Modular gadgets sound useful on paper but rarely break through to mainstream audiences. We’ve seen countless attempts come and go, leaving behind only fleeting blips of excitement from enthusiasts who are time and again burned when the promise of a customisable device never materialises. Every few years a new example arrives: Project Ara was a modular phone concept that Google killed before it could take off; LG didn’t extend its modular phone vision past the G5; and Alienware’s modular Area-51m gaming laptop wasn’t all that modular after all.
It would seem a risk to bring another one of these shape-shifting devices to market, and yet San Francisco-based startup Framework did just that last year when it released the Framework Laptop. Early impressions of the notebook have been mostly positive, but the long-term success of this modular device rests on the upgradable parts made available to customers over the years.
The company has taken steps, like opening an online marketplace, to fulfil its promise of giving users the tools they need to customise, repair, and upgrade their laptops, but what really makes me optimistic about the future of modular PCs are the fascinating mods being worked on by early adopters.
One such project outfits the Framework Laptop with its own version of Apple’s MagSafe charging. After receiving requests from forum members who seemingly took the suggestion from Linus Tech Tips, YouTuber Christopher “CJ” Peet, who hosts the Elevated Systems channel, modified one of the Framework Laptop’s expansion slots to hold a magnetic charging adaptor that, when inserted, sits flush with the edge of the laptop.
Like MagSafe, it makes the charging cable easier to attach, and more importantly, disconnects the cord when your child or dog inevitably trips over it. Yes, you could add this feature to any USB-C charging port with a cheapo adaptor, but those stick out and may prevent you from sliding your laptop into a sleeve or backpack. They’re also more likely to get battered around and tend to slip out easily when you unplug the cord.
This isn’t the sort of thing anyone can do, but Framework makes it easy for seasoned DIYers by providing a Github repository with reference designs and documentation so those with the right tools can create custom expansion cards. Peet did just that. He downloaded the blueprints and tweaked the enclosure using Fusion 360 CAD software so it could fit the magnetic adaptor flush with the side of the laptop. After everything was mocked up, he 3D printed the redesigned enclosure and soldered everything together.
Peet admits his project was intended as a proof-of-concept and that fellow tinkerers who want to try it themselves need to be careful when soldering the components. And while the modified part worked just fine on a laptop and smartphone, this particular version is limited to only a 5V charge because he used a weaker USB 2.0 standard.
Despite those limitations, other modders took the idea and ran with it, making adjustments as needed to simplify the build and ramp up the charging capabilities. Sean Nagle, a field service engineer, 3D printed a custom expansion tray with enough space for the two USB-C ends to slide together without any soldered.
He then took automotive-grade primers and paint to make the component match closely with the silver aluminium of the Framework. Finally, Nagle snapped the original Framework power cord (with a magnetic adaptor on the end) to the modified charging port and measured a power draw of around 56 watts, close to the 60W rating for the adaptor.
“I really liked the Apple magnetic charging and I was aware that they probably have some patent on it that is going to make it unavailable on other laptops. So I decided, if you can make your own, that’s the route to do it,” Nagle said.
While Nagle says he has no plans of making this a business, fellow Framework Laptop owners have purchased copies of the charging module from him and other DIYers who are making similar ones.
Adding MagSafe-style charging is only one of many mods being worked on by eager inventors. Along with his MagSafe hack, Peet embedded a 2.4GHz dongle from a wireless mouse into one of the expansion slots so he could stop worrying about losing it. The YouTuber feared the receiver might not be strong enough to hold a signal through the aluminium chassis, but the mouse instantly responded after he inserted the expansion card.
“My original idea was a dongle that’s contained within the expansion card itself because that’s just practical,” Peet said. “When I’m home, and I’m using the laptop, I like to have a mouse because I’m more comfortable using one than a trackpad. When the wifi dongle is connected to my laptop, it doesn’t fit in my sleeve and I lose it when I’m going somewhere.”
But in perhaps the most impressive Framework mod thus far, Peet took the motherboard from his laptop and installed it in a mechanical keyboard chassis, effectively turning the keyboard into a functional PC.
After discovering the motherboard is roughly the size of a 60% tenkeyless keyboard, Peet drafted and 3D printed a custom keyboard chassis with windows in the sides so the Framework expansion cards could still be used to connect the keyboard PC to a monitor or peripherals.
The finished product is a modern take on the Commodore 64, an 8-bit computer (the top-selling computer of all time, by the way) from 1982 whose components are housed below a keyboard.
“I actually started doing laptop mods years ago back when basically all laptops were modular and you could fix them and upgrade them and use the components outside of the laptop. Of course, manufacturers got away from that and mobile tech became disposal,” Peet said. “As soon as the [Framework] laptop became available, the pre-sale, I ordered one. Not that I needed an ultra-portable laptop, but just so I could tinker with it.”
The first version of this keyboard, which runs on an Intel Core i7-1165G7 CPU, was a rough draft made of plastic that wouldn’t withstand the thermal requirements of the processors. The second iteration improves the fit and finish of the original, uses a better keyboard PCB board, and swaps out the grey keys for retro white ones. Peet says the next step is to take this sophomore effort to get CNC machined so it can withstand higher temperatures. While this might not be the most practical use of the Framework’s swappable parts, Peet views his keyboard PC as one of the fun things you can do with the motherboard once it needs to be replaced.
To be clear, these are not official Framework mods and the company told Gizmodo that, while it built in port protection circuity, there are ways a misbehaving module could “cause temporary or permanent issues.”
“We’re excited to see the activity around developing new modules for the Framework Laptop,” Framework founder Nirav Patel said. “We launched the Expansion Card Developer Program last summer and have been amazed by the interesting and worthwhile designs that the community has prototyped. The magnetic charging Expansion Card looks really useful, but we haven’t tested that module ourselves.”
Framework didn’t give us a timeframe, but the company plans to bring third-party and community-developed modules that “meet any necessary standards and regulations for the regions they are sold in” to its recently opened Framework Marketplace, a central hub where you can purchase various components, including mainboards, keyboards, SSDs and RAM, and replacement parts.