Framework Laptop 13 Deep Dive - A laptop webcam with smartphone technology

Today we’re sharing more about the new second generation Webcam Module we developed alongside Framework Laptop 13 (Intel Core Ultra Series 1). Webcams in laptops often have poor image quality because laptop makers prioritize making the top bezel as narrow as possible, limiting the size of image sensors that can fit to tiny optical formats like ⅛” or even smaller (that’s smaller than a grain of rice). Worse, the image sensors available for notebooks typically use several-generation old sensing technology. All of this has resulted in a world where our smartphone cameras continue to achieve mind-blowing improvements in quality every year while our laptops are stuck with a grainy mess in a time when video conferencing is used more than ever.

We’ve been closely following image sensor roadmaps from suppliers to get around this challenge and were excited to see Omnivision announce the 9.2MP OV08X sensor in late 2022. This was the first and possibly only recent sensor bringing new smartphone image sensor technologies into a laptop-ready 1/5.7” optical format. The two most important improvements this sensor brings are backside illumination (BSI) and pixel binning. BSI is an image sensor manufacturing process improvement that enables much greater light sensitivity by moving the photodiode layer that measures light closer to the sensor surface. In the OV08X, BSI comes in the form of what Omnivision calls “PureCel Plus-2”, which is their marketing name for their set of advancements beyond traditional BSI that reduce pixel cross-talk.

With pixel binning, instead of using the 9.2MP image sensor at its native resolution, each group of four subpixels are grouped together into one larger, more light-sensitive subpixel. This means we can run the sensor at 1080p natively, which is what video conferencing applications can use directly. Between BSI and pixel binning, low light performance on this webcam is substantially better than our first generation camera. All of these improvements sound great, but of course it’s best to get a real look at the results. We’ve posted a video on our YouTube channel with comparisons between our original and new webcam modules in a few lighting conditions.

We’ve made a few interesting improvements beyond picking a better image sensor. We worked with our Taiwan-based partner Chicony (who also manufactures our 180W Power Adapter for Framework Laptop 16) to make the new module. A great sensor of course needs to be paired with an excellent lens. We used a 5-element 2.0 f-stop lens (up from 4-element in the original webcam) with a wider 87 degree field of view. We’ve also brought in new 67 dB SNR microphones from AAC for greater audio clarity. We’ve made some improvements in the hardware privacy switch circuitry to slightly reduce standby power consumption too. The privacy switch behavior on the camera also uses a new mode where instead of powering off the full camera, it cuts off the image sensor power and generates a placeholder blank image in the camera controller. This results in better behavior in applications and faster privacy mode switching.

We’re excited for you to get a look at this new Webcam Module when we start shipping it this August. The module comes pre-installed on Framework Laptop 13 (Intel Core Ultra Series 1) and the new Ryzen 7040 Series configurations with the 2.8k display. It’s also compatible with all of our existing Framework Laptop 13 and Framework Laptop 16 models, so you can pick it up in the Framework Marketplace and upgrade the laptop you already own.

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Interestingly, I did not know that it was an option to upgrade the Framework Laptop 16 models as well.

From the Specs page (CR breaks where I thought they go):

  • Weight: 1.5g
  • Dimensions: 85mm x 3.45mm (module thickness includes PCB, components and conductive tape) x 6mm
  • 1920 x 1080 full HD (Binning) and 2880 x 1620 resolutions 30 FPS frame rate
  • 1/5.66” OmniVision OV08X40 sensor
  • Realtek RTS5879 camera controller
  • Advanced auto exposure
  • Temporal noise reduction
  • 87° diagonal f/2.0 five-element lens with blue glass IR filter
  • Hardware privacy switches

There is probably a good compromise that that engineering opted to cut image sensor power and inject a placeholder image (would be awesome to customize the “blank” or “privacy” image) instead of deactivating the device altogether. In a world where most people want instant results from technology, waiting a few seconds implies something is not new or fast enough.

Smart phones are a big reason for instant satisfaction because it is a multibillion dollar industry. Kudos to the Framework team for expanding their offerings and keeping compatibility with older generations of technology. If other major companies thought the same way the world would be quite different. (I am looking at you the Oogles, Fruit, and Smug corporations!)

Google, Apple, Samsung, etc.

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This looks great. I must ask, will it work with a standard linux kernel?

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Now for the heretical question: is there an estimate when we’ll be able to actually (pre)order the new parts (webcam, SD card reader) without buying a whole new laptop? The article links to the marketplace but all the new parts except the new mainboards are still marked as coming soon.

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I believe these parts are not going to be pre-ordered. When they are ready, we will make them available for order. We have not announced a date for them yet. You can join the email list (under each listing), and you will receive an email when they become available.

It’s also compatible with all of our existing Framework Laptop 13 and Framework Laptop 16 models, so you can pick it up in the Framework Marketplace and upgrade the laptop you already own.

Does that include the Chromebook edition? It’s not showing up on the compatibility filter on the Marketplace, so I just wanted to make sure.

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Would it be possible to use the old module as a usb webcam?
If I could somehow connect it to a Raspberry Pi, (e.g. only for video) then I would at least feel like I’m not making more e-waste by buying an upgraded module.

I think @Josh_Cook is working on a module to re-use the old webcam.

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Interesting. He’s doing the audio and a usb hub to get video.

I will be happy with just a ffc-cable to usb adaptor as I’m thinking of using it as a camera for my 3D printer.