Modularity by Design

MNT Research is committed to open source hardware, so it goes without saying that all our open hardware products are as modular as possible. We really want you to make our devices your own and in our opinion this is only possible with public documentation and modularity.

So what is modularity?

Our computing devices consist of several components such as processor modules, motherboards, batteries and heatsinks.

Let's say you own the classic Reform laptop, the (upcoming) Pocket Reform and the Rack Reform. Wouldn't it be awesome to just swap modules between devices, customize your computers to your preferences by installing or recombining mods and upgrades?

The answer is yes, of course, and it is very much possible with most of the components used in our devices. For example, the keyboard of the Reform laptop can be mounted into a case and then be used as a standalone USB input device. We've even upgraded the keyboard and made it compatible so that it can be exchanged with the previous version in the standalone keyboard and the laptop. Another example is Reform's trackpad, which can be swapped for a trackball.

Modularity is key for us, not only because of convenience, but also because it helps reduce electronic waste, makes the devices more durable, and allows for relatively easy repair.

Our CPU Modules

The classic MNT Reform laptop started with the Boundary Devices module with an NXP i.MX8MQ chip. It's a basic processor module that operates the system reliably, but the cores are not exactly powerful—they were designed to be simple and energy efficient. We picked the processor because there is full documentation from NXP, good mainline Linux and graphics driver support, and only one piece of closed-source firmware required. We chose the Boundary Devices module because it was the only module available for which you can download the complete schematics and understand the functions of the individual components.

Subsequently, we have made six additional processor modules compatible with our systems, giving you more options to choose from:

  1. i.MX8MPlus (the successor to the i.MX8MQ)
  2. RCM4 with A311D
  3. RCM4 with Rasperry Pi
  4. LS1028A
  5. RKX7 (FPGA)
  6. RCORE RK3588

All of these modules feature CPU, GPU and hardware implementations of standard interfaces like USB and PCIe. This is called a System-on-Chip (SoC). These SoCs support different memory chips (like LPDDR4) and it's all located on a System-on-Module (SoM). The SoM plugs into the Reform motherboard’s central 200-pin SO-DIMM connector. This means that anyone (with the necessary skills) will be able to design a replacement SoM to power Reform with a completely different CPU such as the super fast RCORE RK3588 or an FPGA such as the RKX7.

The following comparison table should help you decide which module is best for you and your personal use.

i.MX8MQ i.MX8MPlus RCM4 A311D RCM4 RPI LS1028A RKX7 RCORE RK3588
CPU 4x 1.5GHz Cortex-A53 4x 1.8GHz Cortex-A53 (2GHz overclocked) 4x 2.2 GHz Cortex-A73 + 2x 1.8 GHz Cortex-A53 4x 1.5 GHz Cortex-A72 (2 GHz overclocked) 2x 1.5 GHz Cortex-A72 Kintex-7 FPGA (i.e. VexRiscV/LiteX) 4x 2.4 GHz Cortex-A76 + 4x 2.2 GHz Cortex-A55
GPU Vivante GC7000L (OpenGL/ES 2.1 with Etnaviv) Vivante GC7000UL (OpenGL/ES 2.1 with Etnaviv) ARM Mali G52 MP4 (OpenGL/ES 3.1 with Panfrost) VideoCore 4 (OpenGL/ES 3.1, Vulkan 1.0) Vivante GC7000UL (OpenGL/ES 2.1 with Etnaviv) User defined ARM Mali-G610 MP4 (Panthor OpenGL 3.1, Vulkan support in development)
Wi-Fi via mPCIe card Integrated QCA9377 (WiFi 5) Integrated RTL8822CS (Wi-Fi 5) Integrated BCM43455 (Wi-Fi 5) via mPCIe card No via mPCIe card
Bluetooth No Integrated QCA9377 (BT 5.0) Integrated RTL8822CS (BT 5.0) Integrated BCM43455 (BT 5.0) No No No
Ethernet 1 Gbit/s 1 Gbit/s 1 Gbit/s 1 Gbit/s 1 Gbit/s 1 Gbit/s 1 Gbit/s
PCIe 2 Slots 1 Slot 1 Slot 1 Slot 1 Slot + 1 external + 1 SATA-III 2 Slots 2 Slots
Dual Display Yes Yes No (either internal or HDMI display at a time) Yes No (external GPU possible) Yes Yes
Open Source Firmware DDR4C and HDMI (optional) have closed source firmware. DDR4C and WiFi/BT have closed source firmware. Part of boot/TF-A and Wi-Fi firmware is closed source. Closed boot blob. eDP has closed source firmware (required only in laptop). Yes DDR4C has closed firmware
Open Source Drivers Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
PDF Schematics Yes, full Yes, full Yes, partial Yes, partial Yes Yes Yes, partial
KiCAD Sources No Adapter only Adapter only Adapter only Yes, full Yes, full Adapter only
USB USB 3.0 USB 3.0 USB 2.0 USB 2.0 USB 3.0 USB 1.0 (user defined) USB 3.0
HDMI HDMI 2.0a HDMI 2.0a HDMI 2.1 HDMI 2.0 No (external PCIe for eGPU instead) HDMI 1.4 HDMI 2.0
Price €249 €399 €249 €149 €899 €1,599 €500
Compatible with MNT Reform Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Compatible with MNT Pocket Reform Yes Yes Yes (in development) Yes (in development) No No Yes (in development)
Compatible with MNT Rack Reform Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes

The module badges you see in the table header contain five pieces of information:

  1. Name of the module (e.g. LS1028A)
  2. Number of cores (64-bit ARM if not specified otherwise)
    • Pink Square: performance cores (e.g. 2x 1.5 GHz Cortex-A72)
    • White Circle: efficiency cores (e.g. 4x 1.5 GHz Cortex-A53)
  3. RAM (e.g. 8 GB)
  4. Open Source Hardware (OSHWA logo)
    • If it's present, it means that the module is fully open hardware.
  5. Binary blob free (crossed out hexagon with 0 and 1 digits)
    • If it's present, it means that the module can be used without closed source firmware.

While the modules are similar in some aspects, they differ in others. What is best for you depends on your preferences and the way you use a computing device and, of course what is most important to you. For example, if you like a fast device and are okay with not having a lot of RAM, the RCM4 with A311D might be the right module for you. But if you need a lot of RAM and want your computer to be fully open hardware without binary blobs, the LS1028A might be your first choice. If all you want is a powerful CPU and dual display, the RCORE RK3588 is highly recommended. It all comes down to what you need.

The "Research" in our name is no coincidence: MNT Research continues to research fresh modules for Reform and we will add them to this article as they become available for purchase.

If you have any questions about modules and modularity, don't hesitate to contact us by email or ask the MNT community.