Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Framework Laptop 16 review: two weeks with the ultimate modular laptop

The Framework Laptop 16 is the most ambitious notebook I’ve ever touched. There’s never been anything like it before. There’s so much to cover that it won’t fit in this review, so I’m hosting an AMA today on The Verge to answer your burning questions.

Never has a computer company made a laptop so user-repairable, so customizable, so… modular. Never have I owned a laptop that’s a workhorse by day, physically transforms into a competent gaming PC by night, then morphs into an RGB-LED-studded five-screen DJ controller when the mood strikes. Never have I swapped out a laptop’s entire butt for a bigger one containing a discrete graphics card, then powered the whole rig with a world’s first 180-watt USB-C PD power supply. And never have I been able to lift out a laptop’s keyboard and touchpad, shift them to the left or right, then add a numpad, or a matrix of dazzling LEDs, or a simple pop of color alongside. 

The Framework Laptop 16 does all of this, and someday, it might even do more! It sports not one, not two, but three open-source module standards that could let others build and sell add-in GPUs, alternative keyboards and touchpads, secondary screens, even extra battery capacity. 

But first, Framework would have to convince a lot of buyers that it’s built an exceptional laptop on a stable, futureproof platform. And after spending two-plus weeks with the Framework Laptop 16 as my constant companion for work and play, I worry it might not meet that bar.

Let’s get this out of the way: the Framework Laptop 16 needs more time in the oven. How much more, I can’t say — but the company tells The Verge that the first units will begin shipping to buyers as early as next week, and that the unit we have in our hands is representative of final performance and near-final build quality. The embargo lifts today. So we’re publishing a scored review, even though the device doesn’t feel finished to me.

This isn’t our first rodeo: Remember when the Steam Deck similarly wasn’t ready on review day, but shipped in small enough batches with diligent enough updates that most buyers didn’t have to endure the worst? Framework is similarly shipping this laptop in small batches, and I sure hope it follows the same update trajectory.

The review-ready Framework Laptop 16 on my bookshelf at home.
Photo by Sean Hollister / The Verge

Over the past two weeks I’ve had the computer go completely unresponsive once per day on average, each time requiring a hard reboot. Every now and then, I’ll notice that the normally excellent 2560 x 1600 screen has gotten… weirdly washed out? My secondary SSD sometimes mysteriously disappears when the laptop goes to sleep, yanking a library of games with it. The lid and some of the input modules have a bit of flex and display prominent seams, taking away some of the premium feel. And this computer’s CPU can heat up north of 90 degrees Celsius in real-world use, making the fans scream like micro jet engines until you lay off the juice.

None of these issues seem to have surprised the Framework team, which has worked to get myself and fellow reviewers several new BIOSes with updated fan tables and other miscellaneous fixes. I’ve been told Framework has already fixed a touchpad-related Blue Screen of Death I saw, and that additional patches are on the way, which is great to hear. I’ve also been told the temps are normal, despite the fact every buyer will get a slightly improved vapor chamber I haven’t been able to test. 

But I need to remind you that The Verge reviews what it can see and touch, not raw potential. We’ll adjust this review if or when we see this laptop become stable.

Are you feeling appropriately warned? Great — there’s a lot of other things you may want to consider if you’re seriously eyeing this PC!

HDMI, DisplayPort, USB-C — the Framework Laptop 16 still lets you pick your ports, but now you get three modules per side instead of two.
Photo by Sean Hollister / The Verge

Depending on the config, it’s easiest to think of the Framework 16 as either a premium work laptop (like a MacBook Pro or a Dell XPS 15) or a mid-range gaming machine. With a up-to-5GHz AMD Ryzen 9 7840HS or 7940HS CPU, it’s got plenty of mobile CPU power. Two easily-accessible DDR5 RAM slots, two NVMe SSD slots, and a DIY configurator also let you add up to 64GB of memory and around 10TB of storage at current densities, practically as little or much as you need.

The screen is also well above average — while it’s no OLED and doesn’t do HDR, the 2560 x 1600, 16:10 IPS screen is speedy at 165Hz, with variable refresh rate and 100 percent of the DCI-P3 color gamut for a smooth, colorful, and remarkably high contrast experience — for the most part. The 500-nit screen’s anti-glare coating is also quite good. So is the touchpad, the optional RGB keyboard and optional numpad — with fully programmable keys thanks to integrated Raspberry Pi RP2040 chips running QMK firmware, with a dedicated web app to program them right out of the box.

I would definitely spring for the RGB keyboard.
Photo by Sean Hollister / The Verge

The big question is what you’ll pair those components with: the default endcap that makes the laptop smaller, a $400 RX 7700S discrete GPU that gives the Framework 16 PlayStation 5-class gaming chops but makes the laptop’s butt bigger… or buy both and swap them at will. 

Astute readers of The Verge may wonder, “Sean, how the heck did you test a gaming laptop for two weeks straight if you spent half that time carting it around CES in Las Vegas?” 

The answer: I didn’t need to cart it all around at once! Each morning, I’d carry the most buttoned-up version of the Framework 16 up and down the Vegas strip, shedding 20 millimeters of length, 3 millimeters of girth and two-thirds of a pound by leaving the Radeon 7700S and the flashier LED modules in my hotel room for use in the evenings. Frankly, it was the only way the 16-inch laptop could comfortably fit in my bag. 

The Radeon 7700S Expansion Bay lifts a longer laptop higher off the ground.
Photo by Sean Hollister / The Verge

With the default endcap, the laptop sits lower.
Photo by Sean Hollister / The Verge

Yes, it was risky. I took an unproven rifle into battle this CES, and it could have shot me in the foot. While I didn’t lose any work when the laptop froze, that’s only because my drafts auto-saved to the cloud. And I only averaged 5.5 hours of that work on a charge. (You can get more: as I wrote this review with all power saving features turned on, minimal app load, and the CPU capped to around 2.5GHz, I got 6 hours and 40 minutes without the machine getting too slow for my typical web work.) 

I wound up spending every day, sometimes late into the evening, doing everything on the Framework 16 during CES (and since). I wrote, edited, pulled files off cameras and SD cards, edited photos, tethered to my phone, then kicked back with some Netflix or Alan Wake II in my free time. 

It takes just two minutes and six screws to swap a Radeon 7700S discrete GPU into this laptop, and it’s one of the most delightfully nerdy things I’ve done in 15+ years covering tech. I have two entire stories about how historic an achievement this is, so I won’t get into it all here.

Let’s just say it feels absolutely badass to double, triple, even quadruple the GPU horsepower of a laptop — depending on the game — just by sliding in a new graphics card into the back of this PC.

Is it practical, though? I’m torn.

On the one hand, this is the only fully user-repairable laptop ever made that can swap its graphics card like a desktop PC, and it can genuinely game. Plugged into the wall, I averaged over 60 frames per second in older games like Shadow of the Tomb Raider and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla at 2560 x 1600 resolution and highest settings — minus raytracing, where AMD’s mobile GPUs still suck and the 7700S is no exception. 

With more demanding fare like Cyberpunk 2077 and Red Dead Redemption 2, I did have to drop to 1080p resolution to get over 60fps at max spec, but there’s enough headroom to play just about anything comfortably if you’re willing to tweak. Alan Wake II, one of the most demanding PC games ever made, played smoothly at Medium settings, with an internal render resolution of 1706 x 1066 plus AMD’s FSR 2.2 upscaling. 

But while that’s all seriously impressive for a modular laptop, one that could theoretically let you upgrade that GPU someday, it’s not that impressive in a vacuum. The numbers I’m seeing put the never-before-seen 7700S partway between the laptop-grade Nvidia RTX 3060 and RTX 3070, chips that are over two years old. You could buy a laptop with slightly better gaming chops for half the price you’d pay for this one — and it’d last longer on a charge. I only managed 50 minutes of usable battery in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and that’s after reducing resolution down to 1920 x 1200 and high spec to get the same framerates I saw plugged into the wall. 

(Like many gaming laptops, the Framework 16’s battery isn’t enough to power it at full bore: While I love the Framework 16’s 180W USB-C PD power supply and the motherboard’s ability to deliver 100W of that power straight to the GPU, yanking the cord immediately cuts the laptop’s power budget in half, and I saw framerates tank by roughly the same amount.)

And while I’d personally be happy to buy a futureproof gaming laptop with a mid-range GPU or no GPU if I knew I’d be able to install future graphics cards, it’s important to note that Framework still won’t swear to that. “We can’t comment on any future product plans, only a company-level commitment to upgradeability and graphics upgradeability being one of the core design and architecture focuses of Framework Laptop 16,” CEO Nirav Patel tells The Verge when I ask the question point-blank.

Between the lack of confidence there and some ongoing cooling issues, I have to wonder if the Framework 16’s Expansion Bay will truly be a futureproof system. Did I mention the fans are currently so noisy while gaming they can muffle the reasonably loud speakers? So loud that my wife recently walked across the house to say: “I just wanted to let you know I’m sitting at my desk in the other room, and I can still hear that thing.”

The GPU expansion bay here adds larger fans and additional rear vents, but still uses these side vents to draw heat off the CPU’s cooling assembly.
Photo by Sean Hollister / The Verge

While the GPU itself seems fairly well cooled as a result, I’ve seen the CPU hit 99 degrees Celsius while gaming, and stay over 90C just downloading games. It doesn’t thermally throttle itself, though, so I suppose the noise is the worst of it for today — but the bottom center of the laptop does get hot enough while gaming that I wouldn’t use it on my actual lap.

I should note that without the discrete GPU, particularly in Windows’ “best power efficiency” mode, I rarely hear the fans spin up at all. I’m totally comfortable with it on my lap that way.

Some of Framework’s other modules came in handy at CES, too. When I wanted to transfer files from my camera’s microSD card, I swapped in a microSD module. When I lost my Bluetooth earbuds and needed to listen to some VO, all I had to do was swap in the 3.5mm audio module and borrow Andru’s wired headset for a few minutes. Sure, I could have carried around a USB-C hub instead, but if I were better prepared I’d have outfitted the Framework 16’s six Expansion Card bays with the right ports to begin with. Even so, the lightweight expansion cards made my load lighter than my Anker 7-in-1 hub would have done. 

There are two little thumbnail levers on the bottom of the laptop that unlock your six hot-swappable Expansion Card bays, like Framework’s earlier laptops, and I’m sorry to say you’ve still got to yank on them pretty hard even after they’ve been unlocked. But the Framework 16 also has new thumbnail levers on either end of the keyboard deck, and what they unlock is awesome:

This is the only laptop ever made that you can customize like this — full stop. I genuinely can’t believe a laptop is making it to market with such a cool, concept-y feature like hot-swappable keyboards, touchpads, LED modules and spacers, ones that snap into place with magnets and use loads of pogo pins to power and transfer data and detect which items are where. The compute even boots into a GUI that shows you which modules aren’t quite seated correctly if you mess it up. 

But I wouldn’t say there’s a lot of reason to customize right now, and I wasn’t always happy with the way my customizations looked and felt. The default keyboard is great, the $49 RGB version is brilliant with loads of great effects, the $19 touchpad is a no-brainer (with a handy dedicated calculator app launch button), and I love how the $20 color shift spacers look with their vibrant purple, orange, and blue sheen, as long as I made sure to wipe off my fingerprints a few times a day.

Each “Input Module” magnetically snaps atop these spring-loaded pogo pin contacts for data and power.
Photo by Sean Hollister / The Verge

Some of the other options are a little more questionable. 

I can’t see myself going for the $59 RGB Macropad, whose completely clear keys have no legends and no homing bump on the 5 key, or the $49 LED Matrix spacers that are apparently so early on that Framework hasn’t finished building an app that lets you do more than test out some patterns for a couple of minutes before they put themselves to sleep. (Maybe only programmers need apply.)

The input modules still feel a bit prototype-y in terms of fit and finish, too. My default metal spacers were oh-so-slightly darker than the touchpad they’re supposed to match, with very visible seams even at their best. Both the metal and plastic spacers have enough flex that they can bend upwards a bit in use, creating even worse seams if you put two of them next to each other. My review unit looks much better with a center-aligned keyboard and touchpad with spacers on either side, rather than combining the spacers together on the right or left. 

Framework tells me that final units shipping to customers should have better alignment and slightly flatter spacers, but I haven’t seen that yet.

I love how the color shift spacers catch the light.
Photo by Sean Hollister / The Verge

And speaking of flex, my review unit’s lid has a lot of it – enough that it visibly bends every time I reach to open or close the screen, and enough that it doesn’t lie quite flat when closed. Lid flex has been one of the weak points of Framework’s laptops since the beginning, and I was hoping it’d be worked out by now.

That’s a lot of lid flex — enough I felt uncomfortable opening and closing the laptop one handed.
Photo by Sean Hollister / The Verge

How much are you willing to forgive to support the most exciting laptop idea in years? How much does repairability matter to you? How much are you willing to pay for a marvelous experiment that could end in tears if the upgrades don’t materialize? 

Because the Framework Laptop 16 isn’t cheap. While its configurator starts at $1,400, you’re really looking at around $1,750 for a competent baseline configuration with 16GB of RAM, 1TB of storage, plus a numpad and colored spacers to justify buying such a modular machine. The GPU-equipped config I’d buy myself would run me $2,500, even if I bought an aftermarket copy of Windows and aftermarket 2TB game storage drive. (Don’t buy an aftermarket power supply; I saw the Framework 16 peak at 163W draw during games, and no other company sells one that powerful yet.)

If you’ve read this far, I think you know your own answer — and it’s worth remembering the journey that Framework took to get here. Framework is the only company that’s ever delivered on the promise of modular, upgradable mini computers, while bigger firms like Alienware and Intel gave up after taking your cash. You can take a three-year-old Intel laptop from Framework and easily stick a modern AMD board inside, plus a new larger battery, a new Wi-Fi chip, new storage and memory and ports. I’m inclined to trust this company more than anyone else with the idea.

It’s not a company with a perfect track record; it’s made a number of little hardware mistakes along the way, whether it’s something as simple as cheaply EMI shielding a USB port or discovering late that its older HDMI and DisplayPort modules created vampire power drain. But even then, it tends to fix those mistakes, and getting those fixes can sometimes be as simple as swapping out a part in your completely modular machine.  

The Framework Laptop 16 is already a nerd’s dream: trailblazing, gadgety, fun, and incredibly promising. But it’s always possible that this time, the company bit off more than it can chew. That’s almost exactly how I felt about the Steam Deck at its buggy, broken debut — but before a year had passed, it became a category-defining leader that deserved a brand-new review

I want what Framework is selling. I desperately hope this idea takes off. But I can’t personally afford it as a toy, and I need it to work better than it has for the past two weeks, and maybe do more, to justify buying one.


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