We were skeptical at first, but Framework has delivered on the promise of its original 13-inch laptop. Three product generations in, the company has made a respectable competitor for the Dell XPS 13 or MacBook Air that can be repaired, modified, and upgraded, and owners of the original laptop can easily give themselves a significant performance boost by upgrading to the new 13th-generation Intel or AMD Ryzen-based boards the company announced today.
Framework is now looking to build on that track record with an all-new Framework Laptop 16. It’s a larger-screened model that can fit more powerful processors, dedicated GPUs, and a range of different keyboard modules, all with the same commitment to repairability and upgradeability seen in the original Framework Laptop (now retroactively dubbed the Framework Laptop 13).
Framework isn’t discussing many details yet; preorders won’t open until “this spring,” and shipments won’t begin until “late 2023.”
Today, the company provided a preview of the laptop’s features, along with developer documentation to encourage the creation of new Input Modules—components that allow for keyboard customization much like the current Expansion Card system allows for port customization.
It’s not just about the GPU
Input Modules were born of the desire to solve the number pad problem for large laptops: do you use the extra space to build in a number pad while making the rest of the keyboard feel potentially cramped or off-center, or do you make a keyboard with no number pad and risk wasting a bunch of space?
“After performing some market research, we found out there is almost exactly a 50/50 split between people who love and need numpads and people who hate them,” Framework’s blog post says. “We used this as an opportunity to not only let you pick your preference there, but also completely customize the input experience.”
Input Modules come in three sizes: small, medium, and large. Large modules are for the keyboards themselves, and Framework says it will offer both white backlights and RGB backlights for its first-party modules. Medium modules can fit number pads, but they’re also big enough to accommodate other kinds of input devices, including “jog wheels, sliders, touchscreen displays, e-ink notepads, smartcard readers, and more.” And small modules are mostly meant for cosmetic customization, though Framework says that “it’s also possible to build functional modules like an LED Matrix or haptic slider.”
All modules can be up to 3.7 mm tall and still fit into the Laptop’s case. “Many” of Framework’s first-party modules will use open source firmware and a Raspberry Pi RP2040 microcontroller, opening them up to further customization by developers and end users.
The other noteworthy thing about the Framework Laptop 16 is its “Expansion Bay System,” which will primarily be used for dedicated GPUs. These GPU modules use eight lanes of PCIe bandwidth (the PCIe version will depend on the motherboard you have installed since the GPU’s PCIe lanes are usually built into the CPU) and can be plugged in and unplugged without modifying anything else about the laptop. Framework’s photos show an Expansion Bay jutting out of the back of the system—not having to fit the GPU within the body of the laptop itself will add size and weight, but it also means that more powerful GPU modules can make room for larger fans and heatsinks, and it’s up to the user to decide on the best combination of performance and size/weight.
The ability to upgrade your CPU and motherboard and a cooling system independent of the rest of the laptop addresses issues with the MXM standard, probably the most notable past attempt to bring something like desktop-style GPU upgrades to laptops. New GPUs had to fit on modules that were the same physical size as older ones, that could be cooled using the same heatsink and fan as the old one, and that wouldn’t be bottlenecked by whatever PCI Express version the CPU was using.
The Expansion Bay can also be removed entirely, leaving the laptop to rely on its integrated GPU if you want to shed some weight while traveling. Framework also says that other kinds of non-GPU expansions are possible; the company is making a bay with room for two M.2 SSDs, and documentation will be available for developers who want to make their own modules.
As for ports, the Laptop 16 uses the same Expansion Cards as the Laptop 13, but with room for three ports on each side for a total of six. Unlike the Framework Laptop 13, the 16-inch version doesn’t have a built-in headphone jack; Framework is making a new audio jack expansion module so you can put the headphone jack on either side of the laptop or omit it entirely if you’re using Bluetooth headphones or speakers.
Judging from the photos, the Laptop 16 seems just a bit chunkier than thin-and-light models like the Dell XPS 15, Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Extreme, or the 16-inch MacBook Pro. The sizable bezel across the bottom of the display, the relatively thick base of the laptop, and the overhang you create when installing the GPU module all make this look more like a bulky 17-inch gaming laptop than a slim-but-powerful workstation. But if the specs and cost are right, and if Framework can update the hardware as reliably as it has updated the Framework Laptop 13, those trade-offs could be worth it for people who value power and flexibility over portability.