No Frame Of Reference

The mixed-feelings reviews about the Framework 16 laptop show how complicated it is to pull off the hat trick of ambitious, powerful, and repairable.

By Ernie Smith

When I acquired my new laptop recently, I did a lot of research and homework before I pulled the trigger, and ended up deciding that my primary metric for purchasing (a high quality, possibly OLED, screen) was less important to me than upgradeability. I wanted a 16-inch laptop that would last me a few years that could run Linux.

I ultimately landed on the 16-inch HP Envy, a laptop that is a generation or two old and doesn’t have the highest-end graphics, but is nonetheless quite modern and does have upgradeability. (On top of that, I’ve noticed that there are plentiful parts for it on eBay—suggesting there’s a chance this thing could still have an OLED screen yet.)

When I discussed my decision-making process on Mastodon, the question I got seemingly more than any other was, essentially: Why not just wait for the Framework 16?

Honestly, the Framework model appeals to me. It really does. All the stuff it does is essentially the opposite of what I complain about. (This video from the repair guru Hugh Jeffreys underlines what’s great about it.) But on the other hand, I look at what the 16 became, and I find myself a bit disappointed that they didn’t just build a take on the Framework 13 with a larger screen.

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The problem becomes clear when you read some of the reviews of this device. Sean Hollister of The Verge ran into glitches and freezing problems, and described a device that “doesn’t feel finished,” comparing the device to the Steam Deck’s buggy early reviews. Even in the parts that were finished, there were challenges—using the device during CES, he described having to remove the removable graphics card from the laptop just to fit the thing in his bag, undermining a key selling point of the machine.

Other reviewers at big-name sites seemed to agree with him. For example, Engadget’s Devindra Hardawar, while praising its repairability, called it “a fairly mediocre gaming machine, at least for its high price.” And Ars Technica seemed surprised that Framework so aggressively bet the farm on function over form:

The whole point of it is that it’s bigger than the original—the star of the show is a lovely matte non-touch panel with a 2560×1600 resolution, a 16:10 aspect ratio, and roughly 97 percent DCI-P3 gamut coverage. But it’s striking just how much bigger the laptop is, while devices like the Dell XPS 15 or Apple’s 16-inch MacBook Pro have at least tried to retain some of the slimness of those companies’ smaller notebooks.

Now, to be clear, I think for the user base it’s aiming for, this Framework will probably find a strong audience, and better, its modular nature will allow it to improve on features that have frustrated reviewers, such as the keyboard and the surprisingly large number of screws attaching the metal plate to the machine’s innards.

The challenge is, I think there is a larger middle-ground audience that this machine totally and unnecessarily leaps over. It went from basic laptop to apparent gaming beast as it increased size, and in the process, it jumped over the folks who want something more reasonable.

If you look at gaming laptops, those are the machines on the market that are fairly upgradeable and repairable. It’s the middle-ground machines—the Spectres, the MacBook Airs, the Grams, the Vivobooks of the world—that have lost the very things Framework is offering. Dell just announced a line of XPS machines that went all-in on thinness over functionality, becoming less upgradeable in the process. Imagine if Framework built a device that more directly competed with those.

The happy medium between cost and efficiency has simply been hard to attain, and I think they missed out on some obvious opportunities to reach a broader audience by favoring the fan-centered design. Example: One of the reasons that the MacBook Pro is appealing to high-end laptop buyers is its powerful speaker system, but despite this, the modularity of Framework’s approach did not prioritize top-firing speakers, instead favoring spacers that don’t do much. The reviews call out the weak speakers that compete with the fans for attention.

And because the machine adds so much bulk to the chassis with the GPU, it makes the machine physically large to the point where it loses portability, akin to an Alienware PC. As Ars Technica notes, the Framework 16 without a GPU is dimensionally longer in size than a Lenovo Legion Pro 5, a traditional gaming laptop with a more powerful GPU. At some point, you wonder, would it have been better for Framework to start selling eGPUs instead?

The mixed feelings about the Framework 16’s approach have been bubbling over for months to some degree—the great YouTuber Dave2D, who once made his name on putting an overheating MacBook Pro in a freezer, months ago suggested the Framework 16’s price tag might be somewhat out of whack for what it offers. The price tag is somewhat high, but I’d argue you’re paying for flexibility, which offsets that. To me, the real problem might be that the machine is too overambitious in one fell swoop.

Other machines are ambitious or risky, to be clear, but they often couch their innovations in iteration. (See the HP Spectre x360 for an example of this kind of iteration done well.) Framework, still a very young company, chose to introduce three or four new ideas all at once, which may have affected overall execution.

I am reminded of the episode of The Simpsons where Homer Simpson, at the behest of his long-lost auto-executive half-brother, designs a car for the everyman, and comes up with an overly complex machine with wacky features that costs too much and does too many new things at once, getting away from the car’s intended goal.

And I feel terrible for making that comparison, because there’s so much about this laptop that has potential. I want Framework as a company to succeed—but to me, this doesn’t feel like the direction that will get them there.

If Framework had focused on getting the basics right and not on gamer-oriented features that cost the machine a good chunk of its practicality for a broader non-enthusiast audience—the very market category that is getting screwed out of things like upgradable RAM and storage—the story around these mixed reviews might be a bit different.

Ambitious Links

Cord Jefferson, a former journalist I remember well as a fellow prolific Tumblr user, is now an Oscar nominee for his film American Fiction. I’ve found his journey fascinating—as highlighted by this excellent Guardian piece.

In less exciting journalistic news, Atlas Obscura (which I used to contribute to) sadly had a fabulism controversy.

Over the weekend, I stumbled upon Shudder to Think, a post-hardcore band that has an absolutely amazing pedigree—the band was on legendary DC label Dischord before going to the majors, and singer Craig Wedren these days is much more famous as a prolific composer for television. From this Buzz Bin classic, one can see why they built up such a strong audience back in the day.


Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal! (And if you have a Framework 16 on the way, tell me what you like about it!)

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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