Librem 13v3 "Review"

28.01.2019

So this is a "review" of the Librem 13 Version 3 by Purism. Well, actually this is me telling you my experience with the device, not a true review.

My last laptop slowly began to die in the beginning of last year (2018). First the battery died, then the dedicated graphics card and finally the screen. I had some older laptops which I used for a while, but those are all 17 inch models and I personally prefer 13 inch laptops.

I looked for a while at different laptops but decided to go with Purisms offer, as they had just announced that their devices are now finally available with a German keyboard. I was interested in a laptop that was designed specifically to run Linux and was intrigued to try (and support) such an endeavour. And not only that, Purism was not just building a laptop for Linux, but a laptop for free software. Their own, Debian based, distribution does not ship any proprietary software.

The device arrived two weeks after the purchase. I played around with the pre-installed distribution for about ten minutes, but then swapped the drive for my old one, as I wanted to continue the use of my previous installation (Parabola). This is when I encountered the first issue with the device: The screws are made from incredibly cheap, almost lead-soft, metal.

While the device was open, I noticed that there was some solder flux on the mainboard and on some of the daughter boards. This is a dead give away that some parts in the device are hand soldered. This is neither a good nor a bad thing, I just thought to point that out.

So, the device they send me had some problems. I suspect a bad internal power distribution system. Whenever the device was under slightly above average load, like when watching a full HD video on YouTube, the screen began to violently flicker for a few minuted, before freezing. This freeze was at the hardware level, as both the operating system as well as the X server were still running fine (I tested that with ssh and VNC). Even more interesting, when power cycling the screen (either by rebooting or by blindly typing the 'xrandr' command to turn it off and on again), it recovered, although it then had a CRT-like burn in of a large "ring" going all around the screen, which slowly faded over the span of about an hour.

Although this screen behaviour was without a doubt fascinating, it was getting in the way of me using the device, so I reached out to the Purism support. Their support is truly above average. They respond in under 24 hours and overall act very quickly. They offered to replace the device, which I happily accepted.

Purism works with support contractors in countries other than the USA, which means that I shipped my bad device back on a Wednesday and received a new one the next Monday.

When I wanted to install my drive into the new laptop, one of the cheap screws broke. Getting that out was hella annoying and resulted in one of my older laptops "volunteering" to donate some screws so I could replace all screws of the Librem.

Sadly, the new device also has some problems. The first one was not obvious, but after some time I suddenly realised, that I have never heard the fan of the new Laptop spinning, even though I had done all sorts of video rendering and compiling of large software (mostly emacs) over the last few weeks. Remember how I mentioned that parts of the device are hand soldered? Someone forgot to solder the last pin of the fan controller. That was an easy fix for me, as I have a soldering iron and the necessary skills to use it, however that does not apply for everyone, so most people would have had to resort to contacting support again.

The other problem this device has, is that one of the hardware kill switches broke. Luckily the one I basically never use, the one controlling the microphone and the camera, but this is annoying nonetheless. As the hardware kill switches are internally placed on their own, easy to remove, daughter board, I will replace the bad switch myself (I already ordered a switch that appears to be similar to the one Purism used). The cause for the switch breaking is rather obvious: On the Version 3 of the Librem 13, the switches are placed outside of the device, unlike the versions 1 and 2 were they are placed on the inner side of the lids hinge (a much better placement). But Purism seems to know this problem, as the recently released Version 4 appears to again have the switches in the same place as versions 1 and 2.

So all in all, I do not think that I can recommend this device. Although I am certain that most people have not encountered problems with these devices (and I have read a lot about the device before and after purchase), having hardware related problems in two devices is not a good sign if you ask me.

The software, on the other hand, is splendid. And with that, I do not mean their distribution, which I hardly ever used, but their firmware. The BIOS on this device is a fork of CoreBoot, which is a mostly open source BIOS. CoreBoot is extremely fast and does not annoy me with any semi graphical user interfaces. Additionally, CoreBoot is quite hackable. You can, for example, compile all kinds of different payloads into it. The Purism fork comes with SeaBIOS, which lets you boot drives, a version of memtest+, a hardware read-out tool and a minimal control suite for the integrated TPM chipset, but many more are available, if you know how to flash the BIOS. I have yet to experiment with CoreBoot payloads or the TPM chip, but I am looking forward to both.

It might surprise you that I do not regret buying this device. Although it definitely has it problems, none of my money funded any proprietary software, but instead the reverse engineering of Intels malicious management engine. Yes this device is not perfect, but I believe that funding project, that might one day lead to true and completely open hardware, is worthwhile. And despite the issues I had, I like the device: CoreBoot is nice to have, the keyboard is comparatively good for a laptop chiclet style keyboard and the IO is decent. It even has a USB type C port, which I never needed, but is nice to have, both for experimenting and future proofing. I just wish the case was made out of high quality plastic and a bit more "boxy", like a thinkpad, as I am not a huge fan of aluminium laptops, but at least its black and not gray-ish.