I really like the Framework laptop, on which I’m typing this post. The keyboard feels good, the screen looks crisp, and the easy-swap side ports are clever. The webcam is a big upgrade over the typical smudgy, dim lens. Oh, yes, it’s also a forerunner for the Right to Repair movement and a landmark 10/10 on iFixit’s repairability index. That, too.
Most laptop reviewers also dig the Framework. But they’re compelled to tell you: Other companies have tried to make repairable products work before, and they have failed. It’s a sad tale, and true, but it’s not the whole story. Framework has a lot more going for it. Even so, Framework the company doesn’t have to succeed for Framework the laptop to be worth some enthusiasm.
The Verge’s Framework review notes that “the virtual graveyard is littered with promised modular computers that never panned out.” Engadget, in an upbeat post, pauses near the end to note that “buying this machine does require you to trust that the company will be around.” Gizmodo’s reviewer is more direct: they are “struggling to maintain any hope that the Framework laptop will have a chance.”
The biggest roadside repairability graves they’re gesturing toward are Google’s Project Ara modular phone and Alienware’s not-actually-upgradeable Area-M51 gaming laptop. Intel’s semi-modular Canyon PC line technically hit a second generation, but reviewers don’t trust even a company the size of Intel to keep it going. The Fairphone, while established and keeping to its promises, is currently tied to Europe and its wireless networks.
It’s fair and good for reviewers to provide context for potential buyers. A pair of headphones might sound amazing, but not $200 more amazing than another pair. A cheap blender might seem impossibly versatile, but consider the reviews citing leaks and bad customer service. In our own relatively rave teardown assessment, we noted that upgrading your Frameworks’ CPU to Intel’s next generation won’t be a sure thing: “Be careful with your expectations.”
But whether Framework is another Project Ara, or instead the next big thing, is not as important as it might seem. In making their laptop so open, modular, and repairable, Framework has almost obviated themselves as the critical link to their own laptop. They’re also not betting on a wild, untested idea. Framework is making a thinner, slicker, better version of the kind of upgradeable laptops we used to have, before we decided we should all be typing on a clipboard that fits in an airplane tray table.
You can already replace many parts of your Framework laptop with off-the-shelf parts. If Framework doesn’t stick around to sell you RAM, storage, or a Wi-Fi and Bluetooth card, many other online tech retailers have you covered. Batteries, too, will show up eventually if there is the slightest demand (trust iFixit on this one). Framework plans to provide CAD drawings for its main board and expansion ports, and offers schematics and assembly drawings to repair shops. Nothing in the computer is locked to any other component, or requires Framework’s digital verification to be modified. The laptop’s main board will even work inside an entirely different case, which is far from the norm. Third-party companies and DIY types can already support and sell against this laptop; they don’t need its maker to continue it.
The same goes for the Framework’s four hot-swap ports, or expansion cards, which let you swap your ports across sides. The cards are just little boxes with USB-C plugs that fit into four sunken ports on the device. Anything that can be converted to USB-C with a dongle or cable can be added to the Framework, and Framework is letting anybody make cards. As an owner, this also means that if some wildly advanced tech comes along that your Framework doesn’t have, you can likely still get it. With four USB-C ports, this laptop is ready for a lot of future ideas.
People might wonder about continuing support for their laptop. What if the company melts down overnight, and my wireless suddenly stops working? It might seem obvious, but the foundational idea with the Framework is that you, or a repair shop, should be able to fix the Framework without having to mail the laptop back to their California headquarters. After an all-too-brief warranty period, many laptop manufacturers leave you with far fewer repair options. You can sometimes buy extended service contracts, like AppleCare. Even then, paying for service usually means driving to an Apple Store or shipping your laptop, and not always getting the same laptop back.
Framework, in other words, has the audacity to suggest that paying keyboard insurance to the world’s most valuable company doesn’t count as a repair plan. You bought the device, it’s yours, and Framework will do what it can to help you fix it however you want. It’s an old idea, made new again. But for some reason we keep telling each other to wait a bit before we get too excited about it.
A reviewer I know was sad about the position they felt they had to take on the Framework. They were too skeptical of the company’s future, and long-term support potential, to be professionally excited about “something that’s objectively cool.” Framework’s stance could push other big computer companies in a repair-friendly direction, they suggested. And giving customers the chance to see inside their laptop, and even install some of it, would be empowering. But given the history of other modular or repairable-focused companies, they have to temper their excitement.
It’s important to note that not all laptops look so locked-down next to Framework. HP has long impressed us with some of its modular, accessible, manuals-and-parts-available laptops. The same goes for many Dell and Lenovo models, and enterprise products sold to large companies with their own tech shops. Maybe most important of all, every laptop used to have some degree of service access: replaceable RAM and storage, batteries that popped out with your fingers, and service manuals for repair shops. Then Steve Jobs showed the industry a glued-down, solder-joined laptop that fit in a manila envelope, and minimalism became the only lodestar in the sky.
So here’s a final take: If you want to buy a Framework because you need a laptop, and you want to fix or upgrade it in the future, you should buy it. Don’t let other companies’ narrowly focused failures haunt your own stuff’s future. Graveyards exist, but you’re not meant to live in them.