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Framework Laptop 16 review: A modular marvel, but a mediocre gaming laptop Engadget

If you’re a PC hardware geek who’s been dreaming of a laptop that you can upgrade far beyond the life cycle of a typical machine, Framework’s modular notebooks must seem like a miracle. The American company has a straightforward pitch: What if your laptop could be nearly as customizable as a desktop, with the ability to swap components out for repairs and upgrades? What if we could put an end to disposable hardware? We were intrigued by Framework’s original 13-inch notebook and its Chromebook variant, despite some rough edges and a basic design. Now, with the Framework Laptop 16, the company is targeting the most demanding and (arguably) hardest group of PC users to please: Gamers.

Framework has already proved it can build compelling modular laptops, but can the Laptop 16 cram in powerful graphics, a fast display and other components to keep up with the likes of Alienware, Razer and ASUS? Sort of, it turns out — and there are plenty of other tradeoffs for living the modular laptop dream. Hardware quirks abound, battery life is mediocre and it still looks like a totally generic machine. But how many other notebooks could let you completely upgrade your CPU or GPU in a few years? Who else offers a customizable keyboard setup? In those respects, the Framework 16 stands alone.

You’ll also have to pay dearly for its unique features. The Framework Laptop 16 starts at $1,399 for its DIY Edition, which includes a Ryzen 7 7840HS chip, but RAM, storage and an OS will cost extra. (You could also bring your own hardware, if you happen to have all those components lying around). The pre-built "Performance" model goes for $1,699 with the same Ryzen chip, 16GB of RAM, 512GB of storage and Windows 11 Home. The highest-end "Overkill" edition starts at $2,099 with a Ryzen 9 7940HS, 32GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD. Oh, and if you want the dedicated Radeon RX 7700S GPU, that’s an additional $400 for every model.

I just wanted you to have those numbers in mind as we dive into what the Laptop 16 gets right, because for true PC tinkerers, those high prices could be worth it. The device’s singular personality was clear the instant I opened it: I saw a machine with a fairly typical display, the usual wrist rest area with a touchpad, and a big gaping hole where the keyboard was supposed to be. I’ve come across hundreds (probably thousands) of laptops in my time, this was one of the rare times where I felt genuinely surprised. Underneath the metal Mid Plate where the keyboard was supposed to be, I could see the internals of the Framework 16 peeking through, just tempting me to get my hands dirty (and my knuckles inevitably scraped up).

Framework Laptop 16
Photo by Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

After opening the two side locks on the wrist rest, I slid the two side spacers off. Then, ever so carefully, I pulled back on the touchpad to detach it from the case. That’s when I learned that I didn’t have to be too gentle with the Laptop 16. All of the components are built for removal. With the lower panels gone, I had full access to the metal barrier protecting the rest of the machine’s internals.

At that point, I realized it paid to read Framework’s online documentation, as things quickly got more complicated. It stated that I needed to remove the cable with the number one next to it, and then unscrew 16 screws spread through the Mid Plate. Thankfully, the screws are held in place, so I didn’t have to worry about losing them as I would during a desktop build.

Then, I was treated to a wondrous sight: A laptop with a completely open mainboard, featuring components I could easily reach without much effort. There’s a large battery at the bottom, a wireless networking card at the top left, SSD slots in the middle and two RAM slots off to the side. QR codes are nestled alongside the parts, which direct you to online help documentation. The last time I saw so many easily reachable components was on the failed Alienware Area 51M, another dreamy modular laptop, but that was quietly killed after a few years. (Dell was sued by Area 51M customers who felt misled about its upgradability, though that ultimately didn’t amount to much.)

Framework Laptop 16

And yes, I know other large gaming laptops like the Razer Blade 16 also let you easily access their RAM and SSDs. But those machines don’t have the modular ambitions of the Framework Laptop 16. I could see the Ryzen 7840HS module within reach, and also easily swap out my review unit’s Radeon RX 7700S graphics. That GPU, by the way, is completely optional. You can order the Laptop 16 with a slimmer expansion bay instead, which helps to cool the Ryzen chip’s Radeon 780M graphics. Or you could have both modules and swap them out as needed. Simply having the option to do so is revolutionary.

The Radeon 7700S GPU is contained within a module that sticks out from the rear of the Laptop 16. A more powerful video card could potentially stick out further, while a more efficient one could end up being smaller. The key is that the choice could be entirely yours (I’m hedging a bit here, because Framework and AMD still haven’t committed to the availability of future GPU upgrades). The GPU module also makes a big difference when it comes to weight: The Laptop 16 clocks in at 5.3 pounds with the graphics card attached, whereas it’s just 4.6 pounds with the standard expansion bay.

Framework Laptop 16
Photo by Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

Looking at the Framework Laptop 16 splayed out on my workbench, all I could see was possibility. The possibility of doubling my RAM in a couple of years to run local AI models, upgrading the CPU for a major power upgrade, and replacing the battery on my own after far too many charge cycles. Framework is selling a dream of hope. I had my doubts when the company launched, especially after seeing how badly Dell botched the Area 51M. (Fun fact: Frank Azor, the Alienware co-founder who spearheaded that machine’s launch, is now AMD’s chief gaming architect.)

But now that Framework has several products under its belt, and it’s managed to deliver a truly replaceable mobile GPU where others have failed, I find myself rooting for this little hardware company that’s daring to do something different. (Okay, sure, it also raised $27 million in VC funding, but hardware is a difficult and expensive thing to get right!)

Even if you’re not eager to get new components in a few years, the Framework Laptop 16’s modularity also allows you to easily customize it for your needs. As I reassembled the machine, a process that took around three minutes, I wanted to make my setup look different from a typical laptop. So I slapped the RGB keyboard module on the left side of the Mid Plate (it landed with a genuinely satisfying magnetic thunk) and aligned the trackpad right below it. To the right of the keyboard, I installed a customizable button module (you can also order a standard Numpad, if you’d like), and metal spacers on the right of the trackpad.

Framework Laptop 16
Photo by Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

With the top of the machine configured, I also had to figure out which ports I wanted to equip along the sides of the Laptop 16. Framework handles that process brilliantly: The computer has three expansion bays along each side, all of which lead to USB-C connections at the end. The expansion cards are just USB-C dongles connecting to your typical ports, including USB Type A ($9), Type C ($9), a headphone jack ($19) and HDMI ($19). Our review unit came with a handful of cards, so I slapped on two USB-C ports on the left (which also handle charging), USB A on both sides, as well as HDMI and 3.5mm on the right (because the legend will never die).

If I was configuring my own machine, I’d also opt for Ethernet ($39) and MicroSD ($19). The cards sit flush with the Laptop 16 once they’re installed, and are very secure once you enable the locks on the bottom of the case. They’re so easy to swap out, I wouldn’t be surprised if Framework owners end up switching between them on the fly. You can never have too many ports, after all.

Framework Laptop 16
Photo by Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

While I appreciated the simple customizability of the ports, charging was a bit annoying. Framework’s documentation points out that only certain expansion slots can be used for USB-C charging. There’s also a USB-C port on the back of the GPU module, which I was disappointed to learn couldn’t actually charge the Laptop 16. The company told me that USB-C port is only meant for accessories and additional displays. Still, it would have been nice to have rear charging support just to hide the cable from view.

Once I had everything locked into place, this ugly duckling of a laptop started to look like a gaming swan. The RGB keyboard jolted to life when I hit power. I had no idea what I was going to do with the programmable keyboard, but I could see it potentially being useful while podcasting (and certainly if I was a game streamer). But I also realized that nothing is permanent about the Laptop 16.

Framework Laptop 16

I learned quickly that I wasn’t a fan of typing for too long on a left-aligned keyboard, so I yanked everything out and center-aligned the keyboard and trackpad instead. Instead of blank metal spacers around the keyboard, I installed some customizable LED modules, which basically exist to look pretty. That took me just two minutes. The keyboard, by the way, is wonderful to type on, with 1.5mm of key travel and a soft landing that easily dampens my heavy typing. The trackpad is also smooth to the touch and has a responsive click. It’s so great that I have to wonder how some Windows laptops still ship with frustrating touchpads — I’m looking at you, ZenBook 14 OLED.

There’s so much to love about the Framework Laptop 16, I was genuinely bummed to discover that it was a fairly mediocre gaming machine, at least for its high price. Across multiple games and benchmarks, it fell in line with laptops sporting NVIDIA’s RTX 4060 GPU, a card typically found in systems starting around $1,000 (and sometimes less). Framework isn’t completely out of line, though, Razer still sells the Blade 16 for $2,500 (down from $2,699). Remember, you’re paying for the magic of customizability, not just raw performance.

Our review unit included the Radeon GPU module, the Ryzen 7 chip, 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD, which would all cost at least $2,144 to configure. (That doesn’t include the cost of expansion cards or additional input modules.) For that amount of money, I really would have liked to see more than 61fps on average while playing Halo Infinite in 1,440p with Ultra graphics settings. In Cyberpunk, I hit 53fps on average with maxed out graphics and mid-range ray tracing settings. Both games fared better in 1080p — 85fps in Halo and 76fps in Cyberpunk with the same settings — but still, those are numbers I’d typically only put up with in a budget gaming laptop.

As for benchmarks, the Framework Laptop 16 scored 200 points less than the Razer Blade 18 with an RTX 4060 in 3DMark’s TimeSpy Extreme. And as usual, the AMD GPU still lagged behind in the Port Royal ray tracing demo. Still, the Laptop 16 held up decently in the broader PCMark 10 benchmark, which tests productivity apps and not just gaming. The Framework machine hit a score of 8,129, putting it alongside some of the fastest machines we saw last year (it even beat out the Blade 18, which was running a beefy Intel i9-13950HX CPU).

While I would have liked to see higher numbers across the board, the Framework Laptop 16’s 16-inch screen was at least a joy to behold throughout my testing. It’s a standard LED panel with a 165Hz refresh rate, a respectable 500 nits of brightness and 100-percent DCI-P3 color gamut coverage. The display made the neon-soaked world of Cyberpunk pop more than usual, though it certainly didn’t have the extra brightness of MiniLED screens or the eye-searing contrast of OLED panels. At the risk of repeating myself, the beauty of this screen is that you can yank it off the laptop in a few minutes and replace it if your kid damages it, or if Framework releases new modules. (Again, big if there.)

Framework Laptop 16
The Framework’s left speaker.
Photo by Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

Personally, I’d also eagerly swap out the Laptop 16’s 3-watt speakers the instant Framework offers upgrades. They’re serviceable, but given what Apple and Dell offer these days, they feel almost insulting. Music sounds far too tinny, and they can barely even convey the faux drama of a typical movie trailer. I’m sure most people would use headphones while gaming, but if you’re the sort of person who relies on your laptop speakers for music, I beg you to consider other options.

I’d also recommend some sort of noise blocking solution that can overpower the Laptop 16’s fans. While I was gaming and benchmarking the system, I could swear it was about to lift off like my DJI drone. The fans are louder than any gaming laptop I’ve encountered over the past few years, but at least they did their job. CPU temps stayed around 80 degrees Celsius under load, while the GPU typically stayed under 70C.

Since it’s a huge gaming laptop, I didn’t expect much batter life from the Framework Laptop 16, and I was right: It lasted for four hours and five minutes in the PCMark 10 “Modern Office” battery benchmark. I saw similar results while writing this review, and as you’d expect, it lasted around two hours playing a demanding game like Halo Infinite.

Framework Laptop 16
Photo by Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

Much like the original Framework notebook, the Laptop 16 is meant for a niche group of PC users, those who prioritize customizability and upgradability at all costs. If you’re a gamer trying to get the most frames for your dollar, this isn’t really the machine for you (consider these budget gaming PCs, or wait to see how we feel about the Zephyrus G14 in our review). But if you want a notebook that could last you for the next decade, and don’t mind so-so gaming performance, the Laptop 16 could be the notebook of your dreams.

This article originally appeared on Engadget at https://ift.tt/hsgdQP2 Devindra Hardawar

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