Review of the Librem 13 v2
These are my personal feelings and opinions about the newest Purism Librem laptop line, especially the Librem 13, which I am a (happy) owner of.
Purism is a company whose goal is to make the best freedom focused, privacy respecting laptops. Or as they put it:
Our essence, in a nutshell:
1. We believe people should have secure devices that protect them rather than exploit them.
2. To serve that purpose, we provide everything people need into a convenient hardware and software product.
3. We offer high-quality privacy, security, and freedom focused computers and software.
And from what I can tell, they, in their short lifespan, making it pretty damn good already.
First things first: Build quality
Let’s start with the obvious things first, the foremost thing someone sees when getting a new device and before the device is turned on for the first time: the build quality.
I have to say I really like what they did there. No, actually I am really impressed. Even though I was so excited to get a Librem and hyped myself it is still unbeatable when holding finally in your hand. The pictures on their website and social media platforms don’t do the Librem 13 any justice: In real life it looks even cooler. The chassis of the Librem is made out of “black anodized aluminum”. The feeling of the black cold aluminum is… well, indescribably awesome. Pure, thick metal. Nice. (More on that later)
Although it is true that the overall chassis is made of (super rigid thick amazing) metal, the display unit, including the hinge cover, aren’t. These components are made of plastic.
One issue I encountered was a screw on the front right hand side which wasn’t in place correctly (it was screwed in slightly tilted) leading to a small margin of movement on this edge of the laptop. This was easily fixable through, maybe you guessed it, carefully unscrewing the screw and then screwing it back in again (this time straight).
Also, if you come from an Apple camp or an other high end laptop manufacturer, one thing you may notice is that you can’t open the lid with just one hand. This means you need two hands, one to pull the lid up, and one to keep the laptop body down. Partly this is due to the absurdly solid hinge, or as they call it: “super sturdy hinge”, which it absolutely is. If I would get the choice: Either one-handed opening or super solid hinge, I would take the latter one, so I am very happy with the Librem.
Albeit these small issues it is to say that it’s hard to find a real comparison for the Librem in terms of build quality. This is because of it being really solid and almost like a brick (a lightweight brick) in your hand and a total joy to just carry around for fun.
Maybe the weirdest thing I like about its build is… its smell. You know, this “new product smell”. Every time you open the Librem, you get a fresh wave of “new laptop smell” directly into your face. I love this. I hope this stays forever and never goes away.
A laptop for developers and creators
The specs of the Librem 13 are pretty high-end: A 250GB M.2 SSD (optionally also HDD or normal SSD + different capacities available), a 6th generation Intel I5 processor, 8 or 16 GB DDR4 RAM, two USB 3.0 ports (four on the Librem 15), one USB type C port (although not for charging yet), SD card slot, a headphone jack and an HDMI port. If you want all specs from all models check out their product page.
This laptop is perfect for on-the-go: it is lightweight, has good battery life (more on that later) and is thin. The Librem comes pre-loaded with PureOS, an operating system that is made by Purism. It’s a Debian based distribution that uses the GNOME stack and enables various security features by default. For example, it removes all binary blobs and mystery code from the kernel, which are normally needed for drivers, but because the Librem’s hardware uses open source drivers these are not needed, adding extra security. Also it comes with Coreboot, an open source BIOS (awesome!).
Clearly, the Librem is marketed as a “laptop for everyone” and after having one on my own now, I disagree with that. I can see the reasoning behind this target group: Creating and, more importantly, bringing freedom and privacy focus to the broader masses. But still, I don’t think this is what this laptop is.
Why I think that:
I don’t know why but I don’t think PureOS is yet suitable for “everyone” and needs more polish (and maybe a new style?). As I see it right now, I could not give this laptop to friends with no technical interest/knowledge without changing the operating system. I quickly became to install Solus on it (just my favorite choice), so I don’t want to talk about PureOS too much, because I haven’t used it extensively. What I can say is that everything works perfectly under Solus, underlining the great Linux compatibility that the Librem has.
As said before the Librem 13 comes with an awesome aluminum chassis and also has the latest and coolest technical advancements. The broader masses aren’t interested in that at all. It is not affordable (relatively speaking) and without having a deeper interest in the topics the broader mass will never hear about Purism in the first place because you can’t see the products in a local store (yet). This is a conflict because the target group has no way of knowing about Purism and has no way about wanting a Purism laptop (because of the price and them not caring about “aluminum chassis”). They don’t know about Purism because when they try to evaluate for a new laptop they can only work with what they know: From ads and retail stores.
I don’t say Purism should drop this customer segment, not at all. It is absolutely mandatory for their vision, but people need to be educated about the importance of privacy and freedom before they will want a Librem laptop. This takes time, and maybe it is better to establish first and leave this customer segment to the vision for now. Just like Elon Musk didn’t build a Model 3 first (which is a broader masses car) but instead began with a niche (Roadster) and climbing up the vision with steps in between (Model S and Model X). Purism started with a niche and still is at the beginning, so don’t target a vision-audience, in which there is no general education nor acceptance about your product yet and instead build to that step by step.
I think your current niche is as follows:
First: Enthusiasts. These are people who know the game; People who know what they want and what they get when considering and buying a Librem laptop. I think this is the easiest/most obvious target group. Also because it is hard (even impossible) to find a laptop comparable to the Librem, because of how well it is built and the extra portion freedom you get.
Next: MacBook buyers. This may sound funny, but I think the Librem is one of the few laptops that could be a real alternative to MacBooks. With MacBooks you get a first class top notch experience that the quantillian (not a real number, more a synonym for a really high number c: ) Windows laptops out there can’t give you; this is a real opportunity for the Librem to shine. Also because of the great out of the box usability choices like the automatic resume of the computer when you open the lid. Lots of small but good choices. (exactly what you would expect when coming from Apple)
Then: general audience and public masses. ← This is where you want to get (as far as I understand); and there are two steps in between… but, prove me wrong Purism :)
Pure Awesomeness (pun intended)
The Librem 13 comes with either an US or UK keyboard; there are no other options available yet, such as a France or German keyboard. Despite being from Austria (German speaking) I have no problem using a keyboard that is not made for my language. Quite the opposite: the English keyboard suits me better because commonly used characters in software development are far easier to reach on it. Of course, the one downside is that German is one of these languages that have strange characters (ä, ö, ü, ß) and these aren’t available on such keyboard layout. But… there is a solution to this crisis: Shortcuts :)
The keys on the Librem 13 are awesome. I find them very, very pleasant to type on: Slightly clicky and enough but not too much key travel; just right. Also, the keyboard is back-lit with two different levels of intensity that I find very useful and I am glad the back-lit keyboard made it to the version 2 model of the Librem 13. Maybe a smaller detail is the power button. Unlike most laptops the Librem’s power button is on the keyboard layout. This is very nice and gives good aesthetics in my opinion.
Also: There’s a Delete key (the opposite of the Backspace key)(*hugh* Apple) and a, how I like to call it, Not-Windows-Key (I do that to emphasize its coolness), which is a standard “super-key” that has the Purism rectangle on it instead of a Windows logo.
What should also not be overseen are the physical kill switches. Though I don’t toggle them very often it is still a nice addition to know that the mic and webcam are off when not in use. For those who don’t know what physical kill switches are: They are toggles on the Librem laptops that, when toggled off, physically disconnect the devices in question from your computer, meaning that not even your computer knows that they exist, at least till you turn the switch back on again. This ensures that no piece of software, no matter if it comes from the operating system or on a hardware firmware, can spy on you using these devices. If you say this sounds ridiculous, then don’t take your victory too fast, because this already happened several times.
The Librem laptops have two kill-switches: One for the microphone & webcam and one for Bluetooth & WiFi. They won’t be your most used feature for sure, but raises your computers security without adding complexity, which is very nice.
On to the trackpad. This one is interesting, because it seems like the previous models of the Librem laptop line had a pretty bad trackpad and I read/heard lots of negative experience about it. Purism then announced the final specs for the new Librems and on that list was, you may guessed it, a “much better trackpad”, as they have put it. This was good to hear but I did not expect too much as the company is still pretty young and to this date I have not seen (or used) a trackpad from a manufacturer other than Apple that is good. I mean really good. You can say about Apple what you want… their trackpad is awesome. So it finally did surprise me that the Librem trackpad is absolutely phenomenal. I don’t know how to say that but it is gorgeous. Really. The surface kinda feels like smoothed stone (even though I guess it isn’t :P) and the tempered shiny aluminum edges gives it the little extra bit of style. But maybe even more important: it works out of the box with all Linux based operating system and has multitouch support (for at least 4 fingers simultaneously) built-in. Also the clickyness is very good and does only vary slightly when clicking on the top or on the bottom (which most trackpads do such a terrible job with).
That is added to, and I cannot emphasize this enough, the tremendously good build quality. This seems crazy but Purism is the only company I know that is not Apple, that has such a solid build. And I mean solid and keep saying that. It feels so solid in your hand.
Ok, so you have an awesome keyboard, exaggerating build quality, a nice trackpad, modern interns and no damn branding on the front, but Christian, what do I do with all that if the battery won’t play very long? Well, don’t fear, the Librem has you covered.
While I may not have made any test and/or benchmarks I would say the battery life is pretty good and at least what you would expect. This means: If you don’t perform the hell out of this computer while you are on the go, you can be pretty sure it will hold up to your needs. For me especially, coming from an Acer Aspire E5 after 3 years (it still works, props to Acer), the Librems battery performance satisfies me well over my needs. I had no worries yet that the battery won’t hold my travel adventures (or more often: my every day commute).
The Librem 13 has a 13.3 inch screen and I can only say that am very satisfied with it. The viewing angles are very good, the colors do not fade out when viewed from extreme angels. It gets pretty bright and, in my opinion more importantly, very dark. So when working in environments with low light or in a dark room (happens more often to me than I may think) this is pretty cool. And especially, as said before, when coming from a computer (Acer Aspire E5) that wasn’t supreme in that regard. In general you can say that this laptop is really a high-end device in every regard.
The Librem 13’s screen resolves in Full HD, meaning a 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution. The display is matte meaning less glossiness and more viewiness. What would be cool, although has nothing to do with this review itself, would be an option for a higher resolution display. I know this was already tried in the beginning of the crowdfunding campaign (I forgot to mention that the Librem laptops were initially crowdfunded) with a 4K display for the 15 inch version of the laptop, but ultimately failed because of the supply chain. Nonetheless… would be cool.
One more thing to note is that the opening angle for the lid is not as wide as other laptops. I haven’t experienced this as a big issue in my usage but may be a limitation depending on your use cases.
The Purism reason
On top of all that, of course, you get this HUGE package of idealism and under-the-hood enhancements that make this machine a truly privacy respecting and open source fashioned laptop. This, maybe being one of the larger selling points of the Librem, is an important thing to note and maybe, although not the most notable thing in every day use, the single one most important and most unique feature of the Purism laptops. This package that you don’t directly notice when just using the computer, because most of it is not directly visible to the users eyes, is yet maybe the single most important argument when talking to friends or other people that may be interested in a good and solid laptop.
Check out their “Why Purism” page if you don’t already have enough.
Until now I haven’t spoken about the price. The Librem laptops don’t come in cheap but I don’t want to judge about anything here. It sure is an investment that one has to make but at the end of the day their pricetags are very ok. If you want something specific, check out their product page, because they change now and then - Right now they also have a 150$ discount.
But because the Librem laptops are comparable with MacBooks, and as I said before that this is sure one target group, one should also compare the prices of those devices and the suddenly it isn’t that crazy of a price anymore. Also Purism is a small company, or a start-up in modern terms, and thus quantities are rather low. That means as more customers start buying Purism products the lower prices can get when quantities start to get bigger.
In some way I think this is a “apples to pear” (pun intended) comparison when talking Apple versus Purism. Because there is something you get from Purism that you can’t get from Apple: a device that is owned by you. You can say what you want (and this problem is not only specific to Apple) but if Apple wants to turn down your computer, they can. If they decide this feature should not be supported anymore or this hardware is too old, they are in control. And maybe this seems harsh but that is why the idealism, or purism (pun inten… oh com’on c: ) pays off: because you get a device that you own. That you are in control of. In programming the ‘inversion of trust’ is a big problem, but if it happens to real humans it is not much of a deal? This is a problem and consciousness should be raised about it. That is one of the roles and target groups that I see Purism in (just like Mozilla stands for the open web like no other organization does).
Finally, thank you for reading, it was a pleasure to write, and I hope is was somewhat helpful. If you have any questions or something is unclear, please reach out to me via Twitter or post a comment. I will gladly answer. The pictures used in this article are also available for free on Unsplash. (If you search for ‘laptop’ on Unsplash the only laptops you’ll fnd are MacBooks. We have to fight back: #LibremOnUnsplash )
And again, thank you, Purism, so much for making the effort to build something cool and innovative, I love using my Librem 13 and hope more people will also do so in the future :)