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MNT Reform: DIY Transportable Pc

MNT Reform: DIY Transportable Pc

2023-04-06 12:51:15

MNT Reform: DIY Transportable Pc


Safety, Transparency, Hackability

Like lots of you, I spend lots of time utilizing computer systems: to put in writing, draw, render, make music and program. I perceive that most individuals need a digital equipment to get out of the way in which and make their lives simpler, however I do know that there are some who wish to higher perceive and take management of their gadget — for causes of safety, curiosity, or the will for private customization and hackability.

For a very long time, I needed a conveyable private laptop which you’ll…

  • Restore by your self with components from the ironmongery shop or 3D printing
  • Totally perceive on any degree
  • Take aside, modify and improve with out remorse
  • Adapt to your tastes and use circumstances, staying with you for a few years

In Summer time/Autumn 2017 I teamed up with industrial designer Ana Dantas to make this machine occur.
Three months later, I can kind this text on the primary prototype of Reform, our DIY moveable laptop.

First Sketches and 3D Fashions

Total Fashion

I grew up with residence computer systems just like the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Amiga 500. These have been quirky and restricted of their capabilities, however that they had lots of character and invited to experiment and take aside. It was regular to search out full schematics and programming tutorials of their consumer manuals.

For the design of Reform, I needed to include a nod to those and different early private computer systems and laptops, in order that the look would convey an invite to hack.

I created a moodboard of the approximate model that I had in thoughts and Ana used this as a reference for the shapes and colours of her first hand sketches. As a product designer, she additionally got here up with a number of options for coping with the purpose of modularity. Whereas she got here up with some extra superior choices, we determined to go along with simplicity and selected a boxy design for the primary prototype.


Modularity was an essential purpose and differentiator from the start. You need to be capable of swap in the kind of keyboard, pointing gadget and display screen (E-Ink, anybody?) of your alternative and even go with out an inner display screen at your desk.

We determined to incorporate these modules within the first model:

  • Chassis: a predominant physique field with mounting services for motherboard, battery, SSD storage, enter gadget controllers
  • Exchangeable keyboard PCB, swappable by sliding out to the correct
  • Exchangeable pointing gadget (we might implement a trackball first, however you may also use a trackpad)
  • A slot for SATA SSDs (harking back to floppy drive slots)
  • Removable show housing (with normal screws), with a future E-Ink possibility
  • Commonplace LiPo batteries


Goal Specs

The purpose for choosing the core {hardware} was to strike a steadiness between openness and efficiency. On the one hand, I needed to have the ability to get actual work executed on the machine, like compiling code, modifying pictures or video/audio and browse the net. However it needed to be as open and documented as doable, avoiding closed supply drivers. I got here up with these necessities:

  • CPU/SoC components needs to be as open, documented, backdoor- and blob-free as doable
  • At the least 1 GHz and a couple of cores
  • At the least 4 GB of RAM to keep away from swapping
  • At the least SATA-2 for fairly quick and large storage
  • At the least HD-ready display screen decision
  • PCIe for expandability

System on a Chip: NXP i.MX6 / i.MX8

After reviewing most accessible SoCs and SBCs I settled (like Bunnie within the Novena) on the NXP i.MX6 QuadPlus SoC, which has 4 ARM Cortex-A9 cores operating at as much as 1.2 GHz and a Vivante GC2000 GPU for which fully open supply drivers can be found (etnaviv). Full documentation for the SoC is obtainable from NXP as PDFs with out registration or NDAs. I selected the TinyRex Ultra by Fedevel/Voipac as our analysis board, as a result of it’s a tiny, low-cost system-on-module with 4GB of reminiscence, and it may be plugged into an open supply provider board. For the subsequent iteration, I would go along with the open schematics model iMX6 Rex.

Whereas the i.MX6 seems a bit dated on paper and might’t compete with the Core i7 in my previous MacBook Professional, its real-world efficiency is sweet sufficient for the form of work I needed to make use of it for. Additionally, the way more highly effective 64-bit, 6-core i.MX8 is across the nook. Confidently, the second prototype of the pc will coincide with its launch.

Connectivity: USB, PCIe, SATA, Wi-Fi

Whereas i.MX6QP has an built-in USB2.0 Host Controller which is ok to attach the enter gadgets and a sound module, USB3.0/3.1 are enticing due to their excessive bandwidth and charging by way of USB-C. These could possibly be built-in on the brand new motherboard and a chip connected to the PCIe bus. I examined the Penguin Wireless N Mini PCIe card within the dev board’s Mini PCIe slot and it really works nice with the open supply ath9k drivers.

The system begins U-Boot from a MiniSD card which in flip hundreds Linux from a 120GB SanDisk SATA SSD. We included a compartment and a slot that accepts 2.5″ SATA SSD drives for straightforward swapping.

Pricing and Person Pre-Testing

Ana inspired me to arrange a consumer pre-validation take a look at to test if we have been heading in the right direction regarding the general idea, alternative of components and pricing. We put collectively a fake Amazon page with renderings and an outline of our gadget surrounded by two different selections. We positioned our laptop in the midst of the value vary (500-700 EUR) and targeted on providing a whole DIY package deal (not solely a board) and better specs and customizability than one other low-cost venture. The primarily optimistic interviews with pre-filtered testers made us assured that we have been on the correct path.

All testers have been enthusiastic about an optionally available E-Ink show, however this drives up the value by a minimum of 200-300 EUR. Additionally, controller choices have been unclear, so we postponed prototyping of this feature.

Making it Work

Working System Validation

The very first thing I needed to ensure was the potential of operating mainline Linux on the machine, with out utilizing any proprietary binary blobs or drivers — whereas nonetheless having the ability to use fundamental GPU acceleration. With some essential hints from kernel developer Lukas Stach I used to be in a position to deliver up a usable Linux desktop with Debian userland and OpenGL on my TinyRex improvement board hooked as much as a battery. This validated the primary expertise choice.

Keyboard, Switches and Caps

For the primary variant of the keyboard, I used to be searching for DIY- and typing-friendly keyswitches. The Cherry ML switch sits in a candy spot between full-size mechanical keys and laptop computer chiclet keys, however I could not get them at Digikey or Mouser. Calling Cherry’s headquarters in Munich was fruitful: they pointed me to a companion firm that might then promote me a minimal amount of 2000 switches. I made a KiCAD element for them, drew up a keyboard PCB and ordered it at Harmful Prototypes. Hooking the assembled board as much as a Teensy LC yielded a usable laptop computer keyboard.

As a result of our structure was customized and injection molding is just too costly for small {hardware} initiatives, Ana advised printing our keycaps in a Formlabs Form 2 SLA resin printer. This method resulted in surprisingly pleasant-to-touch, slim caps for the MLs that we may simply customise. A correct wire mechanism to stabilize the house bar and different lengthy keys remains to be on the to-do checklist, however the keyboard already works nicely sufficient for first utility testing.

Pointing Machine

Ana additionally used the Kind 2 for printing a customized housing for the PWM3360 motion sensor that might kind the bottom of our trackball module. The ball itself is a typical acrylic sphere from Modulor, and the left and proper buttons are Cherry ML as nicely.

Each the Keyboard and the pointing gadget are pushed by Teensy LC Cortex M0+ boards that talk USB HID. To attach these internally to the SoC, I selected the extremely small USB NanoHub board by Muxtronics.

See Also


For the primary show protoype, I compromised and selected a ten” 1920×1200 panel with a corresponding HDMI to dual LVDS adapter by Chalkboard. I felt that though this method requires slightly dangling HDMI cable on the skin of the prototype, it will save appreciable improvement time to faster attain a functioning system for additional consumer testing. Within the subsequent iteration, this cable will probably be eradicated.


For printing the chassis, encompassing the primary field and the show meeting, we selected to go along with Shapeways with good outcomes, though at a later stage these is perhaps candidates for resin casting or CNC milling, or different applied sciences which can be accessible to a consumer that desires to customise the housing.


After round 8 weeks of engaged on all of the items, we met in FabLab Berlin to assemble the primary working system over an intense course of round 5 hours. Many little issues went mistaken — from wrongly positioned holes to unhealthy solder joints to items of 3D printed materials breaking off — however as a result of we have been surrounded by all crucial manufacturing gear and Ana’s by no means ending provide of improvising methods, we made it occur and our DIY laptop computer booted for the primary time.

Measurement, Weight, Battery Life

The primary protoype of Reform is sort of a brick. Whereas it’s only 28cm vast and 17.5cm deep, its full top together with the show provides as much as 5.5cm to accomodate for all of the connectors of the event board and to permit room for experimentation earlier than shrinking every part down. Its 1.5kg together with the battery really feel OK, although. The battery is an off-the-shelf RC 7.4V LiPo battery with modest 3000 mAh capability. Operating a full linux desktop on full LCD brightness clocks in at round 1.8A, 5V, which yields 2.5 hours of steady utilization on this battery. Doubling that quantity could be a superb goal.


I succesfully examined software program packages like LibreOffice, Blender, GIMP, Inkscape and Audacity on the laptop computer. I managed to run Quake 3 Enviornment utilizing the GPU, however I needed to manipulate the OpenGL model quantity, which results in some glitches that needs to be mounted. It could actually additionally play H.264 films with mplayer and surf the net with QupZilla or Chromium (JavaScript heavy web sites drive up the core temperature, although). As a result of they’re related and flashable internally by way of USB, you possibly can even replace the keyboard and trackball firmware utilizing the Arduino instruments.

Making it Out there

Purchase Kits or Print Your Personal

All in all, though it has a variety of tough edges, we’re very proud of how this primary prototype turned out. In fact we wish to make it higher, thinner, eliminate exterior cables, publish schematics and documentation and arrange a web-based store the place you possibly can order DIY kits or single components. And with the 3D information, it is possible for you to to print chassis components in any coloration or modified form you need. We wish to encourage experimentation and tinkering, and convey again some hacking enjoyable to cellular private computing.

Motherboard Manufacturing

Fedevel and Voipac, the Designers/Producers of TinyRex, agreed to assist with the manufacturing SoC/SOM and Voipac supplied an improve path to the subsequent technology i.MX8 SoC that will probably be launched within the coming 3-6 months. My job will probably be to design a slimmed-down base board, an built-in charger/energy brick and work with Ana on making the interconnect between chassis, show and enter gadgets clear and simple. Finally, we’ll launch a crowdfunding or pre-order marketing campaign. The latter labored nicely to make my earlier {hardware} venture, the VA2000 Amiga FPGA Graphics Card a actuality.

Your Opinion

At this level, we’re keen to listen to your early suggestions about Reform. What would you wish to see in an open, moveable laptop system? What did we miss? Ship your ideas to

Or subscribe to the Reform newsletter and we’ll replace you on additional progress of the venture.

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