Review: The MNT Reform laptop has fully open hardware and software – for better or worse

Enlarge / The MNT Reform, a square laptop built around open-source hardware and software to the max.

Andrew Cunningham

Specifications at a Glance: MNT Reform
Screen 12.5 inch 1920×1080 IPS screen (176PPI)
SE Debian-Linux
CPU NXP/Freescale i.MX8MQ (1.5 GHz quad-core ARM Cortex-A53)
RAM 4GB
GPUs Alive GC7000Lite
Storage 32GB SD card, NVMe SSD optional
Networking Optional 802.11n Wi-Fi, Gigabit Ethernet
Ports 3x USB-A 3.0, HDMI (optional), SD card slot
Camera Nothing
Cut 11.42 × 8.07 × 1.57 inches (290 × 205 × 40mm)
Weight 4.2 pounds (1.9 kg)
Drums 8 cells LiFePO4 18650 battery
Starting price $1,358 (unassembled, with trackpad or trackball); $1,550 assembled with trackball

If you’re a Linux fan or open-source advocate looking for a decent laptop, you actually have some solid options right now – much better, at least, than buying a Windows laptop. , install Linux on it and hope for the best.

Dell offered Ubuntu editions of some of its XPS laptops and other PCs for years, and Lenovo sells a respectable collection of desktops and laptops with Linux. System76 sells a selection of Linux-compatible laptops preloaded with Ubuntu or its own Pop! _BONE. The repairman laptop frame does not come with Linux, but it can be configured without an operating system and Framework promises robust Linux support from multiple distros.

But these laptops all have something in common with regular Windows PCs: a reliance on closed-source hardware and, often, the proprietary software and drivers needed to run it. For some people, this is a tolerable compromise. You support closed hardware because it works well and supports the standard software, developer tools, and APIs that make the computing world go round. For others, it’s anathema – if you can’t see the source code for these “binary blobs”, they are inherently unreliable and should be used sparingly or not at all.

the NTM Reform is a laptop for the latter group. It’s a crowd-funded, developed in the open, and extensively documented device that cares more about being open than any other aspect of the computing experience. Predictably, this results in an ideologically pure but functionally compromised laptop.

As open as possible, for better or for worse

The XPS 13 (top) and the MNT Reform (bottom, obviously) seem to come from entirely different universes, and in a way they are.
Enlarge / The XPS 13 (top) and the MNT Reform (bottom, obviously) seem to come from entirely different universes, and in a way they are.

Andrew Cunningham

We’ll talk about the Reform as an actual physical object in a minute, but to understand why it is, it helps to understand the mindset of the people who designed it. For them, the Reform’s lack of a microphone and webcam is a selling point when it comes to privacy. Its weak ARM Cortex-A53-based processor was chosen because it was “simpler” and “much easier to understand than conventional laptops”.

From the time I spent browsing MNT Community Forums, it’s fair to say that this is the branch of the open source community that is inherently skeptical of things like TPMs, Intel’s management engine, or Apple’s T2 chip – these are , according to thought, impenetrable black boxes, the opposite of selling points. You can’t verify that they do what they say they do because the source code isn’t publicly available, and they could contain security holes at best or intentional security backdoors at worst.

I bring all this up not to mock or dismiss these concerns (or to validate them, for that matter) but to demonstrate how different the concerns of the target audience of the MNT reform are those of the general public buying computers.

Here are the questions I would normally consider when reviewing a laptop: How fast is it? Is it noisy? Is it too heavy? How does the keyboard feel? Is the screen good? What is the battery life? I can also judge the Reform on these criteria! But all my comments should be filtered through the self-imposed limitations of the reformist project and the priorities of the people who funded it.

At the same time, it’s not a $35 Raspberry Pi board – it doesn’t take advantage of being so cheap that its quirks and flaws are forgivable. The base Reform model (which, as of today, will ship in late April 2022) is a $1,299 DIY kit that you have to assemble entirely yourself and to which you will have to add a $59 trackpad or trackball module. A fully assembled Reform costs $1,550 plus shipping, which is almost $200 more. Neither version includes a Wi-Fi module, antenna or internal SSD.

To MNT’s credit, the assembly process is fully documented (PDF), and you can do the whole thing with a small Phillips screwdriver. Our review unit was pre-assembled, but the process seems simple enough that anyone interested in reforming will likely have the wherewithal to set it up.

But that’s still the same price as a really nice high-end MacBook or PC laptop (or a mostly OK pair of PC laptops). This type of price comparison somehow misses the point of the reform, which is to be as open and transparent as possible and not to replace an XPS 13 or MacBook Air. But even hardcore FOSS supporters should pause and think about what they need a computer to be able to do before they spend a thousand and a half on this thing.

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