Mar 03, 2024

Framework Laptop 16: our exclusive hands

By Sean Hollister, a senior editor and founding member of The Verge who covers gadgets, games, and toys. He spent 15 years editing the likes of CNET, Gizmodo, and Engadget.

Photography by Vjeran Pavic

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Framework CEO Nirav Patel describes it in biblical terms: “So many have tried to capture this holy grail and died along the way.” It’s a very dramatic way to say that his new Laptop 16 lets you replace and eventually upgrade the entire GPU.

But as I shove an AMD Radeon RX 7700S graphics card into the back of his computer and fire up Elden Ring, I have to admit it rings true. I have wanted this for 20 years — and I genuinely wonder if Framework will be the exception to that “died along the way” rule.

The Framework Laptop 16, available for preorder today starting at $1,699 prebuilt, is one of the most exciting notebooks we’ve ever seen. When it ships in Q4, the modular computer company’s first gaming laptop will let you swap practically every component — not just memory and storage, but each and every individual port, the motherboard, the battery, the speakers, you name it.

Heck, Framework’s entire keyboard deck is now composed of Lego-like modular parts that snap and slide into place. Want your keyboard and touchpad aligned right, left, or center? Fancy a splash of color? Need a numpad? How about a matrix of dazzling LEDs? The Framework 16’s modular slats make it possible. Each has a tiny Raspberry Pi RP2040 chip peeking through a window around back to make them that much cooler.

But the pièce de résistance is Framework’s Expansion Bay, which lets you slot a entire discrete mobile GPU into the laptop — or, later this year, a pair of extra SSDs.

We’ve known all this since Framework’s March announcement. But this past week, I got to be the first to take a working GPU-equipped version of the modular computer for a spin. I took the Framework Laptop 16 apart and pieced it back together with my own two hands and the single screwdriver Framework ships with every PC. I admired the admirable contrast of its semi-custom 16-inch, 2560 x 1600, 100-percent DCI-P3 color gamut, 165Hz VRR anti-glare screen.

And I asked Patel, and AMD’s Frank Azor, why we should still believe in upgradable modular laptop GPUs after the high-profile failure of Alienware’s Area-51m to deliver on the same. Here are their answers boiled down to the raw essence:

Let’s begin by tackling the last two points.

The Framework Laptop 16 was a dream from the very beginning, says Patel — before the company was even formed. Patel, a former LAN party enthusiast like myself, says Framework had a choice: “Do we do modular discrete graphics right at the outset,” or “make sure we’re building a really great product right from the start?”

So in 2021, we got a compact 13.5-inch everyman computer instead of a gaming machine. Reviews of the original Framework Laptop 13 were a little skeptical; my colleague Monica repeatedly pointed out that an upgradable laptop’s value “hinges on future support.”

But in 2022, her headline was “promises kept.” And this year, as Framework shipped its third set of CPU upgrades for the Framework 13 while simultaneously improving battery life, she called the 2023 revisions “a DIY dream come true.” While Dell and Lenovo are still just side-eying similar levels of modularity, Framework has already followed through.

The Framework Laptop 16, meanwhile, is more modular than two Framework 13s put together. It’s an immediate joy for tinkerers like me.

You begin by pulling two thumbnail-sized levers at the bottom of the keyboard deck. The left one slides left, the right one slides right, and that’s all it takes to release the touchpad and its two spacers. Slide those off the bottom edge of the laptop, and you can access the keyboard and its spacers (or optional numpad) too — each of which magnetically snaps down onto its corresponding spring-loaded pogo pin contacts with a satisfying slap sound. Reader, I grinned ear to ear.

Lift that top row of “Input Modules” with their pull tabs, and you’ve got two options from there: twelve Torx screws let you remove the midplate to access the laptop’s primary components, or you can flip up a little hatch to quickly access the Expansion Bay.

Here’s where things get a little bit prototype-y, because that’s exactly what they are: I tried everything I’m describing on a DVT (Design Verification Test) prototype, the very first “ID model” off the design floor in Taiwan. Patel cautioned me that what you’re seeing is supposed to look and feel like the final product externally, but more than a handful of things will change.

For instance, the 12 screws are captive and helpfully numbered so you can easily replace the midplate properly, but the order is wrong as of today. The quad speakers will be mounted differently, and they haven’t yet been tuned. The bezel textures are painted on rather than factory finished. And perhaps most importantly, everything under that little Expansion Bay hatch should rely on a single incredibly powerful connector and six Torx screws — instead of the little flex cable that currently runs the CPU fans and the Philips-heads Framework had to substitute for my demo.

What won’t change: you do have to power down the system to change Expansion Bays. They’re not, and won’t be, hot-swappable.

But that connector really does power a discrete GPU: a Radeon RX 7700S with its full 8GB of 18Gbps GDDR6 memory and an entire 100W of power to play with. Because when Framework came calling, AMD picked up the phone immediately.

Fun fact: both the supposedly upgradable Alienware Area-51m and the Framework Laptop 16 have a common champion. The Area-51m was Alienware co-founder Frank Azor’s last big launch before he became AMD’s gaming chief. Framework’s CEO says he partnered with AMD on the Framework 16 because Azor personally got excited and started pushing internally. “He said this is how it should have been done,” Patel tells me.

“The promises made were not kept.” — Frank Azor, on the Alienware Area-51m

When I speak to Azor, he says one of the biggest problems chasing the grail was thinking a slotted laptop GPU should be any different than slotted desktop graphics cards which combine GPUs with their cooling. “That’s worked for 30-plus years in desktops, and for some reason every attempt prior to this has tried to do something different and failed,” he says.

So when you insert this laptop’s optional discrete GPU, you’re also inserting a pair of 75mm Cooler Master fans. And if you look closely as they slide into the case, you’ll see they don’t just cool the GPU — they cool the entire PC.

By default, the Framework Laptop 16 comes with an “Expansion Shell” — a bay that’s mostly empty save for a pair of 8.2mm thick blower fans. Three heatpipes from the laptop’s AMD Ryzen 7 7840HS or Ryzen 9 7940HS direct heat to finned heatsinks on either side of the Expansion Bay, where those twin blower fans shove heat out the left and right of the chassis.

Add the Radeon RX 7700S, though, and a thicker 11.5mm set of those same fans pull double duty blasting air out two additional vents around back, where another pair of finned heatsinks cool twin heatpipes attached to the GPU’s heatspreader. (The laptop has intakes on both the top and bottom: the holes at the top of the keyboard deck are for ventilation, not audio.)

If that sounds like a lot to cool, I agree — and my only regret is I can’t give you any idea how well it works in practice, because Framework broke the fans on its only GPU module in the United States, Patel admitted to me. We were only able to run a few smooth minutes of Elden Ring before the system began throttling itself due to the utter lack of cooling.

The company’s PR rep says I’ll get another shot as soon as Framework got a replacement GPU, but they didn’t have time to ship one from Taiwan before opening preorders this week.

Expandable butt? “I don’t know if people are going to embrace that term,” says Patel

Cooling isn’t the only important thing Framework has done to evolve modular GPUs, though. Another is what I’ve lovingly dubbed the expandable butt: instead of having the GPU fully enclosed in the laptop, like Alienware/Dell’s proprietary DGFF cards or your typical MXM module, Framework’s Expansion Bay hangs off the back and bottom of the laptop. Today’s GPU makes the laptop just 3 millimeters thicker, 20.2 millimeters deeper, and adds two-thirds of a pound (0.3kg) — tomorrow’s might be bigger or smaller depending on how graphics evolve. The important thing is they’re not physically constrained by the laptop: they can expand to fit whatever a GPU needs.

Lastly, Framework developed an interposer bridge that’s designed to be relatively futureproof as well — its twin 74-pin connectors not only carry eight PCIe lanes and fan signals, they can theoretically deliver up to 210W of power — not just the 100W that today’s 7700S consumes. Framework already plans to ship the dGPU-equipped models of the Framework 16 with what could be the first 180W USB-C power adapter, and the laptop is designed to be 240W-ready, theoretically maxing out the USB PD 3.1 spec with future combinations of components.

Despite all this, Framework and AMD were pretty cagey about promising GPU upgrades — though after asking the same question a half-dozen ways, I think it’s safe to say they’re strongly leaning that direction. “We’ve very specifically designed the Framework 16 for graphics bay upgradability,” says Patel. “We are committed to making sure there are graphics modules beyond the initial launch.”

“We are committed to generational upgrades as a company,” he adds later. “All the cost, the engineering... a giant chunk of that was making the Expansion Bay system possible. That’s not something we’re going to do and abandon, because there wouldn’t have been a point building the product without that.”

“We are invested in future versions of this product with Framework,” AMD’s Azor tells me, but won’t commit to GPU upgrades specifically when I press him. He adds that AMD can’t make an absolute guarantee because technology can change unexpectedly — like if, say, PCI-Express dies off like AGP did in the early 2000s. “I don’t think anyone could guarantee that AGP was going to be around forever,” he says.

I suspect they’re being cautious for legal reasons too — after all, Dell was sued over the Alienware Area-51m. While plaintiffs were eventually forced into arbitration, it wasn’t a good look — and their lawyer Steve Hochfelsen confirms to The Verge that his clients won settlements in individual arbitration.

I’m not sure I agree with Patel that there “wouldn’t have been a point” without discrete GPUs, by the way, and I say that because I’m impressed. Even if you never intend to seriously game on a Framework 16, it looks to be the most compelling version of the company’s modular vision yet.

Here’s some of what I found underneath the laptop’s 12-screw midplate:

Before we close, I should mention there’s a lot that Framework is not talking about today — either because it’s not final, or because Patel wants to focus on what the company is actually planning to ship on day one.

For instance, Framework’s not talking about battery life, beyond saying it should be better than the 13-inch model. You certainly shouldn’t expect the Laptop 16’s 85Wh battery to game too long on a 100W GPU and 30W worth of other components — it’s simple math. But Azor suggests that on the Framework 16’s Radeon 780M integrated graphics, the system should definitely be able to cross the two-hour mark with “many games” on battery.

And while I did break the news that the Framework Laptop 16 theoretically supports snap-on removable secondary batteries, Patel says there are no current plans to produce one — he suggested maybe third parties will step up. “It’s reasonably something that a power bank maker could make,” he says, adding that he’d love to see desktop graphics card makers try additional GPUs as well.

Speaking of the GPU again, there are no gaming benchmarks to share yet, working fans or no. None of that’s been optimized, though Framework says that standard off-the-shelf AMD Radeon drivers should work for its GPU — special ones won’t be required.

There’s also no timeline on offering a secondary low-power e-paper style screen like the one Framework showed its investor Linus Tech Tips, though Patel knows people want one. “The screen didn’t look great,” he explains.

But Framework still has plenty of options to sell you today. While you’ll default to a white-backlit NKRO keyboard with black spacers and no numpad, you can go as fancy as a fully transparent RGB backlit keyboard (+$50) with a fully transparent “RGB Macropad” (+$59) plus color-shift spacers (+$10) whose final version should transition from orange all the way to blue.

Spacers will also be available in textured orange and lavender for an extra $5, or the programmable 34x9 dot matrix module we saw at the launch event for an extra $39. Orange and lavender bezels will be available too, and Framework will even offer a keyboard for Linux users that replaces the Windows key with a Super key.

Carbon-fiber and wood spacers are also on the way — they’ve been delayed — and later this year, Framework will ship a module you can stick inside the Expansion Bay Shell that adds two additional M.2 2280-or-less length SSD slots and “won’t be especially expensive.”

The big question now is whether you’ll buy that discrete GPU and the 180W USB-C power adapter, if the Framework 16 sounds like your jam.

Today, the Framework Laptop 16 starts at $1399 for the “DIY edition” with a Ryzen 7 7840HS, bring-your-own-storage, memory and operating system, no power adapter, add your own ports, and prices go up fast from there. The GPU is $400, and the power adapter is $79, though the latter comes with prebuilt machines starting at $1699 with the same Ryzen 7840HS, 512GB of storage, 16GB of RAM, and six modules worth of USB-C ports (most other ports cost $10 extra).

$1599 DIY and $2099 prebuilt are the starting prices for the Ryzen 9 7940HS, whose prebuilt spec comes with 32GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD. All models come with the same 85Wh battery, thankfully, the same high-end screen, as well as a 1080p60 webcam, Windows Hello fingerprint reader in the power button, and a large glass-covered precision touchpad.

I don’t think I can say it better than I said in the video atop this post: I am staggered that Framework 16 even exists. There are so many moving parts, so many things that could theoretically go wrong with this machine, so many companies that have abandoned similar ideas before they could reach their potential.

I don’t trust any company — no ethical journalist should. This is a pricey machine that could let you down. But I think Framework is one of the only companies, maybe the only one, that could get this right. I sincerely hope Patel and his team do, because it’s the kind of computer I’d like to own.

Azor tells me that if Framework does succeed, he thinks this could be the next major inflection point for high-performance laptops — that every other manufacturer will react, because people genuinely care about upgradability and repairability and because the OEMs are all competing for 20 million high-performance laptops a year.

That’s why he tried it at Alienware. “If this proves successful and people value this as much as we hypothesize they will, this is going to have legs forever.”

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