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.

ubuntu phone will be great, but it is not yet

The BQ Aquaris ubuntu phone that I waited for so eagerly was delivered today. Full of anticipation I unpacked it and switched it on. After playing with it for a while the excitement turned into dissatisfaction. I hate to say it, but on a phone the solid base and polished user experience is not enough, some basic functionality is required as well. Rough edges are much harder to work around on a phone than on a computer with a regular keyboard. Let’s face it, most people who opt for ubuntu phone want to some degree escape the freedom hating ecosystems prevalent on the big platforms. Yet instead of welcoming users with freedom loving functionality, the phone is loaded with Google, Facebook and Twitter apps.
As long as you don’t expect anything from it, it’s a pleasant experience. Knowing that it’s based on debian packages gives me great comfort. The touch interface and the settings dialogs are very nice. Yet it is lacking basic PIM and email functionality.

Phone

Nowadays one could consider the phone functionality not the most important part of a smartphone anymore. I first had to have my SIM card cut to the smaller form factor. Text messages seem to work nicely. Phone calls work fine. MMS messages were automatically configured to look up on a website by the carrier. I don’t know if the phone would support them propperly, but that’s a feature that I rarely use anyway.

Contacts

When opening the contacts app, I was greeted with the question if I wanted to sync with Google. Hell no! If I did, I would have stayed with Android. But that seems to be the only option other than having a standalone address book and typing in everything by hand. I could not find an option to sync my CardDAV address book. Lots of people complained badly about this, so it got medium priority. There is a complicated workaround using evolution sync. That way I got my address book synced from the commandline. An entry in crontab keeps it synced.

Calendar

Basically the same as contacts, except that the calendar app was not pre-installed and had to be fetched from the app store. I configured syncevolution from the commandline the same way as the address book, including crontab. But the calendar does not properly synchronize. It pushes appointments I create on the phone. But it doesn’t fetch them from the server. I will have to do some more debugging here.

Email

There doesn’t seem to be a standard email client. Instead it ships with a GMail app. People complained that there was no IMAP support whatsoever. At least I could find an email client in the app store called Dekko. The bad thing however is that instead of connecting to the email server it just hangs for an hour. When I try it without encryption, it appears to work. I can send mails, but it won’t fetch them. Another IMAP account works well, just not the one that is most important for me. Mails from my main account were fetched exactly once. Before and after that, all I get is the following error message: “Too many invalid IMAP commands”
Update: It took some manual editing of the config file to get it finally working.  Now I’m looking forward to support for notificatoin about new mails, but that is less important in comparison.

Bluetooth

Connecting to the Jabra headphones was simple as always, and the sound quality is good. But I didn’t manage to connect any of the four bluetooth keyboards I tried. Also the yubikey does not work as an external keyboard, so at first I thought it might be a general HID problem. But when I connect a USB keyboard, that works.

BitCoin

The BitCoin client from the app store is not usable for real life. It doesn’t work with qr codes, and has no key backup functionality. I can work around the missing key backup, by manually copying the file “/home/phablet/.local/share/org.sambull.bitcoin-app/ubc.wallet” to a safe place, but qr code reading is really a must. Even if there was a qr reader app, pasting in the bitcoin app is missing.  I might have to resort to a web wallet for some time.
There is a webapp for coinbase already in the store, so I tried this one first. I can scan the qr code from out of the browser by automatically launching the camera app. The picture is then uploaded to the server for the qr code reading. This seems to be common practice, but of course it is way inferior to having an app where you can move your camera until it successfully reads the qr code. But after I enter the amount and click “next”, I get a white screen, and the web app won’t respond any more. A coinbase support representative told me he had the same with safari mobile, and using the back button helped. There is no back button in the webapp, so I tried it in the browser. “Back” landed me on another white page, and “forward” led to an error message.
The next web wallet I tried was xapo. Since I use their debit card, it would be convenient. But their send page has no qr functionality.
So I moved on to greenaddress. I almost succeeded. If it wasn’t due to the defunct email. They sent me a 2FA code to my main email address, which unfortunately doesn’t work on the phone yet.

XBMC remote control

I was releaved to find more than one XBMC remote in the app store, and some are even better than what I had on Android.

News

The rss reader and the news scope make for a pleasant appearance. They find my preferred rss feeds without needing the exact URL For podcasts, I had to install PodBird. It works fine for audio podcasts. It also downloads video files, but won’t play them.

Apps

I seem to remember that they planned to be able to run android apps on ubuntu phone. But it appears those plans were abandoned a long time ago. Hence naturally for a new platform the selection of available apps is very sparse. Seems I will have to live without some apps I used frequently on Android such as SBB, 20min, MeteoSwiss… All this information and functionality is also available on the respective websites. The apps are just more convenient.

APT

Part of the reason why I wanted a ubuntu phone is the underlying debian package system. I maintained an ubuntu chroot system image on my android phone so that I could perform some tasks on a full blown shell. But it always was quirky at some points and a second class citizen all along. So I wanted the ubuntu shell to be a first class citizen. Indeed you can start a terminal which behaves very well. The keyboard is missing tab and arrow keys though. You have access to apt, or so it seems at first. when you actually want to install something you see error messages about some lock files. To get around that, one needs to enable developer mode in the phone settings and remount the root file system as readwrite. But then came something disturbing:

$sudo mount -o remount,rw /
$sudo apt-get update
$sudo apt-get install git tig nmap htop pcsc-tools gpgsm gnupg-agent
Paketlisten werden gelesen... Fertig
Abhängigkeitsbaum wird aufgebaut.
Statusinformationen werden eingelesen.... Fertig
Package git is not available, but is referred to by another package.
This may mean that the package is missing, has been obsoleted, or
is only available from another source

E: Package 'git' has no installation candidate
E: Paket tig kann nicht gefunden werden.
E: Paket nmap kann nicht gefunden werden.
E: Paket htop kann nicht gefunden werden.
E: Paket pcsc-tools kann nicht gefunden werden.

WTF is going on here! A repository that is missing crucial packages? Mixing repositories with ubuntu propper is probably not a great idea. I don’t know yet what to do about that.
People on IRC confirmed that rather than changing the root filesystem, it’s better to have a chroot of ubuntu proper for the additional tools. This is what I had on android and hoped it would no longer be necessary on ubuntu phone.

GPG

gpg and gpg-agent were already installed. Udev is running as well. So after adding an udev rule and configuring the gpg-agent, I was able to use my YubiKey neo in OpenPGP mode for ssh authentication and similar tasks. This is great news, as it was one of the soar points with my old phone.

GPS

The phone comes with a mapping app pre installed. It looks decent, if finds the addresses, displays maps and calculates routes, everything online as it appears. What it does not however, is displaying the current position, which is crucial if you want to use it for navigation. On the internet I found people claiming that the GPS on the Aquarius doesn’t work at all, or very badly. There is some commandline program for analyzing GPS reception, which I plan to try.
Update: The utility confirmed that the GPS is not able to get a fix, not even on a mountain with clear sky.

SPOT Connect

The SPOT Connect is a satellite messenger that I use for cross country paragliding. In contrast to other live tracking systems it also works in areas without GSM reception, as it transmits the current location directly to the GlobalStar satellite network. They have an app to control it for Android and iOS, but not yet for ubuntu. I told them two years ago that it would be nice to be able to start tracking on the device itself without having to do it in the app. Now that I just lost that app support, I asked them again what options I have. But as with lots of big companies, I have the impression the support staff has a database with answers and no means to escalate feature requests or even bug reports from customers. Then I remembered a site that I found two years ago when I got the device, where a guy reverse engineered parts of the comms protocol. And sure enough I got the python utility running inside my chroot environment on the phone. That allows me to send custom ok messages, but I have yet to find out how to start tracking.

CyanogenMod and Ubuntu on my Samsung Galaxy S

I wanted to install a real debian based linux distro and Cyanogen on my Android smartphone for a long time. First I was scared off by voiding the warranty on a new phone. But now it’s one and a half years old. And recently they announced that there will be no more firmware upgrades for my device.

First step was rooting. There are lots of tutorials and descriptions online. Most of them are way too compilcated. Effectively, you just have to find a rooted kernel suitable for your device, and then: Continue reading “CyanogenMod and Ubuntu on my Samsung Galaxy S”

Android Phone

Last week I got my new phone. A Samsung Galaxy 9000 with Android 2.1 (soon 2.2). So, the Openmoko Freerunner was my main phone for less than a year. I tried many different distributions on it. Namely OM2008, SHR, Hackable, Android 1.5 but the one I like most is QtMoko. The freerunner is still the closest you can get to as true opensource phone. Albeit it offers some unique features not found in any other phone, the user experience is not quite the same as with a commercial phone. Some stuff still has to be done at the command line or editing configuration files. Other stuff you have to try 4 times before it succeeds.
Playing around with a pre installed Android is a really pleasant experience. It comes with lots of cool stuff that I didn’t expect from it.
People say, rooting the phone voids the warranty. So, I better make sure the device has no hardware defects prior to installing debian…. To be continued