MNT Reform Review — Hands-on with the Most Open Laptop You're Ever Likely to See

The most open laptop around, from the firmware to the '80s-style trackball, the MNT Reform is utterly unique — but is it usable?

Gareth Halfacree
a month agoHW101 / 3D Printing / FPGAs

The MNT Reform is a curious beast. As a laptop, it looks like it'd be more at home in the 1980s than the 2020s — despite a crisp IPS display and a backlit mechanical keyboard. Its trackball, in particular, is a particularly unusual sight — but far from the only thing which makes the device unique.

Launched on Crowd Supply a year ago as an update to the original Reform, this laptop is entirely open — from the firmware which drives the system management controller to the design files for the motherboard and system-on-module. It's a radical approach, and one which could pay dividends — but into which buyers should enter with their expectations tempered.

The Hardware

The MNT Reform is, seen from the top, a relatively compact laptop built around a 12.5" 1080p IPS display panel. Look at it from the side, though, and you'll see a beast which belies its footprint — measuring just over 1.7" tall including its rubber feet. At a scale-tipping 4.4lbs once you've added in an M.2 NVMe storage drive and Wi-Fi card, too, this isn't an ultra-portable for the commuting crowd.

Open up the lid of the impressively-engineered aluminum chassis and your attention is grabbed by either the keyboard or the trackball. The latter is a custom-built piece of hardware with a 3D-printed frame housing a small ball, and can be replaced with an optional touchpad for those not eager to return to the days of moving parts in their pointing devices. The former offers an unusual layout with a split space bar, a programmable "HYPER" key for optional layer control, and an aggressive 1.5u rake to the columns — a guaranteed learning curve for those used to more traditional keyboards.

Harder to see, at least while the laptop is powered off, is the tiny OLED panel just above the keyboard. This is linked to the system management controller, which — as with everything else in the stock system bar the system-on-chip at its heart — is a custom piece of open hardware, built around the NXP LPC11U24 Cortex-M0 microcontroller.

It's a system you'll need to interact with right away: To power the Reform on, you press the circle key at the upper-right of the keyboard to wake the management controller and then interact with the menu that appears on the OLED to turn the rest of the system on. It also provides a means of monitoring the charge of the battery pack — visible through the transparent plastic base if you flip the laptop over.

Where most laptops would use lithium-ion or lithium-polymer "pillow" style batteries, the Reform — in what is a very clear theme — thinks differently. Its power comes from a set of eight 18650-format LiFePO4 cells — each individually replaceable at a very low cost and offering longer usable lifespan and reduced fire risk compared to Li-Ion, but at the cost of a noticeably lower charge capacity which sees the laptop powering off suddenly after just over five hours of video playback.

How much time you'll spend with the laptop on its lid depends on which model you bought. The base DIY version requires an hour or two of assembly time, though nothing too onerous; the pre-assembled version only needs the battery packs reconnecting to the motherboard via two cables and the optional M.2 NVMe storage and Wi-Fi cards adding in if purchased. Pop the supplied 32GB microSD card in the slot on the side and you're away.

Specifications

  • CPU: NXP i.MX8MQ (4× 1.5GHz Cortex-A53, 1× Cortex-M4F)
  • GPU: Vivante GC700Lite
  • RAM: 4GB LPDDR4
  • Display: 12.5" Full HD IPS, HDMI output, 128×32 OLED (for system management controller)
  • Networking: Gigabit Ethernet (Wi-Fi/Bluetooth optional)
  • Storage: SD Card (32GB microSD with adapter included), M.2 NVMe (optional)
  • PCIe: Mini-PCI Express 2.0 1× (for optional Wi-Fi card)
  • Keyboard: Custom mechanical backlit with split spacebar, Kailh Choc Brown switches
  • Pointer: 3D-printed custom pointing device with five Kailh Choc Brown switches (or optional touchpad)
  • USB: 3× USB 3.0 Type-A (2× USB 2.0 used internally for keyboard and pointer)
  • Audio: Wolfson WM8960 ADC/DAC, integrated stereo speakers, 3.5mm audio jack
  • System Controller: Custom open-source firmware running on NXP LPC11U24 Cortex-M0
  • Operating System: Debian 11 with customization
  • Battery: 8× LiFePO4 1,800mAh cells, individually replaceable, ~5hr runtime
  • Dimensions: 11.4×7.9×1.7", 4.4lbs

Usability

There's a joke, common among engineers, that a given system is user-friendly but "choosy about who it calls a friend." That's definitely the case with the Reform: The customized Debian 11-based operating system boots straight into the console, though once you've logged in — as root initially, before making your own user account — there is a handy quick reference guide which reappears on each subsequent boot.

Two desktop environments are preloaded, with the recommended default being the unusual Sway — an interface built entirely around tiling windows around the screen, and which offers considerable flexibility but at the cost of a relatively steep learning curve. A selection of software packages are preloaded, including both Chromium and Firefox web browsers.

Performance, sadly, is lackluster. The NXP i.MX8MQ processor which sits at the center of a system-on-module slotted into the motherboard - the first in a planned family of Reform-compatible SOMs, including an adapter board for a Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 — offers four Arm Cortex-A53 cores running at 1.5GHz, and sits somewhere noticeably below a Raspberry Pi 4 in both synthetic and real-world benchmarks. Couple that with just 4GB of LPDDR4 memory and it's clear the Reform as-is will never be a speed demon.

There are other issues which crop up in use, too — though many have, thankfully, been addressed for future production runs. One key complaint from early adopters was the tendency for the system management controller to drain the batteries while the laptop was turned off, bringing them below the point where they could be charged within a week — since fixed with a firmware update to make use of the microcontroller's low-power sleep mode.

Another pair of complaints surround that iconic trackball, starting with its feel. As supplied with the initial production run, the trackball is stiff and scratchy - rubbing against the 3D-printed housing in a way that makes it unpleasant to use. A couple of early adopters took it upon themselves to redesign the trackball with embedded steel bearings to improve matters, a modification which MNT Research has now adopted for all future production runs.

The second complaint, acknowledged and with a fix in-progress but not resolved at the time of writing, relates to the positioning of the trackball itself. With the ball sitting slightly proud of the rest of the chassis, it comes into contact with the screen — rubbing a small but, if you look closely enough, noticeable shiny patch into the anti-glare coating. Again, a quick redesign — eased by the hardware being 3D printed rather than injection molded, meaning there's no wasted tooling - should take care of that.

There are still more hiccups, sadly. If you pick up the optional Wi-Fi card, you'll receive an adhesive flexible PCB antenna to go with it. Its performance, sadly, is dire, offering the weakest signal strength of any device yet tested. Even MNT Research founder Lukas F. Hartmann doesn't use it, opting instead for a much improved alternative — and anyone building one should do the same. There's no lid-close sensor, using the HDMI output for a secondary display requires you to reduce the refresh rate of the on-board panel, and at the time of writing putting the system to sleep did not guarantee it would correctly wake again afterwards.

The Spirit

The Reform is more than a laptop, though. It's a project, and one with a laudable goal: To prove it's possible for a small start-up to design not only a custom-made laptop, in a world of rebadged clone systems from ODMs, but to do so entirely openly - and to invite collaboration.

It's an invitation which has received an impressive response. The Reform community is filled with users who have designed improvements or hacks for their systems, from the aforementioned enhancements to the trackball to replacement keyboard designs. Users have downloaded the source code for the system management controller — a closely-guarded secret in any other laptop — and written their own variants, adding functionality or making the font more readable on the compact display.

Hartmann himself is getting in on the fun, too. A replacement SOM based on a field-programmable gate array (FPGA) opens up the very last closed portion of the laptop, its central processor, with Hartmann showing off a Reform running a completely open-source RISC-V soft-core processor — which could quickly and easily be replaced with a different processor just by flashing new gateware to the device.

The Reform journey is a roller-coaster, going from the high of unpacking something which is undeniably eye-catching and solidly built to the low of trying to connect to a Wi-Fi network or keeping the thing running for a full working day. The real peak, though, comes when you join the community — and when you approach the Reform as a device for experimentation, rather than a commodity piece of electronics which you'll pull off the shelf and use as-is.

Joining the Reform project does, however, come at a cost — albeit an understandable one, given the bespoke nature of the hardware and the low volumes in which it can be expected to sell. The cheapest version, supplied as a DIY kit, costs $999; the pre-assembled version is $1,550, not including the optional NVMe and Wi-Fi add-in cards nor the $150 Greta Melnik-designed laptop sleeve, made in Piñatex vegan leather, or $50 manual — though at least the latter, like the rest of the device, is permissively licensed and supplied in digital format for all to see free of charge if they don't fancy shelling out on the print version.

MNT is now taking pre-orders for the next batch of Reform laptops, which are expected to ship in early December this year, on Crowd Supply.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire: freelance@halfacree.co.uk.
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