Thoughts on MNT Reform after a couple months

So we got ahold of one of these used from someone who found it didn’t do what they needed it to. New, these things are like 1200 euros. We got one for $420 (lmao). though we had to buy a different keycap set to get key legends (prev owner had blank caps), and we had to replace the battery boards with a newer version since this was like one of the first Reform versions made and the battery boards had a problem. the thing is that if you look purely at the CPU performance and ram, and you compare that to the price, this thing is currently really bad value. maybe that changes when they finish designing the RK3588 module but right now that’s how it is. but it’s increasingly clear that the value is there now, it’s just not in compute, it’s everything else.

So like, build quality is great. But more than that, the hardware layout is great. We’ve had to open this thing up a few times now to get at various parts we were updating to the current revisions of things and nothing was a pain in the ass. Disconnecting the battery boards is painless. Disconnecting the tiny OLED display for the system controller board is painless. Getting the trackball out to clean under it is easy, swapping the compute module is easy. We’ve gone through absolute hell with a lot of laptops during disassembly and reassembly and there’s none of that here. It’s really obvious to us how to do everything too, we didn’t even need to check the manual.

And there’s things like how the keyboard is mechanical switches. it rules. Actually the keyboard has some other neat parts. For one thing, it works as both a laptop keyboard and a standalone keyboard. They literally sell the exact same board in its own little case that you can use as a USB keyboard if you just like the board and want to use it with other computers. It’s got a USB port built into it for that purpose. Or you can buy it without the case and it functions as a replacement keyboard for the laptop. Actually wild that even if the rest of this laptop broke and we didn’t feel like fixing it we could keep using the keyboard as a keyboard.

Trackball also goes hard. I’m still a trackpoint diehard but this is a very close second and isn’t RSI-inducing for us like trackpads are. Fuck trackpads.

Also the bit where the batteries are standard. The batteries were dead from the person I got it from, but I just bought some from an unaffiliated website online selling LiFePO4 18650 cells and they just worked. because it’s a standard. No custom battery pack bullshit!!!!!!!!!! This is such a killer feature in and of itself because dying batteries is what has been the cause of death for almost every single one of our laptops to date (ballooning batteries in many of the cases) and the only reason our thinkpad x220 still has good battery life is third party sellers sell packs with the 18650s replaced (but I can’t do that replacement myself).

And then the other side of things is software and support. I feel like I’m used to the worst of the worst dealing with weird vendor boards. Pine64 is better than those usually but it’s still rough. MNT is out here having first-party images to flash on the SD card and eMMC, but not only that, they have a whole suite of command line scripts that automate the processes of downloading, flashing and updating u-boot and the boot images, setting up fstab, etc. etc. They ship with custom builds of gstreamer and such to get hardware accelerated video playback working. They ship environment variables to actually turn it on, to fix various programs under wayland. The community landed updates into mesa to make the GPU run better, etc. People are out here making the software work on the hardware and it’s great.

And u-boot supports the display! what the FUCK. you never see that!!!!!!! I can get early debug info without even having to connect up a UART. good lord. Oh and they have instructions and a defconfig for building the u-boot that ACTUALLY WORKS. I literally copy pasted from the handbook without thinking and got a working u-boot image this NEVER HAPPENS TO ME. The Kicad schematics are there and I can understand them. The keyboard firmware is heavily commented so I can figure out how to modify it to my liking. They are actually open source in the sense of you can go to the source code and do USEFUL THINGS with it, not “oh we shoved the source code without any context out the door”.

The one real downer on the software side for some folks is you have to use Wayland. It is what it is, that’s basically the case everywhere with ARM. the PinebookPro somehow brute-forces it enough to be somewhat usable under X but even it struggles. I don’t really understand it, but Xorg runs so terribly on these embedded GPUs and there’s not really anything anyone can do about it (unless you’re feeling masochistic and want to do some Xorg dev work, good luck though for real). But that sucks if your workflow hard-depends on X, and its why the person who sold it to us was selling it. Though as we found out a lot of improvements have been made to the Wayland software ecosystem over the past years.

Anyways this thing is awesome. CPU/RAM specs still suck. But everything else is incredible and this feels like a device that will actually continue to work instead of falling apart in a year or two like most laptops do. Looking forward to the Pocket too. Still gonna be maining the x220 until the compute on this catches up but damn!