Hardcore Hands-On: This Pocket PC Is Big on Open Source

MNT’s tiny PC has a mechanical keyboard and old-school trackball

4 min read
The MNT Reform Pocket computer open on a table and displaying a web page.

MNT’s Reform Pocket is a 7-inch computer with open-source software and hardware.

Matthew S. Smith

Open-source PC hardware is coming to a new frontier: your pocket.

MNT, a small German company “driven by the idea of a digital future that is open-source, accessible and modular,” will soon release the MNT Pocket Reform, a pint-size alternative to the full-size Reform laptop introduced in 2019. The pocketable spin-off combines a 7-inch, 1080p display with a miniature physical keyboard and fully modular internals packing your choice of several Arm-based processors.

The result is a bizarre PC like nothing else sold today. It’s not for everyone—but hardware enthusiasts and hard-core DIY tinkerers will find a lot to like.

Can you really type on a 7-inch laptop?

My initial fear that MNT’s diminutive PC might feel fragile was quickly dispelled. Though small, the Pocket Reform has a hefty, machined aluminum chassis tied together by rigid metal hinges. Most surfaces, including the exterior display lid, are user-replaceable plastic panels. The device’s weight remains to be announced, but it feels dense, and its materials have no hint of flex. Its heft and size are arguably downsides, though, as the Pocket Reform is too large to be truly pocketable in pants that go with business attire (though I hear cargo pants are back in style).

Opening the Pocket Reform reveals a pleasant surprise: a mechanical keyboard with Kailh Choc White low-profile switches and custom keycaps. The result is bafflingly good. It easily tops the laptops I’ve tested in recent years (I’ve tried hundreds) and bests many full-size mechanical keyboards. It’s crisp and clicky, yet not loud enough to distract the person seated next to you on a flight. The keyboard is LED-backlit, and the lighting’s color can be customized—an eye-catching addition I didn’t expect.

The MNT Pocket Reform keyboard and trackball with pink LED backlighting.The Pocket Reform’s LED backlit keyboard includes color customization.Matthew S. Smith

The Pocket Reform’s keyboard layout is unusual, as keys are arranged in an evenly distributed grid. The twin space-bar keys double as mouse inputs. Holding the left-most space-bar key allows scrolling when combined with the Pocket Reform’s smooth trackball. My typing speed slowed to a crawl as I struggled to understand the layout’s quirks, but I think the odd layout is smart move. It retains full keyboard and mouse functionality and allows for larger keycaps. Just expect to deal with a learning curve.

MNT’s first batch of Pocket Reforms will be powered by NXP’s iMX8MPlus, a quad-core Arm processor with Cortex A53 cores clocked at up to 1.8 gigahertz. The system also has 8 gigabytes of RAM, supports both eMMC and NVMe storage, and comes with onboard Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Additional modules will arrive later. An optional cellular modem is planned, too.

It’s not a powerhouse, to be sure, but MNT expects performance roughly on par with the Raspberry Pi 4. The Web browsing experience felt smooth while scrolling through Web pages and flipping through multiple tabs, even over a cellular data connection provided by an iPhone. However, the device stumbled when attempting high-resolution streaming video in Firefox; I’m told Chrome performs better.

MNT pushes the open source to its limits

Perhaps what I’ve described sounds exciting—but what if doesn’t? Don’t dismiss the Pocket Reform just yet. It’s not just a device, but a canvas upon which open-source ideals have been applied to put users in control.

“For us that is a combination of open hardware and open software along with community contributions to create something that we’re calling open-computing autonomy,” an international PR representative said while demoing the device. MNT wants to encourage an open-source “feedback loop” that lets users take the lead on customizing and improving their Pocket Reform.

If you’re curious what that looks like in practice, just look toward the Reform, MNT’s full-size laptop. Inspiration from owners has led to numerous improvements, such as a new ball-bearing design for the trackball. Other users have swapped in alternative keyboard layouts, such as an ergonomic split-key keyboard—something you won’t find on any other laptop sold today. MNT provides extensive technical details including renderings of 3D models of device components plus schematics of the motherboard. Owners can also swap in different hardware modules to fit their needs.

The MNT Pocket Reform open on a tablet with a web page shown on the display. A rigid aluminum chassis gives the Pocket Reform plenty of rigidity. Matthew S. Smith

“Probably the most complex, nerdy option, is the FPGA [field-programmable gate array] based board, which is now shipping. It’s really expensive, because they’re made by hand. It’s like €1,600,” says MNT’s representative.

The hand-crafted board can emulate other devices at the hardware level, providing accuracy and performance not possible through software emulation. Crafty users might use it to transform the Pocket Reform into a pocketable RadioShack TRS-80 or Amiga 1200 (FPGA-based devices like the Analog Pocket and MiSTer already do this, though the community around them is most focused on emulating game systems).

Those seeking the ultimate in open source will appreciate a new module with an NXP Layerscape LS1028A processor and a rare open-source memory controller. The embedded DisplayPort controller is the only closed firmware remaining, though MNT says users could bypass it if desired. Owners of a Pocket Reform (or standard Reform) with this module could in theory change or modify anything their technical skills allow.

The MNT Pocket Reform inside the optional vegan leather case.MNT will offer an optional vegan leather case for the Pocket Reform.Matthew S. Smith

Clearly, the Pocket Reform isn’t an alluring alternative to an iPad, or even a Windows laptop. But that’s not the point. It’s a clever, customizable device built for people who want the ultimate in control over their PC. In that regard, the Pocket Reform has no peer, and I suspect its unique form factor will give it lasting appeal.

MNT is finalizing the Pocket Reform’s design, but preorders are expected to hit Crowdsupply within the next few weeks. Expect a starting price of roughly US $900.

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