The Purism Librem 13 is a 13" laptop that's similar to the Macbook Air but slightly heavier and thicker, from what I understand. I have the v4 means it's the fourth hardware version of the device. This is the latest incarnation of the angela node.

TL;DR: I recommend people avoid the Purism brand and products. I find they have questionable politics, operate in a "libre-washing" fashion, and produce unreliable hardware. Will not buy again.

  1. Specifications
    1. Semi-standard power connector
    2. Good monitor
    3. Liberated boot
    4. Excellent Linux support
    5. Good speakers
  2. Issues
    1. Weird keyboard layout
    2. Limited USB-C port
    3. Shipping delays, DOA
    4. Bright LEDs, not accessible when lid closed
    5. No ethernet port
    6. Libre-washing
    7. Bullshit anti-interdiction
    8. Bullshit crowdfunding
    9. High cost
    10. Questionable politics
    11. No mic jack
    12. Hardware reliability

Specifications

The machine came with a 250GB Crucial SSD drive with PureOS pre-installed, even if I ordered it without storage.

Semi-standard power connector

The power connector is somewhat standard: 19V DC on a 5.5mm sleeve with 2.5 positive pin, with a C5/C6 cable for the AC side (as opposed to the more standard C13/C14 coupler, mind you). I was able to find a "universal 19V adapter" for ~60$ at a local store that also supported other barrel connectors.

It would be better if the laptop would charge through USB-C, naturally, as that is slowly becoming the standard for charging computing devices, but that will have to do for now.

Good monitor

The monitor shipped with the Librem is actually quite good by my standards (1920x1080 / 1080p / FullHD). It does mean messing around with HiDPI settings which I haven't quite figured out yet.

This post seems to have good resources. From what I understand, the resolution of the screen is actually 166dpi, which takes some configuring to display properly. This can be computed from the aspect ratio (16:9), the resolution (1920x1080) and the diagonal of the screen (13.3"). According to this calculator, this is the formula:

Display size: 11.59" × 6.52" = 75.59in² (29.44cm × 16.56cm = 487.64cm²) at 165.63 PPI, 0.1534mm dot pitch, 27434 PPI² 

All this does make my old monitor (which I found in the basement) look like crap. So I need to find a new monitor, arguably not a problem with the Librem per se of course...

It seems the Librem can drive 1440p, so not "4K UHD" (3840x2160), but "QHD" (2560x1440) which should be more than enough.

Liberated boot

The Purism folks did a pretty awesome job at liberating their BIOS. They run their own version of coreboot they call Pureboot. In theory, it should be easier to setup a trusted, SecureBoot but in practice I have yet to set that up.

I did try to configure the laptop with an encrypted /boot, but that didn't go so well. First, I get a double password prompt: once in grub and once in the initramfs. But more annoying is the grub prompt has no retry: if you fail, you drop in the rescue shell which is really impractical.

(Update: that is, of course, not specific to Purism or PureOS, but a limitation in grub itself.)

Finally, Pureboot doesn't support encrypted /boot so it actually makes it harder to implement trusted boot.

The coreboot stuff needs to be updated, and instructions are available on the Purism website.

Excellent Linux support

On top of the liberated BIOS, it must be said the device has excellent support for free operating systems. Every device on the machine has full support in the Linux kernel, even the "older" version in Debian stretch (Linux 4.9). No binary blobs, no proprietary drivers, even for wifi.

That is just awesome. It's the first device, in a long time, that gives me this freedom, so it should be acknowledged and celebrated.

Update: I still have some non-free packages installed:

When building the initramfs, there are warnings about the i915 graphics controller, which is solved by installing the firmware-misc-nonfree package, but the graphics card works without the firmware. Apparently, the warnings are harmless and indeed PureOS fixed the bug by simply disabling all such warnings.3

The Debian-specific stuff is also documented in the Debian wiki.

Good speakers

The builtin speakers sound great.

Issues

I have a few issues with the device.

Weird keyboard layout

The keyboard layout is strange: the key above enter, instead of sending \ or |, sends "chevrons". This is due to the Purism folks expecting you to pick the "US international" keyboard instead of the "US" keyboard, which is a very strange pick, as the "US" keyboard seems pretty standard. The workaround is to drop this in your udev configuration, say in /etc/udev/hwdb.d/90-purism-pipe-symbol-fix.hwdb:

evdev:atkbd:dmi:bvn*:bvr*:bd*:svnPurism:pnLibrem13v4*
 KEYBOARD_KEY_56=backslash

Then running:

sudo systemd-hwdb update
sudo udevadm trigger

The keyboard layout, in general, is a little unique: the sound buttons are split across the F4 key (mute) and -/= (volume up/down keys) for some reason.

The PrtSc key can be as SysRq but is backwards (ScrLk PrtSc) to their usual order (PrtSc ScrLk).

Limited USB-C port

The USB-C port does not support video which makes it limited to charging and data transfer. It can also not charge the laptop itself, as there's a separate power connector, losing many of the benefits usually associated with USB-C.

Ideally, a USB-C port might be used as a universal docking port: one wire to plug and you have power, video, audio, and USB for keyboard and mouse. Unfortunately, I'm still stuck with about 4 wires to plugin when I come into the office, something I was hoping to avoid. People have looked for a dock station without success.

Shipping delays, DOA

I waited almost four weeks to have my laptop delivered. Presumably this was due to a warehouse move but I found that communication about the issue could have been better. Worse: the laptop was dead on arrival (DOA) so I had to return it, adding another week delay for getting an actual working laptop. FedEx even charged me for the return even though Purism actually issued a shipping label, something I still haven't quite resolved.

Update: I ended up paying over 260$ in shipping fees to Fedex, in the end. I first paid around 70$ for the first laptop sent, then Fedex sent me another 200$ bill for the second laptop. Purism were unable to help me with this issue and Fedex has been totally useless as well. I've tried to reach to both organizations to get around those fees but the time wasted waiting on hold and support has outgrown the possible savings I could to by not paying the damn bill, so I just paid it now.

Bright LEDs, not accessible when lid closed

There are three leds on the top right of the keyboard: one for wifi, battery and power. They are very bright and even though they can technically be dimmed, the firmware is not open so there's no way to dim the LEDs.

No ethernet port

That was a deal breaker for me originally, but I changed my mind. First, I don't need gigabit transfer speeds that often. Then my office doesn't have wired connectivity yet, so it is not that useful. Plus, I can afford to have a USB dongle there with a gigabit ethernet port, indeed, I already have one of those USB hubs. So not that big of a deal.

Libre-washing

I have found Purism's commitment to free hardware and free software to be questionable. While, yes, they try to provide a liberated boot and coreboot-based BIOS, that BIOS is not free software. At best they "neuter" the Intel Management Engine, but you still require non-free firmware to operate a Librem Computer, from the CPU down to the Bluetooth and Wifi hardware. Even if that is a very common pattern on laptops and phone, it is a huge disconnect with the "purity" and "freedom" narrative on their website.

For example, the replacement for the Librem 13, called Librem 14, claims to be:

The first 14″ laptop designed to protect your digital life

Ultra-portable workstation laptop that was designed chip-by-chip, line-by-line, to respect your rights to privacy, security, and freedom.

Yet it still ships with Intel processors, known for a large variety of fundamental security issues that are part of the hardware design, which Intel refuses to fix. That it ships coreboot on top of that is besides the point: coreboot, as shipped by Purism, is not open source, or at least ships proprietary blobs.

Compare this with the work System76 has been doing in recent times. While they brand themselves as just a company shipping Linux laptops, they work with the de-facto standard LVFS (even though that is a bumpy ride), actually design and prototype their own hardware, and liberated their keyboard microcontroller. They have even started working on an open Thunderbolt microcontroller. And while those might sound like small things compared to liberating the CPU firmware, I will point out that they actually succeed in completely liberating those components, while Purism, in the years they have supposedly been working on those projects, have only managed to reuse (and, to be fair, improve on) the work others have done to neutralize the IME.

What has Purism done, in the meantime? Neutralized IME. That's it. They have not published anything on LVFS. Even closed-source companies like Logitech, Synaptics, HP and Dell ship their updates on LVFS. Purism has a test account and work has been stalled for years now.

Bullshit anti-interdiction

This is part of a larger pattern of "bullshit", if you'll pardon my french. The market the new Librem 14 as being shipped with Anti-interdiction services which supposedly consist of:

  1. Customized tamper-evident tape on the sealed plastic bag surrounding the laptop itself

  2. Customized tamper-evident tape on the internal, branded box

  3. Glitter nail polish covering the center (or all) screws on the bottom of the laptop

  4. Pictures of all of the above plus pictures of the inside of the laptop before sealing the bottom case

  5. All pictures sent to the customer out-of-band, signed by Purism and encrypted against the customer’s GPG key

  6. All coordination occurring over GPG-protected email

Now, that post is from October 2019, so maybe things changed after I ordered my laptop. But my experience was very different:

  1. yes, there was a "tamper-evident" bag "sealing" the laptop, but seriously, I don't buy that. the CIA has been learning how to reseal packages for a long time now and if your adversary is serious at all, you would never notice the difference between a CIA- and a Purism-sealed bag.

  2. same comment

  3. considering that the screws just fall off the Librem 13 on their own, I doubt such a measure helps in any way. the CIA knows about nail polish as well right?

  4. I never got such a picture. I am curious to see if I get one on this round of RMA. I strongly doubt so.

  5. Again, no such picture. I'm curious to hear how I am supposed to verify Purism's OpenPGP keys, that said, or how they would verify mine.

  6. While some emails with Purism support were signed by their individual's OpenPGP keys, they have never encrypted emails sent to me, nor have they requested my OpenPGP key. I was not aware there was a way to provide one. There is no way to provide such a certificate in my account on their website.

(Note that glittery nail polish might sound silly, but it's actually a fairly good security measure, provided you have a way to send a trusted image of the pattern out of band. I would also assume the CIA has workarounds for those. I can imagine, for example, a magnetic "screwdriver" that can remove screws without contact...)

I don't take those claims of OpenPGP operations lightly. I have worked for years with the Debian LTS security team. I'm a Debian developer and Tor sysadmin, where we use OpenPGP extensively. I have written at least one major program interoperating with GnuPG (those who know what that involves know what I mean) and I am deeply aware of how difficult OpenPGP and online security can be.

I have actually asked Purism to get anti-interdiction services before I got the laptop. I knew about their supposed care for those services and wanted to have the laptop hand-delivered, say at a conference we would commonly attend in the near future: I can wait! and I can pay for the extra trouble too. But that fairly straightforward security measure was not possible. And none of the above measures seemed to apply to my order.

So I call bullshit on that.

(And that's without getting into upstream supply chain issues: it seems that Purism don't have direct contact with their manufacturers and instead deal with a "man in the middle for China", "Todd's partner in San Francisco" to get their stuff manufactured. If I were to interdict something in the Purism supply chain, I would certainly know where to apply the pressure...)

Bullshit crowdfunding

A similar amount of what I can now only describe as lies has spun out of the Librem 5 crowdfunding campaign. I am too tired to go into the details of this, but let's just say that the promises of the Purism venture into the phone market were wildly overstated. There were huge delays in shipping after the crowdfunding. Some people even doubted there was a working phone at all which ended up being not too far off the mark, with the first models not able to even make a phone call.

In an interview with a former employee, it became clear that Purism, as a company, doesn't really have any direct contact with actual hardware manufacturers, let alone manufacture its own hardware. To quote the interview:

We worked day and night but Todd's partner (the company in South San Francisco that assembles Librems and also is man in the middle for China were all parts get produced and then shipped to California) were being mostly silent to us.

[...]

The Librems are heavily overpriced but that is because Purism seemingly never tried to get better deal and the South San Francisco partner abused this so that is why Purism Librems are double the price they should be.

The interview is worth reading in full. It makes Purism sound like a con artist's success more than an honest failure at producing good open hardware.

Even if assuming good faith, I think Purism made a critical mistake when moving to mobile: they assumed they could both build a phone's hardware and software at once. There is a reason why Android was so successful: building a mobile OS is fundamentally, radically different than building a desktop OS. You can't both do that and build a new hardware platform with a tiny 1M$ crowdfunding. It just doesn't work like that. Canonical at least had the honesty to set the bar at at 32M$ and fail. Or take Pine64: they built the Pinephone without any promises. It is explicitly and deliberately a hacker phone, and people are happy to "boot linux" on it. They don't really expect anything else. Maybe make phone calls. Maybe run apps, but it's a toy platform, and people know it.

The Librem 5 is being marketed as a real thing, a "Security and Privacy Focused Phone", "made for you in mind", where "you" is basically everyone: "parents", "developers", "enterprises, businesses and organizations of all sizes", "CTOs/CIOs/IT and technology enthusiasts in general". Yet in the developer updates, we learn that the latest Dogwood update now features amazing new features like "multiple hours" battery, "more reliable charging", and "app thumbnails". The previous batch, chestnut had exciting stuff like a charging LED, a writable MicroSD card, and working phone calls...

So I call bullshit on that too: the Librem 5 is not a phone. It's a dev board with a fancy case which happens to make phone calls, if you hold it the right way, with the power cable plugged in.

At least the Pine64 folks don't bullshit you on that...

High cost

Those devices have a hefty price tag! At 1500-1700USD, it's definitely not something a student or even I, in my previous job, could afford. It's only because my current work was generous enough to pay for this machine that I was able to shell out the cash needed for this luxury item, clearly targeting the "high-end" crowd like Apple fans...

Note that their phone, the Purism Librem 5, is also incredibly expensive, for what it is: it has started at 500USD (if my memory is correct) and has been bumped to 750USD with a final price tag of 800USD. It turns out that there are huge overheads in their supply chains, according to this interview:

What were some of the biggest issues being the "under-dog" organization in the competitive laptop/hardware space?

Not having leverage in China. Quantities matter there and getting only dozen or couple of hundred orders per month doesn't really help. That said, the Librems are heavily overpriced but that is because Purism seemingly never tried to get better deal and the South San Francisco partner abused this so that is why Purism Librems are double the price they should be.[...]

Questionable politics

After I bought the device, I found out that Purism wouldn't take a stand against racism and nazis on their servers. As a hardware manufacturer, that would be only a slight annoyance, but they recently got into the business of hosting social networks, emails and so on, so this is a big problem. I have written about the rationale in details in 2019-05-13-free-speech, but I cannot in good faith recommend doing business with Purism anymore, unfortunately.

No mic jack

The "headphones" jack is not TRRS: it doesn't have a "mic" wire. So you can't plug in a headset with a mic. You need to use the onboard mic which pics up a lot of noise from the computer (e.g. the fan, see below) or use an external USB mic bundle.

Hardware reliability

As I mentioned above, the first Librem 13 I ordered was DOA and incurred significant extra costs and delays in getting the machine up to speed.

But it seems the platform has some fundamental hardware reliability issues. Case screws would fall off. (Update: and the "pads" below the laptop fall off.) A USB port broke. The CPU fan goes crazy. And now, after a year, the laptop just completely died. Below are the details...

I have found that any significant hardware processing would quickly throttle the CPU because it would overheat. Any videoconferencing work (Jitsi, Zoom, whatever) would quickly kick the fan in high speed, hard enough that it would be audible to the voice-activation software and therefore by participants of the conference. Because there is no mic jack (above), workaround that problem requires yet another USB dongle.

After a little less than a year, one of the USB-A connectors failed. It would deliver power, but had no actual data signal: it wouldn't get detected in dmesg or listed in lsusb. I got another RMA issued for this, but procrastinated on shipping the device back for about a month because, seriously, I didn't want to see how long the RMA cycle would take this time around, again.

But the machine eventually completely died. I was working at home normally, but had to carry the laptop downstairs to do disk changes on a server. So I piled two HDDs and a SSD on the laptop and merrily walked downstairs. When I opened the lid again, display was blank, and no led would turn on. The LEDs wouldn't turn on even when the power was plugged in. When an alternative power supply was plugged in, it blinked on and off instead of giving a steady blue light, which was also unusual.

So the laptop is dead, and I've now been waiting almost a month for a replacement. All in all, in the 15 months since I've been, in theory, the owner of a Purism device, I have spent 2 of those months waiting for shipping or a replacement device...

The timeline of that laptop's hardware problems looks like this:

Created . Edited .