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Hands-on: The Purism Librem 15 builds serious security into a slender laptop

The Librem 15 laptop, from the privacy and freedom-oriented Linux PC maker Purism, aims to be the answer for those who want ultimate data protection. After taking this laptop for a long spin, I can safely say it delivers thoroughly on security and privacy—though not surprisingly, at the expense of other features. 

Stealth looks

purism librem 15v3 left side portsAlex Campbell

The slim and sleek design comes without obvious logos.

One of the first things I noticed after opening up the box is that there are very few distinguishing features on the Librem 15’s exterior. There are no logos on the laptop’s lid, screen bezel, or keyboard, save for a Purism logo on the Super (Windows) key. Keep looking and you’ll finally find Purism’s logo printed on the bottom of the PC, out of sight and out of mind. 

The smooth aluminum chassis and trackpad give the Librem 15 a premium feel akin to a Macbook Pro or Razer Blade Pro. While it’s nice to see and touch, the aluminum also loves to attract fingerprints. If you want to keep the laptop looking spotless, keep a microfiber cloth and a mild cleaner handy.

The 1080p screen of the Librem 15 has a matte finish and somewhat narrow viewing angles. While we tend to applaud laptops with wider viewing angles, the Librem 15’s limitation feels like a security feature instead of a bug, making it harder for prying eyes to glance at your desktop. Installing a privacy filter over the screen would work better, but this is a good start. 

Hardware

purism librem 15v3 gutshotAlex Campbell

The layout of the Librem 15 makes it easy to service or upgrade parts. The RAM (left), Wi-Fi card (center left), and SSD (right) are all easily accessible without further disassembly.

The hardware in our test unit is impressive, but there are a couple of notable details. First, the Core i7-6500U CPU is a little old, a Skylake chip, offering 200MHz less base frequency (2.5GHz versus 2.7GHz) and 400MHz less turbo frequency (3.1GHz versus 3.5GHz) than the Kaby Lake iteration of the chip, the Core i7-7500U. Both chips operate with a TDP of 15W, have the same instruction set, and offer four threads. The Librem 15 will perform well with most tasks you throw at it, just a tad slower than the newer Kaby Lake version of the chip.

The other big difference is Purism ‘s decision to go with a Qualcomm Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radio instead of an Intel chip. The Atheros AR9462 is an 802.11n (Wireless-N) chip, and does not support 802.11ac wireless speeds. Note that you wouldn’t see 802.11ac speeds for internet browsing or downloading unless you paid for 50Mbps (or higher) service from your ISP anyway. But if you are using an 802.11ac router, this laptop can’t take advantage of the extra speed. 

purism librem 15v3 lsspciAlex Campbell

Nearly all of the major hardware on the Librem 15 is current-gen Intel. However, Purism opted for an Atheros WiFi card for security reasons.

While going with the older 802.11n standard seems damning on its face, there are some interesting reasons to do so. The chip Purism chose uses the Ath9k driver, which is quite mature on Linux, meaning Wi-Fi connections remain stable. On top of that stability, the Ath9k card has an open firmware, while the newer Atheros (Ath10k) and Intel (iwlwifi) cards do not. For those looking for extra privacy, having an open firmware helps reassure you that your network traffic isn’t being sniffed by a third party.

Connectivity includes a pair of USB 3.0 Type A ports on the right side, joined by an HDMI port and a USB 3.0 Type C port. The left side of the laptop features two USB 2.0 Type A ports, a headphone jack, and an SD card reader. The laptop lacks a Kensington lock, but the only times I’ve ever seen one in use were in a public library, a school, or on display units in an electronics store. 

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