There have been many attempts to build an upgradable gaming laptop, and all of them have failed. Technology moves on, or the manufacturer stops being able, or willing, to support users who have already bought a machine. The most infamous example must be the A51M, which had swappable GPU modules designed to keep it close to the cutting edge. But Dell killed off the plan to produce new modules for that machine the very next year. It’s this arena, littered with high expectations and broken promises that Framework is entering with its first gaming notebook. It’s called the Framework Laptop 16 and it could be the standard bearer for a new paradigm in portable computing. No pressure.
The Framework Laptop 16 is the company’s second product after its perpetually-upgraded 13-inch notebook. That has earned it plaudits from across the industry, and has given it the confidence to turn its sights toward a far harder group to win over; gamers, creatives and power users. But despite the beefier internals, the machine retains the promise of being an entirely modular, fully-repairable laptop. “It’s all of the repairability and upgradeability that exists in the Framework Laptop 13, in a larger, higher-performance form factor,” said company founder Nirav Patel. He told me he believes that Framework is now “delivering on the holy grail in high-performance notebooks, which is the ability to upgrade the GPU independently of the rest of the system.”
At first blush, it’s clear that the Framework 16 doesn’t try to disguise the modular nature of its construction like its smaller sibling. That’s both a function of the sheer level of customization on hand, and an intentional choice to be loud and proud about what this machine is. Patel said that while the default build is fairly discreet (I’d be tempted to disagree), “there’s so much you can reconfigure and customize that you can build something totally insane” so expect the models seen in the wild to be “immediately eye-catching.” And, if you had to sum up its aesthetics in a single word, I’d be tempted to coin the phrase legopunk.
What we don’t have today, and won’t learn for a little while longer, is what specs are going to be found inside this chassis. Today’s announcements are essentially just preparing the ground for a fuller media blitz closer to when pre-orders open later this Spring. More importantly, it’s to get the ever-growing community of Framework developers and hobbyists attuned to what’s coming, and the tools that they’ll be given free-reign to play with to help customize and tweak their own machines. Patel believes that there’s plenty of potential toys for people to want to fiddle with, both inside the machine, and on the top of its deck. As part of this push, a slew of open source data, from mechanical drawings to electrical reference designs has been uploaded to GitHub.
Much of our discussion focused on the big question that will likely hang over this machine for at least the next year or so. Plenty of companies have made gaming laptops with the promise of a future roadmap to upgrades, and none of them could deliver on that year-after-year. “It’s been tried in the past, it’s failed horribly, so much so that there’s a class action lawsuit,” admitted Patel. “What they did wrong, we learned all of [their] lessons so what we’re building is an expansion bay system. Rather than constrain components to a single size and hope that they can conform to those requirements forever, the laptop itself will grow (or shrink) as required.
Framework has made room in the chassis to support both a current generation GPU module as well as future ones. “Instead of getting stuck where we can’t support new generations” he said, “we have that flexibility within that expansion bay to reconfigure any internal – or external – aspect of it to make sure it works.” This even stretches to the external dimensions of the laptop itself, and you can swap out the standard deck case for one with a longer rear vent, a common feature on many high-performance machines. “We’ve designed ourselves a way where we have pretty much complete flexibility to support changes when it comes to GPUs,” said Patel.
Internally, the 16’s mainboard is set up in such a way as to allow a connection over PCIe x8, which Patel says offers enough “high power and display support in both directions” for a laptop of this intended size and class. When asked if that connection was enough, he said that the machine still has to behave like a gaming laptop, rather than trying to bolt on overpowered desktop-class modules. “It wouldn’t make sense to put a 300 watt GPU into such a fairly thin form factor,” especially given the thermal constraints any laptop has, let alone a gaming one.
It should be easy enough to make changes, with Patel explaining that those who need integrated graphics can just add a default thermal module into the bay. But when the person’s needs change, they can “fly in a graphics module” to get that higher level of performance. But the expansion card bay isn’t just designed for an annual cadence of new GPUs, but instead will be offered up for a variety of purposes.
The bay, and its connection, will be opened up to Framework’s developer community enabling them to build their own modules. The company has already built a dual M.2 SSD that uses the bay, offering up to 16TB of additional storage. But Patel envisions a wide variety of other tools that could be plugged in, like a video capture card, streaming hardware, dedicated AI modules or even a software-defined radio transmitter.
As well as the unprecedented level of internal customization, the 16 also offers hot-swappable keyboard, mousepad and anything-else-on-the-top-deck modules. Patel said, based on market research, there’s a clean 50-50 split between people who love, and those who hate, numpads. “So, we thought, why not let people choose?” Consequently, the whole top deck of the 16 is user reconfigurable. Patel added that owners can “actually remove the keyboard, remove the numpad, slide the keyboard into the center and add input modules to the left and right” all while the machine is running.
Much like the expansion cards, Framework says it is opening these tools up to developers as well. Patel said that the company has already developed a secondary display, haptic slider and an LED matrix display. Framework is also developing regular backlit keyboards as well as, since this is a gaming laptop after all, an RGB-backlit version. Many of the modules are built on QMK keyboard software based on the Raspberry Pi RP2040 microcontroller, and the company is releasing open-source firmware to help enable the developer community to build their own projects. In its release, the company said it was hoping to see fans building their own “jog wheels, sliders, touchscreen displays, e-ink notepads, smart card readers and more.”
Another holdover from the older Framework Laptop is the expansion cards: USB-connected peripherals which let you choose which integral ports your laptop has, and where you put them. The bigger chassis size means that the 16 has three ports on either side, compared to the two on its smaller sibling. But one of those, depending on how you feel about having a dedicated headphone jack, might already be reserved. “The gaming audience is either using wireless or USB headsets,” said Patel, who paused and smiled to himself before adding that the company has had the “courage” to remove the dedicated 3.5mm port from the bigger machine. “But we’ll introduce an audio expansion card [to replace it]” giving users the choice of having the port, or not, and to pick which side of the chassis they want that wire running to.
If there’s one thing that will hopefully ensure that Framework doesn’t fall into the same trap as the A51M, it’s going to be its ties with component manufacturers. The company already makes its own mainboards with Compal and Patel said Framework was already plugged into the ecosystem necessary to build its own graphics cards. He added that, much like initiatives to tackle mainboard and battery waste, Framework would also work to ensure that legacy GPU modules, the ones that get swapped out from this machine a few years down the line, will also get a second life. “You can take the graphics module out of a Framework Laptop 16 and install it in an external enclosure to use as an eGPU,” said Patel. The company’s booth at the Game Developers Conference will be demonstrating a proof of concept for this, which will likely evolve into a purchasable product when the need arises.
Patel notes that Framework now has a solid track record of supporting a model for several generations which should help quell any unease for would-be buyers. “We think, with the Framework Laptop 13 having shown this third generation of products all launching within the same form factor, all continuing support all the way back to the first laptop we ever shipped, it shows we are in this for the long haul.” He added that “when we say we’re building things for longevity, we’re gonna keep delivering upgrades, that is something we’re going to deliver on.” And that by open-sourcing many of its components, and offering comprehensive documentation, it enables third parties to “just jump in” with their own projects.
Further details about the Framework Laptop 16 will be made available when pre-orders open toward the end of Spring. Patel said that there’s no word on pricing, but that you should use Framework’s existing cost structure to compare against the market as it stands. Shipments are expected to begin towards the end of the year, but the real test of this machine isn’t so much in its first launch, but what happens 12 and 24 months down the line. Then again, it’s a challenge Patel knows all too well, and believes that users are craving “stability” and a machine that “works well for them as long as they want to.” It’s wild to think that, in this day and age, those are considered to be lofty promises.