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NSC 49: Purism Librem 13

purism
purism

Purism

Purism is a company that focuses on privacy centric devices using non-proprietary software and hardware with the user’s choice in mind. Their primary goal is to give the user choice and freedom to use their device exactly how they want. They do this in several ways, the first being the most obvious: hardware switches. Every device Purism sells has a set of switches to turn off an interface such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Microphone, etc. This gives users the freedom to choose what they want to be running on the device. These hard-ware switches completely remove the power to the interface, making it impossible to hack. The device cannot even see the interface when the switch is off. Aside from the hardware switches, Purism also does not include any unfree code, this includes the operating system and any hardware drivers. Purism devices do not suffer from Meltdown or Spectre and have the Intel Management engine completely disabled.

Librem 5

Right now, Purism offer a 2-in-1 laptop, a 13 inch laptop (librem 13) and a 15 inch laptop (librem 15) with plans of releasing a smart phone, named Librem 5, this year. The smart phone is still under development, but will include an option to turn off the baseband processor (cellular) among other interfaces. The plan is for the phone to run all open source software including end-to-end encrypted messaging and calling. The phone will be IP native, rather than cellular focused like every other phone on the market. This means you will not need to purchase a sim card if you just want to use the phone at home or places with Wi-Fi (everywhere). If you do want to use a SIM card, you will be able to switch it off whenever you want to. Above all, the Librem 5 will include freedom of user choice and freedom of speech. With it running all open source software, you will be able to choose how the phone operates and, with encrypted messaging, you will be able to say what you want to whoever you want. We are hoping that this phone is revolutionary to the phone market and if it’s not, at least it’s still a step in the right direction. When the Librem 5 releases, we will review it and put the results in a future digital update.

Librem 13

librem 13

Tech Specs

The Librem 13 laptop is Purism’s middle of the line laptop with good performance in a small form factor. There aren’t too many differences between the Librem 13 and the Librem 15 other than the screen size (13.3” vs. 15.6”) and extra USB ports (2 USB 3.0 and 1 USB 2.0 vs. 3 USB 3.0 and 2 USB 2.0). Both have USB type C, HDMI, backlit keyboards, headphone jack, SD card reader, etc. The Librem 13 comes with a Dual Core Intel Core i7 6500U, which is two generations out of date. This is by design as they were able to disable Intel ME in this particular processor. It being a dual core means you may see a performance hit if you are moving from a quad core CPU. The max amount of memory you can get with the Librem 13 is 16 GB DDR4, which is more than enough for a small portable laptop. There is only one RAM slot, so if you buy low, you will have to replace the entire stick to upgrade it. The wireless card used is an Atheros 802.11n so it supports 5GHz networks, just not very well. If you are used to the speed of a MacBook’s wireless card, you will definitely notice the speed difference on faster Wi-Fi networks.

The laptop comes with an Solid State Drive (SSD) with your choice of connection type, upgradable to 4 TB. It comes with a backlit keyboard and a fan that, even when it comes on, you can barely hear. The stereo speakers aren’t anything to write home about, but they are good enough to watch videos and casually listen to music. We have noticed a bit of flickering every now and then on the screen, but other than that the integrated Intel Graphics chip is able to keep up in 1080p very well. Adding a 4K TV to the HDMI port on the side of the laptop doesn’t make any considerable difference to performance. Even with the screen at full brightness, the battery lasts a long time on a single charge, plus the charger is quite small and easily portable. The battery can easily be compared to Mac’s battery in terms of time running on the battery. The actual look and feel of the laptop is comparable to a MacBook Air, but in black without labels. The only label on the device is on the bottom of the laptop hidden from view.

Software

Out of the box, the Librem 13 comes preinstalled with PureOS, a custom Linux distribution made by Purism. It comes with a few default programs to start out with and a software store to install additional applications. These all come through PureOS’ custom repo. You won’t be able to find Firefox in this repo, only the PureBrowser. The PureBrowser is a modified Firefox (before Quantum) that has HTTPS Everywhere and uBlock Origin installed by default. Libreoffice is installed by default for word documents and powerpoints and there are several multimedia applications such as Kodi to watch videos, play music and stream tv shows. GIMP is installed for editing photos and an application called Boxes can be used as an alternative to VirtualBox. A mapping software is installed that pulls straight from OpenStreetMaps and qTox is available to chat with your friends and family securely.

At the current time, Bluetooth is unable to be used even though there is a Bluetooth interface installed in the laptop. This is because Purism is still working on a free driver for the Bluetooth interface. Until they create one, we will not be able to use Bluetooth on the Librem 13 laptop.

Usability

The Librem 13 is a fully Linux laptop, so it’s going to be difficult for anyone who hasn’t used Linux before. The main issue with usability is the choices Purism made with their custom Linux image called PureOS. Even for people who are familiar with Linux, PureOS is not very easy to use. It, using Gnome3 as it’s primary desktop environment, makes it very difficult to navigate for anyone who is used to any other operating system. Using a desktop environment such as KDE or XFCE would be easier to use for a wider audience. It is possible to build PureOS with KDE or even add it as a desktop enviroment, but the Librem 13 is shipped with Gnome3 and most users will keep it that way if they do not have the know how.

We also don’t like the PureBrowser. It’s very unfamiliar and doesn’t support every Firefox addon that we typically put in our browser. Good luck trying to remove it and adding real Firefox, which involves either downloading and configuring it manually or adding a repo that has it and removing PureBrowser. One thing that really got us was the lack of a CAPS lock indicator light making it impossible for us to ever tell when caps lock was on or off. Something we found equally as strange was that the pipe/backslash key was not properly mapped and a look around the forums showed other people having the same problem. The pipe key is very common to use on Linux based system, so it was strange that it was shipped not working.

The lack of non-free applications makes it very difficult for “regular” people to use this laptop. This is obviously by design, but it feels weird that Purism markets towards “everyone”. Purism’s main focus for their Librem 13 laptop is only absolutely free software, so you won’t find applications such as the Signal desktop client, the Brave browser or even Google Chrome in the software center. Any software not found in their custom repo will need to be downloaded and manually installed. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. It is good in the sense that open source is definitely the way to go, but makes it difficult to “convert” other OS users to the Librem. We would say this laptop is very usable if you have time to sit down, understand how to use and configure it in a way that works for you. This is, of course, an ongoing project. Maybe in the future, it will get more user friendly, but for now, it is not.

Conclusion

Purism is doing a great job paving the way for privacy respecting devices. Hardware kill switches are a must, free and non-proprietary software is a must and being able to get normal users to use it is a must. Purism has a lot of future plans and we are excited to see what’s in store but, in its current form, the shipped operating system is not polished enough to bring people from MacOS or Windows to the Linux world. If you do get a Librem, try to avoid using PureOS as that is where most of our complaints originate from.

 

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