I’ve been following the development of the Reform laptop over the years and while I missed out on the crowd sourcing round via Crowd Supply I promised myself last year that I would buy a DIY laptop in 2022. The order was placed in April on the MNT shop and here I am typing this post having had the Reform for around a week now. A box showed up last Tuesday from Germany, I’d been tracking the parcel keenly on the UPS site, it sat in Germany for several days on its way before being flown over Monday night and in my hands the following morning.
I made myself a cup of coffee and began the unboxing of a big grey box filed with Styrofoam and a smaller black box the size of a shoebox which contained yet more smaller boxes and wrapped parts. Everything was stylishly wrapped in black and stickered with the MNT logo which turned out to be a faff to unwrap because I didn’t want to tear everything up. 🙂
There was a supplied poster with numbered steps and diagrams showing where the numbers refer to. Over several hours I took joy in building my first laptop and taking photos along the way. I hadn’t built a PC in some years, nor attempted to service a laptop in some time so it was nice to be hands-on with a machine again.
The build went fairly smoothly, with only one step on the poster that I struggled with (use of language and assumed perspective on step 3). The parts included an SD card which contained an image of Debian unstable preinstalled with lots of applications to get started with. It worked first time and I’ve been working with that just to get a feeling for how the system performs before switching to the 500GB WD Black NVMe drive which I also installed. MNT offers a choice of two different pointing devices for the Reform, a five button trackball and a trackpad. I obtained both and started off with the trackball installed which has been fine. The trackball buttons are nice and clicky; with five buttons it should be pretty good for chording in Acme (see Chords of mouse buttons).
The NVMe drive is currently running with a zpool on it and a 16GB swap partition which I created with gnome-disks before pointing zpool(8) to the new device node. The Debian install instructions from the OpenZFS site worked without any problems, just had to wait for it to compile the kernel modules and then it was ready for use.
The build was really fun and complete opposite of the fiddly experience with maintenance on conventional laptops. It’s nice to be able assemble and access a laptop without the dread of dealing with extremely fragile parts usually in tight and narrow spaces. The DIY kit comes with the LCD panel installed in the lid which is attached to an empty base frame by hinges, so during the build you’re just focusing on populating the base with motherboard, keyboard and getting everything connected together with peripherals installed. My favorite part on the reform has to be the wifi antenna, so delightfully simple and easy to install. For those who have had to installed an antenna kit on early systems or dealt with cabling around a display assembly, this is not like that! 🙂
As is traditional in hardware reviews to compare with the major brands, I’ll say that the Reform is a little bigger than a 12″ PowerBook G4 and builds on the thickness of the PowerBook G4, though it lacks the ability to choose whether to have the trackball on the left or right hand of the keyboard as with the Macintosh Portable.
Joking aside, the bottom of the laptop is covered by a transparent perspex sheet, which allows you to see all the components and on the first night, I spent some time with the laptop running upside down, with base upright, just looking at it. <3
An article in Interface Critique from 2018 (PDF) covers the design decisions and how the Reform came to be for background.
The keyboard feels nice to type on, the LCD panel is very good (sharp and good colour reproductions). It’s a little on the heavier side but I’m ok with that. It’s nice to use and I’m growing very fond of it. Also, if you get bored whilst waiting for a lengthy process to complete, you can just turn it over and look at the circuitry. 🙂
A short click test video of keys and buttons. (this was an embedded video here, but the video would be prefetched for every visitor to the site, regardless of whether they pressed play).
There’s a lot to take in if you want to explore, being open hardware, full source and schematics are available and there’s a handbook for general adminstration too. Plan is to switch to booting from the NVMe drive which involves flipping a switch on the CPU module but I have not yet investigated with else needs to be done for root on ZFS on ARM hardware and u-boot. The CPU module that comes with the Reform contains 4GB RAM and new CPU modules with 8 & 16GB RAM have just been announced. It’s a little early to shop for upgrades but the module with 16GB RAM would be nice to have alongside a zpool on NVMe. Exciting times!