|Specs at a glance: MNT Reform|
|Screen||1920×1080 12.5-inch (176PPI) IPS screen|
|CPU||NXP/Freescale i.MX8MQ (1.5GHz quad-core ARM Cortex-A53)|
|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|
|Size||11.42×8.07×1.57 inches (290×205×40 mm)|
|Weight||4.2 pounds (1.9 kg)|
|Battery||8x 18650 LiFePO4 battery cells|
|Starting price||$1,358 (not assembled, 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, installing Linux on it, and hoping for the best.
Dell has offered Ubuntu editions of some of its XPS laptops and other PCs for years now, and Lenovo sells a respectable collection of desktops and laptops with Linux. System76 sells a selection of Linux-friendly laptops preloaded with Ubuntu or its own Pop!_OS distribution. The repair-friendly Framework Laptop doesn’t ship with Linux, but it can be configured without an OS, and Framework promises robust Linux support from multiple distributions.
But those laptops all have something in common with run-of-the-mill Windows PCs: a reliance on closed-source hardware and, often, the proprietary software and drivers needed to make it function. For some people, this is a tolerable trade-off. You put up with the closed hardware because it performs well, and it supports the standard software, development tools, and APIs that keep the computing world spinning. For others, it’s anathema—if you can’t see the source code for these “binary blobs,” they are inherently untrustworthy and should be used sparingly or not at all.
The MNT Reform is a laptop for the latter group. It’s a crowdfunded, developed-in-the-open, extensively documented device that cares more about being open than it cares about literally any other aspect of the computing experience. Perhaps predictably, this makes for a laptop that is ideologically pure but functionally compromised.
As open as possible, for better or worse
We’ll talk about the Reform as an actual physical object in a minute, but to understand why it is the way that it is, it helps to understand the mindset of the people who designed it. For them, the Reform’s lack of microphone and webcam is a privacy selling point. 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’ve spent perusing the 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 TPM modules, the Intel Management Engine, or Apple’s T2 chip—these are, the thinking goes, inscrutable black boxes, the opposite of selling points. You can’t verify that they’re doing what they say they’re doing because the source code isn’t publicly available, and they could contain security vulnerabilities at best or intentional security backdoors at worst.
I bring all of this up not to mock or discount these concerns (or to validate them, for that matter) but to demonstrate how different the concerns of the MNT Reform target audience are from those of the general computer-buying public.
Here are the questions I’d normally consider in a laptop review: how fast is it? Is it loud? Is it too heavy? How does the keyboard feel? Is the screen any good? How is the battery life? I can judge the Reform based on those criteria, too! But all of my comments should be filtered through the Reform project’s self-imposed limitations and the priorities of the people who funded it.
At the same time, this isn’t a $35 Raspberry Pi board—it doesn’t benefit from being so cheap that its quirks and flaws are forgivable. The base model Reform (which as of this writing will ship in late April of 2022) is a $1,299 DIY kit that you need to fully assemble yourself and to which you’ll need to add a $59 trackpad or trackball module. A fully assembled Reform costs $1,550 plus shipping, 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 Philips-head screwdriver. Our review unit was pre-assembled, but the process seems simple enough that anyone who is interested in the Reform in the first place probably has the chops to put it together.
But that’s still the same price of one very nice, high-end MacBook or PC laptop (or a pair of mostly OK PC laptops). This kind of price comparison sort of misses the point of the Reform, which is to be maximally open and transparent and not to be a replacement for an XPS 13 or MacBook Air. But even hardcore FOSS proponents should pause and consider what they need a computer to be able to do before they plunk down a grand and a half on this thing.