Framework Laptop review (hands on) — the anti-MacBook is here

The Framework Laptop goes on sale today, and it’s got a unique pitch. Buy this laptop and you’ll have the freedom to swap out almost all the parts at will, letting you repair and customize it to an unprecedented degree. And after getting time with the laptop for this hands-on Framework Laptop review, I feel pretty bullish about what the company’s promising.

This is a big deal for DIY computing enthusiasts, and it’s a powerful sales pitch in a market where leading manufacturers like Apple proudly release products designed to be difficult (if not impossible) for customers to crack open and tinker with themselves.

In contrast, the folks at Framework have built a business around their new 13.5-inch laptop that aims to monetize its customizable design. The laptop packs Intel’s latest 11th Gen Tiger Lake CPUs and can be ordered in a variety of configurations, with a unique Expansion Card system that lets customers choose which ports they want (with choices like USB-A, USB-C, HDMI, etc.) and which side of the laptop they want them on. 

The Framework laptop is easy to open and the components are clearly marked and accessible. More importantly, the keyboard feels good to type on, the screen looks nice, and the laptop itself is thin and light enough to carry around all day. 

Framework even includes a screwdriver to help you maintain it. Plus, it ships with zero bloatware and your choice of OS, and all the replaceable parts — including the motherboard and display — have QR codes on them that lead customers to a page where they can order replacements through the Framework Marketplace.

Read on for more details about the new Framework laptop, along with some insights from company founder Nirav Patel.

Framework Laptop review: Price and availability

The Framework laptop is now available for pre-order (with a $100 refundable deposit) through the Framework website, and the price tag starts at $999 — though you can pay as low as $749 for the DIY Edition if you’re willing to assemble your laptop yourself.

The base configuration of the Framework costs $999 pre-assembled and comes with an Intel Core i5-1135G7 CPU, 8GB DDR4 RAM, and a 256GB NVMe SSD with Windows 10 Home.

Framework Laptop — opened up

(Image credit: Future)

The performance configuration, which has a starting price of $1,399, gets you double the memory and storage (16GB DDR4 and a 512GB NVMe SSD) plus a Core i7-1165G7 CPU and copy of Windows 10 Home.

Framework Laptop review — lid

(Image credit: Future)

The top-of-the-line professional configuration starts at $1,999, and for that you’re getting an even more powerful Core i7-1185G7 CPU, 32GB DDR4 RAM, a 1TB NVMe SSD, Wi-Fi 6 plus vPro for enterprise work, and a copy of Windows 10 Pro.

Due to the ongoing chip shortage, the company has had difficulty getting consistent supplies of one component. So, it plans to offer pre-orders in batches: each batch will have its own ship date listed when you pre-order.

Framework Laptop review: Design

The Framework laptop has a slim aluminum chassis (made of 50% post-consumer recycled aluminum) that wouldn’t look out of place on a table full of MacBooks and Windows ultraportables. It’s roughly 0.6 inches thick and 2.8 pounds heavy, making it just as thin and even a smidge lighter than the M1 MacBook Pro

Framework Laptop review — from underneath

The Framework laptop can be opened via the screws seen here, and it ships with a complementary screwdriver. Some of its expansion cards are on the table. (Image credit: Future)

Just about everything on the laptop is replaceable, from the screen bezel down to the keyboard and mainboard — you can even use an old mainboard to build a completely different PC, since it’s designed to be fully functional outside of the Framework laptop. 

Framework Laptop review — unscrewed

(Image credit: Future)

The screws holding it all together are easily accessible, and Framework includes a screwdriver with every laptop ordered.

Framework Laptop review — really opened up

(Image credit: Future)

The hinge on the Framework opens up to a maximum of 180 degrees, allowing you to lay the laptop completely flat on a table. For now that’s as far as the laptop goes; Framework founder Nirav Patel says the company currently has no plans to offer different chassis (like say, one with a 360-degree hinge that lets it function like a tablet) but that it’s exploring those options for the future.

The company also has a plan in place for what to do when components change size and inevitably become smaller.

“We’ve designed the system around the roadmap of platform changes that we have visibility of, plus flexibility for additional potential future changes,” said Patel. “Eventually, there will be enough changes built up that we’ll hit the reset button and start with a new design that overlaps with the current one for a period and then eventually becomes the primary one. That is a long ways out.”

Framework Laptop review: Display

The 13.5-inch display on the Framework laptop is a 2256 x 1504 LCD screen, giving it the same resolution and 3:2 display ratio as that found on the 13-inch Microsoft Surface Laptop 4

That’s a bit less sharp than the high-end screens found on competing laptops like the Dell XPS 13 and M1 MacBook Pro, but it’s no slouch, and the taller 3:2 display ratio is nice to have when you’re editing, coding, or otherwise working with lots of text.

Framework Laptop review — going under the hood

(Image credit: Future)

To make it more accessible and replaceable Framework has anchored the screen to the lid of the laptop via four unscrewable fasteners and a magnetically-attachable bezel. The fasteners can be unscrewed with the included screwdriver, and the bezel can be swapped in and out quickly (in my hands-on time I saw a bezel changed in a matter of minutes) when you want a new color. 

The bezel is black by default, but Framework is working on offering more swappable bezels in a “sneaker-like variety” of colors, including red and white.

Framework Laptop review — three-tone design

(Image credit: Future)

Right now it seems as though you’ll only able to replace the screen on your Framework laptop, not upgrade it; it remains to be seen if Framework will offer more screen options down the road, say with higher resolutions or touchscreen capability.

“That is something we’re considering in the future,” said Framework founder Nirav Patel. “I think the utility of a touchscreen is relatively low…[but] that is potentially a category of products that we could get into, with a form factor that’s more touchscreen-conducive.”

Framework Laptop: Ports

The Framework laptop is unique for (among other things) offering you the choice of what ports you want where via its Expansion Card scheme. 

Framework Laptop review — ports you can customize

(Image credit: Future)

Put simply, the Framework Laptop has 4 expansion card slots — two on each side of the chassis. As for what ports they offer, you will fill them with your choice of expansion cards that offer USB-C (with support for 20V/5A charging and USB4), USB-A, DisplayPort, or HDMI ports, as well as a MicroSD card reader.

Each expansion card can be quickly slotted in or removed without tools, and you can also choose to slot in expansion cards with extra storage. These flash memory cards come in 250GB and 1TB sizes, and Framework claims they’ll be speedy enough to let you run programs or even boot an operating system from them.

Framework Laptop review — side view

(Image credit: Future)

Framework has plans to develop and release more expansion card options down the road, including (potentially) Arduino-compatible microcontrollers. The company has also released the expansion card specs and reference designs to both partner companies and the community at large, meaning you can likely expect more expansion card options from third-party vendors in the future.

Framework Laptop review: Performance

The Framework laptop ships with Intel’s Tiger Lake CPUs sporting Iris Xe integrated graphics, which means it should be powerful enough to tackle everything you do in an average workday without breaking a sweat.

However, without an option to include a discrete graphics card this laptop will have a hard time playing the latest games or handling a lot of high-res photo/video editing. Framework founder Nirav Patel says the company has no plans to offer a discrete GPU option with this model of the Framework laptop, though he notes you can hook up an external GPU enclosure if you need the extra power.

Framework Laptop review: Keyboard

Typing on the Framework’s default keyboard feels comfy and responsive. The keys have 1.5 mm of travel, and can be backlit for late-night work sessions.

Framework Laptop review — keyboard

(Image credit: Future)

The keyboard can be swapped out pretty quickly, and Framework currently plans to offer alternative color options and key layouts. You should also be able to get both black and clear versions of the QWERTY keyboard with no text printed on them, the latter of which will let you see the inner workings of the keys at the expense of not knowing which is which.

There’s also a fingerprint reader built into the power button on the top right side of the deck which will let you log in via biometric authentication, and it’s compatible with Windows Hello. Below the keyboard you’ll find a 4.5 x 3-inch matte glass touchpad that, in my experience, is accurate and easy to use.

Framework Laptop: Battery

The Framework Laptop ships with a 55Wh battery that’s also replaceable, though it’s yet unclear how long the device will last on a single charge under normal usage.

“We’re still tuning our firmware and drivers,” said Patel. “Expect real world battery life similar to other Intel 11th Gen based notebooks with batteries in the 55Wh range.”

Naturally, we’re looking forward to getting one in for testing so we can put it through our browsing-based battery tests.

Framework Laptop: Webcam

We’ve been looking for them in the latest laptops for years, and now Framework has delivered a 1080p 60fps webcam that comes built into every unit.

Framework Laptop review — Display

(Image credit: Future)

Now that we’re living in an era chock-full of video calls, including a good high-res webcam in the Framework laptop is a welcome luxury. In my limited testing the video captured by the webcam was sharp and vibrant, and there’s a privacy switch built into the unit that lets you physically cut power to the sensor when you want to be sure the camera can’t be used.

Framework’s embedded controller firmware is also open source, so you could conceivably crack into it yourself to make sure the laptop’s camera isn’t being used in ways you don’t agree with.

Framework Laptop review: Outlook

As this Framework Laptop review has shown, it packs some of Intel’s latest CPUs into a unique chassis that’s as slim and light as the best ultraportables on the market — and with a starting price of $999, it’s priced to compete.

Though it can’t match the high-quality screens and discrete GPUs available in some competing laptops (like the Dell XPS 13 and Alienware m15 r4), Framework offers a unique feature customers can’t find anywhere else right now: control. 

Laptops have steadily gotten less repairable and upgradeable over time, to the horror of many computing enthusiasts. While we’re starting to see manufacturers ship more notebooks with upgradeable storage and graphics card options, the rest of the components are typically off-limits — and often soldered down in a way that makes trying to replace or upgrade it a dicey proposition at best. 

Framework Laptop

The clearly-labeled modular guts of the Framework laptop — note the QR codes, which take you to pages for ordering replacements — could be a game-changer (Image credit: Future)

By contrast, Framework’s laptop has been designed from the ground up for socket-based modularity. This is a decision founder Nirav Patel claims hasn’t prevented them from achieving nearly the same heights of thinness and lightness as competitors like Apple and Dell have.

“It’s amazing how little you lose,” said Patel. “Technically we could have shaved off like a fraction of a millimeter if we soldered down the RAM, or if we didn’t build in our expansion card system…[but] it’s that much more shameful that like, you actually don’t have to trade off that much.”

My hands-on experience bears that out: the Framework laptop I played around with this month was as svelte as any MacBook, and the keyboard and chassis felt sturdy and durable in my hands. All that remains is to see whether Framework can deliver laptops that live up to its promises at a scale that makes an impact.