At first glance, the Purism Librem 13 v2 looks like a lot of other laptops on the market. It’s a compact notebook that measures about 0.7 inches thick, weighs about 3.3 pounds, and which has a 13.3 inch, 1920 x 1080 pixel display, a backlit keyboard, and a large touchpad.
But take a closer look at the touchpad and you’ll notice that there’s a rectangle where you’d normally find a Windows key. And glance up to the space above the touchpad and you’ll find two hardware switches.
Those are some of the features that make the Librem 13 really stand out. The missing Windows key is because this laptop ships with a GNU/Linux-based operating system called PureOS instead of Windows. It also uses an open source BIOS alternative called Coreboot. And the hardware switches? They physically disable or enable the webcam, mic, and wireless hardware.
Purism doesn’t just sell laptops. They sell laptops that run free and open source software with an emphasis on privacy and security. Those features carry a premium price tag though: the Librem 13 v2 sells for $1399 and up, which is more than twice what you’d pay for most laptops with similar specs.
But when you consider what Purism is actually trying to do with the Librem 13, there’s not a lot of competition.
So is the Librem 13 any good? Purism loaned me one for a few weeks so I could find out.
The Librem 13 I tested is configured with 8GB of DDR4 RAM and 250GB of storage, bringing the price for this model to $1578. The entry-level configuration has just 4GB and 128GB, respectively.
Purism chose a core i5-6200U processor for this laptop. It’s a dual-core 6th-gen Intel Core “Skylake” processor, which would seem a little dated now that quad-core 8th-gen Core “Kaby Lake Refresh” chips are on the way. But it’s still a reasonably fast processor with modern features.
If you’re holding out for something newer though, Purism does plan to switch to 7th-gen “Kaby Lake” processors by the end of 2017.
The laptop has a 13.3 inch, 1920 x 1080 pixel matte, non-touch display, 802.11n Wifi, a 720p webcam, and stereo speakers.
There’s a USB 3.0 Type-C port, a USB 3.0 Type-A port, and a USB 2.0 Type-A port, as well as an HDMI 2.0 port, SD card reader, and 3.5mm audio jack.
Under the hood, the system features an M.2 slot for solid state storage and a 2.5 inch drive bay for an optional hard drive. The laptop has a 45 Wh battery.
The hardware also features a Bluetooth radio, but as of August, 2017 the Librem 13 doesn’t have the software to support that feature.
It’s not really the hardware that makes this laptop special though. Purism is a Social Purpose Corporation, which means that while the company hopes to make money by selling its products, unlike a non-profit, there are a few other factors that play a large role in Purism’s mission aside from profit maximization.
The most important are that Purism priotities “privacy, security, and freedom for its customers,” “will only use and distribute free/libre and open source software in the kernel, OS and software in its products,” and offers “hardware that respects uses’ rights to privacy, security, and freedom.”
That’s why you’ve got hardware switches to turn off the webcam and Wifi, for example. Theoretically you could enable airplane mode on any computer, or make sure your webcam software isn’t running. But if someone has installed malware on your computer, there’s a chance they could make it look like those features are off when they aren’t.
Purism’s laptops include kill switches that physically sever the circuit to the mic, camera, and wireless components. Flip the switch when using the webcam for instance, and your camera app will keep working, but you won’t see yourself on the screen anymore because it’s as if you’d unplugged the camera in the middle of a video recording.
The respect for privacy extends to the software that ships with the laptop. PureOS is a GNU/Linux distribution featuring the GNOME 3 desktop environment and Wayland graphics. The operating system is free and open source, and it’s based on Debian and should be comfortable to use for anyone that’s used GNOME 3 before.
If you’re coming from Windows or OS X, there’s certainly a bit of a learning curve. But overall the user interface is pretty intuitive and I found it easy to download and install applications from the Software center.
Running third-party software from other sources was kind of a nightmare though. More on that below. But overall I get the feeling that PureOS is a great operating system for beginners who don’t need to run any software that’s not available from the Purism repository or for advanced users who will be better able to troubleshoot the issues I had.
I’d consider myself a casual Linux user. While I’ve never used a GNU/Linux distro as my primary operating system for more than a few days at a time, I’ve played with various distros on and off for more than 10 years. So PureOS didn’t look completely foreign when I first booted the computer, and I was pretty comfortable looking up terminal commands that I hadn’t memorized, I’m not exactly a Linux expert.
It’s also worth noting that some of the things that PureOS doesn’t do out of the box are intentional. If you want a GNU/Linux distribution that makes it easy to stream videos from Netflix you can install Ubuntu or Linux Mint and use the Chrome web browser.
Sure, you can probably find a way to do it with PureOS. But if you’re interested in a computer that ships with free/libre software, then you’re probably not someone who’s looking for ways to stream DRM-protected video.
Purism’s laptop features a black anodized aluminum chassis that gives it a professional look… until you start to notice the fingerprint smudges that will inevitably appear on the cover and palm rest. Keep a cloth handy and you can wipe them away though.
Open the lid and you’re greeted with a matte IPS display which looks good from just about any angle, and which doesn’t reflect much glare. The screen can open to a 130 degree angle, and Purism says the laptop has a reinforced metal hinge.
There’s a webcam and microphone in the bezel above the screen, and a kill switch to disable them below the screen (and above the top row of keys on the keyboard).
The screen is recessed a bit behind the bezels, and there’s something about the laptop that makes me keep forgetting it doesn’t have a touchscreen. I think it’s the fact that the GNOME 3 desktop environment seems so touchable, but reaching up to the screen does no good.
That brings us to the touchpad and keyboard, which are… serviceable, but not great. The backlit keys offer decent travel and the placement of the Fn and arrow keys is pretty straightforward. But I find myself making more typos than I’m used to when using the keyboard. I seem to have a particularly tough time capitalizing letters, so I’m going to blame the shift key.
I do find that the more time I spend using the laptop, the more accurate my typing gets, so it might just be something that takes a bit of getting used to.
Another keyboard quirk that annoyed me was the lack of an indicator to let you know when Caps Lock or Number Lock are enabled. While it’s not usually too difficult to figure that out when you’re typing in LibreOffice Writer, I did find myself struggling to enter a password on the login screen a number of times because I couldn’t figure out if those asterisks showing up on the screen were representing capital or lower case letters.
The touchpad is large, offers a bit of friction, and supports four-finger multitouch gestures. But it’s not the most precise touchpad I’ve ever used, and I generally found the laptop to be easier to use when I plugged in a mouse.
Speaking of connecting additional hardware, I had no problem hooking up an external display, keyboard, and mouse and using the laptop like a dual-display desktop. The second screen was recognized immediately, and after fiddling with the computer’s display settings for a few minutes I was able to mark the external display as the primary monitor and extend the desktop onto the laptop screen.
I was also able to connect to a WiFi printer on my home network almost instantly.
Part of the appeal of buying a laptop that comes with Linux pre-installed is that you don’t need to worry about hardware compatibility… with the laptop’s hardware. So it’s nice to know that common peripherals are also easy to set up.
The laptop is also easy to upgrade. There are 12 screws holding the bottom cover in place, but once you remove them you can open up the case and replace the hard drive or M.2 SSD. Since the version Purism loaned me only has an SSD, the 2.5 inch drive bay is empty, which means adding storage is as simple as popping in a hard drive or SSD.
You’ll also notice that there’s a small fan inside the case. But Purism says one of the laptop’s selling points is its “low noise fan,” and in my time using the notebook, I have to say I’ve barely noticed any fan noise. That said, I’ve gotten used to using an Acer Aspire S 13 over the past year, and that laptop has a super-noisy fan, so most laptops would sound quiet by comparison.
There aren’t all that many companies that offer computers with GNU/Linux-based operating systems, and there are even fewer that develop their own OS rather than just slapping Ubuntu on an existing laptop.
Since the Librem 13 doesn’t come with Windows, you don’t need to go through the trouble of overwriting the operating system and hoping that the WiFi, graphics and other components will work. Purism did the heavy lifting on that front.
If you’re not a fan of paying for software you’re never going to use, then there’s also no “Windows tax,” on this laptop, because none of the money you’re paying goes to Microsoft to pay for a Windows license. That doesn’t mean the laptop is cheaper than a Windows model though… Purism is a relatively small company that doesn’t have the economies of scale that help Lenovo, HP, Dell, Acer, and Asus keep the prices of their Windows laptops relatively low.
But what you do get for your $1399 or more is a fully functional computer with a fully functional operating system… assuming you can figure out how to make it meet your needs. And if you can’t, there’s nothing stopping you from installing Ubuntu, Fedora, Debian, or a different operating system on the laptop.
PureOS comes with just a few applications pre-installed, including LibreOffice, a photo viewer, music and video players, a Maps application, To Do list, and Thunderbird email client.
There’s also a web browser called PureBrowser, which is basically a modified version of Firefox with the HTTPS Everywhere and uBlock Origin add-ons pre-installed.
Purism also plans to launch a secure mail app called PureMail, but it wasn’t ready at the time of this review.
Overall, the list of pre-loaded applications was selected by choosing software that respects users’ privacy. Purism points out that other software available for download are DRM-free and devoid of “spyware, tracking, or ransoming” but I think that helps set PureOS apart from Windows, MacOS, Android, and iOS rather than other GNU/Linux operating systems. I mean, you can find Linux games and programs that include DRM or spyware. But they’re not exactly in the majority.
When I started testing the laptop, PureBrowser was also unable to access some websites including Gmail and YouTube, but I’ve been told that Purism’s developers plan to fix that in an upcoming update.
Personally, I got around the issue by installing Chromium, the open source version of Google’s Chrome browser. Once I’d installed Chromium and the GIMP image editing tool, I found it easy to use the Librem 13 for all-day work sessions. As a tech blogger, that basically means opening two or more browser windows and maybe a dozen or more tabs at a time while researching and writing stories and resizing and cropping images to upload.
I’m always impressed at how quickly GIMP loads on a Linux-based computer. It’s available for Windows and I use it whenever I need something a little more powerful than Irfanview. But GIMP takes forever to load on a Windows computer. It starts almost instantly in PureOS.
GIMP wasn’t installed out of the box, but loading it was as simple as opening the Software center, searching for GIMP, and clicking the install button.
There’s a decent array of software available for installation, including multimedia tools such as Audacity, Ardour, Audacious, and even some music players and editors that don’t start with the letter A. I installed the Cheese camera app because I didn’t see one preloaded. Video tools including Kodi, Kino, and Handbrake are also in the Software center.
Other categories include productivity, communication & news, and graphics & photography. And then there are games.
While there are a handful of impressive, DRM-free, open source games like 0 A.D available for download, the selection of games is a little underwhelming.
So I decided to see if I could get some other Linux-compatible titles to work. First I tried installing the Steam Client for Linux by downloading and running the installer. Everything seemed fine, and there’s even a Steam shortcut on the computer now. but when I try to run Steam I get a message letting me know that I’m missing the LibGL.so.1 32-bit library.
Next I tried just downloading and installing a few games I’d previously purchased via GOG and Humble Bundle. I could only get one to install… and it crashed every time I tried to run it. The others gave me error messages whenever I tried to run the installers.
I don’t know if that’s because these games are designed for Ubuntu rather than PureOS/Debian or if there’s some other obvious thing I’m overlooking. All of the games I tired to install are DRM-free, but none are open source. So honestly, I don’t know if they’re titles that Purism’s customers will care about. But I wanted to see what I could do with this laptop that didn’t involve replacing the operating system, and for the most part the answer is that I can run software that’s maintained specifically for PureOS.
One third-party tool I was able to install was the Phoronix Test Suite, which includes a number of performance benchmarks for Linux computers. Running the whole suite would take a while, but if there are any scores you’d like to see let me know and maybe I’ll run a few tests before I return the laptop.
Again, I’m a Linux lightweight. Odds are that experts will be able to find workarounds for some of the issues I experienced… and free software enthusiasts probably won’t care that much about the fact that Netflix, Amazon Video, Google Play Movies, and Hulu don’t work out of the box.
After using the Librem 13 on and off for work over the past few weeks, I have to say sometimes it’s easy to forget whether I’m using my Acer laptop with WIndows or Purism’s Linux-powered laptop. That’s partly because the vast majority of my workday is spent in a web browser. But it’s also partly because both are laptops with Skylake chips, 8GB of RAM, and solid state drives.
Performance-wise, they both handle multitasking like a champ, boot and resume from sleep quickly, and have enough horsepower for most of the fairly straightforward tasks I throw at them. And since they can both run Chrome and/or Chromium, I’m pretty comfortable working on either laptop… although I use GIMP a lot more on the Librem 13 because trying to get Irfanview up and running on Linux usually involves installing and configuring WINE so that I can run WIndows applications, which seems like a silly thing to do on a laptop from a corporation focused on software freedom.
Installing Handbrake allowed me to do some video transcoding. Loading 0 A.D. let me lose myself in the real-time strategy game for a few hours. And while I didn’t work very hard to get Netflix to work, I wasted plenty of time watching cat videos (and music videos, and a few tech-related videos) on YouTube.
Basically, aside from the issues I had when trying to install software that wasn’t in the PureOS repository, the Librem 13 functioned like a reasonably good, reasonably modern laptop. And the kill switches worked exactly as described: toggle the camera switch and it’s as if you’ve unplugged the webcam. It won’t be recognized by any software until you flip the switch back to the other direction (and you may need to restart your photo or video app while you’re at it. The wireless switch also quickly disconnects you from WiFi.
Unfortunately while Purism claims that the laptop should get 7 to 9 hours of battery life, in my experience 4 to 6 was much more common. You may be able to do better, depending on what you use the notebook for.
If you’re looking for a compact laptop that runs GNU/Linux software, there are a handful of alternatives, including computers from ZaReason, System76, and Dell. But Purism takes things a step further by shipping its laptops with Coreboot and focusing on hardware and software that emphasizes privacy.
Overall, it’s nice to have the option of buying a laptop that comes with a GNU/Linux distro and Coreboot and doesn’t require a lot of work to set up. But I suspect this laptop will still be a better fit for experienced Linux users than for long-time Windows or Mac users, since you might need to dig into the settings or fire up a terminal window to get some things done.
The hardware kill switches also help balance convenience with security: you have a webcam when you need it. But you can disable it whenever you don’t.
In that sense, this laptop doesn’t really have much competition (unless you consider a piece of tape to be competition). But the high starting price, the mediocre battery life, and the finnicky mouse and keyboard make it a little tough to recommend.
If the laptop were half the price, I could probably overlook some of those hardware issues. But if you’re going to charge $1399 for a notebook at a time when you can find laptops with similar (or better) specs for $700 or less, it’s hard to justify spending that kind of money on a model that has less-than-stellar hardware.
That said, it’d be tough for a small company like Purism to match Acer, Asus, or Dell on price. If you value privacy and software freedom over all else, then the Librem 13 v2 might be worth your money… especially if you want to support one of the few organizations working to deliver laptops that fit that description.
And it’s not that the keyboard and touchpad are horrible. They just aren’t really as good as I’d like them to be. Purism also notes that the current touchpad is an upgrade over the version used in previous laptops, so at least there’s that.