Purism, the maker of a line of built-for-Linux laptops, is now shipping a built-for-Linux smartphone. The company announced this week that the Librem 5 smartphone is now shipping to early backers of the crowdsourced, $699 smartphone project.
The Librem 5 is unlike anything else on the market. Not only is it one of the only smartphones on Earth that doesn’t ship with Android, a fork of Android, or iOS—Purism’s commitment to 100% open software, with no binary blobs, puts severe restrictions on what hardware it can use.
Android’s core might be open source, but it was always built for wide adoption above all else, with provisions for manufacturers to include as much proprietary code as they want. Purism’s demand that everything be open means most of the major component manufacturers were out of the question.
Perhaps because of the limited hardware options, the internal construction of the Librem 5 is absolutely wild. While smartphones today are mostly a single mainboard with every component integrated into it, the Librem 5 actually has a pair of M.2 slots that house full-size, off-the-shelf LTE and Wi-Fi cards for connectivity, just like what you would find in an old laptop. The M.2 sockets look massive on top of the tiny phone motherboard, but you could probably replace or upgrade the cards if you wanted.
The Librem 5 spec sheet, then, is full of unfamiliar companies—the only ones willing to share their code for an open source smartphone. Powering everything is an SoC from NXP: a 1.5GHz i.MX 8M Quad. This chip is four Cortex A53 cores built on a 28nm process. If you’re looking for a rough Qualcomm equivalent, you’ll have to scroll all the way to the bottom of Qualcomm’s lineup to find the Qualcomm (not even Snapdragon branded) 215, a 1.3GHz quad-core Cortex A53 chip also built on a 28nm process.
In other words, nearly any phone you buy today will have a more powerful, more power-efficient CPU than the Librem 5—even $160 Android phones are now packing eight-core SoCs built on more power-efficient manufacturing processes. That $700 price Purism is asking (more than a OnePlus 7 Pro!) is the price you pay for a niche smartphone with none of the economies of scale you get with normal smartphone parts.
The I.MX 8M is not an SoC meant to live in a smartphone. NXP’s “target applications” for the i.MX 8 only lists “Automotive” and “Industrial” uses. And sure enough, the SoC shown in Purism’s pictures is way bigger than the usual smartphone packaging—it looks like something that would be more at home on a laptop motherboard.
The lack of smartphone considerations also means there aren’t as many features integrated into the SoC as usual, resulting in all of the following extra parts. Cellular connectivity runs off the separate M.2 LTE card, which is listed on Purism’s site as a “Gemalto PLS8 3G/4G modem” (the prototype pictures, though, show a BroadMobi BM818). Purism actually couldn’t find an open provider for the cellular modem, so the best it could do was isolate it from the rest of the system in an M.2 slot.
The Wi-Fi and Bluetooth requires another separate card from Redpine Signal, which supports 802.11 abgn 2.4 GHz/5GHz and Bluetooth 4. GPS is also a separate chip—the Teseo LIV3F GNSS—which gets soldered to the motherboard. On normal smartphones, the flash storage is mounted on top of the SoC, in a “package on package” configuration.
But that won’t work with the Librem 5’s industrial-grade SoC. So that’s another chip that needs to find a spot on the sizable motherboard. The plethora of extra chips and laptop-style parts do not bode well for the device’s power consumption. The size of this phone is also not clear—Purism does not list dimensions.
At 3500mAh, the battery is on the small side. But it is, at least, “user replaceable.” It’s unclear if “user replaceable” means “with a screwdriver” or by just popping off the back for a mid-day swap, but Purism’s description that the battery is “non-soldered” and “easily serviceable” sounds more like the screwdriver option. Other specs include a 5.7-inch 1440×720 (282 PPI) IPS LCD, 3GB of RAM, 32GB of eMMC storage, a 13MP rear camera, and an 8MP front camera. There’s a 3.5mm headphone jack, of course, plus a MicroSD slot and a USB-C port. Sound is provided by the earpiece, and it seems like that’s the only speaker on the phone. Other smartphone standards—like a vibration motor and 9-axis accelerometer—have made the cut.
So you’re not going to get cutting-edge hardware at a great price with the Librem 5. That’s not the point, though. The point is that you are buying a Linux phone, with privacy and open source at the forefront of the design. There are hardware kill switches for the camera, microphone, WiFi/Bluetooth, and baseband on the side of the phone, ensuring none of the I/O turns on unless you want it to. The OS is the Free Software Foundation endorsed by PureOS, a Linux distribution that, in this case, has been reworked with a mobile UI. Purism says it will provide updates for the “lifetime” of the device, which would be a stark contrast to the two years of updates you get with an Android phone.
PureOS is a Debian-based Linux distro, and on the Librem 5, you’ll get to switch between mobile versions of the Gnome and KDE environments. If you’re at all interested in PureOS, Purism’s YouTube page is worth picking through. Dozens of short videos show that, yes, this phone really runs full desktop-class Linux. Those same videos show the dev kit running things like the APT package manager through a terminal, a desktop version of Solitaire, Emacs, the Gnome disk utility, DOSBox, Apache Web Server, and more. If it runs on your desktop Linux computer, it will probably run on the Librem 5, albeit with a possibly not-touch-friendly UI. The Librem 5 can even be hooked up to a monitor, keyboard, and mouse, and you can run all these Linux apps with the normal input tools.
For this initial release of the phone, Purism admits it has a lot of work to do in terms of basic smartphone functionality. The website states “Upon initial shipment of the Librem 5 in 2019, it will offer the essentials: phone functionality, email, messaging, voice, camera, [and] 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 strangest thing about the Librem 5 launch is that units will be going out in “iterative” batches with various fit and finish issues. The first batch going out now is named “Aspen” and will have a “loose fit,” “varying alignment,” and “unfinished switch caps.” The “Birch” batch is due to ship at the end of October with a board revision, a “tighter fit,” and “improved alignment.” December’s “Chestnut” release will add capped switches, while January’s “Dogwood” will see unspecified “refinements.” “Evergreen,” due in Q2 2020, sounds like the final version of this phone, and it will be the first version with a mass-produced “molded case.” All the other models will have an “individually milled case.” There are already plans for a “Fir” batch in Q4 2020, which features an upgraded “14nm Next Generation CPU” and “Mechanical Design: Version 2.”
Early pre-order customers will be able to choose how they would like to spend their $700: spend it now and get a beta version of the hardware, or wait for a more refined version. This is a strange way to go about things, but it’s what life is like in the Wild West of building a smartphone outside of the normal smartphone-building ecosystem.
Selling a smartphone is a cutthroat business, and we’ve seen dozens of companies try and fail over the years. Purism didn’t just survive long enough to ship a product—it survived in what is probably the hardest way possible, by building a non-Android phone with demands that all the hardware components use open code. Making it this far is an amazing accomplishment.