Hardware

Purism Librem 13 review: This Linux-based laptop takes your privacy to the next level

Jack Wallen takes a look at the Librem 13 laptop from Purism and concludes this could be one solid investment for business users looking for serious privacy.

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Image: Jack Wallen

When you take your business on the go, there are times when the pace can get so frantic and you hardly have time to think about things like privacy—which is a shame. Privacy should be foremost on your mind at all times and especially when you're traveling with a laptop that houses data about work.

That is the very reason why I want to call your attention to a company called Purism. If the name rings a bell, it's probably because they are the very same company promising to finally bring a consumer-ready Linux smartphone to market (the Librem 5). Purism also produces a line of laptops, built on PureOS, which offer a few features that should have you and your company seriously considering a purchase or two.

The size of it all

There are two laptops currently available for purchase: The Librem 13 and Librem 15. You can read about the device specs here. Purism also offers the Librem 11, a transformer of a device, that can go from tablet to laptop with ease. This device is not yet available for purchase.

I received a Librem 13 as a temporary loaner, so I could kick the tires of the Librem line and see if they are worthy of either consumer or business users. Let's find out what makes these devices special, and if you should invest your hard earned budget on a Linux-based laptop.

PureOS

As I mentioned, these laptops are build around PureOS, which is a distribution of Linux aimed at respecting your privacy. It manages this with the best free/libre privacy and security software and apps, such as the Tor browser, the Duck Duck Go search engine, EFF Privacy Badger, and HTTPS: Everywhere, all of which is bundled into the default web browser, PureBrowser. The chosen desktop for PureOS is GNOME, so it's incredibly user-friendly and offers far more reliability than most business users are accustomed to—at least those using Windows 10.

At this point, you're probably thinking, "So what? I can add that to my current OS and laptop!" Fortunately, the privacy-enforcing goodness doesn't stop there.

Disk encryption the right way

The privacy doesn't begin or end with the software stack. In fact, it begins when you first boot up your Librem laptop. During first boot, the OS has yet to actually be installed, so you will have to walk through the steps of making this happen. Fortunately, this is Linux so the installation is incredibly easy. And, because Purism has put some remarkable thought into hardware selection, it even works out of the box. You won't have to jump through a single hoop to get the OS to function properly with the hardware. That, of course, has nothing to do with privacy. However, very quickly into the installation of the OS, you'll be asked to create a password to be used for disk encryption. You don't have a choice here; your disk will be encrypted. I believe anyone in IT will agree this is the right way to go. Every disk found on a business laptop should be encrypted. The last thing you want is to find your laptop stolen, knowing someone could easily get to the data within. Encryption makes data theft much more challenging, and PureOS makes encrypting your disk simple.

The real deal makers

Some people might shrug this next feature off. However, at a time when spyware has become incredibly sophisticated, it's imperative we take every possible step we can to prevent would-be "bad actors" from spying on us. To that end, Purism has added two kill switches to their Libem Laptops. On the left edge of the device, you'll find two switches (Figure A) that allows you to quickly disable both Wi-Fi/Bluetooth and Webcam/Mic.

Figure A

Figure A

Convenient kill switches to shut off wireless, bluetooth, camera, and mic.

Imagine you're working on the go, and out of nowhere you start suspecting something could be amiss. Instead of shutting the device down, you could quickly flip the kill switches to prevent anyone from stealing wireless or bluetooth packets and listening or watching via your camera or mic. And because Purism has done such a good job with the hardware, the second you flip those switches back to the "On" position, the hardware will work again with no need to reboot or mess with the command line.

Although these kill switches might not seem all that important to everyone, to anyone that has dealt with such privacy invasions they can be serious deal makers. And yes, many laptop manufactures have buttons that enable you to quickly turn off wireless and bluetooth. Typically those buttons are separate, so shutting them both down individually could mean the difference between someone getting at your data and you stopping them from doing so. And few manufacturers include kill switches for the camera/mic. This is certainly a bonus that, when combined with the other features of the Librem laptop, make for a very privacy-centric device.

A solid investment

If you're okay with using a Linux laptop, which you should be, the Librem line of laptops would make a very solid investment. Combine the specs with the incredibly well-built hardware and the privacy features, and you have a laptop that is sure to please most business users that are ready to make the jump to Linux.

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About Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.

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