Framework Laptop: A review

February 27, 2021

Among the causes that I hold dear to my blood pumper, support and advocacy for “right to repair” is among those (privacy and sustainability rounding out my top 3). Framework represents a bright possible future for re-blazing (note: computers have historically been a repair-friendly device short of some modern devices, ahem, Apple) a path where individuals can maintain their machine and minimize the need to toss it into a landfill. Further, by addressing planned obsolescence by design, the Framework promises a future where modularity and transparency are core, explicit features. The future is bright indeed; let’s hope enough people see the light and support this startup.

Design

Aesthetics

Subtle and classy. The overall design is reminiscent of a Dell XPS or a Macbook Air. I am quite enamored with it. It is not flashy or fussy. For this price point, the aluminum chassis is a nice touch. The Framework design team also appeared to require very little compromise on the aesthetics and maintainability of the unit. The screen bezel is removed via magnet catches and the main body is held in by a few captive fasteners and magnets. The laptop is not clunky like an old T-series Thinkpad, while offering more servicing options.

Hardware

Just about everything feel premium on the device. the screen is high-resolution, has a nice aspect ratio for work (3:2?), a glass touchpad, kill switches for camera and microphone and sufficient travel on the keyboard keys.

The internals configured a modern, premium fare. Not top of the line, but still plenty fast for my use cases.

One minor hardware improvement or upgrade that I would not mind seeing is a backlit keyboard. One day, a discrete GPU on the motherboard would be nice for power users.

Modules

The user-swappable modules are a core highlight of the Framework. This further solidifies the company’s mission for customization and serviceability. Additionally, they appear to be supporting a marketplace of third-party modules. I opted for 2x USB-c, 1x HDMI, and 1x USB-A modules as they fit with my lifestyle needs. The USB-C modules do allow charging in addition to data transfer (I installed one on each side depending on my work position).

Software

Windows is considered the first-class citizen for an operating system, but Linux support is quite good.

Windows

I expect there to be no issues out of the box. Ok, maybe updating a few drivers via the built-in installer, but otherwise I expect there to be minimal fuss. This is great for who is likely the average computer user. I prefer UNIX-based environments and only have at most a single Windows machine around for those rare cases where Windows is the only supported solution.

Linux: Elementary OS

I am not new to Linux, but would not consider myself an expert by any means. I am comfortable with the command line and following instructions, but my challenge with Linux comes to stability. I love the idea of Linux and what is represents, but I do not subscribe to constantly maintaining a computer setup for casual use, e.g., crossing fingers that core packages do not create breakage between upgrades. This is one of the primary reasons that I stick with Mac OS. Excuse the euphemism, but Mac OS largely “just works.” A personal challenge of mine is to evaluate Linux as a 1st-class operating system for the average user. I am happy to say that Linux has improved by leaps and bounds in the last decade in regards to user-friendliness and stability. The out of the box experience has improved to the point where it basically “just works.”

Initially, I chose Elementary OS 6 (based on Ubuntu 20.04 LTS) for my journey. Elementary is based on upstream Ubuntu, has a great UI (very familiar to Mac users), keyboard navigation with a privacy-first approach.

What Works

The installation wizard and overall UI feel great. It is a comfortable experience and quite pleasing to the eye. The team has done an astounding job at enabling a welcoming experience for Linux newcomers including the dock, applications drawer and the top main menu. The included software seem satisfactory though I do wish the AppCenter would allow improved discovery of Flatpak support as this is how I installed Firefox. Further improvements to a smooth user experience include first-class support for keyboard navigation, virtual workspaces and trackpad gestures.

Issues

So far, I have only encountered a few issues listed in order of importance (to myself). WiFi did not work out of the box, but was solved by installing the Intel WiFi drivers and updating the linux-firmware package (here)[https://packages.ubuntu.com/hirsute/linux-firmware].

Install via $ sudo dpkg -i linux-firmware_1.197_all.deb.

  • Bluetooth does not work (kernel 5.14.9 might fix this)
  • Fingerprint reader does not work (out of the box, but can be installed)
  • Battery life on suspend could be improved
  • HDMI output works, although hot-unplugging reset display scaling on the built in monitor

Linux: Pop!_OS

Out of curiousity, I wondered how a distribution based on the newer Ubuntu (21.04) would fare. To my delight, everything in Elementary OS works including Bluetooth. WiFi works out of the box! Supposedly, there is built-in support for the fingerprint reader as well, but a regression has broken the GUI for registering a fingerprint. The out of the box experience is akin to Elementary: welcoming and polished. While I do love the simplicity of Elementary, I am quickly adjusting to some of the defaults included with Pop! and am finding a strong liking to the distro’s approach. The window tiling, keyboard navigation and focus on security and privacy are at the forefront of my needs. One major improvement over Elementary is their version of an app store, Pop!_Shop. Pop!_Shop includes more common software (Firefox, Spotify, VS Code, et al), so software discovery is a major improvement.

Issues

  • Fingerprint reader does not work (out of the box), but is easily installed via $ apt install libpam-fprintd

Summary

Framework represents a subtstantial mindset shift for consumer electronics. Sadly, this is not likely to reach mainstream in the short-term, but one can hope. The intense focus on repairability, while not sacrificing quality is an important step in addressing planned obsolescence. In addition, sufficient Linux support means that these machines will immediately find a specific crowd that should flock to these machines.