The MNT Reform: a modular, open source hardware, blob-free laptop inspired by classic PCs

Lukas F. Hartmann grew up on PCs like the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Amiga 500, and while he appreciates the power and portability of modern laptops, he missed the character and invitation of experiment in these classic PCs.

Hartmann led a project to create a modular, tinker-able laptop that runs free software from the lowest levels all the way up to the OS and applications. It shares some DNA with Bunnie Huang's Novena "heirloom" laptops, including the quad-core NXP i.MX6 QuadPlus SoC, which is slow compared to late-model laptops but runs modern applications including Blender and Quake 3 Arena without perceptible delays.

The process of designing, prototyping and fabricating the MNT Reform is a really interesting case-study in flexible manufacturing techniques. They sourced parts from suppliers around the world, 3D printed key components using a variety of printers (including Formlabs resin printers, which produced the "surprisingly pleasant-to-touch, slim caps" for the Cherry ML switches in the keyboard). When they assembled the first batch, they were able to overcome glitches like "wrongly placed holes to bad solder joints to pieces of 3D printed material breaking off" as they went, because "we were surrounded by all necessary production equipment and Ana's never ending supply of improvising techniques."

It sounds like the MNT Reforms aren't quite ready to be sold as products, but there are kits and customizable pre-assembled machines in the offing. Exciting times!

After around 8 weeks of working on all the pieces, we met in FabLab Berlin to assemble the first working system over an intense course of around 5 hours. Many little things went wrong — from wrongly placed holes to bad solder joints to pieces of 3D printed material breaking off — but because we were surrounded by all necessary production equipment and Ana's never ending supply of improvising techniques, we made it happen and our DIY laptop booted for the first time.

The first protoype of Reform is quite a brick. While it is only 28cm wide and 17.5cm deep, its complete height including the display adds up to 5.5cm to accomodate for all the connectors of the development board and to allow room for experimentation before shrinking everything down. Its 1.5kg including the battery feel OK, though. The battery is an off-the-shelf RC 7.4V LiPo battery with modest 3000 mAh capacity. Running a full linux desktop on full LCD brightness clocks in at around 1.8A, 5V, which yields 2.5 hours of continuous usage on this battery. Doubling that number would be a good target.

MNT Reform: DIY Portable Computer [Lukas F. Hartmann/MNT Media and Technology]

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