The PocketReform is a made-in-Berlin Linux handheld

The PocketReform is a made-in-Berlin Linux handheld

In the last year, we have seen an unexpected revival of handheld computers (or PDAs) with hardware keyboard, all of which based on Linux: the PinePhone with its keyboard case, the GPD series of mini-laptops and several others which we covered here last month. For those wondering, the main difference between these trendy miniaturized computers and "standard" Linux phones can often be just the lack of a cellular modem. In general, the board designs appear to be quite similar between PDAs and phones, and for most applications, a Linux PDA can be cheaper and just as useful as a fully fledged smartphone.

Back in 2019, the MNT Reform project promised a new laptop concept: being entirely self-made, radical (and rather punk-sexy) in style and functions, this Linux laptop focused on repairability, modularity (even for input devices!) and total openness of the platform firmware. The device was designed by Lukas Hartmann in Berlin, all of which based on the ARMv8, i.MX8MQ processor. Furthermore, the Reform sported a tiny OLED display above the keyboard for status monitoring, an open-source trackball, and replaceable stylus-shaped 18650 LiFePo4 batteries, all with entirely replicable PCB and hardware design.

MNT Reform: The Much More Personal Computer—MNT Research

Yet the PocketReform, a recently announced Linux PDA by MNT Research, appears at least as innovative as its predecessor: firstly because it is designed and assembled in Germany, although with some boards sourced from China, and secondly for being a partially EU-funded project rooted in the Berlin University of the Arts.

The first difference from other PDAs is the everyday customer oriented, yet radically open-source nature of this product. While not many technical details are known yet, the PocketReform will focus on a flexible, easily repairable hardware and structure, probably taken at least in part from the full-size Reform laptop. In the current prototype, the two wooden and plexiglass panels for the keyboard and display modules are connected by a hinge, with one circuit board, and likely one replaceable LiFePO4 battery.

The see-through back of the initial prototype

Moreover,  according to its makers, crucial for the PocketReform is its modularity and durability, in the perspective of a circular economy model. Early renderings showed a miniature mechanical keyboard not unlike that of the Penkesu, alongside a tiny trackball and OLED display, which are not yet seen on the current prototype. In fact, the trackball could make for a satisfying BlackBerry-like feel and easy navigation even in traditional, not mobile-optimized Linux environments.

On the technical side, specifications are still to be seen. For sure, the PocketReform will be an ARM, Linux-running machine, probably using the same high-end NXP i.MX8 SoC as the MNT Reform, and Purism's famous Librem 5 smartphone. This chip, however, would mean the device being placed, price-wise, somewhere in the middle to high range, not $150 like the PinePhone.

According to the models seen below, the PocketReform will likely accommodate the same SoM (System-on-Module) of its larger sibling, with on-board slots to connect wireless cards and other modules.

But apart from the extensive design work, not much on the current prototypes known at this time. For example, many colours and finishes were showcased in renderings, from a slightly 2000-ish light blue tint, to solid gray, to the amazing wood-and-glass blend of the current prototype, which we would like to see replicated in production. According to rumours found in a forum post, old enough to be taken with a grain of salt, the PocketReform might come in a "normal" and a "premium" variant, possibly differing in plastic vs. aluminium enclosures, but plans might have changed.

In conclusion, this new project looks intriguing to say the least. With funding at least partly ensured, and inheriting expectations from the MNT Reform as a quality product, hopes for the PocketReform are high. Waiting for more information to appear on the technical side, the official blog of the project, linked below, is the best place to look for up-to-date information.

Pocket Reform
Circular Electronics in Berlin. A Open Source Pocket Computer made for Circular Economy. We work with an Open Design approach in MotionLab Berlin.

Photos from the official project page.