Framework Laptop: Saving the planet, one sustainable laptop at a time
[Note: Unlike I Tried That’s usual policy, this is a preview of an item that isn’t shipping yet. We’re sufficiently impressed by the public information that we’re putting this out in preview form, and will update the article as more info becomes available and especially after we get our grubby little mitts on the unit. Tens of thousands of people will buy laptops in the next few months, and if we can persuade a few to switch to a sustainable laptop, well, that’s our good deed for the day.]
Having walked this earth since the age of dinosaurs, or at least dinosaur computers (old mainframes), and having driven a Chevy Van across North America long ago, I’m now trying seriously to reduce my impact on the planet’s environment and climate. Electronic waste is a serious problem: forty to fifty megatons of e-scrap containing valuable minerals (gold, silver, lithium) along with toxic material go into landfills every year. From there, the toxins will probably leach out for centuries. There are several companies claiming to make “sustainable” laptops, and it isn’t totally clear exactly what each means by the term. One company I have come across that’s soon to be shipping a sustainable laptop is Framework Computers. Their foray into this product space, the Framework Laptop, similar to the Teracube 2e sustainable smartphone I reviewed recently, is:
- designed from the ground up to last a long time;
- built to be easily repairable and upgradable in the field; Framework even ships you a screwdriver with every laptop, and
- manufactured to minimize environmental impact by using recycled materials.
And they’ve been working on the laptop in mostly stealth mode for a couple of years to get the details right.
Framework’s web site has a lot of information but is a bit spread out; for those like their info in summary form, see this list. Remember that most of this applies to the current “main board”, and there will be more powerful mainboards offered in future.
- Built-in screen: 13.5" 2256x1504 (3:2 ratio)
- Weight: ~1.3kg
- Thickness: 15.85mm (thin!)
- CPU: Intel i5 or i7 (i5–1135G7, i7–1165G7, or i7–1185G7, “Tiger Lake”)
- Integrated GPU: Intel Xe graphics
- RAM: two dual-channel DDR4–3200 SO-DIMMs, up to 64GB
- SSD: one NVMe PCIe Gen4 x4 M.2 2280 slot, up to 4GB
- HD, DVD: None; use external drive if needed
- WebCam: 1080p@60fps integrated, with hard power switch
- Side connectors: 4 swappable “expansion cards” (USB, HDMI, etc.; see below)
- Expansion: same
- Charging: Via USB-C (uses one of the 4 expansion slots)
- WiFi: WiFi 6 on standard board
- BlueTooth: Not supported as-is; third-party boards may be available
- Operating system: In theory, anything that runs on AMD64/Intel x64. Can be ordered with MS-Windows 10 or Linux.
- Assembly: Can be ordered assembled (for normal users) or in “DIY” kit form without an OS for geeks who want to assemble it themselves.
Everything about the laptop has been carefully chosen. The body is “a precision formed and milled aluminum housing” that is made with a large percentage of recycled aluminum (a metal that recycles quite easily and well). The bezel around the LCD screen attaches magnetically, and you can swap it out for a different colored one depending on your mood. I quite like the orange one, but that’s clearly a matter of taste.
Build Quality: It’s in your hands
This is also one of the only laptops you can buy in kit form. The DIY (do it yourself) edition “arrives at your doorstep as a kit of modules you can assemble yourself.” In ordering it this way you can make many choices and combinations, including RAM, SSD, and OS (all optional), CPU speed, color, and other options. I’m a computer geek at heart, so I of course will opt for the DIY Edition. Unlike the first computer I built, at least all the integrated circuits (ICs, “chips”) are factory-soldered onto the main board!
The main pieces include:
- the cabinet/chassis;
- the main board;
- the keyboard, and the top cover that surrounds it;
- the battery;
- the screen;
- the magnetically attached bezel;
- miscellaneous hardware;
- USB-C external charger (not optional);
- assembly instructions (we hope!).
Details of assembly will be updated when the unit arrives.
For software, I plan to test out the claimed openness of this computer. So I will be installing a full handful of operating systems, one after another. Not including Microsoft Windows, because (a) not a fan and (b) they offer that option pre-loaded, so it’s a pretty safe bet that it works OK. Here’s my list of OSes:
- ReactOS, a Windows NT clone
- Rocky Linux, (CentOS Linux replacment from a CentOS co-founder)
- QubesOS, (secure system that runs multiple OSes in separately-mapped VMs)
- FreeDOS, — just because I can :-)
- OpenBSD — “secure by default” OS, done last so it would be left on my SSD at the end of testing.
Results will be made available after I get my unit.
The typical laptop has a series of connectors on the sides (and sometimes the back) for USB, audio, video, charging, etc. If you find the selection of ports fails to meet your needs, or you even don’t like which side a given port is on, your only option (other than walking around with adapters dangling off the side) is to buy a new laptop, or buy a different one in the first place. Framework has a better idea. There are two “expansion card” slots on each side, and you can plug in any of a range of “cards” to provide any mix of USB-A, USB-C, HDMI, Displayport, MicroSD, or even a second SSD module (initially offered in 256G and 1TB sizes). Any module can go on either side. And since they talk USB to the laptop, they are all hot-swappable. You can order zero or more of these cards when you buy your unit, and/or order them individually later.
My plan is to order two USB-C, one for accessories and one for concurrent charging, one USB-A to plug in my USB Hub of miscellaneous accessories, and one microSD card slot. I also want an HDMI card and to leave plugged into our dumb TV with a longer cable. Dumb TV? Yes, we bought a dumb TV for sustainable reasons — the LCD panel can last for many more years than the support on either “smart TVs” or third-party dongles like Chromecast, Apple TV, Roku, etc. Better to recycle a small bit of electronics than an entire large-screen TV when the manufacturer stops providing security updates, as they always do because, of course, they want you to buy a new one. Buying “smart TVs” is what seems dumb to me. With that “expansion card” in place, I can work upstairs with the laptop and have a large monitor whenever I fancy that, instead of working down in my “computer dungeon”.
They don’t offer a “USB Hub” expansion card nor a wired-ethernet card. I’ve suggested these to the company but it hasn’t happened yet. The details on how to build cards is available to other manufacturers to make compatible cards, so maybe somebody will make my dream card.
Charging is via USB-C. You can thus charge via the USB-C extention card. Or, in a pinch, you could note that the expansion cards themselves use standard USB-C connectors to communicate with the host laptop, and thus figure out how to charge. This is not recommended by the company, but it does work.
Kill the hardware
The Framework laptop is completely open — as mentioned earlier, you can run any PC-compatible operating system you like on it, including some that are widely used but which have inferior security reputations. To help protect your privacy, Framework has incorporated hardware kill switches that completely isolate the built-in microphone and the built-in camera. Plus, a single power source powers both the camera and the camera-on LED, making it impossible for bad actors to spy on you via software viruses without the camera LED coming on. Of course, if you’re the target of state-scale actors and they can get unattended access to your hardware, they could wire around this. But such organizations surely could find easier ways to spy on you.
Unfortunately, since this laptop came to life during the pandemic, when air travel was off the plate for most of us, it was designed without a WiFi kill switch, better known as “airplane mode”, which most modern laptops have. If this were a real problem, you could remove the WiFi card and use an external USB WiFi dongle. But it’s not a real problem. Assuming the laptop powers off peripherals when closed/suspended, you should be good.
The Keys to “Thin Is In”
This laptop really is thin — like a Macbook Air. Thinness has been one of the main slightly-elusive design elements ever since the first Macbook Air. Despite that, the Framework’s keyboard keys have a full 1.5mm travel for much better touch/feel than most laptops. And yet, they’re very quiet too — no clicking and clunking. It’s obvious that Framework spent a lot of time with their keyboard supplier working on this.
The only concession I can see that was made to this “thinness” — is that the CPU chip is soldered to the motherboard (a socketed CPU adds a couple of mm of thickness). Thus, upgrading your CPU requires a new motherboard, and leaves you with… tadaa! An old motherboard that can be re-used in other projects. Yup, the MB connections were deliberately kept simple to encourage re-use of replaced motherboards in other projects. There will be a section on the community forum for sharing projects using these boards.
The Framework mainboard compares very favorably to other laptops. My several-years-old Apple MacBook Pro, for example, has five or 6 boards, including several custom-made “daughter boards” (if the main board has to be feminine, I guess the offshoot boards do too?). For example, the Macbook’s WiFi and Bluetooth are on a custom board. Framework doesn’t include Bluetooth support, but its WiFi unit is an industry-standard “Mini-PCIe” that could be replaced by a unit providing WiFi7 in the future or WiFi 4 or 5 plus BlueTooth today. And its SSD drive socket takes a standard NVME 2280 card.
Is the sustainable equipment business model sustainable? Well, Tesla (which makes long-lasting electric cars) and FairPhone (sustainable cell phones) have both been around for years (founded 2003, 2013 respectively). So, yes. I look forward to getting a Framework laptop and using for many years to come.