As a computer user in 2017, privacy is always on my mind — as it should be. I suppose I have always cared about securing my information and data, but in recent years, we have learned so many troubling things about government hackers — including the USA — that it seems more important than ever. Patriot Edward Snowden really shone a light on the unfortunate state of privacy, or lack thereof, in modern days.
This is why I was very intrigued by the Purism line of laptops. These are computers that are designed with privacy in mind. The Librem 13 v2, which I have been testing, features two hardware kill-switches — one will cut the webcam and microphone, while the other kills the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios. By cutting access on the hardware level, hackers cannot access these things when switched off. Instead of using a traditional bios system for booting, it even leverages Coreboot. It runs a Linux-based operating system called “Pure OS” which aims to be very secure and private. Unfortunately, the OS ends up being a little too secure, and the weak link of the overall package. But does that really matter?
Before we get into the software, lets discuss hardware. Purism works with hardware suppliers to minimize the possibility its components are compromised at any point. This includes things like the Wi-Fi cards or USB controllers. It is another way the the company is trying to keep its customers safe.
Both the CPU and GPU are Intel, which means excellent Linux compatibility. While some people will prefer NVIDIA or AMD graphics on Windows — and rightfully so — they can be a real headache on Linux; especially if you don’t plan to game. The Librem 13 is not a gaming PC, so the use of Intel graphics is very much appreciated.
The Librem 13 I am testing has a Core i5-6200U processor and 8GB of DDR3 RAM. Even with these fairly meager specs, the machine absolutely screams for normal use. You can also upgrade to a Core i7 and 16GB of RAM if needed.
For storage, it has a 256GB Samsung M.2 drive. This should be fine for most tasks, but please note that on my test machine it is SATA-based and not the faster NVME. You can, however, configure with an NVME drive (for more money, of course) if you need the speed. Installing a RAM or SSD upgrade later is as easy as removing some standard Phillips-head screws from the bottom.
The 13-inch screen is “only” 1080p, but that is actually a good thing. Higher DPI displays on Linux can be problematic, and on a screen of this size, 1920 x 1080 is perfectly fine. Picture quality is very nice — colors are vibrant and pleasing. I also appreciate that the screen is matte and not glossy — there is very minimal glare when using near a window.
The most endearing aspects of the Purism Librem 13 for me, however, are the excellent keyboard and mouse. As someone who does a lot of typing, a solid keyboard is an absolute must — I will not compromise on that. I am happy to say that the chiclet-style keys are well spaced and have good travel. Typing is a dream, and I can type fast without thinking about it — a very satisfying experience. It is even backlit for nighttime typing.
Believe it or not, the trackpad is also great. Many (most?) laptops have horrible trackpads, meaning I often end up carrying a portable mouse. With the Librem 13, my fingers glide well, there is good tracking, and best of all, clicking is just as effortless at the top as it is on the bottom — the same cannot be said for many other laptops. I can travel without a mouse — no problem.
The webcam is pretty good, but nothing to write home about. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t bad at all, but I was not wowed by it. For the occasional video chat, however, you will be fine.
The speakers did wow me, however. I was pleasantly surprised by the clarity at higher volumes. It gets rather loud without noticeable distortion. Is there any bass? No, but music does not sound overly tinny either. For long marathon sessions of listening to your favorite tunes, you will want to connect some external speakers, but for watching YouTube or listening to the occasional song, it is quite good.
For connectivity, there are plenty of ports here — two USB-A, one USB-C, 3.5mm audio, full-size HDMI video-out, and an SD card reader. Unfortunately, there is no Ethernet port, so you will need to leverage a USB dongle for that. Many people only connect to Wi-Fi these days, so that shouldn’t be an issue for many, although I am sure some consumers will be bummed out.
The stars of the show are the kill-switches, and I am happy to report that they work flawlessly. If you are connected to the internet and a Bluetooth mouse, for instance, flipping the wireless radio switch to “off” cuts access immediately. The same can be said for the webcam and microphone switch — flipping it off makes both inoperable. Switching them back on restores access right away — no need to reboot.
Battery life is certainly passable at about 5-6 hours, but definitely not a class-leader. Believe it or not, Windows usually has better power management than Linux, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Microsoft’s operating system could squeeze some more usage out of this hardware. I wouldn’t know, however, as I would not install that OS on here — that would be sacrilege!
So, yeah, the hardware is great. The software? Not so much. Well, I suppose it depends on your needs. Here’s the deal, folks — it ships with Pure OS, which is an operating system based on Debian. On the surface, it works well in its privacy focus — the browser and operating system are locked down very hard, in an attempt to protect the user. Unfortunately, it protects a little too well.
Look, I get it, Google is seen as the enemy of privacy to some, but in my experience, the Librem 13 cannot even access Google Search using the default “Pure Browser.” This is frustrating, as users can select “Google” from the search settings, but even after it is selected, searches will return a blank page. Want to access Gmail? Sorry, Pure OS won’t let you. Want to watch a YouTube video? No way, José! Seriously, folks, I couldn’t even access YouTube. A total dealbreaker — for me.
I know what you are thinking — just install an alternative browser, such as Firefox or Chromium, right? Tried and failed. Both are blocked from installing. IceWeasel shows in the repos, but if you try to install it, you get an error. In other words, you are forced to use Pure Browser and deal with these restrictions. While I understand why Pure OS blocks access to Google sites, the web is just not an enjoyable place for me without them. Heck, I rely on Gmail for business — switching away is simply not an option. To be honest, I really don’t want the operating system deciding for me.
So if installing an alternative browser is not possible, what did I do? I nuked Pure OS. Yeah, to make the laptop work for me, I had to install an operating system such as Ubuntu or Fedora — both of which work flawlessly with the hardware. Now, this does not mean the Librem 13 is no longer secure — you can still encrypt your volumes and leverage the kill switches. It just means that I empowered myself to choose the best Linux distro for my needs.
Do I recommend the Purism Librem 13 laptop? From a hardware perspective, absolutely. The aluminum body is great, and both the keyboard and trackpad are exceptional. If you want a solid general-use laptop with hardware kill-switches and Coreboot for privacy and security, this is a winner.
From a software perspective, however, be prepared to hate Pure OS. Quite frankly, there is nothing wrong with disliking the default OS and installing another — that is the beauty of Linux. There are no licensing fees or wasted money. Hell, you may like Pure OS and not need things like Gmail and YouTube. Not everybody shares my needs and wants.
So yes, I do highly recommend the Librem 13. After all, regardless of whether you use the default Pure OS or a different distro, such as Ubuntu, your money is still supporting the Linux community and sending a message that you value privacy. Best of all, you are getting very solid hardware that should delight you for many years.