It’s been four years since Dell promised the Alienware Area-51m would be a truly upgradable gaming laptop — and nearly two years since the company got sued for utterly failing to deliver that dream.
Now, Framework, the sole company in modern memory* with an actual track record of delivering a fully upgradable laptop, is taking a stab at it, too.
Today outside the 2023 Game Developers Conference, it’s announcing and previewing the Framework Laptop 16, its second laptop platform ever, with the claim that it’s “delivering on the holy grail for gamers, creators and others who need power, with modular upgradable graphics!”
Framework CEO Nirav Patel tells The Verge that he’s serious. “We’ve looked at all the reasons that [upgradable graphics] have gone wrong in the past and designed Framework Laptop 16 in a way that we have a ton of design freedom to be able to really drive modularity across generations.”
The secret, as I understand it: you can replace your laptop’s butt with as big a butt as you like.
I joke, but it’s a good way to think about Framework’s new Expansion Bay system it’s debuting in the Laptop 16: a piece of the laptop’s rear can slide out and be replaced with as large a module as the module developer needs.
One option is a thermal module that’s “actually just two fans that cool the system,” says Patel, but you can replace it with a larger graphics module that’s thicker and deeper than you could ever fit inside the chassis. (While Alienware sold an external graphics box for years, it tried to cram the Alienware Area-51m’s GPU cards inside that laptop’s chassis.)
Framework designed its own new high-power bidirectional PCI-Express interface for the module, says Patel, one with enough throughput to support, say, a module with a pair of SSDs instead of a GPU. The modules can even be used in an external enclosure, say as an external GPU. The company’s hoping to attract third-party developers to build for the interface, too.
Weirdly, the company won’t say whether Nvidia and AMD are actually on board with the idea — which could be make-or-break — but Patel says a working graphics module will be on display at its event today, and I’ll add my impressions to this story if or when they let me touch the machine. (Update: nope, they won’t let me touch.)
Until today, the company only offered a 13.5-inch laptop with four expansion card slots for I/O and a variety of repairable or replaceable parts, but the Framework Laptop 16 boasts six card slots and a new Input Module system that — yes — lets you hotswap out the entire keyboard and touchpad. For example, you can shove the default centered keyboard you see in the photo above to the left and add a numpad module on the right — or vice versa. You can shift the touchpad to the left or right, too, thanks to a pair of modular spacers.
You could theoretically add a secondary display or an LED matrix instead — both are in the proof-of-concept stage. “Just like the expansion cards and the expansion bay, we’re opening this up for community development,” Patel says. Most of the modules are based on a Raspberry Pi, and all the documentation should be available on Framework’s GitHub later today.
Note: if you want a 3.5mm audio jack on the Framework Laptop 16, you will need to give up one of its six expansion card slots. Instead of building it into the laptop, 3.5mm audio is now a new module, too.
Framework won’t be revealing the laptop’s full specs today or taking any preorders. Those should happen simultaneously later this spring. Today, the idea is to get people excited — specifically, people who might start building modules for this laptop before it ships in “late 2023.”
Framework also just announced new Intel mainboards, its first AMD mainboard, and a higher-capacity battery for the 13.5-inch Framework Laptop, as well as a $39 Cooler Master case that can turn your old mainboard into a tiny desktop PC.
*I’m not counting those Clevo behemoths that fit full desktop processors and used MXM graphics modules you could only find through channel sellers, but if you had one, kudos and my teenage self is real jealous of you.