Modular gadgets sound useful on paper, but rarely break through to the mainstream audience. We have seen countless attempts come and go, leaving only fleeting flashes of enthusiasm from enthusiasts who are repeatedly burned when the promise of a customizable device never comes true. Every couple of years there is a new example: Project now was a modular phone concept that Google killed before it could take off; LG did not expand its modular phone vision past G5; and Alienware's modular Area-51m gaming laptop it was still not so modular.
It seems to be a risk to bring yet another of these transformative devices to market, and yet the San Francisco-based startup Framework did just that last year when it released Framework portable. The early impressions of the notebook have been mostly positive, but the long-term success of this modular device rests on the upgradeable parts that have been made available to customers over the years.
The company has taken steps like opening one online marketplace, to fulfill its promise of giving users the tools they need to customize, repair, and upgrade their laptops, but what really makes me optimistic about the future of modular PCs are the fascinating mods , worked on by early users.
One such project equips the Framework Laptop with its own version of Apple's MagSafe charging. After receiving requests from forum members who apparently withdrew the proposal Linus technical tips, YouTuber Christopher "CJ" Peet, host of the Elevated Systems channel, modified one of the Framework Laptops expansion slots to hold a magnetic charging adapter that, when inserted, aligns with the edge of the laptop.
Like MagSafe, it makes the charging cable easier to connect, and more importantly, disconnects the cord when your child or dog inevitably trips over it. Yes, you can add this feature to any USB-C charging port with a cheapo adapter, but they stick out and can prevent you from pushing your laptop into a sleeve or backpack. They are also more likely to become violent and tend to easily slip out when you unplug the cord.
It's not the kind of thing anyone can do, but Framework makes it easy for experienced do-it-yourselfers by offering a Github Depot with reference design and documentation so that those with the right tools can create custom expansion cards. Peet did just that. He downloaded the drawings and customized the case using Fusion 360 CAD software to fit the magnetic adapter flush with the side of the laptop. After everything was mocked, he 3D-printed the newly designed cabinet and soldered everything.
Peet admits that his project was intended as a proof-of-concept and that others who want to try it for themselves should be careful when soldering the components. And while the modified part worked fine on a laptop and smartphone, this particular version is limited to only a 5V charge because it used a weaker USB 2.0 standard.
Despite these limitations, other modders took the idea and ran with it, making adjustments as needed to simplify construction and increase 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 being soldered.
He then took automotive-grade primers and paints to get the component to match closely with silver aluminum in Framework. Finally, Nagle snapped the original Framework power cord (with a magnetic adapter on the end) to the modified charging port and measured a power consumption of about 56 watts, close to the 60W rating for the adapter.
"I really liked Apple's magnetic charge, and I was aware that they probably have some kind of patent on it that will make it inaccessible on other laptops. So I decided that if you can make your own, that's the way to do it, ”Nagle said.
While Nagle says he has no plans to turn this into a business, other Framework Laptop owners have bought copies of the charging module from him and other do-it-yourselfers who do similar.
Adding MagSafe-style charging is just one of many mods being worked on by avid inventors. Along with his MagSafe hack, Peet embedded a 2.4 GHz dongle from a wireless mouse in one of the expansion slots so he could stop worrying about losing it. The YouTuber feared that the receiver might not be strong enough to hold a signal through the aluminum chassis, but the mouse responded immediately after inserting the expansion card.
“My original idea was a dongle that is included in the expansion card itself because it's just convenient,” Peet said. "When I'm home and I use the laptop, I like to have a mouse because I'm more comfortable using one than a touch pad. When the wifi dongle is connected to my laptop, it does not fit my sleeve and I lose it when I go somewhere. ”
But in perhaps the most impressive Framework mod to date, 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 that the motherboard is roughly the size of a 60% thinkyless keyboard, Peet designed and 3D-printed a custom keyboard chassis with side windows so that the Framework expansion cards could still be used to connect the keyboard PC to a screen or peripherals.
The finished product is a modern take on the Commodore 64, an 8-bit computer (by the way the best-selling computer of the time) from 1982, whose components are placed under a keyboard.
"I actually started making laptops mods years ago, when pretty much all laptops were modular, and you could repair them and upgrade them and use the components outside the laptop. Of course, the manufacturers got away with it, and mobile technology was disposed of, Said Peet. "So soon [Framework] laptop became available, pre-sold, 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 would not withstand the thermal requirements of the processors. The second iteration improves the original's fit and finish, uses a better keyboard circuit board and replaces the gray keys with retro white. Peet says the next step is to take this second vintage to get the CNC machined so it can withstand higher temperatures. While this may not be the most convenient use of Framework's replaceable parts, Peet sees his keyboard PC as one of the fun things you can do with the motherboard when it's first to be replaced.
To be clear, these are not official Framework mods, and the company told Gizmodo that although built into gate protection circuits, there are ways in which a module that does not behave can "cause temporary or permanent problems."
"We are excited to see the activity around the development of new modules for the Framework Laptop," said Framework founder Nirav Patel. "We launched the Expansion Card Developer Program last summer and have been amazed at the interesting and valuable designs that the community has made prototypes. The magnetic charging expansion card looks really useful, but we have not tested that module ourselves."
Framework did not give us a time frame, but the company plans to bring third-party and community-developed modules that "meet all the necessary standards and regulations for the regions in which they are sold" to the newly opened Frame market square, a central hub where you can buy various components including motherboards, keyboards, SSDs and RAM and spare parts.