Darwin's Theories Blog

New Theories for a New Time

Buy this Framework Laptop Now to Avoid Buying Your Next Few!

2021-09-13
Pre-order Yours Now!

Unlike laptops from most manufacturers, the Framework Laptop was designed from the outset to be sustainable; this lightweight, stylish beast is field-upgradable and field-repairable. In the company’s own words: "Proof that designing products to last doesn’t require sacrificing performance, quality, or style." I agree with the claim and with their corporate direction.

The machine comes with an 11th-generation Intel i5 or i7. Not only can you stick almost any NVME SSD drive in them (up to 8TB tested), you can add DDR4 SODIMM memory up to 64GB, and choose your own WiFi and/or Bluetooth card. Of course that might not be big enough/fast enough in three, or five, or ten years, but by then you’ll be able to buy a newer, faster mainboard from Framework and, if you didn’t lose the handy screwdriver they shipped with the unit, intall it yourself. Just kidding: it’s a standard Philips 0, Torx 5, and spudger tool all in one, all readily available tools. Undoing the five (captive) screws holding the case bottom gets you access to the mainboard and all those internal slots. If you’re not handy, you can probably find a friend who is, or a local technician, who’s willing to swap the boards for you. But don’t throw the old board in the trash (ever) nor even in the electronic recycling bin yet - unless it’s busted beyond repair, just pop it in a standalone case and use it for a router/firewall, a NAS (Network Attached Storage, e.g., backup server), or any of dozens of other purposes.

Hardware Overview

I’ve previously done a more detailed look at the hardware. The following are the main points.

This unit is sleek and stylish, and weighs in under three pounds. The Framework laptop has a mainboard with an Intel Core i5 or i7, two DDR4 SODIMM slots, one NVME slot for an SSD "disk", another for the shorter WiFi/Bluetooth cards, and four "expansion card" slots which bring ports to the outside. Ever been irked that a video or USB cable came out the wrong side of your laptop? With the Framework, you can just remove and rearrange the adapters to put the connectors where you want them. Even while the system is running! Their connection to the laptop is via USB-C, so they’re hot-swappable. One of the four (any one) provides charging via USB-C, but a relatively low-cost USB hub with Power Delivery will take that one slot and expand it to multiple USB A, USB-C, wired network, or whatever - there are many of these on the market, from Asian sellers and from big name vendors (see for example Google’s Works With Chromebooks program). Available connectors include USB-A, USB-C, HDMI, DisplayPort, MicroSD. Near-term plans call for a gigabit wired network card, followed by others. To encourage third party developers to design specialized cards, there’s even a developer program including published schematics and 3D-print files for the existing cards.

The screen is a gorgeous, crisp 13.5" 2256x1504 (3:2 or 1.5:1) screen, taller than the usual 1.3:1. If you are moving from a lower-resolution device, and using any OS that supports X Windows, you may want to adjust your settings by scaling globally, using a line like Xft.dpi: 144 in your ~/.Xresources file. The screen isn’t matte finish, but reflections are muted. It’s not a touch screen, just a beautiful display.

Above the screen are the microphone and a 1920x1024 video camera for web conferencing. For privacy, both of these devices have hardware switches that disconnect the input device from the rest of the computer, so even if hackers take over your insecure OS, they won’t be able to watch you undress or overhear your private comments.

The power button doubles as a fingerprint sensor, for the security that some people think that gives. It is supported under Windows, and by libfprint on *Nix.

The keyboard is full-sized, features a standard US-English layout with full-sized shift and enter keys, shows good vertical travel and has a solid overall feel. Like everything else on the Framework, it is easily replaceable, with many different layouts planned for the near future. There’s a large trackpad below that, which works nicely.

Framework has done a good job of choosing mostly well-tested components, and allowing owners the flexibility to choose and easily install/upgrade/replace many of the socketed parts.

framework open

Operating System Software

My Framework Laptop arrived in good condition and is up and running. Microsoft Windows is of course fully supported. Linux is also well supported, since the Framework team https://frame.work/blog/linux-on-the-framework-laptop] not only chose mostly well-supported devices, but also worked with developers on several Linux projects. In fact, their "DIY" edition - shipped with no operating system, presumably for Linux or OpenBSD, has significantly outsold the Windows-based versions they ship. I suspect this is more due to open-source-interested people being less interested in Windows, and the penetration of information about Framework into the Windows-oriented media.

I run the OpenBSD Unix-like operating system on most of my computers because of its security record, and because I’m a bit of a Unix geek. Installation consists of disabling "Secure Boot" in the BIOS (you’d have to do this with Linux too), and running the OpenBSD installer. There were at first a couple of system-level glitches wth running OpenBSD on the Framework. Most of these got worked out pretty quickly because on of the developers, jcs@, got his Framework a couple of days before I did (thanks jcs!). One thing that isn’t supported on OpenBSD initially is the fancier WiFi card, the AX210 (OpenBSD currently only supports the AX200/201; many Linux distros need particular versions to support this as well). Since there is no wired internet expansion card yet (as of September 2021), having working WiFi is crucial for a "road warrior" laptop (for mostly-in-one-place laptop you can use a USB-C dock to provide wired networking). Bluetooth support is one of those things that OpenBSD just doesn’t care to support, but you can work around that with external plugins.

The above-mentioned OpenBSD Developer jcs has a chronological review of his impressions of this laptop. I’ve borrowed and expanded his list of what works and doesn’t into a Google Docs spreadsheet that will be updated periodically.

Should you run OpenBSD on your Framework? Obviously I’m in favor, but OpenBSD is not the user-friendly environment that Linux or Microsoft Windows is. Any modern operating system should be able to run on the Framework laptop just like any other Intel-based computer. Evaluate your needs and abilities and make your own choice!

Top Five Reasons to Buy Framework Laptop

Should you buy one?

  • If you want a stylish, lightweight laptop that runs most mainstream OSes, then yes.

  • If you want a laptop that has been engineered from the ground up to be both repairable and upgradable, yes.

  • If you believe in making choices for a better environment, yes.

  • If you want a laptop that will grow with your workload, yes.

  • If you want a laptop that is adaptable to different peripherals without external adapters, via the expansion card slots, yes.

There are some reasons why you might not, such as needing an AMD CPU right now or needing 28 different external ports without using a USB hub, but they are few and far between. If you worry about buying from a smaller company, be aware that Framework is well-funded and is run by people who have worked at other successful startups, including VR headset pioneer Occulus.. There is of course a small chance of the company failing but, even if they do, you will have a lightweight, stylish, and capable laptop that is far more repairable and expandable than most. Assuming the company prospers, which seems the more likely scenario, you will have a path to upgrade to a newer, faster processor when the time comes, at a significant savings both in terms of cost and in terms of environmental impact. What’s not to like?