Librem 14 Is the Most Secure Laptop You Can Buy, but It Comes at a High Price
If you're looking for a Linux laptop with a focus on privacy and security, you could roll your own. Several GNU/Linux operating systems are available that are more angled towards privacy and keeping you secure online, rather than general computing. One example is PureOS, the operating system from Purism that you will find pre-installed on the Librem 14.
A top-end ultraportable notebook with specs comparable with a MacBook Pro, the Librem 14 is arguably the most security and privacy-conscious laptop around.
But Purism's laptop costs a pretty penny – is it worth the price?
Librem 14 Laptop Specifications
We received a test machine from Purism to assess for several weeks. This had 16GB of DDR4 RAM and a 250GB SSD, although other options are available.
The Librem 14 is a 14-inch ultraportable notebook with a matte display (1920×1080), featuring a 4.70GHz Core i7 10710U Comet Lake Processor, up to 64GB of DDR4 RAM, 4K output to dual displays, and the PureOS operating system. Storage depends on your preference, with dual SATA and NVMe-capable 80mm M.2 slots.
There is also a memory card reader, USB 3.1 type-A and USB 3.1 type-C ports, HDMI 2 port, and a backlit keyboard, and 3.5mm combined audio jack for mic and headphones. Video out is provided via the HDMI 2 and the USB Type-C ports, powered by Intel UHD Graphics 620.
Connectivity is via a Gigabit Ethernet Adapter and dual antenna Atheros 802.11n wireless radio.
Finally, the Librem 14 features a pair of physical kill switches to help ensure against privacy breaches.
What Do the Kill Switches Do?
Mounted between the keyboard and display, the Librem 14 laptop features two kill switches. These are grouped by function.
The first kill switch is for the onboard webcam and mic. Switching to the left will disable both devices, an ideal hardware disconnection for the privacy-conscious. You can literally disable the webcam and mic in the middle of a video conference call. More importantly, it's smart to keep the switch disabled when not using video conferencing. To make things simpler, an LED lights when the webcam and mic are enabled.
Second is the kill switch for wireless and Bluetooth. There might be some argument against grouping the radio and multimedia kill switches into two, rather than provide four individual switches. For example, you might want to disable Wi-Fi while continuing to use a wireless mouse.
Overall, however, the kill switches work well.
The Ultra-Secure PureOS
Unifying the hardware and security features is PureOS, a Debian-based Linux operating system. This is encrypted by default, requiring a decryption password and a separate user account to be set up.
Beneath this, there's PureBoot, the TPM-linked secure booting process. This requires the correct coreboot version and an optional Librem Key. It informs you – via a blinking LED – if the /boot directory has changed. Viruses, malware, determined state actors, or even ransomware could potentially cause that change.
PureBoot firmware is also patched to protect the Librem 14 from the Meltdown and Spectre CPU vulnerabilities.
It's not all good news, however. While PureOS appears to be a reliable and stable version of Debian, it has a noticeable quirk. In the Software app, selecting software to install results in apparently no data being downloaded and installed. Clicking the "cancel" button appears to fix this by revealing the app or game is installed, but you can't tell at any stage of the process without looking in the app drawer.
This is essentially a case of the software hanging and is frustrating if the default software isn't enough for you – and it probably won't be.
Librem 14 Body and Design
Essentially, this is a black slab that you can open to start being productive. Considering the internals, the Librem 14 is modest, with striking lines but a lack of any identifying brand name. All you'll see (beyond the kill switches) that identify the Librem 14 as a Purism device is the oblong "super" key.
Measuring 322mm x 17mm x 220mm, the Librem 14 weighs 1.4kg. It feels somehow lighter. With its high-quality aluminum chassis, the Librem 14 feels cool to the touch and is around the size of a college textbook.
The laptop will easily fit into a bag – a secure, padded satchel is recommended – ready to be removed, opened, and work commenced. There seems to be a magnet pulling at the lid when you open the Librem 14, another example of its smart design.
Nice Laptop, but What About the Keyboard?
The backlit keyboard boasts – according to the website – "plenty of key travel." But what does this mean and what is the impact on typing?
Well, the Librem 14 is a comfortable laptop to type on, if a little small. I have quite large hands, but I'm sure I found the Librem 13 – a smaller device – easier to type on. This time, I found myself catching the Caps Lock when in full flow typing, which isn't ideal.
However, the key height provides good tactile feedback, so you know you're typing fast and efficiently without looking at the keyboard or even the display.
What You Can and Can't Do With a Librem 14 Running PureOS
With a wealth of open-source software at your disposal, PureOS allows you to do almost anything with the Librem 14, while computing more securely than you ever have before. Word processing, media editing, art, they're all possible, as are social networks, online shopping, and web searches via the GNOME Web-based PureBrowser.
But certain things are difficult. For example, installing games on the Librem 14 is a problem unless you know what you're doing. This is due to the PureOS limit on proprietary drivers and other software. In short, despite the system spec, you can't take advantage of Linux gaming through Steam for Linux. While the Intel UHD Graphics 620 chip isn't perfect for gaming, that doesn't mean gaming should be off the cards.
The Software app has plenty of open-source games you can try, but they aren't exactly AAA titles.
In short if the software is wholly open-source, you're able to do almost anything, without restriction. The Librem 14 can handle pretty much anything you throw at it, wherever you are, which is reassuring. And dare I say, a lack of proprietary software support and an Intel graphics chip is better for battery life.
Having said all that, you can install other distros – such as standard Debian – and enjoy the additional benefits that proprietary drivers and other technology can bring to the Librem 14.
Beyond the operating system, the Librem 14 has some hardware shortcomings. While the display is fine, audio is limited, with a narrow range of tones from the speakers. Volume isn't as loud as other notebook computers (for example, I have two others, a Dell, and a HP, both louder), which is somewhat disappointing.
The laptop features a 1280x720 pixel (0.9MP) webcam, which records video at a low 10FPS. The built-in microphone struggles to pick up audio over the fan; our test device had a largely silent fan until the webcam was enabled.
Unfortunately, as with the earlier Librem 13, there is no onboard Bluetooth. Instead, a Bluetooth dongle must be used with the Librem 14 laptop.
Battery Life and Benchmarking the Librem 14
It's all very well having a high-spec, ultraportable notebook to work anywhere with, securely and safely. If the performance isn't up to scratch or the battery runs out, you're going to have to head home and recharge.
Battery life on a full charge is stated to be up to nine hours. With repeated use during the testing period, this is difficult to argue against. The battery seemed to drain at a normal rate when the Librem 14 was used normally, which is pretty much what you should expect.
To assess system performance, we used Phoronix Test Suite, with the Librem 14 laptop plugged in and charging.
The baseline for this was as follows:
- CPU Temp: 54.00 C
- Memory Usage 1253MB
- System Uptime: 4309M
- CPU Usage (Summary): 0.17%
- System Temperature: 40.0 C
System uptime is provided for context. Further tests were then taken while performing specific tasks:
- Watching a TV show in HD
- Playing a video game
- Editing a video
Here's how the Librem 14 faired with each.
Watching a TV Show in HD
I chose an episode of Ghosts, a 30-minute show streamed through the browser on BBC iPlayer in the highest available setting (ostensibly 1080p). Benchmarking was performed halfway through the program.
- CPU Temp: 51.00 C
- Memory Usage 4276MB
- System Uptime: 5636M
- CPU Usage (Summary): 9.73%
- System Temperature: 46.00 C
You will notice that while system temp and CPU usage are roughly the same, more memory is used for streaming a 30-minute TV show in HD compared with a three-minute movie trailer.
Playing a Video Game
Several video games were tested to find something that would challenge the Librem 14. The problem here is that proprietary software and drivers won't run on the computer. Only open-source games – which are typically less processor-intensive for that reason – can be installed.
- CPU Temp: 50.00 C
- Memory Usage 2014MB
- System Uptime: 4396 M
- CPU Usage (Summary): 9.73%
- System Temperature: 46.0 C
The chosen game was online 3D shooter Red Eclipse.
Editing a Video
Finally, the Librem 14 was benchmarked midway through rendering a 10-minute video in the open source OpenShot editor. This is a CPU, RAM, display adapter, and storage-intensive activity, so some higher figures were expected.
- CPU Temp: 66.00 C
- Memory Usage 5369MB
- System Uptime: 5677M
- CPU Usage (Summary): 9.73%
- System Temperature: 58.00 C
Edited footage was a mix of Full HD and 2K video, output at 50FPS.
A Secure but Expensive Laptop That Looks Good
It feels nice to hold, is light, and surprisingly powerful. But the Librem 14 is expensive, priced on par with an Apple MacBook or a Windows gaming laptop. Device turnaround is slow, too; at the time of writing, construction and shipping would take 12 weeks. Far slower than an HP or Dell, but there is of course a key difference: security.
Essentially, the Librem 14 is a secure productivity ultraportable notebook that looks stunning in its black anodized aluminum finish. It's designed to get things done securely rather than for gaming and relying on proprietary drivers and software, which simply won't run anyway.
This is an open-source-only zone, something that makes the Librem 14–along with the kill switches, PureBoot, TPM support, and optional Librem Key—the most secure setup you will find on a non-military laptop.
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