Most of the articles in the tech press just refer to the Purism Librem 5 and the PINE64 PinePhone as upcoming Linux phones, but they don’t delve into their differences. These two phones were designed with very different goals, and the focus of the two companies behind them is quite different. Just looking at the list of specs for the two phones doesn’t tell the whole story. In order to help people decide which Linux phone they should buy, I made a list of what are the major reasons to buy the two phones.
Here are the main reasons to buy the PinePhone:
At $149 for the version with 2 GB RAM and 16 GB of storage, the PinePhone is cheap enough that you can buy it for experimentation and fun, and not get too upset if it doesn’t fully replace your existing phone. With the Librem 5, it is expensive enough at $699, that you expect it to serve as your primary phone.
The reality is that neither phone is likely to have good enough software support until mid-2020 for normal people to use them. The UBports and Replicant ports of the PinePhone have access to enough software that they will likely be adequate replacements for Android or iOS phones, but the other ports for the PinePhone will provide fewer apps in the repository. People using KDE Plasma Mobile in the PinePhone and GTK + Phosh in the Librem 5 will be limited in their choice of apps, since most of the available software was designed for the desktop and will need to be adapted to work in a phone’s smaller screen. Geeks will love these phones, but only people who don’t mind the limited app selection should buy these phones.
- Made for tinkering
PINE64 provides schematics in PDF for the PinePhone. It has six I2C pogo pins in the back for adding mods to the phone and is thin enough (9.2mm) that mods can be added to the back of the phone and it can still be held in the hand. In contrast, the Librem is already so thick at 15.6mm, that replacing the back cover with a thicker mod isn’t feasible for most people’s hands.However, the mods in the PinePhone can’t upgrade the phone’s core functionality, because of the limitations of its outdated A64 SoC, so a mod for a better camera or anything needing speeds higher than USB 2.0 (480 MB/s) is not possible. This will be a great phone for DIY tinkerers to add to, but mods will never improve the performance of the phone.
In theory, the Librem 5 is even better for tinkering and modding, because it provides its schematics with a free GPL 3.0+ license, but the phone is too expensive for carefree experimentation, because you have to worry that you might break the device. With the PinePhone, you can easily get a replacement motherboard at a price that won’t break the bank, so you feel free to start playing with the PinePhone’s motherboard, whereas you will think twice before taking a solder iron to the Librem 5. Because of its higher price and smaller market, 3rd party companies are less likely to create hardware mods for the Libem 5 than for the PinePhone.
PINE64 promises to produce the PinePhone for the next 5 years, which is an unprecedented commitment in the industry. The phones with the longest production were the Fairphone 2, which sold for 41 months, and the iPhone 6 which sold for 4 years. PINE64 is providing such a long production target because it tells tinkerers that they can invest their time in learning how the PinePhone works and gives outside companies the confidence to design mods for the PinePhone. PINE64 is developing a whole range of devices (PINE A64(+), PINE64-LTS, PineBook, PinePhone and PineTab) based on the Allwinner A64 SoC, so tinkerers and modders can reuse their work in many different types of devices that will have long production lifespans.
- Choice of software
The PinePhone will offer the choice of many operating systems and interfaces, since it works with many different communities to port their software to the device. The PinePhone is bootable from a microSD card, so you can easily try out different operating systems by writing them to a microSD card and then rebooting the device. Plan on having hours of fun with the PinePhone testing the different ports and seeing how they are developing.
One of the goals of PINE64 is to be a “community platform” that works with open source communities to provide hardware for their software projects. PINE64 sent its Dev Kits and BraveHeart prototypes to the communities of UBports, PostmarketOS, KDE Plasma Mobile, LuneOS, Replicant, Maemo Leste and Nemo Mobile. Most of these communities can only install their software on a few older models of phones which are no longer for sale. The PinePhone will vastly increase the number of people testing the software for these projects and help attract new volunteers to work on developing the code. The PinePhone will be the first phone on the market that is fully compatible with PostmarketOS and it will be the first phone since the Samsung Galaxy III from 2012 which is compatible with Replicant, so it will be a major boost to these projects. In addition, PINE64 plans to donate $10 from each phone sale to the project whose OS the user selects to have preinstalled in the PinePhone.
In comparison, Purism sent its Librem 5 Dev Kit to KDE Plasma Mobile, and after a delay, it also sent it to UBports, but it is less focused on working with the community than PINE64. Community ports to the Librem 5 will likely come much later and not be as well supported as for the PinePhone.
The upside of this approach is that PINE64 doesn’t have to develop the software, so it can save on the cost of developing the phone and it can pass those savings onto consumers. The downside to this approach is that PINE64 doesn’t have as many programmers on staff as Purism to resolve hard software bugs and provide the same kind of customization and polish to its software.
On the other hand, UBports, KDE Plasma Mobile and the Android Open Source Project used by Replicant already have very good interfaces, whereas Purism is having to create its mobile interface for Wayland + GTK from scratch. In the short term, the software that Purism is developing in Phosh, Phoc, libhandy, Squeekboard, Chats, Calls, etc. probably will be cruder and require more work than the software available on the PinePhone. However, in the long term, we can expect the software to be better customized for the Librem 5 than for the PinePhone.
- Codevelopment with the community
PINE64 tries to design its hardware in coordination with the community and the the different software projects which it sees as its copartners. According to PINE64’s Philosophy page, “the community gets to actively shape the devices, as well as the social platform, of PINE64 from the ground up.” PINE64 promises to allow the community to “request product features, suggest changes, ask for/make changes to documentation, etc.” while devices are being developed and it promises that “all hardware developments – successes and failures alike – are all in the open.”
TL Lim, the CEO of PINE64, personally answered questions from the community about the PinePhone when it was being developed. When he got suggestions for improvements to the PinePhone, you could tell that he seriously considered them and asked the suppliers if it was possible. I’ve never seen such open and direct communication with a hardware company before and it speaks highly of PINE64.
- Easy to carry
The PinePhone is more portable than the Librem 5, because it has a conventional form factor and is lighter. The Librem 5 is a brick which is 15.6 mm thick, 150.2 mm tall and 75.2 mm wide, so people with smaller hands will have more trouble holding it than the PinePhone, which is 9.2 mm thick.
Both the PinePhone and Librem 5 are designed to be easy to open and they use standard Philips-head screws so they can be taken apart using standard tools, but the PinePhone is more fixable. PINE64 offers replacement parts at very economical prices for all its devices and they are designed to be easy to open and fix with standard tools. The PinePhone uses the same sized Li-Po 3000 mAh battery as a Galaxy J7, so it should be easy to find replacement batteries for the PinePhone anywhere in the world, whereas the Librem 5’s battery is a custom size that can only be obtained from Purism.
The display and aluminum frame are fused in the current design of the Librem 5, so both have to replaced if the screen gets cracked. In contrast, the case and the display are separate parts in the PinePhone, so they should be cheaper to replace. This added cost is important because roughly 60% of all phone repairs involve replacing the display.
The plastic cover in the back of the Birch batch provides a notch to pry it off using your fingernail in order to easily replace the battery without tools. Purism promises to sell replacement batteries and as many other parts for the Librem 5 as possible, so it might end up being as good as the PinePhone in this respect, but Purism doesn’t have as good of a track record as PINE64 in providing replacement parts. Purism doesn’t offer replacement parts for its laptops on its web store, so you have to call or write the company to inquire if parts are available. For older version of its laptops, Purism often can’t provide replacement parts.
Here are the main reasons to buy the Librem 5:
- Privacy and security
The Librem 5’s three hardware kill switches on the left side of the case are designed for daily use and have the ability to stop the flow of electricity to: 1. the cellular modem, 2. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, 3. cameras and microphone, plus all the sensors and the GNSS when all three switches are turned off at once. The software should be designed to handle having parts of the phone being shut off by the user.
The Librem 5 also contains a slot for adding a OpenPGP card for an unalterable identity and encryption keys for secure communications. Purism will preconfigure the phone to have secure settings out of the box, and the company has a security officer (Kyle Rankin) to check these settings. In addition, Purism is promising to create a USB Librem Key in the future, in order to detect any tampering in the phone and alert the user.
The PinePhone’s web site says that security is one of its goals, so PINE64 will likely work with the different projects to preconfigure their PinePhone ports for good security, but the degree of security will probably vary from port to port. The PinePhone has 6 DIP switches on its printed circuit board to cut the power to the 1. cellular modem and GNSS, 2. Wi-Fi/Bluetooth, 3. internal microphone, 4. rear camera, 5. front camera, and 6. the 3.5mm audio jack. These hardware kill switches, however, are tiny and require taking off the back cover to access them, so they are good for setting up a secure phone, but not for easy switching while the phone is being used. Furthermore, there is no kill switch for the sensors (accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer, proximity and ambient light) like on Librem 5. There is also no way to separately cut the circuit to the GNSS while using the cellular modem, so the proprietary firmware for the modem potentially has access to geolocation data. The Pinephone will likely be more secure than 99% of Android phones on the market, but if security and privacy is your highest priority, then the Librem 5 is probably the phone that you want to buy.
- Designed for non-technical users
The long-term goal of the Librem 5 is to be user-friendly enough for Todd Weaver to be able to give the phone to his daughters, whereas the goal of the PinePhone is to be a phone for tinkerers. Whether the Librem 5 will be a good phone for average users remains to be seen, but Purism has programmers on staff who are trying to make that happen and it has total control over the interface that it is designing. If you aren’t a technical user and don’t know much about Linux, the Librem 5 is probably going to be a better phone for you in the long term than the PinePhone. However, you are likely to be frustrated for the first year or two if you expect it to be as easy to use as an Android or iOS device. The PinePhone running UBports or Replicant is likely to be more user friendly in the short term than the Librem 5 running PureOS with Phosh and GTK apps.
At this point in time, both the Librem 5 and the PinePhone are only ready for people who don’t mind being bug testers and aren’t freaked out by having to use the command line. These are currently phones for early adopters who can deal with the hassles and joys of not having everything working as expected.
The two “BraveHeart” batches of the PinePhone are being shipped without an operating system installed, so users are expected to install it themselves and to help the projects develop and debug the ports of the operating system. The PinePhone is only expected to be ready for normal users when it starts volume shipping in March 2020.
Likewise, Purism hasn’t scheduled for mass production of the Librem 5 to start until March 31, 2020 with its Evergreen batch. The first 4 batches (Aspen, Birch, Chestnut and Dogwood) are prototypes for testing and it looks like only the first 400 people who preordered the phone when it was first launched on August 24, 2017 will get one of these batches. Purism didn’t ship its Aspen batch to any customers outside the company, because there were so many problems with the phone. It shipped the Birch batch without the audio working on phone calls. The front and back cameras, Bluetooth and video out don’t yet work, and the battery needs to be recharged twice per day, because the operating system is not yet optimized for energy efficiency and the free Linux drivers for the i.MX 8M have poor support for energy savings. The SoC is prone to overheating, and will be flipped around on the other side of the motherboard in the Dogwood and Evergreen batches, so it can dissipate heat through the screen and aluminum frame.
- Runs on 100% free software
Purism is committed to the use of free software and its PureOS operating system which will be used on the Librem 5 is certified by the Free Software Foundation to only contain free software. The Librem 5 will contain 100% free software in U-Boot and the Linux kernel and Purism is working with the Free Software Foundation to obtain its first Respects Your Freedom (RYF) certification for a phone.
This certification doesn’t mean that the Librem 5 doesn’t contain any binary blobs. The i.MX 8M Quad processor in the Librem 5 requires the use of a proprietary blob to train the timing in the DDR PHY, but Purism has moved that blob to a separate SPI Flash chip to be read by U-Boot and executed on a separate Cortex-M4 core while booting. Currently, the i.MX 8M requires a blob to use HDMI, so the Librem 5 will probably only be able to initially support DisplayPort, but NXP is working on supporting both HDMI and DisplayPort in mainline Linux. The Librem 5 will still have proprietary firmware in components such as the Wi-Fi/Bluetooth, cellular baseband, GNSS, and the CMOS image sensors, but it is a big step to not have those blobs stored in
/lib/firmwarewith the other Linux files. The RYF certification is about making a principled statement to the world that will make component manufacturers aware that users care about software freedom. Purism is the only phone maker that is willing to publicly align with the Free Software Foundation in trying to promote its goals.
On a practical level the PinePhone will be very close to 100% free. It will have proprietary firmware for its Realtek RTL8723CS WiFi/Bluetooth stored in the
/lib/firmwaredirectory, whereas the proprietary firmware used by the Redpine Signals RS9116 Wi-Fi/Bluetooth in the Librem 5 is stored in the chip itself. It used to be necessary to use an HDMI blob, a blob to train the DDR PHY timing, and proprietary drivers for Mali graphics in the Allwinner A64 processor in the PinePhone. However, free Lima GPU drivers were recently added to Mesa for the Mali graphics in the PinePhone and the DDR PHY timing is now set with free code. When I asked on the PINE64 forum if all the binary blobs had been removed from the Linux code for the Allwinner A64, TL Lim replied:
I believed the mainline code is GPL compliance and there is no binary blobs. For more info, please explore on Linux-Sunix (https://linux-sunxi.org/Main_Page). I sincerely appreciates, solutes, and thanks on Linux Sunxi developers contribution, the PinePhone can happens due to their effort.
The PinePhone is currently using a fork of the mainline Linux kernel, but PINE64 working on committing its changes to the kernel upstream so it will be possible in the future to run the PinePhone on mainline Linux.
At its core, free software is an ethical stance and a social movement to ensure that people can share and adapt the code, and thus guarantee their digital rights and create a more free society. In contrast, PINE64 calls itself an “open source company,” which emphasizes the practical benefits of a open development methodology where code is shared and collectively developed by the community. This pragmatic stance is reflected in the fact that PINE64 selects hardware which runs on free/open source firmware and drivers when it is convenient to use and can be obtained economically.
Purism is more ideologically committed and will go out of its way to use free software even when it is less convenient and imposes higher costs. Purism used all free software in designing the Librem 5 Dev Kit, which is an indication of the company’s commitment to its ideals. One of the reasons for buying the Librem 5 is to send a message to the hardware industry that you care passionately about free software and they should design their hardware to not require binary blobs.
On a practical level, it can be argued that there isn’t much difference between the PinePhone which only has one binary blob for the Wi-Fi/Bluetooth in the /lib/firmware directory, and the Librem 5 which has one binary blob for the DDR PHY stored in a separate memory chip. However, Purism is going out and finding hardware manufacturers that are willing to work with Purism so their components can run on free software.
PINE64 chose to use processors from Allwinner, which is a company that has been violating the GPL for years and does not answer questions from the free sofware community. In constrast, Purism chose NXP, which is arguably the best ARM manufacturer in terms of working with the free software community, since NXP engineers commit code to mainstream Linux to support their processors. However, the i.MX 8M is a new chip and doesn’t yet have good mainline Linux drivers, so Purism has had to do a lot of extra work in the kernel.
Purism worked with Redpine Signals in order to get drivers for the Wi-Fi/Bluetooth that do not require binary blobs. Before the Librem 5, the only way to get 802.11n Wi-Fi without the use of binary blobs was to use an old Atheros chip which was very energy inefficient and had poor reception, and its Bluetooth required a binary blob. Purism’s work with Redpine Signals means that the entire community now has a much better option for Wi-Fi/Bluetooth in the future without binary blobs. Purism has added support to mainline Linux for other components in the Librem 5, such as the STMicroelectronics Teseo-LIV3F GNSS, so Purism is expanding the list of available hardware for the entire free software community.
- Reforming the tech industry
One of the goals of Purism is to reform the tech industry. It wants to help lead a movement for user digital rights and the right to privacy. Purism sees educating the public about how their digital rights are being violated as being part of its core mission. Purism’s CEO, Todd Weaver, has testified about the need for more governmental regulation and oversight to protect users’ right to privacy. Purism also wants to drive change up the supply chain. Its idea is to find the hardware suppliers who are willing to listen to its requests for hardware which is compatible with free software and answer its questions so that Purism can create or debug free drivers for the hardware. As Purism grows bigger and can make larger orders, the company will have more power to drive change up the supply chain.
Another part of Purism’s mission is to provide ethical web services, that are not only convenient for people to use, but also based on free software and respecting their right to privacy. Most people have given up their privacy in order to use web services such as gmail, Twitter, Facebook, Google Maps, Youtube, etc., which don’t charge money, but make you pay with your personal data. Purism is offering its Librem One web services to provide a paid alternative to web services that exploit people’s personal data. Librem One is compatible with any mobile phone running a standard web browser, so it doesn’t require the Librem 5, but it indicates the vision that Purism offers for how to liberate people, so they aren’t exploited by the technology that they rely upon.
- Longevity and avoiding planned obsolescence
The Librem 5 contains two M.2 cards so that the Wi-Fi/Bluetooth and cellular baseband can be replaced. Using M.2 cards will make it possible for these components to be upgraded in the future to support new standards. The Librem 5 won’t need to be junked when switching to a new cellular network provider which require a different LTE band. It will be possible to upgrade the phone to support the new time division LTE bands in the future and the latest Wi-Fi and Bluetooth standards (although it will probably be necessary to accept binary blobs to use those standards).However, it probably won’t be possible to upgrade the cellular baseband to support 5G, because 5G requires double the amount of energy of 4G and thus needs advanced cooling that probably isn’t possible with a heat spreader on an M.2 card. In some countries such as the US, Japan and Korea, 5G will use higher mmWave frequencies such as the 28GHz and 39GHz spectrum bands, so new antennas will need to be added to support 5G and they will probably need to be placed on all edges of the phone, since hands holding the phone can block these mmWave signals.
In addition, Purism promises to offer “lifetime support” for the Librem 5, so the device can be used as long as you want to keep using it. In contrast, most Android devices usually only get 1-2 years of operating system updates and 2-3 years of security updates. Only Apple and Fairphone promise to provide 5 years of software support for their mobile devices, and those devices depend on binary blobs which can’t be maintained by the community.
Purism’s promise to provide “lifetime support” is credible because Purism has been upstreaming its code as much as possible to the Linux kernel, wlroots, GTK and the GNOME applications, so its code is likely to receive updates from the community. NXP has committed to manufacturing the i.MX 8M Quad until Jan 2028 and is providing Linux updates for its SoC, so it is highly likely that we can rely on support from the community and NXP even if Purism goes bankrupt in the future.
The PinePhone is also going to be supported for a long time, because PINE64 promises to manufacture it for the next 5 years, so the company will have to support it for at least that long. PINE64 chose components that already have good mainline Linux support, so the PinePhone is likely to be supported for as long as the community wants to keep using it even if something happens to the company.
80% of the greenhouse gas emissions caused by a phone are in the initial fabrication, so the best way to lower your environmental footprint and avoid toxic e-waste is to make your phone last as long as possible. Both the Librem 5 and PinePhone only have four Cortex-A53 cores in their SoC, so people who want fast hardware aren’t going to be happy with either of these phones over the long term. However, the Librem 5 is more likely to be used for longer than the PinePhone, because its wireless comms on M.2 cards can be upgraded. You don’t have to throw away the whole phone if you need a different LTE band or need to upgrade to a newer Wi-Fi or Bluetooth standard. In addition, the NXP i.MX 8M Quad processor in the Librem 5 is more future compatible than the Allwinner A64 in the PinePhone. Over time, you are more likely to bump up against the limitations of the 5MP and 2MP cameras and USB 2.0 port in the PinePhone, than the 13MP and 8MP cameras and USB 3.0 port in the Librem 5. The Vivante GC7000 LiteGPU on the i.MX 8M Quad is nothing exciting and it dates from 2014, but it should be good enough for the next 5 years for people who aren’t gamers. In contrast, the ARM Mali-400 MP2 (Utgard) in the A64 dates from 2008 and is much more limited. If you want a phone that will last you 5+ years, the Librem 5 is a better phone for that purpose.
The Librem 5 will cause more environmental destruction in its fabrication than the PinePhone, because the Librem5 has more chips, larger printed circuit boards and an aluminum frame, but Librem 5’s better longevity means that it is more likely to have a lower environmental impact per year than the PinePhone. Of course, if you are the type of person who gets a new phone every two years, then none of this matters, but the Librem 5 is likely to have a better resale value, so it is less likely to get junked.
Another factor to consider is that Purism has an upgrade path with the i.MX 8M, since a 14nm version will be coming out next year and Purism has already committed to using it in the Librem 5 v2, which will probably offer more RAM and more Flash storage as well. The PinePhone can’t be upgraded in the future, since the A64 only supports a maximum of 3GB of DDR3 RAM, 5 megapixels in the camera and USB 2.0. PINE64 can’t easily upgrade to a newer Allwinner chip such as the A80, since it doesn’t have good Linux support, so PINE64 will have to switch to a new SoC (probably a future Rockchip or Broadcom SoC) if it ever wants to upgrade the PinePhone.
- Open hardware
Purism released the schematics of the Librem 5 under a GPL 3.0+ license, so that other companies can legally modify the design and produce competing devices. In addition, Purism published x-ray images of the printed circuit boards, showing that Purism has verified that nothing was added to the boards (such as a Chinese government spying device), and customers can also look at those images to verify that the boards that they receive are the same as the original boards. Purism’s CEO, Todd Weaver, says that Purism will need to first recover its development costs before it releases the Gerber files for manufacturing the Librem 5, which Weaver anticipates will be in “3 years, 5 years, something like that”. Nonetheless, being able to legally reuse the schematics and software from the Librem 5 should help stimulate the market for Linux phones and encourage other companies to enter the market.
In contrast, PINE64 publishes the PinePhone’s schematics under its exclusive copyright, which helps tinkerers who want to understand how the phone works, but it doesn’t give anyone the legal right to reuse those schematics in other projects or to produce alternative versions of the phone.
- Convergence with the desktop
One of the goals of the Librem 5 is to be able to use the phone as a PC by connecting a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse and a standard USB-C cable that carries a DisplayPort Alt Mode signal to a monitor. Purism created a GTK library named libhandy that is designed to allow GTK desktop applications to dynamically adapt to any size screen so they can be used on smartphones and tablets, however, it will probably take a while to adapt the existing GTK software to use the libhandy classes and redesign the interfaces to work well on a phone’s smaller screen.
The Librem 5 doesn’t yet support video out, since Purism and NXP are having to do a lot of work in the Linux kernel to make it possible. Convergence as a PC will probably take a while to implement, so don’t plan on using the Librem 5 as a replacement for your PC any time soon. The four Cortex-A53 cores in the i.MX 8M Quad processor can run at a max speed of 1.5GHz, which is just a tad faster than the 1.4GHz Broadcom BCM2837B0 used by the Raspberry Pi 3B+, so a functional desktop should be possible. However, keep in mind that 3GB of RAM in the Librem 5 will limit the kinds of activities that can be done on the desktop. The Vivante GC7000 Lite GPU in the i.MX 8M Quad is good enough to play 3D games like Quake II, but the free software driver in Entaviv only supports OpenGL ES 2.0, so it will be necessary to install proprietary drivers if wishing to use OpenGL ES 3.0 and 3.1. The i.MX 8M Quad supports 4K at 60 frames per second over DisplayPort, but it remains to be seen whether the Librem 5 will be able to handle that kind of video resolution. Given the current cooling problems, a big question is whether the redesign of the Librem 5 in the Dogwood batch for better cooling will be enough to prevent thermal throttling under a heavy graphics load.
Purism has received a lot of criticism from the community for not being transparent. Purism has opened itself up to this criticism because it says “we have decided to bring our community and customers along with us for the Librem 5 journey, and have been transparent about our progress from the beginning.” Purism is more transparent than most other hardware companies. Purism employees regularly answer questions on the company’s forum and the ongoing work can be checked by going to source.puri.sm and by readings its public bug reports. Purism posts monthly updates about its upstream commits to the Linux kernel, wlroots, GTK and GNOME applications. The schematics files for the Dev Kit can be downloaded and opened in KiCAD. It is easy to keep tabs on Purism’s work by downloading its images for the Librem 5 and running them on your PC in Qemu to check its progress in the software.
However, Purism hasn’t always been very transparent about giving its backers a realistic timeline when the phone will be ready and informing them about the current problems in the phone. Purism was heavily criticized online when it posted on October 16 that its Aspen batch of the Librem 5 was shipping and “in the wild”, but nobody in the community received the phone. Six days later, Purism tooted on October 22 that it had only sent the Aspen batch to its employees and people affiliated with the company due to the bugs that it had encountered. I frankly think that the critics on Reddit’s r/Purism are blowing this incident wildly out of proportion with their accusations that Purism was deliberately trying to deceive to them. Nonetheless, Purism does deserve a fair amount of criticism for leading many of its backers to believe that the phone would be ready in Q3 of 2019, when it knew that the phone wouldn’t be ready to ship to the general public until Q2 of 2020.
If you want a company that doesn’t try to sugar coat its communications with public relations, and will tell you directly about its problems, you will be happier with PINE64 than Purism as a company. To be fair to Purism, one of its employees recently posted on the forum that the company is trying to provide more timely updates to the community, so let’s see if Purism’s communication with the community improves in the future.
Another issue is that Purism’s critics have speculated that the company will go bankrupt before it can ship the Librem 5 and the people who preordered the phone will lose their money. This speculation ignores the fact that Purism has increased the number of people in its “Core Team” from 34 employees on August 8 to 49 employees today, so Purism must have more funding than these critics are willing to admit.
I frankly have no patience for Jay Little and others who are spreading rumors on the internet that Purism is a “Ponzi scheme” and will never ship the Librem 5. Purism has been shipping laptops for the last 5 years. If you check its track record, it has a very good history of eventually delivering. It took Purism 2 years to implement Coreboot, but it was the first company to do it for normal x86 laptops (after Google did it for underpowered Chromebooks), and that history tells me that Purism will keep working to fulfill its promises for the Librem 5, even if it falls short on day one.
Purism gets criticized in part because it sets very ambitious goals, and then can’t meet those goals in the time frame that it has set with the resources that it has. Because the company isn’t always forthcoming when it can’t meet its deadlines, it gets a lot of public criticism. As a programmer, I am amazed by what Purism has managed to do with such a small development team, but the scope of what the company is trying to do and its lack of experience make delays inevitable. The fundamental question to ask is whether you agree with the company’s mission and have the luxury of helping to finance that mission.
PINE64’s mission of providing hardware for community-based software projects and helping tinkerers is less ambitious and much more achievable in the short term, but it is also a very needed service and worth financing. Without hardware companies like Purism and PINE64, we will be stuck in a mobile duopoly that either exploits people’s personal data or forces people to live in a walled garden where they have few rights.
A fair question is whether the Librem 5 is worth $699, when the PinePhone can be obtained for $149. Answering that question depends on your priorities and the amount of disposable income that you have to spend on a phone. If the Librem 5 lasts for 5+ years, then its value proposition becomes much better. However, the chief value in both the Librem 5 and PinePhone lies in helping to finance the creation of a better future where mobile Linux is a viable alternative to Android and iOS.
It is worth considering why the Librem 5 has cost more to develop than the Pinephone, and whether you think that those extra costs are worth paying for:
- PINE64 probably has access to more economical assembly and component suppliers than Purism. Since PINE64 is on the ground in Shenzhen, it probably knows the local players and can negotiate better with suppliers and assemblers. Being able to speak in Chinese when negotiating prices probably helps as well.
- PINE64 already had the basic design debugged in its PINE A64 board and PineBook laptop. It had to add the Quectel EG-25G cellular modem, the STmicroelectronics LIS3MDL magnetometer, the SensorTek STK3335 ambient light and proximity sensor, TDK InvenSense MPU-6050 6-axis IMU, and a charge controller, but the design was half done, whereas Purism was starting from scratch.
- PINE64 chose components which already had good drivers in mainline Linux, so it didn’t have to waste time writing and/or debugging drivers. In contrast Purism chose a bunch of newer chips that didn’t yet have mainline Linux support, so it is having to do a lot of extra work to get them to work. The i.MX 8M Quad is a new SoC, so Purism had to spend extra time figuring out how to make it work and mainlining their bug fixes in the Linux kernel. NXP employees were working on mainlining Linux support for the i.MX 8M before Purism started working on it, but Purism has made several dozen different commits to Linux kernel to get the SoC to work. NXP hasn’t yet documented very well its MIPI CSI interface, which is probably why the cameras don’t yet work on the Librem 5. Reading the complaints on the NXP forum by other companies, I suspect that Purism is also having to debug and figure out how the MIPI CSI interface works on the i.MX 8M.
- PINE64 selected components that cost less, whereas Purism’s prime consideration was whether the component can comply with the Free Software Foundation’s RYF certification and whether the manufacturer will work with Purism and answer its questions. For example, Allwinner is a company that violates the GPL and refuses to answer questions from the community about its chips, but the Allwinner A64 only costs $5 per chip and already has good mainline Linux support. NXP respects the GPL and works with the Linux community to mainline support for its chips, but the i.MX 8M Quad costs around $20 per chip in large quantities. Because the i.MX 8M is a newer SoC, it supports USB 3.0, OpenGL ES 3.0 and 3.1, 4K video output over HDMI and DisplayPort and better GPU and video decoding performance, which are features not supported by the A64.
- The Realtek RTL8723CS Wi-Fi/Bluetooth chip used in the PinePhone requires proprietary firmware to be placed in the /lib/firmware directory so it violates RYF. It is an older chip that doesn’t support 5GHz and costs less than the Redpine Signals RS9116 used in the Librem 5. Purism had to pay Redpine Signals to develop custom firmware that doesn’t require binary blobs inside Linux.
- It is much cheaper to solder a Quectel EG-25G cellular baseband which has global coverage, than to trying to find manufacturers who will mount their cellular baseband chips on a replaceable M.2 card. Broadmobi offered its BM818 on an M.2 card, but Purism is having to manufacture the M.2 card for the Gemalto PLS8. Because Purism wants a replaceable M.2 card, and the option of a cellular modem not made in China, this means using 4 different M.2 cards which adds significantly to the cost compared to having one model with a soldered cellular baseband that covers the entire world.
- One of the goals of the Librem 5 is avoiding planned obsolescence, which is one of the reasons why the Wi-Fi/Bluetooth and cellular basebands are mounted on M.2 cards, which adds to the total cost of the phone, but could potentially lengthen it useful lifespan. Purism’s commitment of “lifetime support” will also probably cost the company a bit more in the long term, but PINE64’s commitment to manufacture the PinePhone for 5 years and to sell replacement parts is also really good for extending the phone’s lifetime.
- The Librem 5 has an extra slot for an OpenPGP card, plus an extra Cortex-M4 processor to control it.
- The 2 and 5 megapixel cameras, 2 GB of RAM and 16GB of Flash storage in the $150 PinePhone cost less than the 8 and 13 megapixel cameras, 3 GB of RAM and 32GB of Flash storage in the Librem 5. On the other hand, the PinePhone provides a 6 pogo pin connector which the Librem 5 doesn’t have.
- The 6 DIP hardware kill switches underneath the back cover in the PinePhone cost less, but they aren’t designed for frequent usage like the 3 hardware kill switches on the case of the Librem 5. Also, the Librem 5 has an extra multi-constellation GNSS chip, whereas the PinePhone uses the GPS built into the cellular baseband, so the Librem 5’s GNSS can be turned off separately at the hardware level. The Librem 5 allows all sensors to be cut off at the circuit level, which the PinePhone doesn’t support.
- In order to get RYF certification, Purism had to add an extra SPI Flash memory chip to the board to hold the binary blob to train the DDR PHY and get U-Boot to read from that extra chip.
- The development of the software for the PinePhone has been outsourced to volunteers in other communities (UBports, PostmarketOS, LuneOS, Replicant, Maemo Leste, SailfishOS, KDE Plasma Mobile, Nemo Mobile), whereas Purism is paying its own programmers to develop the software and they are doing a lot of work to turn wlroots, GTK and the GNOME ecosystem into a mobile operating system. They have developed Phosh, Phoc, libhandy, Chats, Calls and Squeekboard and adapted many GNOME apps to work with libhandy.
- The Librem 5 is a much more ambitious project and cost a lot more to develop than the PinePhone. Purism has paid 15 employees to work for 28 months on the Librem 5, whereas PINE64 has paid fewer employees to work for 13 months on the PinePhone.
PINE64 chose to use the A64 processor, which doesn’t support camera resolutions larger than 5 megapixels, more than 3GB of RAM, USB 3.0, 4K video out, OpenGL ES 3.0 and 3.1 and has a very outdated GPU. If PINE64 had wanted to match the specs in the Librem 5, it would have to upgrade to a newer SoC like the NXP i.MX 8M or the Broadcom BCM2837B0, but that would have required a lot more work on its part. Given PINE64’s goals of providing a low-cost phone for tinkerers and open source software projects, the PinePhone has adequate specs for those purposes.
Purism needed a more up-to-date processor that supports higher resolution cameras to meet its goal of providing a 100% free software phone that a normal person can use in place of a standard Android or iOS phone in order to avoid having her data be exploited by surveillance Capitalism. It needed the speed of a USB 3.0 port and a better GPU to support its goal of making a phone that can do double duty as a PC, so it had to invest more in providing support for newer chips and developing a mobile operating system that supports convergence.
Both the Librem 5 and the PinePhone are needed by the community, since they serve different purposes. Having both models for sale will grow the market for Linux phones and attract more users to Linux as a mobile platform. If mobile Linux is going to succeed as a viable alternative to Android and iOS, it needs to attract many more users and app developers to its ecosystem. Because the apps that get created are free software, the code can be adapted to work with different libraries, so there is no need for the tribal partisanship between the users of the Librem 5 and the PinePhone.
By serving both the lower and high ends of the market, PINE64 and Purism will work together to make mobile Linux a more attractive platform and draw thousands of new users to mobile Linux. Hopefully the success of these two companies will convince other companies to also start making Linux phones. When more companies start producing Linux devices, more users will be drawn to Linux as a mobile platform and they will in turn attract more app developers and more investment in the platform. This kind of growth is necessary for Linux to become a viable mobile ecosystem that eventually provides a real alternative for ordinary users who wish to use mobile devices which respect their digital rights and allow them to escape surveillance Capitalism and walled gardens.