Purism Librem 15 Linux laptop blends high-end hardware with totally free software

librem laptop opened front

We don’t normally cover crowdfunding campaigns on PCWorld, but sometimes one comes along that’s just begging for a deeper look. The Purism Librem 15 notebook is one of those.

Purism, which launched a drive on Crowd Supply on Wednesday, is seeking at least $250,000 to make a high-end Linux laptop that only runs free, or open-source, software. This means no annoying closed-source drivers—or “binary blobs”—necessary to make the hardware work. Make no mistake—this is a serious, slick Linux notebook, not a bit of kit for hobbyist hackers.

A high-end laptop with open-source software

Linux laptops can be hard to find. Even harder to find are Linux laptops where the hardware works perfectly well with free software. Even Linux laptops that look nice and slick might have closed-source “binary blob” drivers running in the Linux kernel.

Enter the Librem 15, which claims to be “the first laptop in the world that ships without mystery software in the kernel, operating system, or any software applications.” This claim may be a bit overblown—we’re sure Richard Stallman and his Leemote YeeLoong would disagree—but it certainly does look like an awesome, high-end laptop that blows systems like the Leemote out of the water.

librem laptop closed right side

Purism claims the laptop’s hardware has been “meticulously designed chip by chip to work with free and open source software,” saying it’s the “first laptop to reinstate your rights to freedom and privacy.” Marketing the privacy angle is probably a smart move in this post-Snowden world, but this campaign may be just as exciting for any Linux user or developer looking for a solid piece of well-supported hardware that doesn’t require potentially unreliable closed-source drivers.

The system will ship with the “Purism GNU/Linux Operating System,” a Linux distribution based on Trisquel. Trisquel is Ubuntu-based, but includes only free software. If you prefer another Linux distribution, it should be trivial to switch.

They’re not lying when they say they want to make high-end hardware, either. The Librem 15 includes a 15.6-inch 1920x1080 display, an 8-core 2.3 GHz Intel Core i7 CPU, NVIDIA graphics, 4 or 8 GB of RAM, Wi-Fi, a 720p webcam, and all the other goodies you’d expect in a high-end laptop—including a brushed metal exterior. The price is high-end too, with the cheapest retail configuration starting at $1899, or $1499 if you commit to buying it during the crowdfunding campaign.

librem laptop pricing

Price and configuration options for the Purism Librem 15.

Purism says they’ve put together final prototypes, and now they’re seeking $250,000 to make it a reality.

No proprietary software, but proprietary hardware and firmware

This project immediately reminded me of the Novena laptop project.

Novena is different because all its hardware components themselves are open-source. This bulky laptop system runs on “open hardware,” so you can download the documentation for the hardware and hack on it all you like. But it’s just a hacking platform. As the Novena’s crowdfunding page says: “This is not a device made for consumer home use. The internal electronics are exposed during normal operation to facilitate easy access by developers and professionals.”

But today is about the Purism Librem 15, not the Novena! So, why do I even mention the Novena? Because the Librem 15 looks like everything the Novena isn’t. It’s a slick piece of hardware that looks an awful lot like a MacBook Air at first glance. It has a high-end Intel Core i7 CPU and NVIDIA graphics. Where the Novena was a hobbyist project, the Purism Librem 15 is free software in slick consumer laptop package.

librem laptop opened front and sides

Getting to this goal does take some sacrifice. While the Purism Librem 15 does run fully open-source software, it doesn't have open-source hardware. Those Intel and NVIDIA chips were picked because it works well with open-source software, but the hardware itself is a closed black box that you can’t hack on. And, technically, the individual pieces of hardware here run “firmware,” little bits of closed-source software written by the manufacturer that run on the individual hardware components themselves.

Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth has called proprietary firmware a security threat. On the Novena or another device using pure open-source hardware, there’s no closed software or hardware black boxes to deal with.

But, let’s be honest: The Novena and Lemote YeeLoong are fairly impractical for most people. We want today’s high-end hardware in a slick package, even if it does have non-free firmware. The Librem 15 offers that, avoiding any closed-source drivers entirely. Sure, if you’re using a Lemote YeeLoong or Novena, it’s a step down in software freedom, but if you’re a FOSS devotee using practically any other laptop, the Librem 15 appears to be a big step up.

Take my money! …or not?

That’s the theory, anyway—and it all sounds pretty good if you can swallow the premium price tag! But I haven’t gotten my hands on the Purism Librem 15 prototype, so bear that in mind before deciding whether or not to give any money to this crowdfunding campaign. I can’t personally vouch for this hardware or campaign.

But this column should be a platform where awesome things happening in the Linux and free software communities can reach a wider audience. So, here you go! You’ve seen the Purism Librem 15’s promises; now you can make your own decision.

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