Modular Laptop Maker Provides Mainboard Documentation For Non-Laptop Projects

If you’ve been following the latest advancements in computing for a while, you already know that there’s a big problem with laptops: When they’re no longer useful as a daily driver, it can be a struggle to find a good use for all its parts. Everything is proprietary, and serious amounts of reverse engineering are required if you decide to forge ahead. This is where Framework, a laptop company building modular laptops comes in. They’ve made it clear that when you upgrade your Framework laptop with a new mainboard they want you to be able to continue to use the old mainboard outside of the laptop.

When it's done powering your laptop, use it for a cyberdeck?
When it’s done powering your laptop, use it for a cyberdeck?

To that end, Framework have provided 2D mechanical drawings of their mainboard and 3D printable cases that can of course be modified as needed. “But what about peripherals?” you might ask. Framework has provided pinouts for all of the connectors on the board along with information on which connectors to use to interface with them. No reverse engineering needed!

While it’s possible to buy a mainboard now and use it, their stated goal is to help people make use of used mainboards leftover from upgrades down the line. With just a stick of memory and a USB-C power adapter, the board will spring to life and even has i2c and USB immediately available.

What would you do with a powerful Intel i5-1135G7 mainboard? Framework wants to know, and to that end, they are actually giving away 100 mainboards to makers and developers. Mind you this is a program created and ran by Framework — and is not associated in any way Hackaday or our overlords at Supplyframe.

If you’ve read this far and still don’t know what the Framework laptop is, go check out this introduction by our own [Jenny List].

27 thoughts on “Modular Laptop Maker Provides Mainboard Documentation For Non-Laptop Projects

  1. Nice, if I actually had a need for a new laptop the Framework was currently at the top of my list as it seems by far the most versatile and least likely to turn to e-waste any time soon, and now its got better!

    I wonder if the framework mainboard would fit inside the rugged casing of my oldest Toughbook sanely – a super rugged but still more upgradeable and modular laptop could interesting. (Which is why I don’t need a new laptop any time soon as the best of my Toughbook collection is still good as new and more than powerful enough for the rare occasions I am not at home, old though it is)

    Perhaps change the cooling to be fanless and it would make a good embedded workshop computer – more than powerful enough to do things like octoprint, run your CNC, perhaps run a voice or gesture control system so you can turn the music up/down with filthy hands etc, and should be cool running enough to make fanless in a reasonably small volume so no need for dusting the computer out of chips and sawdust that somehow gets past the filter (or clogs the filters) all the time…

    1. heh i actually feel the opposite…it’s *most* likely to turn into e-waste. laptops die in two ways…

      … from becoming too slow to run the browser…in 3 years when you want a faster chip, none of this small-production-run stuff will be available and you’ll have to replace the whole thing.

      … from physical damage, especially at connectors, which this has a bunch of. and keyboards, which this has ironically the least-replacable one. it’s so much easier to replace the keyboard in a mainstream laptop where they produced a million count of them for schools and the aftermarket spare parts stream is flooded even 5 years after they stopped making it. once this company disappears or moves on to the next thing, this keyboard is going to become 100% unobtainium overnight. same for the screen.

      i buy cheapest consumer laptop ($180-$250) and run the browser remotely and every year or so i have to buy a replacement keyboard, screen, or battery. laptops last 5 years easy this way but even then, after 6 years and you’re looking at buying the 4th keyboard and the 3rd battery and the wifi has gotten spotty and replacing the antenna didn’t do it so you want a new mainboard…even that eventually becomes untenable.

      the secret to longevity is staying within the mainstream. it *is* kind of ironic.

      1. Getting too slow to run really isn’t much of an issue unless you use the bloatware that is windoze… I’ve got machines well into their second decade of life, that were slow even when they were brand new, that still handle browsing most web pages fine, (mostly they just won’t handle the desktops hundreds of tabs and windows session, and obviously can’t decode a 4K video stream etc), and are as good as the day they were new, and imperceptibly slower than the modern replacement on lots of other common tasks – as much of the time a computer is waiting on you the useless slow fleshbag to tell it to do something else. Sure updates take ages, any more serious compute task is better done elsewhere, but it works just fine for most things.

        The connectors can be replaced when damaged, its not even all that hard to do so (at least for any of us reading this – we might need a new tool to make it easy but the nature of folks reading this site means I have no doubt most could just do it), and with the design of the frameworks case the connector that will fail is in the exchangeable module not on the mainboard anyway! SO swap out the module, a cheap and tiny part – so minimal waste even if you don’t try to repair it, and off you go good as new for ages…

        Screens and keyboards you make a valid point on, but then I’ve only on my own machines had to replace a single laptop keyboard, and never a screen, and that keyboard was on a super cheap and crappy laptop – SO my take away from that is don’t treat it like garbage and buy a well made machine and you shouldn’t need either part for a stupidly long time… Buy cheap junk and be oh so shocked when it fails…

        1. Should note I do tend to go in for at least semi-ruggedised machine though – as I don’t want to have to treat things super delicately.

          However through school I had a desktop replacement class Pentium monster that was cheap and plasticy as a replacement for a really solid compaq that wasn’t up to the task anymore after some stupid windon’t update slowed it to a crawl (maybe it would have been if I already knew about Linux enough, but I’m not sure I or it was developed enough for me at that time, and Dad might be an IT guy but not an early Linux adopter, where sticking with Windon’t at the time if I ever did run into trouble had a real expert to hand)…

          And that cheap plasticy one stuffed into a bag that always ended up weighing in at least 10kg with all the books (and Lunch) was the only one I’ve had to replace parts on, and it wasn’t possible to treat it all that carefully, stuffed in a bag full of books, then strapped to the back of my bicycle once I got fed up of the bus etc… And still nothing major ever properly broke, the latch for the screen failed, the case ended up with some lovely deep gouges in from the zip on the bag I think, and the legend wore off the keyboard (though it was also feeling worse to type on it was still reliable when replaced – just really really not nice to type on, but then after growing up with Model M’s no laptop keyboard is nice, even when it is new…).

          1. Tell me you’ve never had a good laptop without telling me you’ve never had a good laptop.

            I’ve been using Lenovo X200-series exclusively since 2009, and I’ve smashed screens and had motherboards crap out, but this keyboard I’ve actually moved from machine to machine, since it’s not the standard layout for my location. That means it’s gone through five years of humanities at university and another seven of recreational coding, Reddit and a lot of other writing.

          2. Yeah I don’t think daily use thrown into a school bag, and then eon after eon playing games all night counts as hardly use… that pretty cheap (well low quality by my usual standards) one lasted ages of use, and it was never super high end quality construction, just not the disposable level cheap shocking poor construction of the really low end stuff of now.

            And my toughbooks, which definately are built properly, all come second hand from places like garages, where you can see they usually have been dropped, etc, and then been cleaned up a bit and in my use for years now… And the only reason I’ve stopped using the IBM Thinkpad T23 or T42 (both laptops with something almost approaching a nice to use keyboard) is because they are now finally getting on to being too slow to use for much, but the keyboards on them are good as new, and one of them was my Dad’s works laptop for several years…

          3. I bought a used thinkpad t530 in 2016 or 17. It’s been my daily driver the entire time, and it’s flown with me twice around the planet. It’s been dropped, stepped on, thrown into bags, knocked around the car countless times, and been fully torn down, cleaned, and reassembled more times than I care to count.

            The *only* damage it’s taken is one of the thin sections of plastic making up the heat exhaust grille snapped off. Not even noticeable. The key caps and track pad are worn down to a mirror finish and the track point nub has lost its texture, but I haven’t had to replace anything apart from upgrading the hard drive and memory. Even still has the stock gen 3 i5. Stock keyboard, too.

            My makerspace bought a bulk lot of the same model being discarded by a school, and they are now the only computers we use, save for the 3d print area, which needed a decent gpu.

            It is possible to build a very robust laptop that survives decades of heavy abuse. You just have to be willing to buy a good product instead of the cheapest thing you can find.

      2. I cannot say this has been my experience. My current laptop is 10 years old and going strong, and I have only changed the battery once. Maybe buying cheap is not the trick, specially when you consider the electronic garbage you are generating.
        But you have a point regarding the longevity of the company. I hope the replacement parts are easy to source after they are out of business.

        1. there’s an interesting tension here, what is a laptop? what is use?

          with only a few exceptions (for example, the cheapest chromebook), a laptop made in 2012 probably had like, what, a “6 hour, really lasts 3” battery? so how many hours a day do you use it plugged in vs unplugged? at what point on such a beast would you replace the battery? when i had something like that, i never bothered to replace the battery either. what do you gain? what good is a new battery that the dead one doesn’t offer?

          personally, since 2013 i haven’t used my daily laptop while it’s plugged in. it’s a very different device. from the subjective perspective, i don’t think it’s even in the same class of devices as something that has to be plugged in sometimes if you’re going to use it all day.

          so, i don’t really know your experience but i suspect there is a reason for our different perspectives, and i don’t think it’s cost or quality.

      3. My current laptop is 8 years old and I haven’t replaced a single part. The battery life is only 3 or 4 hours at best now but otherwise it functions just like new. It’s a Yoga 2 and was by no means top of the line in any respect but still a $1000 investment.

        I kinda feel like buying bottom dollar is generating more e-waste for you rather than less.

        1. i bought a lenovo $1100 laptop in 2010 that still works but its keyboard was awful from the start and needs to be replaced every 6 months. i replaced it once in 2 years and then gave up on it, demoted it to workbench pc, where its “usable” despite its busted keyboard. there’s a generation of apple powerbooks that also costs >$1000 and has the same failure mode. you can only go so far cleaning it, pressing certain keys special ways, etc., before you have to admit it’s time to replace the keyboard.

          of my less than $300 laptops, i’ve had much higher quality and longer-lasting keyboards than that. but they’re not without their faults, and even from the same vendor each laptop has different faults. i’d like to imagine there’s a brand like ‘ibm thinkpad’ was 10-20 years ago where they only ship good products but even apple has shipped known-faulty keyboards for years at a time.

          keyboards wear out if you use them, even good ones. you will have some hits and some misses.

          it’s been decades since i’ve used one but i even wore out an old mechanical switch keyboard back in the 90s. the switches just failed one after another until there weren’t enough useless keys to use as spares.

          1. As far as I know the latest Panasonic Toughbooks are still built properly.

            Also I’d never look to Apple for shipping something good at the price – as long as it looks goods and can lock you into their walled garden they and their users are happy it seems…

        2. Reading this on a 2016 Dell Latitude 7480 laptop I got off for $250. Spent another $150 on more memory, a larger M.2 drive and a charger, installed Linux Mint 20, and good to go!. It’s quite zippy in spite of the modest processor and very light, so excellent as my new travel machine. Machines that won’t run the latest Windows version seem to run fine on Linux. Go figure. :-)

          Haven’t bought a new computer in recent memory. Recycles and refurbs do me fine and when I do upgrade, the old ones seem to find homes or get responsibly recycled.

      4. i enjoy that several people replied to say that their relatively expensive mainstream laptops have not needed maintenance — which is compatible with my point — but no one has written to say that bespoke modular laptops from here-today-gone-tomorrow niche vendors don’t need maintenance or do have a sustainable replacement parts environment :)

        1. Because we can’t, the only companies to do anything like a framework in the past never made good bespoke stuff, the modularity they may have offered is more about vendor lock in and reducing your spare parts sources (look at nearly all the big names at one time or other)… And framework hasn’t been around long enough to prove they will last – but with how much they are leveraging open or very established standards and have published about how their machine works finding compatible spares shouldn’t be that bad.

      5. Things don’t just “become slow” for nothing. If this is the case, you might be running into malware/bloatware, thus a quick reformat, or cleanup or some sort would definitely help. Even if you blame the browser/OS updates, I think those would cause minimal impacts unless you do a major upgrade (e.g. laptop was originally Win7, and upgraded to Win10).

    2. I was wondering about passive cooling… The lowest TDP config they sell has an i5-1135G7, which can be configured to burn 12-28 Watts. I’ve never tried something like that, but I can imagine that passive cooling might be an option on the lower end of that? Might not remain very portable that way though, I’d expect. Still, if you’re using it as you describe that shouldn’t be an issue.

      1. The processor is probably the easy bit even at full power, I expect the challenge is being sure the rest of the components, power delivery for instance gets enough cooling when you have taken away the forced airflow.

        You can actually buy air coolers for 65w processors that are designed for fanless operation, though to give the fins enough space for good convection they end up astonisthing large and heavy for such low power when you are used to the normal heatpipe tower that dissipates 200+ watts with ease thanks to a fan.

    3. I really like the idea of designing a PLA + TPU 3d printed shell case for an open tough book that uses framework internals. I’ll have to look into that if I end up getting hold of one of these.

  2. One thing the article missed: in addition to the pinouts they’ve also published design files (in OpenSCAD!) For a 3D-printable case and a VESA Mount along with 2D schematics of the board, all licensed under Creative Commons.

    I’ve been really happy with my Framework laptop, and have already ordered an additional mainboard: it’s nice to have an option beyond a Pi or NUC for projects!

    1. Indeed, I’d just noticed that. Hard to argue with a Pi for price to performance most of the time, but it is definitely nice to have a AMD64 arch with decent IO and documentation available.

  3. The modules plug into four recessed USB-C ports. The USB-C module is simply an extender in a plastic box. What would have made this far more interesting to me is if they would have paired up an ExpressCard 2.0 connector with a USB-C port.

    ExpressCard 2.0 got transferred to the USBIF when PCMCIA dissolved. Where ExpressCard 1.0 was a combination of USB 2.0 with PCIe x1 1.0, ExpressCard 2.0 upgraded to USB 3.0 and (unfortunately optionally) PCIe 2.0, still just a single lane.

    If Framework could obtain the rights to ExpressCard, they could make ExpressCard 3.0 by expanding the connector to the 54mm width and making it PCIe 3.0 with 4 lanes and upping the USB part to USB-C spec. *Then open source it* so anyone could use it without paying license or royalties.

    I bet that’s why few companies adopted ExpressCard 2.0. They didn’t want to pay. Another problem was some companies just never switched from CardBus to ExpressCard 1.0. I had a mpc Transport T2500 (rebadged Samsung X65) which was made in 2008 *with a CardBus slot*. WTH was Samsung still using CardBus then? If it would’ve had ExpressCard I could have used it longer by plugging an inexpensive dual port USB 3.0 card in.

  4. Old thinkpads for the win! Mine is from 2012 and still runs great – it’s a tank, it’s fast, the battery life is crap, but I love it! My model even has a CPU socket, so I could probably upgrade it on-gen.

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