Librem 5 Phone - Review

Inspired by a couple recent posts by @flanders51 and @2disbetter , I wanted to share my experience with the Librem 5. Below is a post I just added to Gemini, and also pasted here.

gemini://leetaur.com/gemlog/entries/2023-08-12.gmi

Librem 5 Phone - Review

Using the Librem 5

Note, I am typing this gemini post up on a Librem 5, an absolutely beautiful piece of hardware, running PureOS. I will talk more about the phone itself below, but want to provide a little history first.

Background

I am an iOS developer for a Fortune 500 company. I taught myself and started developing iPhone apps in 2009. I later joined the mobile team of the company in 2010. So I have been using and programming the iPhone from the beginning. Apple opened up development and the AppStore for the iPhone in 2008.

While I liked the iPhone for what it was, I remember telling my boss in 2010, “What I really want is an iPhone that I could plug into a monitor, keyboard, and mouse, and it would give me a full OS X desktop” (later renamed macOS). He told me that the technology to use a phone as a full desktop exists, but that companies were not marketing it. I don’t remember if he said why, but I can imagine that it is because companies like Apple want to sell you both a Mac and a phone. There is no economic incentive to give you an “all in one” device.

Investing in an Idea

I didn’t give up on that “convergent” phone idea. With Windows 8, Microsoft created an interface that was supposed to work as either a phone interface or a desktop one. I had Apple hardware then, and wasn’t very interested to go back to any Windows technology, but I wanted Microsoft to succeed in creating a convergent operating system so that Apple would follow suit

But Microsoft did not succeed at challenging Apple and Google to break into the smartphone market. I have watched a lot of companies try and fail as well… From Tizen, to the Fire Phone by Amazon (one of the richest companies on earth), Firefox OS, and what I really hoped would success, Ubuntu Touch.

They all flamed out. Not even Microsoft and Amazon could break in to the lock Google and Apple have on the phone OS market.

Around the time of the Ubuntu Touch effort I began to regain my interest in GNU/Linux, which I had used heavily earlier in my career. I started by installing it on a virtual machine on my Mac laptop, and then bought an older machine and installed it onto there. I found myself wanting to run GNU/Linux on a phone, and was very disappointed when Canonical gave up on the effort.

I heard about the Librem 5, and Purism, on Linux Action News in 2018. LAN was not very complimentary of the effort, or of Purism, but after hearing about the phone, I started paying attention to the company, and to the forums on Purism’s website. The forums are “lively” at times, to say the least.

I joined the forums in early 2019, ordering the phone in March of that year. I understood that this was a longshot effort, not because of anything against Purism, but because much better funded efforts had tried and failed.

I wanted a phone where I, the customer, could decide what to put on the phone, rather than centrally curated app stores. I wanted a phone that ran full GNU/Linux, so that I could program for it without having to pass it through any “gates”, using Rust or Python or whatever other language I preferred. I wanted the ability to distribute my apps without Google or Apple getting in the way.

And, of course, I wanted a phone that, using an adapter, could be used as a full desktop!

The Librem 5 represented that ideal, that idea. When I gave them my money ($649 at the time), I gave it to them so that this technology had a chance to exist.

Pinephone

While the Librem 5 may have technically existed before the Pinephone, or at least their earliest developer models, I would argue that Pine64 beat Purism out of the gate at actually getting a substantial number of phones (also really a developer models) into customers hands.

I ordered a Pinephone in February 2021, and received it on March 1. Pine64 gets an A+ at getting their devices into customers’ hands!

It was kind of an early taste of what the Librem 5 would be like. I was using Mobian, which uses Phosh, the mobile interface developed by Purism. In a way, having a Pinephone helped me to be patient while waiting for the Librem 5.

I got the version with 2 gigabytes of RAM, and a 16 gigabyte eMMC. Even smaller than what I have in the Librem 5, which I consider a weakspot int he device.

Pine64 is a pretty cool company, and I would highly recommend their hardware for those who want more inexpensive devices.

A Long Wait

I received my Librem 5 phone on March 30, 2023. I had been waiting for it for 4 years, following the progess, and yes, the drama, of the phone development, the parts shortages caused by the pandemic, when the Librem 5 finally received FCC and CE approval, the mass order of parts, and the long, slow delivery of the phones to the initial backers, the pre-orders, etc.

I never grew angry at the delays. I understand other people’s frustration. People ordered a product, and they wanted the product or, at the very least, the money used to order the product refunded.

I also ordered a product, but more than that I invested in an idea that I had been wanting for many years. I was delighted at the people who got the earliest phones, and very happy as the mass production began.

A friend of mine received his phone over a year before I did, because he upgraded to the more expensive, Librem 5 USA model. The fact of the phone’s existence really made me happy, even if I had been waiting for years to get one into my hands.

My Experience

Convergence

As I wrote at the top of this post, I am composing it on a Librem 5. I am using a $30 adapter to plug the phone into a keyboard, mouse and monitor. It works really well as a desktop.

I bought a NexDock, and can use it as a nice, portable laptop as well.

Similar to other Librem 5 owners I know, I like to write. I’d heard that Manuskript runs on it well, and indeed it does. I also am programming on it, using Python as the main language.

So I can write on the Librem 5, and I can program on the Librem 5. I can browse the web using Firefox (Gnome Web isn’t so great on it).

In other words, it is a full, though somewhat weak, desktop/laptop.

Calls and Texts

Of course, this is a phone. Calls and texts work great. I’ve never had any trouble with it, but it is a question that comes up, so I thought I’d throw it in here that, yes, the Librem 5 works really well as an actual phone.

Battery

The battery life has improved a lot in just the past 4.5 months. Right now, if I mainly leave it in my pocket, just making some calls, or sending texts or Matrix messages, it lasts my whole day. If I use it heavily, it lasts about 6 hours or so.

This isn’t great compared to the iPhone of course. My test iPhones I can leave on all weekend, and still have a decent charge when I get them back out on Monday.

The Librem 5 can’t match that. But if I go to the office, or otherwise am out for a long period of time, I’ll take a portable 20,000 mah battery with me. The NexDock can also recharge it. It is kind of an “if needed” thing. I don’t use the battery all that often.

Camera

When I first received the Librem 5 in March, in order to take a decent picture, I had to adjust the gain, balance, exposure, and focus manually to get a decent picture. Also, the camera tended to work for a while after reboot, but after that taking pictures would just freeze the app.

After a couple of months all of that changed. All of the settings automatically adjust, and I no longer run into issues where the camera just stops working. I can shoot multiple pictures one right after another. It also now does video recording.

Purism has done a really good job improving the camera and making it useful.

Videos

Videos are not hard to play, but I happen to use it quite a bit for playing music videos and some movies. As I recently told someone on the forums, I use VLC to do this, and it works really well.

Geocaching…

I’m not recommending that you use the Librem 5 as a geocaching device, but… BUT, it can be done!

I’ve experimented by downloading gpx files directly from geocaching.com. If you tap on the gpx file, it will bring up the Maps app, and drop a red pin at the local indicated within the gpx file. If you have location services on, you will also get your own location on the map as a blue pin.

You then start movingand just get the blue pin and red pins to converge.

Right now, to get the cache decription, I actually bring it up in the Text app or vim. Like I said above, I’m not recommending using this phone for geocaching.

Yet… that is one of my new projects, to create a decent geocaching app for the Librem 5, or any other GNU/Linux based phone!

Downsides

RAM

The Librem 5, the model I have at least, comes with 3 gigabytes of RAM. This is one of the limiting factors from allowing it to be a more powerful computer. For the tasks I do, it works fine. I’ve heard of people doing some audio processing as well. But when I turn to something that needs more power (ex. video processing) you will want a more powerful device.

Purism’s newest phone model, the Liberty Phone, comes with 4 gigabytes of RAM. It also comes with a much larger eMMC (internal storage). See below…

Four gigabytes is still somewhat small, but better than 3. Also, I think the i.MX 8M Quad processor that the Librem 5 uses only supports up to 4 GB RAM.

eMMC

Once upon a time 32 GB of storage was considered huge. Of course, I come from way back when my father used a TRS-80 with cassette tape storage, through the 5.25 and 3.5-in floppy eras, etc.

But in modern computing a 32 GB eMMC is pretty small. This is especially true if, in order to get some of your apps, you have to install Flatpaks. Flatpaks are really great for making apps compatible with different Linux distros, but they are huge, and eat up space very quickly.

I installed a 128 GB SD card, which is where I store my music and video. But the apps themselves, especially flatpaks, also need a lot of room. The Librem 5 needs a larger eMMC!

The Liberty phone, recently introduced by Purism, has a 128 GB eMMC. That’s great, and a huge improvement. But the Liberty phone is $2,199. If you want a made in the USA Liberty Phone, it is going to cost you a bit.

Software Management

Half the time when I bring up the Software app, nothing loads in it. I can’t search apps, install or delete. It is possible this is improved, because I got so frustrated with it, I just resorted to Terminal, and using ‘apt’ commands to get my software.

I understand that this is software developed by the Gnome Foundation, not Purism. But it is a frustrating experience.

Fun Stories

Taking the Librem 5 to work

My team knew I had been waiting for this phone for a long time. While my team only gets together in person occassionally, the first time we did after I received the Librem 5 I brought it to work, as well as the NexDock. You also have to wonder whether a team of mobile developers that dedicate their time and talent to the two main operating system, iOS and Android, would appreciate a complete different device.

It was a hit! I was able to show some of the apps I was working on, on the phone, and in desktop mode. I demoed how apps move seamlessly between the NexDock screen and the Librem 5 screen. I showed off Firefox, which is full desktop Firefox, and how it resizes itself to the phone screen when in “phone mode”.

One of my coworkers enjoyed playing with it, trying out the convergence, launching the apps, etc.

The Librem 5 is a thick phone, but it is very pretty, with a beautiful screen, decent sound, and its convergence really draws attention.

Taking the Librem 5 to Toastmasters

I went to a Toastmasters event (a Toastmasters Leadership Institute). I got to the TLI fairly early. Before the event actually started, I was writing on my Librem 5, using the NexDock. Two people sat down next to me, and one started a conversation with “Is that a magnetic mount for your phone?” I told him yes, it was, but that also the “dock” wasn’t an actual computer, but that the phone was a Linux computer that just used the NexDock for the screen, keyboard and touchpad.

The other guy that sat next to me was into Information Technology, and very familiar with Linux (specifically Kali Linux). He started asking me questions about it, so I got to do a full demo of the Librem 5, and the NexDock. At least among that small group, the Librem 5 was a hit.

Summary

First, I love the Librem 5. It is my main device, that I use as a phone, laptop (using the NexDock) and desktop (using a cheap adapter). I have no problem using the Librem 5 as my daily driver.

One thing that is huge for me - privacy - is well fulfilled by the Librem 5. I can launch apps, all free software, that I trust is not sending my data to a bunch of data brokers all the time. By using this phone I am not supporting surveillance capitalism. At any time, I can quickly “go dark” by throwing the hardware kill switches.

However, I have a lot of expertise in computers. Is this device, the Librem 5, ready for non-techie consumers? I don’t think so, yet. While with tech you can find a lot of people willing to help online (Purism’s forums are filled with people who love to help out), a lot of people want their phone to work like an appliance, something really simple to use.

I don’t think the Librem 5 fits that bill, yet. But I think as Purism, and the Linux community, continue to make improvements to the software that runs ont he phone, it could get there.

The truth is with all the complicated gestures, multitasking, etc, even the iPhone, probably the easiest to use, it isn’t actually easy anymore. None of these devices have the simplicity of what Steve Jobs introduced in 2007.

For those with a bit more tech-savvy, I would happily recommend the Librem 5, for those who want to pay the high price for it. At $1,299, the Librem 5 is a pricey piece of hardware. But if you really care about free software, about privacy, about convergence, and about being the one in control of your device, the Librem 5 might be for you.

28 Likes

:+1:

:-1:

diez caracteres

I look forward to it.

And, thanks for a very informative review.
~s

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Thanks for the write up! You and I think a like when it comes to convergence. It is absolutely one of the L5’s strongest points. I think the Librety Phone is a solid improvement, but pricey. Still when you consider that it is funding continued development, it helps to soften that pill a little.

I’m writing this response from a Librem 5 as well.

8 Likes

Well written, @leetaur! I’ve read your article on your gemlog and am happy I can react to it here: just like you I think investing in the idea was more important than the actual hardware but I’m happy with the outcome. I bet it’ll be a much improved device at the end of the year if the rate keeps going like this. (Crimson this year? ) What a joyride!

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Great post. Thank you for the well considered write-up. Much appreciated.

1 Like

It worked! :heart:

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