switches themselves have a very satisfying snap on the way down–these aren’t mechanical switches, obviously, but I find them pleasingly tactile. Overall, the typing experience on the Framework is excellent!
The keyboard layout, on the other hand, leaves a bit to be desired. Due to the narrower profile of the case limiting horizontal space for the keyboard, they’ve had to compromise a bit, placing the Home/End/PgUp/PgDown cluster behind a function layer. Otherwise, it’s a pretty standard layout, including space for an ISO Enter key for my European brethren!
The touchpad, on the other hand, benefits from the taller screen profile, as it’s allowed Framework to make it surprisingly large for a laptop this size. The touchpad is a Windows Precision clickpad with a nice, matte glass finish. In Linux I’ve found it extremely responsive, though I’ve found its position does make it a bit easy to accidentally hit the pad with the palm of the hand.
Finally, the fingerprint reader, which doubles as the power button, works quite well (note, in Linux, this requires some gymnastics), though I will say it’s a bit small. Maybe it’s just me, but I would’ve liked something a bit bigger, as it requires some precision to ensure good finger placement.
The charger for the Framework is a remarkable piece of engineering. The brick itself is tiny, taking up a space only a few inches square. But what I absolutely love about the design is the cables, both of which are removable and replaceable! The power cable itself is a standard IEC C5 three prong cable that you can get darn near anywhere. And the connection to the laptop itself is just a USB-C cable on both sides. No proprietary ports here!
If I had one complaint, it’s that the power cable is a grounded three prong cable, which could be an issue on aircraft. Hopefully in the future they can provide a two prong option, as for now I expect I’ll be holding onto my X1C5 charger for use with my Framework when I’m traveling.
The card system
Normally, at this point in a laptop review, we’d talk about port availability, an area where, with traditional ultrabooks, there are inevitable compromises.
Framework, by contrast, has managed to completely side step the issue by instead adopting a modular card-based system for ports.
I won’t describe the mechanics of this design feature in too much detail, as it’s been covered ad nauseum elsewhere. Instead, I’ll just say that at least in my opinion, the design absolutely lives up to the promise.
A few observations: First, the cards seat extremely tightly in the case and require a button to be depressed to remove them. I was a bit concerned, when I first heard about the Framework, that the cards might come out accidentally, perhaps when removing an HDMI cable or something. But those concerns were completely unfounded.
Second, it may seem like a small thing, but with a USB-C card, you can charge through any of the expansion slots, which means you can decide on which side you want to charge the laptop. I can’t emphasize how nice that flexibility is!
The same is true of every other port; being able to decide where my USB-A ports are, or where my HDMI connection will be, is incredibly nice! And that’s ignoring the fact that I get to decide the mix of ports I want, whether it’s USB, SD card reader, HDMI or DisplayPort, and so forth.
I know early on some folks saw the card system as a gimmick, but in my opinion, it’s a complete success and a fantastic innovation in laptop design.
I added this section just so I can say I haven’t done much to assess performance as that wasn’t my main concern when I bought this unit. That said, I picked up a model with an i7-1165G7 and it’s noticeably faster than my four year old X1, which is obviously a good thing! In hindsight I probably should’ve just gotten the i5, but… hindsight and all that.
Fans and heat dissipation
The Framework equipped with the i7-1165G7 definitely runs hotter than my old X1C5, though during casual usage it stays pretty cool. Under heavier workloads, the heat is concentrated beneath the keyboard, which is nice, as at least your wrists don’t get uncomfortably hot. But the metal chassis does transmit heat more effectively than the carbon fiber plastic top case of the X1.
The fans, when they do run, are reasonably quiet–certainly no louder than my old X1–unless you really drive the laptop to its limit (think: on A/C power and doing a parallel kernel compilation), at which point it can sound like a small jet engine. But, under those conditions, the good news is the fans and ventilation are effective in keeping the laptop cool enough to protect the unit.
Now, if I had a choice, I would’ve definitely undervolted my Framework to bring down those temperatures (and improve battery life), but in their infinite wisdom, Intel decided to prevent undervolting on Tiger Lake processors. Thanks Intel!
Battery life tuning in Linux has always been a bit of a challenge. On my machine I’m using combination of tlp and auto-cpufreq, and with that combination I got my idle power draw down to around 5W. Not great but not bad. There’s some reports, in the community threads, of getting down into the 4W range with this setup, but I haven’t been able to get there yet.
I then decided to do something a bit more drastic and disable hyperthreading in the BIOS. As I mentioned earlier, performance isn’t my top concern with this laptop, so I’m willing to take that hit. With that change I’ve gotten idle power draw down into the 4W range.
Additionally, an issue has been identified with the HDMI card that leads to an additional 1W power draw when it’s plugged in. While Framework has reproduced the issue and is investigating, for now it’s best to unplug your HDMI card if you’re away from an outlet.
So, netting this all out, this translates to about 7-8 hours of casual use–web browsing, writing, etc–which is okay but far from great. For comparison, my four year old X1C5 running Linux was capable of hitting 8-10 hours prior to undervolting, and with undervolting 12-14 hours is more typical.
I wanted to briefly mention the Framework online community, which has been a wonderful resource, particularly for tips running Linux on the thing (see my notes in the addendum below). Particularly impressive is the company representation on the forums. Framework, themselves, is maintaining a thread covering known issues with the laptop, and they regularly answer customer questions and assist in troubleshooting.
The result is that, unlike Dell or Lenovo or HP, Framework feels like a company that’s truly engaging with its customer base to build a community.
Summary and takeaways
So where does this all net out?
The major downsides are battery life and heat dissipation. The Framework i7-1165G7 unit is really only average in both of these areas, which is a bit disappointing. I do wonder if the i5 model would’ve performed better in this respect, and I hope a higher density battery upgrade might be possible in the future given improvements to battery chemistry and so forth.
As for the upsides, from an industrial design perspective the Framework is an incredible piece of engineering. The device is hyper-repairable (and upgradeable as a consequence) and the modular port system is a fantastic idea and should extend the life of the system. The stock components, including the keyboard, screen, touchpad, and fingerprint reader, not to mention the charger, are all absolutely top notch.
Netting it all out, I’d call the Framework a very solid competitor to the X1 or other ultrabooks in that class, and I’m very happy to have it as my new daily driver.
On Linux compatibility
Just a few notes on Linux usage on the Framework.
I actually tested both Ubuntu 21.04 and Debian on the machine. In Ubuntu 21.04, the only thing that didn’t work straight out of the box was the fingerprint reader. If you’re looking for a quick path to a functioning machine, I’d definitely recommend that route.
That said, I’m a Debian fan, so I took the effort to get Debian Bullseye (upgrading to current testing) going, and to do so you’ll need to do a couple of things:
- To get the AX210 wifi card working, follow the Debian handbook and go compile you a 5.12.x kernel. But make sure to enable I2C_HID and I2C_HID_ACPI in the kernel configuration, lest your touchpad not function.
- To get the fingerprint reader working, build your own packages for libfprint 1.92.1 and fprintd 1.92.0.
- Add “mem_sleep_default=deep” to your kernel parameters in /etc/default/grub
Beyond that, the biggest issues are with HiDPI on Linux, which really is an endless source of frustration. In the end I’ve chosen to use Wayland, despite all the issues that brings with it, in order to take advantage of proper HiDPI multi-monitor support with fractional scaling. I’ll probably write up a whole second post on my battles getting Wayland (mostly) working for my use cases…