Project update 7 of 10
As our Crowd Supply campaign is coming to an end, I was curious about how Lukas F. Hartmann, lead engineer and electronic designer of the MNT Pocket Reform, sees the future of MNT Research, and what will be next in terms of development and manufacturing. So we sat down to do an interview.
Lukas F. Hartmann talks about what comes next for MNT Research.
Anri Paul Hennies: Lukas, we’ll be talking about the future today. I’m sure a lot of people would like to know when the first Pocket Reform laptops will be ready to ship. What steps are required to make this happen and can you give us an estimate?
Lukas F. Hartmann: We plan to ship the first Pocket Reforms seven months after the end of the campaign. The main aspect that takes a lot of time is to get the processor modules from Laird, as they have a minimum 24 weeks lead time. During this time, we will of course do a lot of things in parallel, for example, finalizing the aluminum body parts to make them a bit lighter. So, we’ll probably have another beta version for internal use, and once that one is fully tested and checked, we will order the electronics.
APH: Will there be any upgrades for Pocket Reform?
LFH: Yes, we have plans for future Pocket Reform upgrades. It is designed to be modular in terms of CPU and memory modules that you can plug in. So the most important thing for us, also when working with Reform, is to get more processor and GPU power into the system. This is not an easy task as a candidate that has good documentation and open source drivers, and is stable enough to work with, is hard to find. So a lot of parameters have to be right. That’s why we’re thinking—or more than thinking—to move in the direction of Rockchip RK3588 or MediaTek processors. Additionally, we are also looking at the upcoming i.MX9 family.
APH: You just mentioned Rockchip RK3588, which is an exciting project as it would mean a significant performance boost for the MNT Reform. How is this project coming along?
LFH: It’s still in development. We’ve been focusing on the T-Firefly Rockchip RK3588 module that has mezzanine connectors, so we can make an adapter for the module standard we already have. So the plan is to design an adapter that will work in the existing MNT Reform laptops. We are kind of waiting for the open source GPU drivers to materialize and also for the kernel support to improve. In the meantime, we’ve been focusing on some other processor modules, for example, the adapter for the Rasperry Pi CM4 and other modules that have the same format. Additionally, we’re mostly working on finishing some ongoing projects like shipping our FPGA module, finishing the mechanical integration for the CM4 adapter (including a new heat sink) and the LS1028A module, which has already been preordered by a lot of people. After that, we’ll start engineering the Rockchip module.
APH: What are you working on at the moment, besides Pocket Reform, of course?
LFH: Yes, we’re not only working on Pocket Reform at the moment; we also have some other projects that have been in development for a long time now. Most of the projects we’re working on in parallel are different processor modules for the Reform family and also extensions to the Reform family. We’re exploring if we can have a different form factor, not only laptop, but also desktop, PC box, or a little server that works with the same kinds of modules we have. One of the most exciting modules is the LS1028A module, designed by RBZ. It’s interesting because it’s completely open hardware, so we actually have the source files for this module and we have reproduced it ourselves already. You can use it as a base for a computer that has no binary firmware. It’s not that interesting for Pocket Reform, though, as it uses more power and generates more heat than the i.MX8M(Plus), but it could be a good candidate for the classic Reform or a desktop or server platform.
APH: I know you’ve also been planning on working on a RISC-V Reform laptop. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
LFH: We’ve been asked many times about our plan for RISC-V, like, "when will we have a Reform laptop with RISC-V system and chip?". We’re always closely looking at new developments in this area, for example, the StarFive SoCs. We’re kind of still waiting for the next generation of these chips to come out that have a significant advantage in terms of processing power, so it’s not only an alternative architecture, but it would really go a step forward in terms of speed compared to the ARM-based processors that we use. It’s a very interesting field, but for most people, when they are faced with the decision to buy an expensive laptop, that laptop has to deliver computing power and this is what we are focusing on at the moment.
APH: Now that the campaign will come to an end, what will the future look like for MNT?
LFH: So, Pocket Reform is kind of a game changer for us. We are very happy with how the campaign turned out, that so many people are interested and have decided to back the Pocket Reform, even more than we had anticipated. Crowd Supply also put in their house order on top which helps us create a bigger batch. They will also be our distributor after the campaign, so we will provide them with more Pocket Reform stock in the future. We will also start offering the device in our own shop at the end of the year, which might be especially interesting for German or European customers.
Due to the chip crisis, user feedback, and some improvements we wanted to make, we redesigned several aspects of the classic Reform laptop, so another batch is going into production now with an updated motherboard. Also, a new version of the MNT Reform standalone keyboard is being manufactured as we speak, presenting a more traditional layout. We also want to extend our small MNT Reform family, now consisting of the big laptop and the tiny laptop, with a device you can put on a desk.
We basically want to offer the whole spectrum: from complete openess and experimentation to a module that is proprietary hardware, but you can still run it with open drivers, while it also gives you a lot of performance. So you can choose from different modules, depending on your values and needs, how open you want your computer to be versus how much performance you need. These ideas are still running counter to each other, unfortunately. But because of the modular nature of the system, you can make the choice yourself. And you can rely on the whole system being open source hardware.
APH: Thank you so much for the insights, Lukas. I’m happy to be part of the team and I’m excited to see what the future holds for MNT!