Andy DeVane

Software engineer, Privacy goof, Sysadmin LARPer

Scams, cults, and kernels: A look back on waiting for the Librem 5

Last week my long-awaited Librem 5 arrived. When I placed my order on December 17th of 2020, I knew I was in for a wait, as the original crowdfunding campaign was in August of 2017. I was eager to give mobile Linux a try. I explored many options over the years while waiting for the Librem 5 in the hopes that something would be suitable for my daily driver. So far, I haven’t found a non-Android, native Linux phone stable enough to suit my needs, but despite the controversy surrounding the Librem 5, it is the closest to replacing my current daily driver by far.

In this post, I’d like to take a look at what I’ve tried in the past, how the Librem 5 stacks up against those previous attempts.

The Pinephone

I got my first Pinephone back in March of 2021. It’s a wonderful device, but at the time, the offering of distros for mobile Linux was much smaller, and the distros that did have an offering, were still in the very early stages of development. There were frequent crashes and few apps that were convergent. Call audio sounded terrible, and MMS support for higher-resolution media over text, and group chats had not yet been implemented. Putting aside the stability issues, the software offering was so lacking that you couldn’t expect even the most basic functionality of a phone. As time went on, commit by commit, these issues have mostly been resolved. There are also numerous distros trying to create a mobile experience.

As far as the Pinephone stands as of writing, I’ll be honest I haven’t picked it up in a while. This is because after a couple of Pinephones and multiple distros I have mostly shifted my focus to my next attempt at a daily driver.

OnePlus 6T with postmarketOS

After seeing posts showing off the performance of PostmarketOS running on Android hardware over on Mastodon. I decided to pull the trigger on one from eBay and give it a shot myself. The stability and performance of this setup was truly a cut above. No more sluggish scrolling in apps, and much fewer crashes. I was really enjoying what I was seeing. However what the Oneplus 6T makes up for in power, it lacks in hardware support. PostmarketOS is a community effort and requires mainlining the kernel of any given device. This means porting old code provided by the vendor of the device to the upstream mainline Linux kernel.

As of writing, I’m not sure if mainlining the Oneplus 6T is something that anyone is working on. The things that I would really like to see implemented have been the same since I received the phone in January of this year. Granted that mainlining is an extremely difficult task that is far above my capabilities, the best I can do is wait. I would like to state that I’m very grateful to anyone working on the PostmarketOS project, and I would love for you to keep doing what you’re doing at your own pace, and take care of yourself first.

Purism’s shortcomings

This brings us to today. My Librem 5 has arrived. I’ve had a chance to set it up, install some apps, and get some screen time. So what do I think of it? First off the elephant in the room. Purism doesn’t have the best reputation these days. Due to numerous delays, shady refund policies, lack of communication and transparency, and many other factors, Purism has gained a negative reputation in the community. Many people say that Purism is an outright scam and even a cult. I would caution anyone looking into the Librem 5, or other products provided by Purism to weigh this reputation into account and look into Purism themselves before coming to a decision.

My opinion on the matter is that Purism is a company that set out to accomplish the goal of providing hardware and software for a mobile Linux experience that was much more difficult than they expected. I do not believe that they set out to scam people. However, I believe what really happened is the development took longer than they expected, a pandemic exploded the global supply chain, and the biggest issue (that I believe and have no real hard evidence for) is that after all the delays and shortages, once people started losing faith in them, their cashflow was impacted. I believe that the seed funding for the Librem 5 ran out a long time ago. This slowed and impaired their ability to ship devices, and on top of that, many customers started demanding refunds. Purism dragged the refund process out as long as possible for anyone who requested one, simply because every refund they issued ate into what little funds they had left.

The main reason I believe this is the case is Purism raising capital via a convertible debt note. Based on my previous experience, this kind of fundraising is what companies do when they are in an existential crisis. Usually there are little to no options for inventment, and the company is running out of runway. Without taking on a round of inventment, there is a large risk of becoming insolvent. In my opinion, Purism was in a position where they needed to preserve cash as long as possible, while getting to ship the Librem 5 as fast as possible, which are conflicting goals, to save the company from going under.

With all of that out of the way let’s actually talk about the hardware.

Librem 5

As of writing, I’ve had the Librem 5 for about a week. I’ve been using it actively alongside my daily driver. I’m using the Librem 5 for most of what I use a smartphone for aside from messaging and phone calls. Unfortunately, my cell carrier Verizon only supports mobile data so I’ve still been using my current phone. Eventually, I plan to switch to T-Mobile as they support the Librem 5, and they have better service in my location.

My use case for mobile is a tough one. My social circle uses proprietary applications such as Snapchat that as much as I would love to move away from, there is no way I can convince them to leave. (Believe me, I have tried) Using Waydroid for Android apps has worked amazing on the Librem 5. However, I won’t be able to test my messaging apps until I get a T-Mobile sim, as they only allow one main device at a time. The plan is to only use Android apps that I can’t live without and use native or web apps for everything else. If you’re curious about how Android apps run, in my experience the Librem 5 has been the best Android emulation experience.

Moving on to web apps, I’ve been using Tangram for my web apps. Tangram is a web browser that only supports pinned tabs, and isolates each tab’s cookies. It is designed as a web app hub. It works okay, but I’ve noticed that it tends to hurt the performance of the Librem 5 over time. After a while things get sluggish so I ended up restarting phosh via the terminal. If anyone has any recommendations, please reach out to me on my Mastodon, which is linked in the footer of my website.

I’m using many native applications at the moment and in the interest of keeping this post from ballooning more than it already has I won’t go into all of them here. I’ll be updating my website with a section on apps that I use for those who are interested. Here are just a few worth noting.

  • Geopard is a Gemini browser, I obviously don’t have time to go into what Gemini is, but I highly recommend looking into it if you are serious about privacy, but still want to consume content online. It can make the issues of a limited number of native applications feel quite insignificant. I’ve been using it as a Reddit, and news proxy. On top of that, it’s just fun to explore.
  • WatchMate is an app that allows you to sync a Pinetime smartwatch
  • Errands is a nice todo app
  • Wike for searching Wikipedia, as the web browser experience still isn’t great
  • Junction allows you to choose which browser an application opens a link in. This has been quite useful for me, as I’ve found different browsers are good for different things

And many many more… Moving on.

A quick note on hardware and then I really have to stop this rambling. The Librem 5 is an absolute unit. This thing is a chonk. If you have held a Nintendo Switch and a SteamDeck, it’s like that but with smartphones. You hold a SteamDeck for the first time and you’re like holy crap, this thing is huge, but then you get used to it. Same thing with the Librem 5

The hardware kill switches on the side are awesome. Being able to leave the camera and microphone switched off and knowing for a fact that no one is listening in is a great feeling. I can’t wait for the “they’re listening” targeted advertising conversation to come up so I can flip my switch and feel smug.

The sim tray… Oh, the sim tray. All I can say is if you’re planning to put an SD card in this thing, take extra care to make sure that it is seated in the tray properly. I didn’t, and when I put it in for the first time it felt like a very tight fit. When I tried to get it open again, it would only pop out enough to grab it. After that, it wouldn’t budge. I found online people saying to put the phone face down and jiggle the tray side to side while pulling, but had no luck. I tried this technique with pliers and managed to get it out. Also, if you are putting a SIM in, power the device down before inserting or removing it as it apparently can fry your SIM card. Yikes.

All in all, I’m really enjoying the device. It’s by no means perfect, but as far as I’ve seen, it stands the best chance at becoming my first daily driver Linux phone. Purism finally reached the end of a long road to get this device shipped. Hopefully, they can start the long road to repairing their standing in the community. However, I think that will be harder than shipping the Librem 5 in the first place. I’m wishing them the best of luck in that endeavour. Thanks for reading.

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