Upgrading My Modular Laptop Was Not the Nightmare I Expected It To Be
All I needed to make my Framework Laptop “new” was a screwdriver — and a ton of patience.
Full disclosure: I have never built my own PC, though I have considered it many times.
A general unfamiliarity with how the computational sausage gets made and the high price of staying up to date on parts has largely kept me, a Mac user, away from the prospect.
But because I have friends and colleagues who are PC users, I have learned two things: 1) It’s not as hard as you think to build a computer. I’ve heard the description, “It’s like adult Legos” more than once. And 2) static electricity can ruin everything.
With this wisdom in mind, I let go of my fear of tinkering and got to work upgrading my 2022 Framework Laptop with the company's newest parts. My goal was to swap out the 12th Gen Intel chip for a new 13th Gen CPU, change the screen from glossy to matte, install a larger battery, and switch in sturdier hinges. And by the end, hopefully, I would have an “all-new” Framework Laptop without having to pay more for an entirely new one.
I was deeply worried that I was going to tear a small cable, break some kind of connecting pin, or cause an electrical incident because of what I was wearing. It would later turn out that my biggest issue was actually not having a screwdriver.
Framework ships a T5 Torx screwdriver with every laptop, but I happened to lose mine in a move, so my first order of business was visiting a Home Depot for a replacement. All credit to Framework; any component you’d need to remove in the laptop can be unscrewed with a T5 or unplugged; there’s nothing proprietary here. That helps in making the process of updating everything less intimidating. “I can buy what I need at a store down the street. How bad can it really be?”
In terms of everything working? Totally fine. In terms of my mental well-being? Well, It’s complicated.
Framework sent me almost all of the new components it's introducing in the 2023 version of the Framework Laptop to install on my own device, including a 13th Gen Intel Core i7-1360P mainboard ($699), a new matte display ($179), improved hinges ($24), and a 61Wh battery ($69). The most expensive of these is naturally the new mainboard, but if you were happy with the 11th or 12th Gen Intel you already have, you could get an inarguably better laptop for less than $300. Or, looking at it the other way, you could spend less than half the cost of a new laptop (starting at $549 for a Core i5) and essentially get this year’s biggest improvement to install for yourself. That’s fantastic for anyone on a budget, and maybe reason alone to consider a Framework.
To fit into the comparatively small body of the Framework Laptop, components are layered on top of and between each other, which means most of the upgrade process is unscrewing, unplugging, and untangling everything. Framework offers detailed guides to get you through the whole process, with embedded videos where necessary, and everything on the inside is labeled, sometimes even with QR codes that can direct you to the documentation that explains how to fix them.
The process largely moves through the different things you need to unplug to remove your old mainboard, starting with the touchpad, then going to the battery, speakers, audio board, display, webcam, storage, and Wi-Fi modules. From there, I unscrewed the old mainboard and swapped in the new one, then did the same with the battery, removing the old 55Wh model and attaching the new 61Wh version. To do this, you’ll have to be gentle with plugs, and in some cases, make sure some tiny screws don’t roll away. It’s nerve-wracking, but not impossible.
Once the battery was reconnected, I moved to the display, removing the magnetic black bezel (Framework plans on selling multiple colors and styles), unscrewing the old screen, and then removing the whole top cover so I could get at the hinges. Throughout this process, you’re encouraged to hold everything by the edge so as not to damage the glass, metal, and just overall exposed electronics you have to deal with during this process, something that’s difficult to remember when you’re worried about unplugging something with too much force.
The other confounding thing about this whole process, as I installed the new, more rigid hinges and glare-free matte display, was how annoying the variety of different connectors Framework, and I imagine all computers, use to power and communicate between components. I’ve used the verb “plug” for expediency’s sake, but there are few things that “plug-in” in any traditional sense of the word. Sometimes a flat cable needs to slide in between the pins of another connector, or a prong that looks like it could be plugged in at 180 degrees is actually supposed to be pressed into a slot at 90 degrees.
All of this is broadly standardized, dependent on what a component is doing and what other part of the computer it has to interface with, and out of the control of a company like Framework, which can’t manufacture custom, uniform connectors for everything. But for a novice tinkerer like me, I was surprised (you could alternatively read that as “horrified”) to learn how much variety there was inside the laptop and how even though the process is basically unscrewing and unplugging everything, and then plugging in and screwing in the new components, it’s far from “adult Legos.” Unless your Lego bricks are all different sizes, with different levels of fragility, and occasionally have triangular or even square pegs instead of circular ones.
Imperfectly One of a Kind
You don’t buy a sustainable and upgradeable laptop and expect the build quality of something premium and locked down. I purchased last year’s Framework Laptop with 12th Gen Intel chips and have largely used it as a way to play simple PC games (again, I’m a Mac user) and keep an eye on the various updates and tests Microsoft is running in Edge, Bing, and Windows 11 as it rolls out its AI-powered vision for software.
The old Framework Laptop, despite its $1,049 starting price, is not a fully premium experience. There’s some flex to the Framework’s aluminum chassis; the touchpad gets smudged easily; the hinge is a bit wobbly; and at least the version I bought had a battery life that was less than satisfactory (as in it barely got me through a full, busy day). The pluses largely outweighed those negatives, however. I had complete control over the ports the laptop shipped with thanks to Framework’s hot-swappable Expansion Card system, a clean version of Windows 11 without any weird pre-installed apps, and the knowledge that I could open up the laptop and change things if I needed.
With the new components in, I was pleasantly surprised with how much that basic experience improved. Sure, the fingerprint reader no longer lights up how it used to, probably because of how I reattached the back panel, but I’ll save that for further tinkering down the road. Maybe I’ll even leave it as a memento of my first DIY experience.
“I feel more attached to my Framework Laptop than ever.”
The key here is that my Framework Laptop immediately felt snappier, and I can only assume that’s the more powerful 13th Gen Intel Core i7 CPU. I’m not planning to push my laptop anytime soon, but even in everyday browsing tasks, it seems to make Edge more responsive. It helps that the display is a lot easier to read too. I didn't have many issues with the Framework’s old display, but its glossy finish did make it kind of a glare magnet, which this new one easily rectifies. And the hinges? The hinges make it all feel more sturdy.
More than those quality-of-life changes — and a battery that I can get nearly 10 hours of use out of — after spending two hours sweating over these upgrades, I feel more attached to my Framework Laptop than ever. I spent a meaningful, legitimately frightening time worrying whether I was doing it right, and it turned out I was fine, and it was better for it. That’s given me a new kind of ownership over this laptop that I haven’t had over any other personal electronics I’ve owned. I know it's not novel or revelatory if you’ve built your own desktop machine, but in my book, Framework has made it a lot more accessible for someone with more of a casual relationship with their computer.
My upgraded Framework Laptop might not feel as polished as it was when a professional built it, but it's absolutely mine. And now I have a spare 12th Gen Intel Core processor I can repurpose for something else. Which, conveniently, Framework plans on selling me a new shell for if I wanted to create a Plex server or a Windows desktop. I got a new laptop, and the old pieces get to live on.
Framework’s entire business is built on an unfortunately controversial idea. You should be able to fix or upgrade your own electronics if you want, and you shouldn’t have to create more e-waste to do it. After going through the process of upgrading my own Framework Laptop and seeing the roadmap ahead that includes a 16-inch form factor with a removable GPU, I can now say two years after its release, Framework is succeeding with its bold and Right to Repair-friendly mission.
Photographs by Ian Carlos Campbell.