Why I am sending back my Librem5

After paying 0.163 BTC for a pre-order, I patiently waited two and a half years for the Librem 5 to finally arrive. Now after half a year with the phone, I finally lost patience. For some more context, please read my former blog posts The Librem 5 phone is still at an early stage and One month with the Librem5.

A computer that looks like a phone

When the phone arrived it could do computer things, but no basic phone tasks. The browser worked very well from the start. So it was more like a small tablet. Phone calls didn’t work at all for the first month. And text messages started working after about a week, but only with weird workarounds.

An expensive hand warmer

When the phone arrived, there was no power management implemented, meaning it constantly ran at full speed. No wonder was the device always warm and the battery was flat after an hour on average. It didn’t make a difference whether I used it or not. After about one or two weeks of having the device I charged it over the night while it was switched on. When I grabbed it in the morning, it was so hot that I could not hold it in my hands. The plastic part between the cellular and the wifi cards started melting together with the back cover.

Hot freezes

One common occurrence was from early on that it it would no longer react to any inputs after a while, but still burn the battery down at the same speed. It also at the same moment stopped responding from SSH connections, so it was not just the display.
The first freeze happened five minutes after I switched the phone on for the first time. When the issue started, I had a freeze about every second day, then every day, then twice a day. For a while it never ran for more than 15 minutes without freezing. Since about the time I had the phone for a month, it rarely runs for more than five minutes before freezing.
The freezing is the issue that rendered the phone completely useless for me. It triggered me to move the SIM card back to my five years old UBPorts phone. For the next few months I switched the phone on about once a week to install the latest software upgrades. Every time I hoped the freezing issue would be solved. From the responses on the forum, it appeared like my device was the only one experiencing these difficulties, but still it appeared like they were working on resolving the issue through software updates.

Bricked for the first time

Instead of fixing the freezing, an upgrade around Easter made the phone not boot any more. It started to boot, but was stuck at the terminal that is usually only visible for a second. Apparently it was a known issue, but the remedy that was provided, didn’t work on my phone. So I was advised to re-flash it. But the flashing procedure also didn’t work. After a while and some experimentation, I found out that, out of a computer and two notebooks, only my XPS13 was able to flash the phone. I am still puzzled why it didn’t work with the Librem13 especially. But to my disappointment, the freezing issue persisted.

Dead battery

I kept installing the upgrades on a weekly basis. In between I usually removed the battery. When I tested the voltage, it was always between 3.6 and 4 Volts. Then one day I left it plugged in with the original charger for about a week or two. Since then It wouldn’t boot any more. Not only did it stop booting in the middle of the process like before. This time there was no sign of life whatsoever. When I tested the battery, now it read 0 Volts no matter how many times I tried to charge it. I tried with the original charger as well as with others. I read somewhere that the L5 has an issue with the charging, in that it starts discharging after the battery is full. After that it apparently doesn’t start charging again until it is re-plugged. But I didn’t expect this to result in a battery that appears to be totally dead. Even if I wanted to charge it with an universal LiPo charger, I wouldn’t even know which way to connect it. The phone doesn’t run with a dead battery, and it also doesn’t boot without a battery.

Sending it back

The only thing left for me left to do is sending it back. I didn’t sign up for a museum piece. I just want a phone that works. It is up to Purism now if they can repair my phone, send me one from the current batch, or one from the mass production batch later on. After being through all this, I would prefer to wait for the batch that is hopefully more reliable. But I will take whatever Purism sends me.

Friends asking

I am often asked about this open source phone that I told everyone when waiting for it. I would love to tell them how great it was, and convince them to order theirs as well. I still think it is very important to have a phone that you can trust. But unfortunately I have to tell them what a disaster it was so far. I tell them that it appears that I got an exceptionally bad sample, and that most others are probably fine, or at least usable. But I can see from their reactions, that my experience is enough of a deterrent for them not to consider buying one.

Update September 2020

Soon after sending back the phone, I received a replacement unit. Unfortunately it came with a US modem. So I waited for another month for the correct modem. It arrived yesterday, and it was easy to replace. Now I finally have a working phone. I switched the SIM to the Librem5 and use it as my main phone now. Some things have improved a lot since last year. Especially the power consumption. Others not so much, such as bluetooth in the car. Anyway, I plan to write another post after gaining some more experience with it.

The Librem 5 phone is still at an early stage

When I learned that Purism was going to develop a privacy respecting and security focused smart phone, I was immediately very excited. So far the only real open source phone was the OpenMoko, and that was almost a decade ago. I ordered one as soon as they opened the pre-orders. A quick look in my Bitcoin wallet revealed that I paid the phone pre-order on Aug 24th 2017. Of course I knew that it would take a while, and that problems are to be expected, which result in later deliveries. When they finally prepared for shipping, they asked everyone for their preferred batch. They warned that early batches would be not as flush as later iterations, and that the software was still a work in progress. Having waited for so long, I was eager to get it as soon as possible. Using an OpenMoko and later Ubuntu Touch device as my main phone, I gathered some experience with unfinished products. A solid base is more important to me than the finished product.
To my knowledge it is the only phone that separates the main CPU from the base band (correction in the comments). Like the Purism notebooks, it has hardware kill switches. One for wifi/bluetooth, one for camera/microphone, and one for the cellular modem. This makes it the only phone on the market where the user is in control. It allows the owner to own the phone instead of Google/Apple in combination with the phone company. In today’s economy, this is a very important development. Modern phones track their users in so many ways that hey have become golden hobbles. This is the main concern with Android, but even Apple is not without doubts in this area. The main issue I have with iOS is that it patronizes its users. If you don’t want neither of these evils, then you cannot just walk into the next phone store and expect to find something. Devices that came installed with Ubuntu Touch have sold out a long time ago. Purism describe their phone as:

hardware and software that treats you like a person and not a commodity to be exploited for profit

Last Friday, the waiting was finally over, and I received my Librem 5.
The first impression when unpacking was, that it is thick and heavy. In fact it is so thick that my kids make fun of me. The build quality is a lot better than I expected after the warnings about the early batches.
The on-off button doesn’t always work reliably, so I first charged it like the manual suggested. It is quite quick to boot. When I can’t get it to start with the on/off button, I usually open the device, and remove the battery for a moment. This always makes it boot reliably. Did I mention that it boots really fast?
Here is another report with unboxing pictures, so that I don’t have to make the pictures myself.
Switching apps and general usage of the phone OS makes a good impression. Not as good as current ubports, but a lot better than OpenMoko in its best days.

Wifi and bluetooth

Unfortunately the phone froze during the initial setup when trying to connect to the office wifi. After a reboot, I removed the wifi in the settings, and connected again. This time it appeared to connect, but it didn’t get an IP address, and thus I was unable to fetch anything from the internet. At home, connecting to the wifi worked as easy as with every other device.
I talked to a sysadmin, and he told me there is nothing special with the company wifi. But he told me that the signal strength is not great everywhere. So I went straight to the physical wifi router. In close proximity, the phone connected successfully, and I was able to browse the web. This is probably the reason there was something about antenna optimization in the description of a later batch.
The bluetooth configuration doesn’t work at all. But the phone is discoverable, and when another device wants to pair, it displays the code to compare. The other device then reports success. But so far I was not able to make use of bluetooth with the device. Bluetooth audio is one of the sore points with my current ubports phone. It used to work perfectly for a long time. But then I got an update last winter that crippled bluetooth functionality. For almost a year already, I could receive calls in the car, but after one second the audio connection breaks every time. It was one of my biggest hopes that bluetooth hands free in the car would work out of the box with the Librem 5.
I haven’t tested mobile data connection yet. This is because I rarely buy mobile data. I have wifi at most places I go. My car has an internet connection and a browser which is enough for on the way. The only time really I need mobile data is when I want to pay with Bitcoin in a restaurant, and no friend is with me who can set up an access point on his phone.

Text messages

Sending a text message worked on the first try. Only the integration with the address book still needs to be improved. Speaking of the address book, I haven’t found out yet how to synchronize or import my contacts.
So far I didn’t receive any text messages. I strongly suspect that at least some should have come my way in the last couple of days. I tried testing it myself with LnSms, but it didn’t arrive. This is possibly due to a bug with non numeric senders. But that I didn’t receive regular text messages is bothering me. A friend sent some to me for testing, and none arrived.

Phone

Even before I wanted to place a call, I read in the forum that there is a problem with audio routing. I didn’t even get that far. I cannot initiate a call, because below the dial buttons there is a message warning me that there is no voice-capable modem. Somewhere in the bug tracker I found a post that claimed that it should be possible to work around this by killing the cally app five times in a row. That didn’t work for me. So if this smart phone is no phone yet, I hope that it is at least smart 😉

Browser

It is not the best browser that exists for phones, but it works good enough for everything I tried so far. For sure it is better than the browser in the Tesla.

Settings

The settings pages look very familiar. In fact they are the same as in any modern Gnome desktop operating system. Some pages are too big for the screen, and some don’t make much sense for a phone, while some phone specific settings are missing. I already installed the first update, although I don’t know what it actually contained.
The audio page reveals that there are lots of audio devices. I went through them all, and clicked the test sound button, but I couldn’t hear any sound coming from the device.

Terminal

A linux smart phone needs a terminal. The Librem 5 comes with Kings Cross pre-installed. The terminal app itself looks quite good. But the virtual keyboard is lacking arrow and tab keys which are extremely helpful when working with a terminal.
I was delighted to find out that unlike with ubports, you can hack around with the actual system, and the packages seem to be apt based. I never liked click, snap or flatpack. Apt is my favorite package format.

Clock

For the first three days, after every reboot, the system date was reverted to February 2019. This rendered all TLS certificates issued after this date invalid. Thus preventing me from upgrading the system until I manually fixed the date every time. I am not sure what I did yesterday, but I suspect that I re-enabled automatic time synchronization just AFTER correcting the date. Since then, the system time is correct IF the phone has an internet connection. It is not yet synchronized from the cell phone network, or preserved across reboots.
For the last 20 years I used my phone to wake me up in the morning. Some phones also worked when switched of, while others had to be enabled to reliably wake me up. In the settings of the Librem 5, I can set multiple alarm clocks, and specify how to repeat and on which days of the week. So far so good, this is on par with most phones. Problem is, when the time comes, no sound emits from the device, and not even a reminder is visible on the screen.

Battery life

Whether the screen is on or off doesn’t seem to make a difference. The device gets very, very hot. It is no surprise that the battery doesn’t last very long. It doesn’t even last an hour. So I just have to switch the phone off while it is not being used and not plugged in. People at purism are working to tweak the kernel to dial down the frequency, switch off cores, and put the CPU to sleep when not in use. I hope they assign this issue a high priority.
Charging time when the phone it is turned off is ok. But when it is turned on, I don’t really know if it is slowly charging or slowly discharging. That is with the provided charger. Be careful where you plug in the phone for charging!
When I plug in the phone to my notebook, the notebook often looses internet connectivity. I didn’t investigate why yet. Maybe it adds another connection and assigns it priority in the routing table. I will try with an USB condom and see how that goes…. Indeed, no problem so far if I use an USB condom.
When I plug in the phone to the USB ports in the car, I often get a warning on the dash that there is a problem with the touch screen. The big screen in the middle of the car still updates, but it no longer processes touch inputs. I then have to unplug the phone and reboot the MCU. I’m not sure if the phone registers as an HDI device, draws too much power or interferes in another way.

Apps

The phone comes with the following apps pre installed: phone, messages, browser, contacts, clock, settings, help, terminal, software, text editor
Anything can be installed from the software app or at the command line from the apt repository, but so far I have mostly installed command line applications. I suspect most regular desktop applications don’t behave well on a phone. I am not aware of a list of applications that run well on phones. And I don’t think there are a lot of apps that were developed specifically for this device other than the apps from Purism themselves.
As a test I installed my favorite desktop Bitcoin wallet: Electrum. Unfortunately it didn’t start. At the commandline I saw an error about something missing to bridge Qt5 to Wayland. So far I didn’t investigate much further.
After using ubports for the longest time, I am used to most apps not being available to me, so the whole app thing is no big deal for me.
What I miss most on my current ubports phone is a decent Bitcoin wallet. As long as there is none, at least a qr code reader would be cool. This would be necessary if I want to use a web based wallet.

Conclusion

I hate to say it, but at the current state, this phone is even less usable than both my previous linux phones in their initial condition. The previous phones improved quickly and got more or less usable. I abandoned the OpenMoko after half a year, because it was just not reliable enough as a phone, especially the audio in calls. The Ubuntu Touch phone on the other hand has been my daily driver for almost five years.
Maybe I am too optimistic in wanting to use the Librem 5 as my main and only phone from the start. Lets see how things progress from here… With some software updates I hope it will become the phone that I want to use for the next five years.
I hope I didn’t discourage anybody from ordering a Librem 5. If you want a phone that preserves your dignity, this is pretty much the only option at the moment. And I am sure it will improve.

Why I still have no new notebook

It has been more than 14 months since my XPS 13DE notebook was stolen. Ever since, I was on the hunt for a replacement. I have just some simple requirements that seem so difficult to meet:

  • Linux pre-installed
  • Payment in BitCoin
  • Swiss German Keyboard with back light
  • Ultrabook (slim and powerful)

The natural choice would be to go with the successor of the model that I was so fond of. Dell does accept BitCoin, but only in the US, UK and Canada. Unfortunately they don’t sell Swiss keyboards in those markets, and I don’t know where to get a keyboard to retro fit.

There are a few vendors selling devices that fulfill some of the requirements, but I found only one so far that can achieve them all.

The best choice at the moment seems to be a Librem13 or Librem15 from purism. The 13inch model has only an i5 processor, and no backlit keyboard. So I would opt for the 15inch model. They have difficulties getting the display panels. And lots of the devices they shipped internationally didn’t reach their destination. This an unfortunate situation, but they seem very friendly and responsive. From what I can observe, they give their best to resolve the situation as good as they can. At the moment It looks like I have to wait two more months to get a Librem15.

Here are some devices that I considered:

Model Linux BitCoin Keyboard Ultrabook Remarks
Dell XPS13 Developer Edition yes no yes yes Very nice device
Purism Librem15 yes yes yes yes Waiting for display, and shipping problems
Tuxedo yes unknown no yes Only German Keyboards
Why yes no yes yes Out of stock

If you know of a device that fulfills my requirements, and is not listed here, please tell me.