Librem 5 Evergreen

Purism's Librem 5 is their first smartphone, a custom designed 64-bit ARM device running a mobile version of their PureOS GNU/Linux distribution. It complements their line of laptops, as well as newer small form-factor PC and servers. I pre-ordered the Librem 5 in September 2018, when it had an expected ship date of April 2019. By September 2019, Purism had decided to ship the Librem 5 in batches (named for species of tree). The first batches–Aspen, Birch, Chestnut, and Dogwood–would use increasingly more finished prototype designs; while the final batch, Evergreen, would be finalized hardware. Based on my order date and travel schedule, I requested the Dogwood batch, which was scheduled to ship in Q1 of 2020. After several delays, initially reportedly because of COVID-19 and later because of hardware issues, the Dogwood slipped to Q3, and I was bumped into the "mass-production quality" Evergreen batch, which could be my "daily driver without hardware issues"1.

I received my Librem 5 in the middle of November, which despite the delays, isn't that bad–considering other Linux-based crowd funding phones such as the Neo 900 just faded into oblivion. The first impressions as I removed it form the–sizable–box was that while big, about the thickness of the N900 or a Pixel 4 and iPhone X stacked together, the build quality felt pretty good. It also came with a screen protector film partially installed; unfortunately it pulled-up a little, and has air bubbles trapped. I plugged it in so it would charge, and came back to it later–when the temperature of the phone was surprising. The shell of the phone regularly gets to a toasty 95°F (35°C) when it's plugged-in. In operation, this drops down to a the 80s, and isn't so hot that it will scald you, but is surprising when you first pick it up.

Unlike an Android or iOS phone, there's no on-boarding. The phone is shipped with a default configuration and password (1-2-3-4-5-6) for the user purism. As you interact with Gnome programs, you'll also be asked to create a second password, for your keychain. You'll use the latter password whenever you need to unlock credentials stored on the keychain, and the former whenever you need to unlock your screen; while there are options for disabling screen lock, they don't appear to be effective. The storage on the device is also unencrypted, rather than generating a key from your lock-code or a separate key to just encrypt your home directory.

Working with the software, it's clear there's a lot that's unfinished. The battery-low warning popped-up at 10%, saying that my laptop battery was low, and that I had only 51 minutes left–the "critical" warning popped-up two minutes later and the phone shut down. The phone needed manual intervention to set its date and timezone, even when auto-date and auto-timezone were enabled–I'm assuming this is because it relies on NTP to set the date, and having shipped with year 2055, NTP's sanity checks were failing. I was also unable to configure mobile data: the APN configuration appears to be non-functional, so the device will only work with Purism's AweSIM service (or potentially through command line directives).

Upon initial shipment of the Librem 5 in 2019, it will offer the essentials: phone functionality, email, messaging, voice, camera, browsing. The featureset will expand after shipment and over time to more free software applications. Your user experience will improve as we incrementally add commonly requested applications and features (such as calendaring, notes, calculator, PDF viewer, etc.) while keeping performance in mind.

The only instant messaging protocol supported on the device appears to be XMPP (Jabber), and I was unable to get the client to connect, and there is no VoIP support on the device, despite marketing touting its ability to use VoIP and WiFi to avoid the cellular networks. There is no way of synching contacts, although there is a local database and application on the device. There is neither support for navigation or accessing the on-device GPS, nor for using the camera hardware.

There is an online accounts dialog which lets you configure an Exchange Web Services account (which is what Gnome's Evolution supports, as opposed to the more commonly used technology for consumer devices: Activesync). The dialog also allows creating an standard IMAP/SMTP account, although I found this to not work. Separately, going into the mail client (Geary) directly, I could create an account despite the dialog complaining that it failed. In the end, I'd created the same account four times in that manner. There is no support for the older post office protocols (POP3), or for PGP encryption. eMails default to HTML, and while you can toggle them to plain-text in the compose dialog, there is no way of changing the default.

The Librem 5 promises to be a true convergence device, able to run both desktop-focused apps and mobile apps (the included chess app is a good example, with a usable vertical mode, and a desktop-only-usable mode in landscape). I tried with a couple of non-Thunderbolt USB-C adapters, but failed to get them to recognize connected devices. Bluetooth on the device also didn't seem to work fully. Input with the on-screen keyboard was alright, albeit I found myself having trouble hitting the bottom row of the keyboard without triggering the bottom-edge task switching action. By default, there aren't modifier keys, but you can switch to a terminal keyboard and even enable sticky-modifiers. The landscape mode keyboard takes-up half the screen, which makes interacting with applications even more frustrating, as the panels don't appear to have been optimized for the small screen. Input methods are also limited–you seem to be restricted to a western keyboard, with other languages not working properly (either missing required glyphs or simply showing a U.S. QWERTY keyboard).

All told, the Librem 5 is far from finished, and Purism's decision to go with their own flavour of Linux rather than a more complete alternative, such as one based on KDE's Plasma mobile environment, does their consumers a disservice. There are cheaper alternatives available that provide effectively the same guarantees as Purism, but provide a better experience. I'll hold on to my phone hoping for some significant UI improvements, but if you haven't handed your money over yet, you should be aware of what you're getting–or not getting–with this phone.

  1. As Evergreen was described in the Dogwood batch status update and pre-shiping alert eMail