I’ve covered a lot of territory thus far in my desktop Linux journey, and in my time as a tech writer I’ve reviewed a wide assortment of PC hardware. Still, receiving the new Librem 15 v4 laptop from Purism counts as a milestone across both categories. The Librem 15 is a rare breed. It’s one of the few laptops that’s not only designed with privacy as its strongest pillar, but also aggressively embraces freedom and open-source with its companion, Debian-based operating system PureOS.
This carries with it some real benefits, some minor compromises and a price.
As I did with the Tuxedo Computers InfinityCube, I wanted to offer up some first impressions of the new Librem 15 v4, then follow that with a comprehensive review in the near future.
Let’s start with an overview of the hardware itself.
The Librem 15 v4: Inside And Out
Purism’s 15-incher starts at $1499, so it needs to look and feel premium. In my opinion it accomplishes that with its anodized black aluminum chassis, although the color becomes a magnet for fingerprints — one complaint I’ve never had with my XPS 13 9370. You’ll also notice a pleasing lack of branding. No logo on the lid or display. No stickers under the keyboard. It’s just a sleek black slab.
Opening up the laptop reveals a top-right power button, a full-size backlit keyboard (10-key included) and a touchpad that boasts a thin silver trim that really makes it pop. The keyboard is exponentially better than any recent MacBook as it’s more tactile and has more travel, but falls just short of the newer XPS 13 or any modern ThinkPad.
The touchpad feels just slightly sluggish compared to XPS 13 or MacBook (but this can improved by tweaking acceleration), resulting in tracking that isn’t quite as smooth as its competitors out of the box. It’s no deal breaker and is quite comfortable to use; it’s just not the best of the bunch.
I also appreciate the small lip protruding from the edge of the display, which makes it easy to find and open the laptop’s lid. It doesn’t pass my “can I open it using one finger without the base lifting off the desk” test. But few laptops do.
Now here’s something awesome. If you’re used to thin-and-light notebooks like the XPS 13 or MacBook Pro, you may notice something strange about the Librem 15: it has a healthy assortment of connectivity options! A full-size SD card reader, full-size HDMI out, 2 USB 2.0 ports, 2 USB 3.0 ports, and a single USB-C. That satisfies every external drive, microphone and random peripheral sitting on my desk. What a refreshing sight!
Adding to the satisfying connectivity is a pair of hardware kill switches which privacy enthusiasts will love. These instantly disable — on the hardware level — your Bluetooth, WiFi, webcam and microphone. (You can also order the Librem 15 v4 with airgapped WiFi.) These work as advertised, and almost instantly.
On the hardware level, you’re getting a 4K (3840 x 2160) matte display, an Intel Core i7 7500U CPU, up to 16GB of RAM and up to 4TB of total storage space between the m.2 and SATA 3 SSD slots.
Be warned, though. Purism is charging a hefty markup on some of its storage options. Their 512GB “NVMe Pro” option will run a staggering $649. You can snag a Samsung Pro NVMe drive with double the storage capacity (1TB) at nearly half that price on Amazon.
I’ll have deeper thoughts about all of this in my final review, but my first impression is that while the Librem 15 v4 has quality hardware, you’ll pay a premium over similarly-specced laptops like the MateBook X Pro or XPS 13. Then again, you’re not merely paying for hardware. You’re paying for ideals.
PureOS, Purism and Freedom
Purism takes an aggressive stance on a few things. Most notably user security, privacy and open source software. They strive to accomplish that by not just eliminating known backdoors on a hardware level, but also by putting some thoughtful touches into PureOS, their Debian-based desktop operating system that comes pre-installed on all Librem devices.
A couple examples: “PureBrowser” (based on FireFox) ships out of the box with HTTPS Everywhere and uBlock Origin extensions installed, which drastically improves your browsing security and decreases unwanted advertising trackers. It’s also one of the few Linux distros I’ve used where the “Enable Location” option defaults to off instead of on during setup.
PureOS adheres to a policy of using only open source software. You won’t find any commercial or non-free software here like Steam or Skype. And unlike Fedora, which has a simple GUI option to enable 3rd-party “non-free” repositories, from what I can tell you need to manually add those sources to your /etc/apt/sources.list file.
And if you want to use the included Bluetooth module, you’ll need to do that. This is the boldest example I can point to, because the Atheros firmware is “non-free” meaning the source code is not freely available and auditable. As a result, Purism doesn’t install it.
This is the first laptop I’ve used with functional hardware that’s intentionally disabled. Now, the procedure to install and activate it took a relative noob like me about 10 minutes of research and an additional 2 minutes to get it up and running, but I feel this is worth pointing out.
To the company’s credit, they’ve hired to develop an open source firmware for this component. But principles or not, in my world shipping hardware that’s disabled — without an obvious way to activate it — is a questionable practice. You may feel differently and that’s OK.
BTW, Here’s How To Get That Bluetooth Working
- Open Terminal (Tilix in this case)
- Type “sudo nano /etc/apt/sources.list” (without the quotes)
- Add this repository to the sources file: “deb http://deb.debian.org/debian stretch main contrib non-free” (without quotes)
- Press CTRL-O to save, ENTER to use the same filename, then CTRL-X to quit.
- Back in Terminal, type “sudo apt update” (without quotes)
- Now type “sudo apt install firmware-atheros” (without quotes)
I applaud Purism for its ideals, and so far the Librem 15 v4 feels like the perfect device for people concerned about privacy and security. And for people who want to support the principles that Purism and its resulting products stand for. But it may not be for everyone.
Anyway, these are my thoughts so far, and I’m looking forward to using and benchmarking it in the days to come. I’ll also be throwing a couple of my preferred Linux distributions (Pop!_OS and Fedora) on it to see how that changes the overall usability and experience. Watch for a full review here and follow me on Twitter for the very latest.
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