The Free Software Foundation loves this laptop, but you won't
Dell just launched a sleek new MacBook Pro competitor running Linux, and the freedom-obsessed Purim Librem 15 laptop blew past its crowdfunding goal. But Richard Stallman’s Free Software Foundation doesn’t approve of either of these powerful, tightly designed, Linux-running laptops. Instead, the FSF recommends you buy the “LibreBoot X200”—which is actually a refurbished ThinkPad X200 from 2008.
That’s insane… at least on the surface. But the story isn’t quite that simple.
On the one hand, the FSF looks comically out-of-touch by endorsing this hardware, which spectacularly few people—even hardcore free software geeks—will want to buy. But on the other hand, the FSF is sticking to its guns (as always), and making a good point about how hard it is to get hardware with completely open and modifiable code.
Only two laptops “respect your freedom,” and they’re both outdated
The LibreBoot X200 is only the second laptop the FSF has ever endorsed. It endorsed the Gluglug X60 laptop back in 2013, saying it was “the first time we've ever been able to encourage people to buy and use a laptop as-is.” Both laptops get the FSF’s “Respects Your Freedom” certification.
The Gluglug X60 was a refurbished ThinkPad X60, just as the LibreBoot X200 is a refurbished ThinkPad X200. The ThinkPad X60 is a laptop from 2006, even two years older than the 2008-vintage ThinkPad X200. There’s no way around it: This hardware is just plain dated. The LibreBoot X200 comes with a 2008-era Intel Core 2 Duo P8400, although it thankfully has been upgraded with an 802.11n Wi-Fi card. You can also opt for more RAM and a larger hard drive or solid-state drive.
You can buy a LibreBoot X200 starting from £298.00 (about $450 US dollars) on Gluglug’s online store. That’s a lot more than you can pick up a used one for on eBay, but you’re paying for Gluglug’s hard work.
Why the FSF loves these old ThinkPads
But what did Gluglug do to turn a bog-standard ThinkPad X200 into a FSF-recommended LibreBoot X200? Well, obviously Windows was replaced with the FSF-endorsed Trisquel GNU/Linux operating system. This is the same operating system the Purism Librem 15 promises to ship with—the FSF doesn’t like Ubuntu and its inclusion of non-free software and firmware. Fedora is much more hardcore about free software, and the FSF doesn’t even like Fedora because they ship some closed-source firmware. You can read the FSF’s specific complaints about various popular Linux distributions, if you like.
But it’s not just about the typical high-level software. The low-level firmware on the laptop was replaced. The BIOS and Intel’s low-level “Management Engine” and “Active Management Technology” were replaced with the free software LibreBoot BIOS replacement and the GRUB 2 bootloader. The FSF is concerned about Intel's low-level ME and AMT technologies, which can be used to manage PCs remotely and is closed-source. The proprietary firmware could be a security danger, too.
Gluglug’s developers spent time reverse-engineering this laptop’s low-level firmware, creating free software firmware to replace it, and installing that onto the laptop. You get a laptop with completely free software all the way down, with no closed-source bits of firmware. You’re free to modify the firmware and install your modifications, if you'd like. That’s what’s really special about these laptops, especially to the FSF.
FSF endorsement can teach us a valuable lesson
Sadly, the FSF’s endorsement of these laptops is irrelevant to most of our lives. Unless you really want to use a CPU made seven years ago, you probably don’t want to buy this laptop. There’s a reason the Purism Librem 15 campaign decided to allow non-free firmware—otherwise it wouldn’t be able to ship with modern hardware. At least Purism seems to be making at least some progress on opening up the firmware.
The sheer difficulty of getting a laptop with completely free software running on it is sobering as well as instructive. If you believe in hardware that's customizable, modifiable, and open, so you can do whatever you want with your PC and exert total control and ownership over it—and who doesn’t like the sound of that?—then it’s quite tragic that the only options are so dated.
While I criticized the Purism Librem 15 campaign a bit for glossing over the concerns with closed-source firmware in its quest for an open Linux laptop, I tried not to hit them too hard. The FSF’s endorsement shows us why the Purism Librem 15 and other modern pieces of Linux hardware don’t have completely open firmware code. Sadly, it’ll take more than a refurbished laptop from seven years ago with reverse-engineered firmware to change the industry.