DIY Laptop Aims for Complete Hardware Freedom

Open source software has unquestionably gone from fringe idealism to mainstream, even if the average person doesn’t really know it. From their web browser to their smartphone operating system, more people are running open source software today than at any other time in the history of computing, and the numbers are only getting bigger. While we can debate how well some companies are handling their responsibilities to the open source community, overall this is probably a lot closer to an open source utopia that many of us ever believed we’d get.

For argument’s sake, let’s say the software is settled. What’s next? Well, if we’ve got all the open source software we could ever ask for, naturally we now need to run it on open source hardware. Just like our software, we want to see how it works, we want to modify it, and to fix it ourselves if we want. These goals are precisely what [Lukas Hartmann] had in mind when he started work on Reform, the latest entry in the world of fully open source laptops.

A plate of fresh keycaps

Like the Novena that came before it, the Reform leverages the four-core ARM Cortex-A9 NXP i.MX6 SoC to deliver tablet-level performance, though [Lukas] mentions the design may migrated to the upgraded six-core version of the chip in the future which should give it a little more punch. The SoC is paired with the Vivante GC2000 GPU which can be used under Linux without any binary blobs. Most hardware is connected to the system via the USB 2.0 bus, though networking is provided by a ThinkPenguin mini PCI-e wireless adapter, and on-board SATA handles the 128 GB SSD.

While the internals are relatively run-of-the-mill these days, the work that [Lukas] has done on the case and input devices is definitely very impressive. He partnered with industrial designer [Ana Dantas] to get the look and feel of the system down, and built almost everything out of 3D printed parts. Even the keyboard caps and the trackball were manufactured in house on a Formlabs Form 2. Rather than using an off-the-shelf USB HID solution, [Lukas] is using Teensy LC boards to interface the custom input hardware with the OS.

[Lukas] is still working on how and when the Reform will be made available to the public. After some refinements, the team hopes to make both kits and individual parts available, and of course put all the files up so you can build your own if you’ve got the equipment. A mockup Amazon listing for the Reform has been posted to get the public’s feedback on the look and features of the machine, and [Lukas] asks that anyone with comments and suggestions send him an email.

Between the Reform, Novena, and the Olimex, competition in the realm of DIY laptops is frankly staggering. Now we just need more people working on open hardware smartphones.

Thanks to [Adrian] for the tip.

28 thoughts on “DIY Laptop Aims for Complete Hardware Freedom

  1. Open source hardware just doesn’t work like open source software.

    The thing about software is that it can be built for free, pretty much. Hardware has a manufacturing cost, and it goes down with volume, from the little parts to the whole package.

    Perhaps the best known example of open source hardware is Arduino. You can get the design files for free, including BOMs and Gerber files. Yet, people who make Arduino clones in China don’t use those; they can shave cents from the BOM cost by changing the design, so every board is slightly different. But the software runs on all the clones. There’s no need to change that.

    My laptop sold for $200. I don’t see how there will ever be a DIY laptop in that range, or 2 or 3 times that.

      1. Speaking of which, it uses Cherry ML switches, and claims to be fully open source. Until we have a fully open source buckling spring, I’m gonna wait.
        Sure, there are open source keyboard schematics, but they’re tied down to a handful of manufacturers- Cherry, Gateron, and a few no-name brands.

    1. I can’t see why you wouldn’t be able to scramble one together out of a bunch of seperate components. The biggest problem with building an open source laptop comes from the fact that making the entire project OSS edges out a ton of the cheaper options when it comes to using an SOC, which most manufacturers do.

      In terms of cost, I don’t think anyone that expects a $200 or even $600 laptop, when you are choosing OSS, you are choosing the freedom of the hardware, not necessarily the cost. I would gladly open my wallet and drop $2k on a laptop if it meant that I could be sure there were not NSA backdoors or Intel/microsoft data collection backdoors. (inb4 libreboot and install gentoo)

  2. Why on gods green earth did the select a trackball?
    His $500 pricepoint seems pretty reasonable though, if he can actually produce these machines at that price point this could gain a lot of interest.

    1. seems like this is more supposed to look good than to function. as all the case parts including keys seem to be custom sintered by some Formlabs machine – which i guess isn’t that cheap and isn’t suited for mass production. i’d like to know how much he spent on producing the case and all the custom keys vs hardware. i guess this is more of a show-off machine than something you’d seriously work with.

  3. It looks to me like this is mostly “Hardware that has open source drivers.” not “Hardware that is open source.” I think the Novena was a little closer to being the second in terms of having a better chain of trust. Just fine if you’re not paranoid. What this does look likes it gives is a laptop, with no really oddball hardware, that runs Linux without trouble as a result, and doesn’t have the IME or AMD equivalent. A consumerized version of this would be a pretty decent machine for a CS student or other developer. Except for the incompatibility issues with proprietary hardware development tools.

  4. I like the trackball. Best laptop trackball ever was on the Apple Powerbooks when they ran 68K CPUs, except that they were only one button. 2 physical buttons and switches but stupidly wired in parallel so it wasn’t possible to make software sense them separately.

    I get laptops for free that have problems and repair them for cheap. Some I sell, some I give away. Some of the ones I sell I upgrade a bit if I can find parts really cheap.

    1. I do that, too for fun – fixing old hardware. But I’d never really use them over my “evil corp” device. :/
      It’s more like a nerd sport. Trying to use this and that hardware to get x to run and being satisfied with my geeky self. I’m still actually still using 2 PPCs for old software and reading CDs. lol

  5. Browsing on a Raspberry Pi is painfully slow. So is browsing on my Asus TF700T Android tablet. I don’t use them for that. I wouldn’t bother building a tablet or laptop using a slow processor with little RAM. My Dell Laptop is a dual core i7 over 2.5 GHz, 12M Ram, 4K screen, and was only $1,000. I don’t see how an open source laptop is going to compete. Yes it comes with Windows, but I still need Windows for some software. And running Linux under Windows is so slow, while all of the Linux software may run under Windows.

  6. Open source software was never fringe, it was just software. It became either open/closed in 1983 due to stupid Copyright rulings.

    “Open Source” software is just a slightly less open version of what it was prior to that.

    Now we have EULAs (instead of OWNING the software) that don’t let us own our own software, but rent it.

    Want real open software? Get rid of copyright protections on software. It was just a loophole Big Software manipulated into market protection.

    It’s like saying the recent FAA drone rule changes have made flying such aircraft easier than before. Sure, but wasn’t it easier before that? Has it made us any safer, or is this Security Theater like the TSA? Well at least it created 5k more nothing jobs.

  7. This is exactly the sort of project I have wanted to see. A device capable of running a full Linux desktop and where everything running on the main processor is 100% open source. And none of the hidden unchangeable crap (that could be spying on you without your knowledge) like you get on processors from Intel, AMD, Qualcomm, Broadcomm and others.

  8. > While we can debate how well some companies are handling their responsibilities to the open source community, overall this is probably a lot closer to an open source utopia that many of us ever believed we’d get.

    I believe this misses the point. There may be more and more use of open source software but there is also more and more use of software that is tied to services that track you. The software is open because it is no longer the product, now the product is you. I would claim that if you looked at a typical (if there is such a thing) laptop running 100% open source software you’d find an incredible amount of tracking of what the user is doing.

  9. I think this project is really difficult and not feasible in this point of time. This would have been fun in the late 80s / early 90s, but we’re at a point now where these kind of projects – are just some cool hipster thing to have that will end up in a dark drawer next to all your other nerdy devices you once installed Doom on.

    One could call this a “Millennial’s Dream”.

    Many have tried to come up with truly open hardware blah – last thing I remember is the PocketCHIP, which obviously was meant for rather play than work.

    You will never be able to compete with bigger companies in this sector. And I don’t believe he uses his own device on a daily basis over his Macbook. Like I said – it’s a cool thing to have, but not a cool thing to use (especially as a professional).

    Also there’s a good reason why we don’t use trackballs anymore and I think this is purely to play into the 80s/90s retro wave. This is hipster over function.

    If you want true privacy, don’t use the internet or mobile phones. Bang a rock on a piece of wood.

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