Librem 5 review: The Linux-based smartphone is not close to consumer ready

There could be a method to Purism's madness, because the Librem 5 mobile device proves one very important thing.

Close-Up Of Man Using Mobile Phone

The Purism Librem 5. 

Image: Purism

What do you do when you're sent a device for review that is clearly not ready for public consumption--or even ready for review? That's a tough question to answer, but it's one I will attempt to do in the following paragraph in my review of the Purism Librem 5 Linux-based smartphone.

This is one of the smartphones I've been anticipating for quite some time and, based on the product updates, I assumed the Librem 5 would be something mind-blowingly special.

My mind was blown. Unfortunately, not in the good way.

You must go into this, as I did, knowing that the reviewed product is in early beta.

Why the Librem 5 isn't close to being ready for prime time 

  • I was unable to get the Librem 5 to make calls.

  • The Librem 5 is plastic and massive.

  • The Librem 5's battery lasts about an hour or two tops (which I was informed of by Purism).

  • The Librem 5 device gets really hot when charging (again, I was made aware of this).

  • Wireless was incredibly slow,

  • The Librem 5's screen is less-than responsive.

I could go on and on about downsides to the Librem 5, but considering this phone is so far away from being review or consumer ready, I decided to take a different approach.

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What the Purism Librem 5 proves

At first blush, it is be really easy to draw the conclusion that Purism is struggling to get this device consumer ready. Purism started the Librem 5 crowdfunding campaign in 2017, and three years might as well be an eternity in tech time. 

I don't generally like to approach the easy conclusions; instead, I want to look at one particular aspect of what Purism has done with the Librem 5: The company proved the Linux smartphone can work.

You're probably thinking, "Aren't you contradicting yourself?" I know, I know--the Librem 5 is far from truly "working." In fact, every time you go to use the far-too-clunky device, your first thought is, "Will it work this time?" And half the time the answer to that unnerving question is "no."

But Librem is a mostly functioning example of what Linux can actually do to "be a smartphone."

How can I say that, when so much of the phone doesn't function? Because the Librem 5 at least gives us the bones of an open source smartphone. And even if this device never makes it to market, it should serve as a sign of hope to the open source community that it can be done. To me, that proves there is a method to Purism's madness.

Success where Canonical failed

I remember back when I had a Ubuntu Touch phone for review; this device had moderately spec'd hardware, but an interface that hobbled the phone out of the box. From my perspective, the Ubuntu Phone failed for one reason: The operating system. 

The Librem 5 took a lesson from that failure and brought to life a mobile version of PureOS that actually functions. Yes, even though the phone is riddled with problems, the interface works quite well. In fact, this mobile platform requires zero learning curve. Take the device out of the box, power it on, walk through whatever welcome/onboarding screens that are necessary, and start using your new Linux-powered phone.

If Purism manages to reach a consumer-level release, that will be the initial experience for users of all skills. And if the Librem 5 proves only that Linux can be made into a fantastically user-friendly mobile platform, it's a success.

What Purism needs to do for the Librem 5 to be a success

These are the items Purism needs to immediately address with the Librem 5:

  • The phone must be able to actually make phone calls. Even after inserting a working SIM card, the review unit was still unable to place that first call.

  • The screen must be more responsive. At the moment, you have to be very deliberate in your tapping and swiping; otherwise, nothing registers.

  • Wi-Fi speed must be improved. Even using a gigabit network, page loading speeds of everyday sites was abysmal.

  • The hardware is WAY too big. No consumer will carry around a 6 x 3 x .5 plastic brick. Until Purism reduces the thickness of the Librem 5 by half, this phone will only sell to Linux enthusiasts who want a web server in their pocket (Figure A).

  • Sound needs serious attention. Even cranked up to max, it was almost impossible to hear anything.

  • Needs more apps. Period.

Figure A

librem5a.jpg

The Purism Librem 5 compared to a OnePlus 6 Android smartphone.

Image: TechRepublic/Jack Wallen

Notice that I didn't say anything about the UI--that's because the interface is the one thing Purism has done seriously right with the Librem 5. It's really good. In fact, how about a screenshot? In order to do that, I had to walk through the following steps:

  1. Install openssh-server, grim, and libnotify-bin.

  2. SSH into the phone.

  3. Create a bash script that uses the grim command. 

  4. Give the bash script the proper permissions.

  5. Run the command.

  6. Use the scp command to copy the photo from the phone to the desktop.

The screenshot shows the gist of how the interface works (Figure B). 

Figure B

librem5b.jpg

The Purism Librem 5 homescreen is somewhat reminiscent of an upside down version of previous Android releases.

You have running apps on top and installed apps on the bottom, both delineated by an app search bar. Everything is a quick tap away, and applications can be installed from within GNOME Software. That's right, GNOME Software. So you'll have access to plenty of open source software. I even installed LibreOffice, just to see if it could be done. Although the office suite did install, launching it caused the device to choke. What does that mean? The hardware isn't up to the task of running such a large desktop application. In fact, while attempting to run LibreOffice while the device was charging, it made the hardware almost too hot to touch. Lesson learned.

The Librem 5 requires zero learning curve as I have ever witnessed with a mobile device. It wouldn't matter which platform you were coming from (Android or iOS), you could be up to speed on PureOS in seconds.

And that, my friends, is what Purism has proved: Linux does have a successful path to the mobile phone rank and file. The Librem 5 is a long, long, long way off from being consumer ready. But if Purism can fix the problems and find more consumer-friendly hardware, this Linux smartphone could finally gain traction in an incredibly challenging market.

And, yes, just for fun I did install the Apache web browser onto the phone (Figure C).

Figure C

librem5c.jpg

Running the Apache web server on the Purism Librem 5 smartphone is actually quite simple.

Clearly, the Librem 5, once it's ready, will have a lot of Linux goodness up its sleeve that most other phones cannot touch.

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