Every time I’ve used a Linux computer — at least, a Linux computer that’s not hidden behind the sheen of Chrome or Android — it’s been the exact same story: nothing ever works right the first time. So I was both excited and a little scared when I was offered a Librem 13 laptop from Purism. The $1,399 ($1,537 as tested) Librem 13 runs PureOS out of the box, Purism’s security-focused version of Linux. That means all the initial hurdles of getting Linux running on a system were solved for me. I wouldn’t have to worry about whether or not my Wi-Fi chipset was supported, or installing the right graphics drivers. All I have to do is just use the dang thing.
So, how did it turn out? Not great.
What is it?
The Librem 13 is a minimalistic-looking laptop with a slightly old Core i5 6200U Skylake processor; a cheap keyboard; a low-quality, 13.3-inch, 1080p matte screen; and a bad multitouch touchpad. On the plus side, the shell is completely void of branding, and you can actually open up the computer to swap RAM and storage, with support for both SATA and NVMe M.2 drives, and regular 2.5-inch drives. This customizability is rare in this MacBook Air-ish form factor, and I really appreciate it.
What’s special about it?
The biggest standout about the Librem 13’s hardware are two physical switches on the hinge, one to disable the webcam and microphone, and another to disable Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. These hardware “kill switches” are a privacy nut’s dream. Think of Edward Snowden’s famous request for reporters to put their devices in a fridge to block radio signals, or Mark Zuckerberg’s placement of tape on his webcam.
The laptop also runs on the Coreboot firmware, instead of the Intel Management Engine, which is another big plus to security.
I’ll be honest with you: it’s all probably overkill for me. Good or bad, I just don’t worry very much about privacy and security outside of good password hygiene. But I can totally imagine someone in a more sensitive line of work than me, or a few more things to be paranoid about, buying this laptop specifically for these reasons.
Is it good?
It’s only in recent years that touchpads on Windows computers have become tolerable to me. The Librem 13’s touchpad is not tolerable. Outside of the fact that the surface is less pleasing to use than the glass of my MacBook’s touchpad, cursor movement actually feels laggy when I’m using the touchpad, and I don’t know whether the hardware or software is to blame. I don’t love the keyboard, either. It feels soft and imprecise to me, but this is more of a taste issue and I’ve definitely gotten better on it over time. Also, one time the “L” key stopped working and I had to reboot to get it back. Not sure who to blame there.
The bigger problem is Linux. Out of the box, the Debian-based OS looks great, and I find it very intuitive and user-friendly. It’s running a fairly clean install of Gnome 3 for a GUI, and I’m a fan. You can hit the “Purism Key” (a rebadged Windows key) to pull up the “Activities Overview,” where you can access a dock, switch between windows and desktops, and if you start typing you can search among available apps on the system, which is my preferred method of launching apps, akin to using Spotlight on a Mac.
But while PureOS includes a GUI App Store of sorts, called “Software,” I ended up installing most of the applications I actually care about through the command line. I’m pretty comfortable with “sudo apt-get install” at this point, but using dpkg to install a .deb file and then using apt-get to install its dependencies (I’m 94 percent sure that’s what I’m doing, at least) is not exactly what I’d call “user friendly.”
Am I happier or more fulfilled?
No! Okay, so I’m pleased with how relatively easy it is to use a preinstalled Linux system compared to installing it myself. But Linux is still a chore compared to Windows and Mac, and basically requires a familiarity with the command line to do anything interesting. Also, a lot of what I’m doing on this thing would work just as well or better on ChromeOS.
But also I’m just too frustrated by this hardware. The battery life is fine, but not great. Sometimes the computer doesn’t sleep when I close it, so then it dies. The matte black design looked great for five seconds before it was covered in my sweaty fingerprints. And. This. Touchpad. Is. Driving. Me. Bonkers. For instance, the default configuration is for a two-finger click to emulate a middle click, which by convention on Linux is mapped to copy and paste. And I can’t figure it out how to fix it. And for some reason moving the mouse with my index finger and clicking with my thumb counts as a two-finger click. And I hate it. But I’m almost done with the review so I’m not going to dig deep into some .conf file to solve the problem. I get to walk away.
Oh, and at the office I keep getting pop-over notifications about different network printers being discovered, which I can’t figure out how to turn off without disabling all notifications. So that’s fun.
Should you get one?
If you care deeply about the ethical and privacy stance that this hardware and software combination represents, I must admit that your options are limited, and that this laptop may very well be your best option.
But for everyone else, this computer is not nearly worth the $1,399 plus price tag. If Linux is that important to you, there’s much nicer hardware available for a much lower price. If Linux isn’t a big draw, then I have no idea why you’d consider this over a Surface Laptop or a MacBook.
And before you ask: yes, I do feel like a bad person for saying mean things about this computer. To me, Linux represents everything that’s worth rooting for in the technology world, a free and open source operating system that’s not tied to serving the interests of a specific corporation. And the open hardware movement has an opportunity to make safer, more customizable, and more bespoke computers than big companies can be bothered to build. I want to live in a world where I can buy a good computer that I enjoy without having to give AppleGoogleMicrosoft my money or all my personal data. This Librem 13 feels like the Early Access version of that future, and apparently I can’t be bothered to deal with the trade-offs. Which makes me part of the problem, and I’m sorry for that.