First of all, if you want to buy an x86 Linux laptop, the two best companies are Purism and System76, because you are helping to pay for real development which is the only way that we will get long-term change in the industry.
Purism will never be able to make a RYF laptop using an x86 processor, but it has eliminated 2.5 of the 5 proprietary bits (BIOS/UEFI, VGA BIOS, Intel Management Engine, Firmware Support Package (FSP) and Core microcode). Purism has pushed the rest of the Linux laptop industry to do better:
- First to ship a new x86 Linux laptop (that wasn’t a Chromebook) with Coreboot preinstalled in July 2017. System76 was the second in early February 2020.
- First to sell a laptop with Intel Management Engine neutralized in October 2017 and the only one (AFAIK) to replace 92% of its code with zeros. S76 was the second company to do this a month and a half later.
- Got rid of the proprietary VGA BIOS (I’m not sure if System76 has also done this or not).
- First to sell a new laptop with Heads preinstalled.
- Second company (after Lubiquity) to create a 100% free software distro endorsed by the FSF and PureOS is currently the highest ranked FSF-endorsed distro according to DistroWatch.org.
- First company to sell a server and mini-PC (NUC) with Coreboot preinstalled.
If you buy one of S76’s Coreboot laptops, then you are basically getting a similar level of software freedom as buying a Librem laptop, but the question is what do you think is more important. With S76 you get open firmware for the Embedded Controller (EC) that controls the keyboard, battery charging and LED lights, but you get proprietary firmware for the Intel WiFi/BT which is stored in the /lib/firmware directory.
In contrast, with the Librem laptops, you get 92% of the IME code replaced by zeros rather than just neutralizing it, you get an Atheros ath9k WiFi card that has poor performance but it uses no firmware, and you get a 100% free software distro.
If you want the freest x86 system possible, buy one of the S76 Coreboot models and then install a ThinkPenguin Atheros ath9k WiFi miniPCIe card. (The ThinkPenguin Atheros card reportedly has a newer chip that works better than the one in the Librem 13/15. I wonder if the Librem 14 has upgraded the Atheros chip.)
Historically Purism was better and pushed System76, but System76 is now doing important development work. The question is what development work do you want to support and what is more important to you.
With System76, you are supporting:
- Open hardware for the I/O card in Thelios desktop and an open hardware case.
- Custom manufacturing of desktop PCs in the US,
- Open firmware for the Embedded Controller in some laptop models,
Porting Coreboot to the AMD Matisse and Renoir platforms.
With Purism, you are supporting:
- More Coreboot development. Purism’s Matt DeVillier has been involved in 593 Coreboot commits, whereas System76’s Jeremy Soller has been involved in 40 Coreboot commits.
- Use of hardware kill switches. Purism was the first company to offer a microphone/camera kill switch and will be the first to offer a BIOS protection switch in the Librem 14.
- Makes about a dozen commits in every Linux kernel release to support new hardware, especially the i.MX 8M processor.
- Making GTK/GNOME a mobile operating system with the development of phosh, phoc, libhandy, Calls, Chatty, haegtesse and wys and a future camera app, plus adapting many GNOME desktop apps like Contacts to work in mobile devices.
- Creation of an phone with free/open schematics for the circuit boards.
- Offering paid web services based on free software which protect user privacy.
For me, the development work being done by Purism is more important than the work being done by System76 for three reasons:
- I want mobile Linux to be a viable alternative to iOS and Android, and Purism needs cash right now to continue its development work on mobile Linux, so ordering the Librem 14 will help support the company.
- Purism’s work on the i.MX 8M is our best hope for ever getting a RYF laptop. The MNT Reform depends on the Linux kernel work being done by Purism. If the MNT Reform gets decent power management, good video out over USB-C, and support for cameras over the MIPI CSI-2 interface, it will be because Purism worked with NXP to get those features added to the i.MX 8M driver in the mainline Linux kernel. The best hope that we have to get RISC-V devices is the i.MX 8M + RISC-V chips being developed by NXP and Purism is the company is best positioned to make those devices, because it already uses the i.MX 8M platform and it is one of only 3 mobile Linux device makers (Purism, PINE64 and Star Labs) that uses custom manufacturing.
- Purism’s stance against surveillance Capitalism and its Librem One services are vital to protecting human freedom in the future.
On the other hand, I think that System76 porting Coreboot is strategically important because it will pressure the other Linux laptop sellers who also use Clevo base models to start offering Coreboot ports. Offering AMD Coreboot laptops in the future is very important as the industry shifts to more use of AMD processors. Now that System76 has set the precedent of open firmware for the EC, it is pressuring Purism to do something similar in its laptops.