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The first major Framework update for laptops lets you swap the brains of your system

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Daniel Cooper
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The framework was launched last year with the promise of creating laptops that you could upgrade yourself with just a screwdriver and a little patience. Now, 12 months after the debut, the company is releasing the first series of upgrade kits to keep these machines up to date. This is a good start as the company fulfills its commitment to building a modular, repairable machine and bringing in existing users along with any future system tweaks. After almost instantly replacing the first generation motherboard with a replacement, I can say that we are approaching a whole new era of computing.

To demonstrate the ease of upgrading, Framework sent in their 2021 era model, which was equipped with an 11th generation Intel Core chip. In the package, but in a separate box, was a new 12th generation Intel Core chip (Alder Lake) attached to the motherboard. To put it simply, the idea is that you can pull out the motherboard that contains the CPU and I/O while keeping almost everything else. Existing RAM, SSD, Wi-Fi card, battery, sound hardware, screen, etc. can all be reused until they break or require an upgrade.

A Torx T5 screwdriver (included) is required to upgrade or replace any component inside the Framework. Naturally, replacing the motherboard is the most difficult upgrade you can make, as it requires you to disassemble everything else to access it. Luckily, the Framework creates iFixit-style guides that you can follow, and each component is color-coded or labeled. And every device has QR codes that link to tutorial videos and support pages to help you get where you need to be.

Earlier this year, the company announced that it would offer three new motherboard options to suit different budgets. For $499 you get the 12th Gen i5-1240P and for $699 you get the i7-1260P. If you’re always looking to live on the cutting edge and have cash to spare, you can go for the $1,049 Core i7-1280P. That’s cool, but the argument goes that buying a brand new laptop will cost you more. However, I don’t expect users to go crazy with these yearly updates, but will likely look for a new motherboard every two or three years to keep up with the times.

As for the upgrade process, then I do not necessarily discontent, but there are a couple of things worth noting. If you’re approaching this as a beginner, it will take you much longer than the 15 minutes promised in the how-to guide. With practice you will get faster, but I think these guides should be a little friendlier to the unenlightened amateur. Similarly, I’m not a big fan of ZIF connectors, which require you to carefully insert a ribbon cable no larger than your fingernail into the required mount. Especially since they are small and I would be worried that one ill-timed sneeze could cost you $699 of your own money.

Daniel Cooper

At the same time, Framework is launching two other products that show a commitment to listening to their users and making sure OG buyers are not left behind. First, the company is releasing its first new expansion card, which is a 2.5 Gigabit Ethernet adapter. In short, it’s very cool to ditch the standard all-metal case in favor of a transparent plastic shell that makes it look like one of the Game Boy special editions from the 90s. The cyberpunk aesthetic also helps hide the fact that to accommodate the Ethernet port itself, it’s significantly larger than the rest of the expansion cards – it protrudes from the side of your laptop, but it’s cool.

This came in very handy during my installation as the missing WiFi driver (thanks Microsoft) meant I couldn’t connect to the internet after the initial update. (This has since been resolved, but it’s one of the pitfalls of testing hardware long before it’s available to the public). Being able to plug in an ethernet port and connect it to my network to fix the problem was a real godsend. Not to mention, like all spare expansion cards offered by the company, this is another step towards making the laptop something of a Swiss army knife.

And here is the top cover. Now I didn’t have many complaints about the amount of flex in the car when it was launched last year. But Framework engineers didn’t like it and redesigned the display case to be CNC-milled from a solid block of aluminum. It adds some extra rigidity to the frame and is available as standard on all new Framework laptops sold in the future and is also included in motherboard replacement kits. But again, instead of leaving existing customers who don’t want a new processor waiting, you can also buy a standalone top cover for $89, and if the company can deliver on that commitment to always attract existing buyers, then it’s going to earn a loyal and a loving fan base.

Finally, when the update is complete, it remains to decide what users will do with the discarded motherboard. The Framework offers open source plans for users to create desktop board cases to encourage reuse, and hobbyists are already using them as the basis for their own super cool modding projects. GitHub user Penk, for example, built this retro-style motherboard terminal that looks like it fell out of the back of a copy Fall out. If I didn’t have to send it all back and I had some skills in building stuff, I’m sure I’d try to build something super cool myself.

And perhaps that’s another gift the Framework can continue to give, the idea that users should feel entitled to get their hands dirty after being told their machines have been unavailable for so long.

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