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Framework’s software and firmware have been a mess, but it’s working

Since Framework showed off its first prototypes in February 2021, we’ve generally been fans of the company’s modular, repairable, upgradeable laptops.

Not that the company’s hardware releases to date have been perfect—each Framework Laptop 13 model has had quirks and flaws that range from minor to quite significant, and the Laptop 16’s upsides struggle to balance its downsides. But the hardware mostly does a good job of functioning as a regular laptop while being much more tinkerer-friendly than your typical MacBook, XPS, or ThinkPad.

But even as it builds new upgrades for its systems, expands sales of refurbished and B-stock hardware as budget options, and promotes the re-use of its products via external enclosures, Framework has struggled with the other side of computing longevity and sustainability: providing up-to-date software.

Driver bundles remain un-updated for years after their initial release. BIOS updates go through long and confusing beta processes, keeping users from getting feature improvements, bug fixes, and security updates. In its community support forums, Framework employees, including founder and CEO Nirav Patel, have acknowledged these issues and promised fixes but have remained inconsistent and vague about actual timelines.

But according to Patel, the company is working on fixing these issues, and it has taken some steps to address them. We spoke to him about the causes of and the solutions to these issues, and the company’s approach to the software side of its efforts to promote repairability and upgradeability.

Promises made

Here’s a case in point: the 12th-generation Intel version of the Framework Laptop 13, which prompted me to start monitoring Framework’s software and firmware updates in the first place.

In November 2022, Patel announced that this model, then the latest version, was getting a nice, free-of-charge spec bump. All four of the laptop’s recessed USB-C ports would now become full-speed Thunderbolt ports. This wasn’t a dramatic functional change, especially for people who were mostly using those ports for basic Framework expansion modules like USB-A or HDMI, but the upgrade opened the door to high-speed external accessories, and all it would need was a BIOS update.

The recessed USB-C ports in the 12th-gen Intel version of the Framework Laptop 13 can be upgraded to fully certified Thunderbolt ports, but only if you're willing to install one in a long series of still-in-testing beta BIOSes.
Enlarge / The recessed USB-C ports in the 12th-gen Intel version of the Framework Laptop 13 can be upgraded to fully certified Thunderbolt ports, but only if you’re willing to install one in a long series of still-in-testing beta BIOSes.
Andrew Cunningham

But the BIOS update never showed up. Nearly a year and a half later, Framework’s support page for that 12th-gen Intel laptop still says that there is “no new BIOS available” for a laptop that began shipping in the summer of 2022. This factory-installed BIOS, version 3.04, also doesn’t include fixes for the LogoFAIL UEFI security vulnerability or any other firmware-based security patches that have cropped up in the last year and a half.

And it’s not just that the updates don’t come out; the company has been bad about estimating when they might come out. That 12th-gen Framework BIOS also doesn’t support the 61 WHr battery that the company released in early 2023 alongside the 13th-gen Intel refresh. Framework told me that BIOS update would be out in May of 2023, and it still hasn’t been released. A battery-supporting update for the 11th-gen Intel version was also promised in May 2023; it came out this past January.

Framework has been trying, but it keeps running into issues. A beta 3.06 BIOS update with the promised improvements for the 12th-gen Intel Framework Laptop was posted back in December of 2022, but a final version was never released. A newer 3.08 BIOS beta entered testing in January 2024 but still gave users some problems. There’s been no communication in that thread from anyone at Framework since early February.

The result is multiple long forum threads of frustrated users asking for updates, interspersed with not-untrue but unsatisfying responses from Framework employees (some version of “we’re a small company” is one of the most common).

To put this lack of updates in context, Dell’s XPS 13 9315 and Lenovo’s X1 Carbon Gen 10 use the same 12th-gen Intel processors. In the same time period, Dell released 14 BIOS updates for its system, and Lenovo released 13. Many of these updates fix system-specific issues that wouldn’t be relevant to the Framework Laptop, but they also collectively patch a long list of Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVEs) that affect all PCs using that particular generation of Intel CPU or other common components.

And while this BIOS update for the 12th-gen Intel version of the Framework Laptop is the most egregious example, the other versions of the Framework Laptop have all suffered to some degree.

The original Framework Laptop’s Windows 11 driver bundle dates back to late 2021 and is still labeled as a “beta,” and no other Framework Laptop has had a driver bundle update since launch; the 13th-gen Intel version of the Framework Laptop also hasn’t seen any firmware updates since launch; and a promised Linux updater for the Intel Framework Laptops’ BIOS has never materialized, despite Framework’s advertised support for several high-profile Linux distros.

To one frustrated user, Framework’s Linux lead reluctantly suggested swapping in a second SSD, installing Windows, applying a BIOS update, and then going back to Linux.

Promises kept?

Patel says Framework has taken steps to improve the update problem, but he admits that the team’s initial approach—supporting existing laptops while also trying to spin up firmware for upcoming launches—wasn’t working.

“We started 12th-gen [Intel Framework Laptop] development, basically the 12th-gen team was also handling looking back at 11th-gen [Intel Framework Laptop] to do firmware updates there,” Patel told Ars. “And it became clear, especially as we continued to add on more platforms, that just wasn’t a sustainable path to proceed on.”

Part of the issue is that Framework relies on external companies to put together firmware updates. Some components are provided by Intel, AMD, and other chip companies to all PC companies that use their chips. Others are provided by Insyde, which writes UEFI firmware for Framework and others. And some are handled by Compal, the contract manufacturer that actually produces Framework’s systems and has also designed and sold systems for most of the big-name PC companies.

Framework founder and CEO Nirav Patel at a Framework product event in 2023.
Enlarge / Framework founder and CEO Nirav Patel at a Framework product event in 2023.

As far back as August 2023, Patel has written that the plan is to work with Compal and Insyde to hire dedicated staff to provide better firmware support for Framework laptops. However, the benefits of this arrangement have been slow to reach users.

“[Compal] started recruiting on their side towards the end of last year,” Patel told Ars. “And now, just at the beginning of this year, we’ve been able to get that whole team into place and start onboarding them. And especially after Lunar New Year, which is in early February, that team is now up and running at full speed.”

The goal, Patel says, is to continuously cycle through all of Framework’s actively supported laptops, updating each of them one at a time before looping back around and starting the process over again. Functionality-breaking problems and security fixes will take precedence, while additional features and user requests will be lower-priority.

Patel says the most recent 3.19 BIOS update for the 11th-gen Intel Framework Laptop, released in beta form in August 2023 and formally released this past January, was the first update to benefit from this process. A new 3.05 BIOS update (plus an updated bundle of drivers) for the Ryzen version of the Framework Laptop 13 was posted late last week, and the plan is to test it for a couple of weeks and release it as a stable version if no one discovers major problems with it.

As for the 12th-generation Intel Framework update that’s been hung up for so long, Patel says it’s “functionally complete” but that the update is being held back while the team works on the long-promised Linux-based BIOS updater.

“Actually, today we could go out there and take that beta release that we have and call that the final release for Windows. We want to make sure that we’re not putting our Linux users in a spot where they’re wondering, ‘Where’s Linux, why are we prioritizing Windows?'” Patel told Ars. “So basically, we’re holding on promoting it to what we would call a final release until we can do that… for both Windows and Linux.”

The main problem there is Intel’s Management Engine firmware, just one of the many updatable components in any Intel-based BIOS update; Patel says that the Linux updating mechanism for that firmware “isn’t very mature” and that the Framework team has had to do a lot of work on its own to get the update working the same way it does in Windows.

Patel says the company’s goal is to have gone through every one of Framework’s current laptops (the 11th, 12th, and 13th-gen Intel models, the Ryzen Framework Laptop 13, and the Framework Laptop 16) once by roughly “mid-summer.” This will presumably encompass both Windows and Linux-compatible updaters for all three systems if Linux support is what’s holding up the 12th-gen update.

Mid-summer is still a few months from now, a few months during which Framework’s laptops will continue to go without patches for at least a few in-the-wild security exploits. This timeline also comes from a company that has been extremely bad at meeting its own deadlines for firmware updates. But it gives Framework’s users something to measure against; if all, or even most, of Framework’s laptops have actually gotten some kind of update by then, it will be a sign that things are beginning to turn around.

Framework can’t control everything

Framework encourages re-use of older parts with external enclosures like this one from Cooler Master. Long-tail software support will be important for keeping these repurposed boards secure and functional.
Enlarge / Framework encourages re-use of older parts with external enclosures like this one from Cooler Master. Long-tail software support will be important for keeping these repurposed boards secure and functional.
Kevin Purdy

Patel said Framework’s official support for these systems would depend in part on support from companies upstream, like Intel and AMD. If those companies aren’t releasing new security updates or bug fixes for their processors or other components, there’s not a lot Framework can do to fill that gap. Intel’s CPU support windows are variable, but seven or eight years has been typical for older Core processors.

“Basically, our commitment is that as long as Intel and AMD are supporting their end of it, we’re going to make sure to pipe that through and release it to the public,” Patel told Ars.

This doesn’t put a hard cap on the amount of time that Framework can choose to officially support an older board, but even the best-supported business systems from Dell and Lenovo generally stop getting new BIOS updates shortly after Intel stops supporting them. It’s the same kind of thing that has held back Android updates for years, though it’s more noticeable in that ecosystem because SoC makers like Qualcomm offer an even smaller support window.

A lack of firmware and driver updates certainly doesn’t preclude the continued use of a computer—Windows 10, ChromeOS Flex, and most Linux distros will continue to run on older hardware long after their manufacturers have abandoned them. And as long as the software on these machines is kept up to date, OS-level security patches should insulate users from most serious issues, even when a firmware- or driver-level fix would be preferable.

Framework puts a lot of effort into making its hardware easy to fix and upgrade and into making sure that hardware can stay useful down the line when it’s been replaced by something newer. But supporting that kind of reuse and recycling works best when paired with long-term software and firmware support, and on that front, Framework has been falling short.

Framework will need to step up its game, especially if it wants to sell more laptops to businesses—a lucrative slice of the PC industry that Framework is actively courting. By this summer or fall, we’ll have some idea of whether its efforts are succeeding.

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