My MNT Reform – almost a year on

MNT’s Open Computing Autonomy sticker, CC BY-SA 2.0

I assembled my Reform almost a year ago. This post is about how thing have gone on with the Reform since then.

When I assembled the laptop at the time, I refrained from making any changes and just assembled the system as instructed. The change I had in my mind was to toggle the switch on the CPU module in order to change the boot sequence so that it would be possible to boot from the storage onboard the CPU module (eMMC) as the primary boot device. I wanted to change it so that I could add the boot loader there & setup the root filesystem on the nvme drive with ZFS. Since the switch is tucked under the CPU’s heat sink, I was worried that with the slip of the hand, before I’d event started using the machine, I would have screwed it up and damaged something. So the stock setup it was, and I’ve been with it since.

I bought be MNT Reform kit to assemble with the ath9k wireless card, sleeve, a printed handbook, trackball & trackpad modules. I started off with the trackball installed, intending to switch over to the trackpad after some time. I’ve yet to switch to the trackpad. The buttons on the trackball module give a nice click and it feels nice to use, so I’ve stuck with it.

The wifi connectivity at my place isn’t that great and even with other hardware and operating systems, including mobile phones, throughput is lacking. For the Reform, the antenna struggles with maintaining connectivity, so I worked around it by using ethernet which is fine at home. Outside it’s not such an issue if I’m tethering since the device acting as the access point is usually within very close proximity or where the access point is in the same room as the machine, rather than on opposite sides of a property.

The laptop came with the v3 system image based on Debian sid (unstable train) on a Transend SD card which I’m still using. Performance of the SD card was good and this was my first time running Debian sid. Despite being the unstable train it’s been fairly painless. I vaguely recall a package bug which caused issues with updates in the early days but since then, it’s been fine (colour me impressed). Only thing is the sheer volume of package updates on a weekly basis, give it a week or so and there’s easily a couple of hundred packages to update. I installed ZFS via dkms which I then used to create a zpool on my nvme drive. The nvme drive has a swap partition on it and a zpool with my data; OS currently lives on the supplied SD card along with the root of my home directory.

The system image is Debian sid with a specific kernel and drivers for the Reform, alongside some tools, and customisations to make the system more welcoming such as a login banner which lists useful commands at hand (defined as shell functions) like chat – when called invokes an irc client & joins the mnt-reform channel, or reform-handbook which displays the system handbook in a browser. The system image comes with KDE, Gnome 3, Sway, WindowMaker all pre-installed. I tried Sway briefly since it is a performant window manager but soon rolled back to Gnome 3 due to familiarity & comfort.

Screenshot of a terminal showing the output of the reform-help command

The system image comes with a bunch of apps preinstalled such as KiCad, ScummVM, FreeCAD, Inkscape. It sets a nice tone for the machine as a fun creative space and that’s pretty much how I’ve used the machine in this time. I have kept it separate from my daily environment and used it as a get away from the usual where I want to focus on something.

Of the reform specific packages which are installed, there is the reform-check utility which performs a sanity check on configuration and makes suggestions for new changes which been integrated into newer builds such as missing packages shipped with system image and outdated u-boot, so it is easier to maintain an installed OS image and reduces inconsistencies when it comes to debugging.

If the pace of change of bleeding edge Debian sid is too much, there is now a stable image available currently based on bookworm. There is a path to switch an existing unstable system image to the stable one but since you’re going back in package version it gets a bit messy with old and new version so probably safer to go for a fresh install of the stable image, especially if you’ve been keeping your unstable system image up to date with package updates.

It’s been nice to be able to provide minor fixes and changes to the components which compose the system image. When I first got the laptop, u-boot lacked support for initialising the display, when the system booted, Linux would then initialise the display. As development progressed u-boot grew support to init the display, it even displays the MNT logo! I believe these improvements were a community effort.

Reform sitting at the u-boot boot prompt.

With Debian’s support for running different ABIs it has been possible to run Steam on the Reform. Since you’re running a duplicate userspace, it has made the number of updates balloon but apart from that it just works. The hardware is sufficient to play Thimbleweed Park but the games needing more advanced OpenGL support will run but won’t display so for example Monkey Island 4 runs but there’s just a black window. Since the system is using the open source driver for the Vivante GC7000 GPU, I wondered if it could be made to work using the vendor’s closed binary blob driver since that supposedly has support for newer OpenGL, but I’ve not tried. The swap on nvme was necessary here since Steam will use up all the 4GB RAM and work its way through the swap too (it really needs 8GB RAM) but that’s fine, there’s no noticeable frame rate drop in the high pace action of a point & click adventure. Outside of Steam, the GPU is capable of handling Monkey Island 1 & 2 in ScummVM and the Minecraft clone Minetest which ships with system image works just fine (I’m not really a gamer, so don’t take that list as all the machine is capable of, I haven’t investigated what works and what doesn’t extensively).

I still enjoy looking at the machine just as much as using it. The Japanese keyboard layout with the backlight looks beautiful. The ability to take the machine apart easily has made a world of difference since it’s not a chore to investigate issues or perform maintenance. Need to reflash the keyboard, unscrew 6 screws, and lift the bezel. Need to reflash new firmware on the motherboard, 10 screws, and lift the base panel.

Overhead shot of the MNT Reform showing the keyboard and trackball.

Since I built the laptop, I made two hardware changes.

Originally, the keycaps did not have a notch for the home row index keys, and since the layout it is a little different to usual, it was a bit disorienting switching between machines with different keyboards since muscle memory was lacking. That’s no longer an issue as there are notched keycaps available which I purchased and installed.

The battery board which came with the laptop originally had a couple of issues which were addressed in the updated battery board. With the original battery board, I needed a full battery charge if I was going to compile the ZFS kernel modules otherwise the batteries would not sustain the prolonged surge in use. With the upgraded battery board this is no longer an issue.

I’m still using the battery cells which came with the laptop, the laptop is fast to recharge them. There’s a short delay of around 30 seconds before the system detects the charger is connected and switches over, which has caught me out when I’ve realised at the very last moment that I’m about to run out of power and hurried to connect the charger to the power outlet.

Unfortunately I don’t have numbers on the runtime off batteries as the system gets switched off in between uses, and I’ve not bothered with fighting sleep/resume, the original battery board caused issues with systems sleeping and later, kernel bugs prevented the system from resuming correctly.

Of the hardware features, I’ve yet to use the HDMI port to connect it to an external display. The builtin LCD panel is nice to look at. Since I’m not using full disk encryption on the SD card, I use a Yubikey for SSH keys. The orientation of the USB ports means that the Yubikey touchpad is facing down which is a little annoying to use, but since it flashes when you need to touch, it’s not something that’s going to go forgotten, though it is somewhat clumsy to have to lift the laptop up to touch. I have a small USB hub which I tried connecting the Yubikey to, so that I wouldn’t have to lift the laptop up, didn’t really work, the Yubikey remained facing down. Really need to use a Yubikey nano, rather than the standard one.

The headphone socket is fine for headphones with a cylindrical connector like the Apple earphones, but if your headphone uses another shaped jack like the L shaped, 3 pole one, it wont be able to go fully into the socket. This is due to the socket being positioned ever so slightly back, and with the side panel installed, the panel blocks the L shaped jack from going fully in. That was a trivial fix, use a 15cm 3.5mm 4 pole male to female stereo aux audio extension cable.

3 chords with 3.5mm jacks on top of Reform case.

One completely cosmetic mistake I made when assembling the machine on the first day is sticking the label with the units details on the perspex cover directly above where the CPU heatsink is positioned, that was probably not the best place for it in the long term.

The way the LPC driver for Linux interacts with the kernel currently means that there’s insufficient time for the nvme to complete its own internal shutdown procedure resulting in the unsafe shutdown S.M.A.R.T counter being incremented every time the system is powered down via Linux. Workaround is to issue a reboot instead & switch off the machine at u-boot.

There have been some new additional components added to the MNT Store for the Reform since last year. The most recent addition is the CM4 adapter which allows the compute modules by Raspberry & Banana Pi to be installed in the Reform as a CPU module replacement and games like Monkey Island 4 to be played without issue. When I can afford it, I really want to get the higher end LS1028A CPU module which has 16GB RAM and faster CPU cores. I don’t really strain the machine CPU wise currently, but more RAM is always good. There are now FPGA modules so you can replace the ARM CPU with an FPGA running a softcore which is so exciting and unique, however the modules are more than the price of the laptop itself. I would definitely go for it if I had the cash spare. For now, I’ll have to live with the potential idea of having a laptop form-factor which I could experiment with different CPUs by just synthesizing them.

There’s a new Laird wifi antenna and anti-flexing bars for the keyboard which are going to be my next items to purchase, curious the difference the bars will make.

From the software side I’m actually happy running Debian on this machine as there’s binary packages of anything that I think of wanting to try but I really want to switch to a root on ZFS setup and don’t feel that the DKMS path of rebuilding a module as a separate component works since a kernel upgrade and a failed ZFS module will render a system unbootable (not catastrophic but hassle to recover). I have hit this several times over the last year, for example when the license on the functions in the kernel were changed to GPL only, that broke the ZFS build. Not an immediate failure but something that flags up at the linking stage if I recall correctly which resulted in the module not building during the apt upgrade process. Workaround was to make a local modification to ZFS license ID so it would build successfully and forcing the rebuild of the package again. So I’m dragging my feet, pick up the ball again and integrate ZFS support into Viewpoint Linux and add an aarch64 build or just continue with the convenience of a maintained Debian system. I’d need to refresh everything in Viewpoint Linux and before that, I need to get the framework into place so that it’s easy to repeat the process and maintain it going forward. Ahh!

close up black and white photo of MNT Reform keyboard LCD display showing the MNT Reform logo and above on screen is the Debian logo.

Not having to focus on OS / packaging side of things has definitely been appreciated over the last year. Starting off with an idea of trying something without a lengthy detour into compilation and actually getting on with what I had in mind is great and something I would have to maintain otherwise. Hmm, perhaps this could be a good excuse to buy more hardware for the build infrastructure. There is a new Reform motherboard on the way, if I upgraded the CPU module with the motherboard, I would have spare hardware for the build system.
You have been reading the fantasy of someone with high end CPU taste, and microcontroller money. 🙂

Reform v0.4