Expensive "Free/Libre Software Laptop" Uses A NVIDIA GPU

Written by Michael Larabel in Hardware on 25 November 2014 at 06:35 PM EST. 50 Comments
While there's been an ongoing discussion this week about delivering a $500 "open to the core" laptop that runs Ubuntu Linux and would be comprised of open-source software down to the firmware and Coreboot, announced last week was a high-end laptop that also aims to promote free/libre software. Though don't get out your wallets quite yet.

Announced last week as a CrowdSupply crowdfunding campaign was the Librem 15, which is self-described as "a free/libre software laptop that respects your essential freedoms." The Librem 15 by Purism is a high-end laptop that claims to be "the first high-end laptop in the world that ships without mystery software in the kernel, operating system, or any software applications."

The Librem 15 Laptop

"Every other consumer-grade laptop you can purchase comes with an operating system that includes suspect, proprietary software, and there’s no way for you to know what that software does," it reads on CrowdSupply. Well, that's not entirely true as there's the first laptop endorsed by the Free Software Foundation that's open-source down to its own "Libreboot" Coreboot derivative. There's also the Leemote YeeLoong that has been promoted in the past by Richard Stallman.

Librem 15 was designed to run with no binary blobs needed as to avoid taining the Linux kernel, is attempting to push for freeing the BIOS and component firmware, and is preloaded with the FSF-approved Trisquel Linux distribution. This first laptop from Purism doesn't seem to guarantee that any device microcode/firmware will be open-source nor that it will have an open-source BIOS replacement. The campaign just states, "We believe in users’ rights, and will continue to push upstream to free the BIOS and component firmware...We are working with Intel to allow us to scrub, release, and maintain the source for this, but haven’t finalized that yet. We are devoted to freeing this binary...There are also hardware components, like the HD or SSD, that are flashable, and therefore upgradeable, but that currently run firmware that is not yet freed."

The Librem 15 base configuration is with a 15.6-inch 1920x1080 display, Intel Core i7 4712MQ processor, Intel HD Graphics 4600 + NVIDIA GeForce GT 840M graphics, 4 to 8GB of RAM, 500GB hard drive or 1TB HDD / SSD as upgrade options, up to 8 hour battery life, three USB 3.0 ports, and 802.11n Atheros-based WiFi.

The hardware itself isn't that bad but is a bit expensive with the most basic laptop option starting out at $1449 USD for a limited time before moving up to $1899 USD for the non early bird specials... That's basically $1900 for a laptop with 4GB of RAM and 500GB HDD (not SSD). I'd only find it more appealing than buying a much more affordable (or better for the price) laptop from a tier-one OEM that runs equally well, binary-blob-free with modern Linux distributions if Purism was able to provide an explicit guarantee that the components will have fully free microcode/firmware and that it will leverage a binary-free Coreboot.

Besides the laptop being a bit pricey, the decision to employ the GeForce GT 840M dedicated GPU is baffling. They state, "The NVIDIA 3D controller within the Trisquel operating system uses the free/libre and open source nouveau driver, not the proprietary binary-only NVIDIA driver. As shown in our certification results, the nouveau driver performs quite well." The "certification tests" show Nouveau working on this laptop for running glxgears and GtkPerf.

While Nouveau continues improving a lot, it's insanity at this point to use NVIDIA graphics on Nouveau in what's advertised as a high-end laptop that promotes free software. Besides NVIDIA not directly backing Nouveau (though as of late has provided some documentation and technical help to the Nouveau community), the driver still comes up short due to its lack of dynamic re-clocking (or even suitable re-clocking at all for most GPUs), among other limitations. The NVIDIA GPU will just be inefficient and wasteful with Nouveau. I'd much rather have seen only the Intel HD Graphics supported, which could have also lowered the price to make it appealing to more Linux users.

We'll see what comes about with the Librem 15 though over the first week of their campaign they have just 55 pledges so far that yields $41,806 of their $250k goal. More details over at CrowdSupply and let us know what you think of this laptop in our forums.
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Michael Larabel

Michael Larabel is the principal author of Phoronix.com and founded the site in 2004 with a focus on enriching the Linux hardware experience. Michael has written more than 20,000 articles covering the state of Linux hardware support, Linux performance, graphics drivers, and other topics. Michael is also the lead developer of the Phoronix Test Suite, Phoromatic, and OpenBenchmarking.org automated benchmarking software. He can be followed via Twitter, LinkedIn, or contacted via MichaelLarabel.com.

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