The Price of Freedom — A Review of the Librem 15 v3
Edit: Thanks so much for your feedback! An earlier version of this article missed a few key points — check out the FAQ on the bottom of the review.
Purism is a wild startup located in South San Francisco. Their mission? Providing a superior hardware experience for people who love privacy and software freedom. Purism is building and shipping GNU/Linux laptops, and is interested in developing a phone as well.
The Purism campaign originally launched on CrowdSupply late 2014. Since then, the company has shipped two revisions, and now offers three different models to choose from: an 11-inch convertible tablet, a 13-inch laptop, and a 15-inch powerhouse.
For a few years, I have strongly desired having a quality Linux laptop that has great hardware. So, I’ve taken the plunge on getting the latest 15-inch Librem model from Purism.
Purism is a much newer brand compared to other, more established computer companies. So far, this company has largely dealt with a crowdfunding purchase model — in short, you donate X amount to the campaign, and receive physical hardware as a contribution reward.
Generally, this model of fulfillment takes a lot longer than more traditional on-demand methods of manufacturing a product and shipping it.
Purism seems to have outgrown this way of doing things, and now takes orders directly from their site. I placed my order on June 28th, with an estimated delivery in July 2017.
Because I was traveling in the middle of July, I reached out to their support team for when I might expect the order. An agent got back to me in less than 24 hours, and cheerfully informed me that the team would bump up my order in the queue.
Sure enough, my laptop arrived ahead of schedule.
My first impression of the hardware was pretty positive. The v3 ships with an anodized black finish, and the frame feels sleek and solid. The only downside here is the color — it immediately attracts smudges.
Smudges aside, Purism has really done their homework on hardware. Everything works out-of-the-box, and with a few minor adjustments I found myself getting comfortable.
Coming from a world of Macbooks, I was initially disappointed with the trackpad, which felt less smooth and much slower. Gnome applications don't all deal with multitouch in the same fashion yet, either. The good news is that the trackpad's responsiveness can be managed by adjusting the cursor speed.
Power management in laptops has long been an achilles heel for many GNU/Linux distributions out there. Many laptops offer motherboard configurations and hardware combinations that are under-documented, which can lead to issues with suspend and waking from sleep.
Happily, Librem wakes from sleep with no issues to speak of. Wireless drivers pick up right where they left off, and the whole system feels smooth and responsive.
The device ships with a 3.1GHz Intel Core i7 CPU. This is from the Skylake family of Intel processors, and it works favorably well. By default, this laptop comes with 4GB of DDR4 Memory and a 120 GB SSD. For the purposes of my convenience, I upgraded to a 250GB SSD and 8GB of DDR4 for $138 extra, bringing my overall cost to $1,737.
The Atheros wireless hardware is well-documented to work with Linux-based systems, and performance of the Intel HD Graphics 520 is perfectly comparable to a mid-range 2017 Macbook Pro. That’s important, because those graphics have to support a 1920 x 1080 matte display @ 60Hz, and the picture looks all the better for it.
Bluetooth does not currently work without installing proprietary firmware, but the hardware does indeed ship with a bluetooth module. Purism is currently trying to hire a developer to write a libre driver for it.
In the third revision of the 15-inch, the number of kill switches has been reduced to just two, and they have been moved from the side of the computer to the hinge of the monitor. The kill switches can disable wireless, bluetooth, the microphone, and video all on the hardware level.
The web cam and microphone work well, and the video quality is comparable to a high-end Macbook. In good lighting, images look vibrant, and the picture remains sharp with a decent framerate. Video calls should for the most part be smooth, though that still depends on what app you’re using as well as your internet connection.
Additionally, if you're coming from a 13" Macbook, the keyboard will feel strange to you for about two days. I had to retrain my fingers to account for a change in key spacing and hotkey combinations.
Purism's laptops ship with PureOS by default, which includes a stock Gnome 3.22. PureOS is based on Debian, and generally seems to work with Debian/Ubuntu packages. For proprietary debs (Slack, Steam, Skype, etc) you may have to do a little detective work to determine their dependencies to get them to run properly.
By default, the system runs on Wayland, the new display successor to Xorg, and you’ll barely notice. Overall, the new display server works perfectly well with Intel graphics, and the Mutter compositor in Gnome runs quite smoothly. A basic glxgears demo can pull somewhere between 66 to 76 FPS — part of this is because Wayland has excellent support for running classical Xorg applications in a wrapper (XWayland).
This works nicely as a glue layer for apps that have not natively implemented Wayland support yet themselves, but XWayland’s support for drawing tablets is only available in upstream Gnome. As a consequence, I’ll have to run a Xorg session any time I want to get some digital painting done.
On a similar note, Coreboot is present, but practically invisible in terms of system operation. It's definitely on the Librem, but the boot process is quick and Coreboot mostly stays out of the way. Thanks to the use of open source graphics, the boot system is visually smooth and animated.
One nice surprise is that PureOS was able to play all of my backed-up music from iTunes, making this transition a million times easier than expected.
Most people would generally agree that desktops and laptops are increasingly using web applications in lieu of native desktop apps. If an OS is capable of providing a solid experience for web, the computer can meet most basic user needs, from social networking to processing tax returns. We can already see minimal examples of this taking hold in the market — take ChromeOS, for one.
How does pureOS stack up?
I ended up choosing Gnome Web as my default browser because it integrates directly into Gnome. Despite a few minor quibbles (why can’t tabs be pinned?), the WebKit support it ships with is very, very good. Multimedia plugins work out of the box (just install the GStreamer plugins), HTML5 media elements are incredibly smooth, and web applications all render correctly without any major issues…except for one.
When I initially tried to write this review, I found that Medium.com prevented me from creating or editing any stories. This is because Gnome Web, my browser of choice, is not officially supported. A quick application of a spoofed user-agent string completely fixes the issue, however.
Overall, the web experience works well. The Librem’s display lends itself to a high resolution, with fonts rendering smoothly and HTML5 sites working out-of-the-box.
Overall, my experience with Librem has been highly positive, and I'm glad to switch away from a Macbook Pro for it. Though this is a system that will require some configuration to fit a person's liking, it's essentially a "set and forget it" affair.
Is it worth it?
For some people, this all may seem like some masochistic pursuit of technological asceticism. If you don’t have a reason to switch to a Linux-based system and don’t particularly care about proprietary drivers on your computer, this product probably isn’t for you.
Some people may balk at the price of Purism's products, but I'm convinced that this was the right purchase for me. The dependent factor here involves two things: how experienced you are with using GNU/Linux, and whether you care about Free Software or privacy in computing.
In a way, this product is something of a philosophical statement for people who are interested in both. If you're comfortable in a *nix environment, want to use a Free Software OS full-time, and prefer a premium build quality, this is a great laptop.
A number of people wrote in with additional questions that were not covered by this review. I wanted to take a moment to clear up any ambiguous details that people wanted to know about.
Q: What’s the deal with the BIOS? Is it running Coreboot? Is it 100% free?
Librem v15 rev3 ships with Coreboot, and the experience is rather nondescript. Apparently, using the application me_cleaner makes it possible to get about 98% of the binary blobs free, though that means there is more work to be done.
Purism intends to get Coreboot support on all of their devices, and are working on improving me_cleaners capabilities to remove more of those blobs. At some point, it may be entirely possible Purism products will even support Libreboot by meeting the Respects Your Freedom certification requirements.
Q: How quick does a cold boot (power off, not sleeping) take?
The entire system can boot to desktop in under 10 seconds.
Q: How are the shortcut keys?
Overall, key placement and spacing is good, but Purism has made a few unusual design decisions with hotkeys. Volume has been superimposed on the up/down arrow keys, and there aren’t any dedicated keys for media controls. This can be fixed with a basic key remap, but it is initially puzzling.
Q: Is the whole body aluminum as the macbooks or does it have a plastic frame?
The entire body seems to be anodized aluminum. The only exception is the hinge, which is plastic and not noticeable.
Q: What’s the experience like on disassembly?
Although I haven’t dived into this too far yet, the laptop is designed to be 100% serviceable, meaning that you can take it apart completely and swap out components to your liking. The screws aren’t proprietary, nothing is sectioned off, and you can play with the guts of the machine all you’d like.
This guy’s video on the Librem 15 v2 is super informative on the subject: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=thjkyGIMlyc&t=19s
Q: What does the warranty look like?
By default, the Librem ships with a 1 year warranty (you can upgrade to a 3-year during checkout). I haven’t needed to use it yet, but if anything comes up, I’ll update my answer to this question.
Q: Where is Purism at in dealing with the Intel Management Engine?
It is now possible to neutralize Intel ME, and the Purism team is doing some extra QA on it to ensure that there aren’t any nasty performance or driver regressions that come out of enabling the fix. Here’s a post back from March about the team’ experience with it so far.