I was very surprised when I got an email on July 20, 2021 that my Librem 5 USA had just shipped out of Purism’s Fulfillment Center in Carlsbad, California. The Linux geek inside me has been lusting for the Librem 5, ever since it was first announced in August 2017, and I was delighted that I would finally be able to play with the “made in the USA” version of the phone.
Sadly, I’m in Bolivia and the phone was delivered to my parents’ house in the middle of the USA, so I haven’t been able to physically touch the phone. However, there is a lot that I can do with ssh to play with the phone remotely until I can convince a friend who is traveling from the US to bring me the phone.
Since I appear to be one of the first people to get the phone, I asked my father to take some photos of the Librem 5 USA to share with other people who are just as anxious to see this phone as I am. The phone took 7 days to ship via FedEx ground and it arrived at my parents’ house in a nondescript cardboard box:
Taking it out of the brown box, the phone is packed inside a large black box with Purism’s empty rectangular logo and a sticker that proudly proclaims “Made in the USA electronics”:
My father made a video of unboxing the Librem 5:
The Librem 5 USA is just as chunky as its China-made sibling at 15.5 mm thick. My father weighed it and his scale reports it to be 9.2 ounces (161 grams), which is similar to what others have reported for the weight of the Librem 5.
Turning it on, one is greeted by the lock screen which displays the time and date and indicator icons to display its current state. Swiping up from the bottom will bring up the key pad to enter a six digit PIN to unlock the phone.
The right side of the phone has a power button and a volume rocker button. The only visible difference with the Librem 5 on the outside is the “USA” label printed in brighter letters on the aluminum side of the phone. Notice the corner notch near the label, which is designed to easily pry off the back plastic cover.
The left side of the phone contains hardware kill switches to turn on/off the cellular modem, WiFi/Bluetooth and camera/microphone. Switching all three of them off at the same time will activate “Lockdown Mode,” which turns off all the sensors, including the ST Teseo-LIV3F GNSS, the Vishay VCNL4040 proximity & ambient light sensor, and the ST LSM9DS1 9-axis gyrometer, accelerometer & magnetometer. The left side of the phone also contains the SIM card and microSD card tray.
The back side of the phone has the 13.25 megapixel back camera with autofocus and a double diode flash.
It is easy to pry off the back cover with a fingernail to reveal the removable battery and a panel with screws covering the internals. The first version of the phone didn’t have that extra panel, but Purism added it, because the screws can be painted with glitter nail polish to detect whether anyone has tampered with the phone.
Unlike most phones, the Librem 5 USA is designed to be easy to take off the back cover without needing any tools. Sadly, most phone manufacturers want to lock you out of their phones and they are held together with glue, so taking off the back cover requires a lot of prying to crack them open with a heat gun, suction cups and spudgers.
Notice the smartcard slot, which is only accessible by taking out the battery. The Librem 5 and Librem 5 USA are the first phones to include a smartcard reader, which Purism plans to use for cryptographic operations with an OpenPGP card.
Purism also helpfully includes a ejector pin in the box to take out the SIM/microSD tray located on the left side of the phone. (By the way, it isn’t necessary to take off the back cover to open the tray, it just got photographed that way.)
The battery is easy to pop out, since it has a helpful slot over the smartcard reader to pry it up. Just like the Librem 5 (Evergreen), the Librem 5 USA comes with a 4500 mAh battery from Zhongshan Tianmao Battery Co.
A removable battery may seem like a minor design feature, but only 8 of the 334 phones introduced so far in 2021 have removable batteries, according to the gsmarena.com database, and every single one of them are low-end models. Sadly, most phones being sold today will have to be junked prematurely, since their batteries will typically start to degrade after 500 complete recharge cycles and they were designed to make it as difficult as possible to replace the battery.
Purism designed the Librem 5 to be easy to disassemble, which is shown by the lack of glue and the use of standard Phillips-head screws (instead of nasty things like Apple’s proprietary pentalobe screws). Taking off the internal panel to get inside just involves unscrewing three screws.
Underneath we find the first mobile phone in history to have a replaceable cellular modem and WiFi/Bluetooth (on two standard M.2 cards).
Purism promises to manufacture in house the M.2 card for the Thales Cinteron PLS8 modem, but my phone came with the BroadMobi BM818 modem which is made in China. I wasn’t asked by Purism whether I wanted the PLS8 modem, so I assume that Purism isn’t ready to start shipping the PLS8 modem yet. In my case, I would rather have the BM818-A1 modem since it supports the cellular bands that I need, but hopefully Purism will make the PLS8 modems available soon for people who want them.
What does intrigue me are the 20 test points that I see exposed below the WiFi/Bluetooth card:
Looking at the schematics, the points TP12, TP28, TP34 and TP501 expose a USB bus (running at USB 2.0 speed) connected to the i.MX 8M Quad processor. There are also 4 pins (I2C4_SDA, I2C4_SCL, UART1_RXD & UART1_TXD) underneath the two WiFi/Bluetooth antenna wires for an external connector, which opens up the possibility of adding mods to the phone. I don’t know if Purism has any plans to create mods, but I think that tinkerers could have a ball playing with the I2C and UART ports.
I was pleased to see the accessories that come with the Librem 5 USA, including a USB-C to USB-C cable, earbuds, an 18W charger and two international plug adoptee’s, and a SIM/microSD ejector tool.
The Librem 5 USA looks well built and I’m excited to start playing with it remotely, but the real test for how well it performs as a phone will have to wait till I can get my hands on the phone in a couple months time.
I don’t have much patience for appeals to nationalism that often accompany products that advertise being made in a particular country, but I do think the fact that Purism, a tiny company based out of San Francisco with 40 employees, has managed to manufacture a smartphone inside its own facilities is a remarkable feat. The major electronics companies started outsourcing the production of their products to China in the 1990s, and after 3 decades of outsourcing, there are very few companies left still making any type of consumer electronics inside the United States.
What is interesting about the Librem 5 USA for me is the fact that Purism does the assembly of its two circuit boards in house. Purism reports that it is doing the PCB assembly in house at its Carlsbad facility, which means running its own solder printer, feeders, pick-and-place machine and vapor-phase reflow oven, and then it is doing the final assembly of the phone in the same location. Since Purism says that the bare (unpopulated) PCBs also are made in the USA, I assume that Purism is acquiring them from some company based in the US that caters to companies doing board prototyping.
What makes Purism’s manufacturing so impressive is the fact that the Librem 5 USA is an extremely complicated phone to fabricate. Its main PCB contains ten layers and it has components as small as 0201 packages (0.6 x 0.3 mm). Because the Librem 5 USA uses six separate chips (i.MX 8M Quad, RS9116, BM818/PLS8, Teseo-LIV3F, WM8962 and bq25895) in place of an integrated mobile SoC, like a Snapdragon, Exynos, Mediatek Dimensity or Kirin found in most standard smartphones, plus it has a smartcard reader with its own microprocessor and extra circuitry for its kill switches, it requires a lot more components. The four boards in the Librem 5 USA contain a total of 1267 components, whereas a typical smartphone only needs one PCB, which contains between 400 and 600 components.
Of course, many of the components on the circuit boards are not made in the USA. Roughly 60% of the world’s semiconductor foundries are located in Taiwan, and another 20% in South Korea, so it is not possible to get many of the chips used in a modern smartphone from the US. I looked through the schematics and none of the 67 integrated circuits found on the main PCB or the USB PCB are made by Chinese companies, although the screen and its two ICs, the battery and the case are made in China.
It is worth pausing and reflecting on how unique the Librem 5 USA is in today’s world. 68% of the world’s smartphones are assembled in China, 11% in India, and most of the rest are assembled in countries with low labor costs such as Vietnam, Brazil, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Thailand. The implosion of Nokia in 2011 led to the closing of its three factories in Finland, Romania and Hungary, which basically ended Europe’s phone manufacturing industry. LG shut down its last South Korean factory in 2019 to move more production to Vietnam. The last company still making a substantial number of phones in a developed country is Samsung, which made 8% of its smartphones in South Korea as recently as 2019. Nonetheless, Samsung announced that same year that it planned to outsource 20% of its phone production to Chinese ODMs and has been moving more production out of its home country in an attempt to compete with the surging Chinese brands that now control roughly 55% of the global smartphone market.
The last phone that was made in the United States was Motorola’s Moto X, which had a customizable case. Motorola opened its factory in Fort Worth, Texas in May 2013 to produce the Moto X for the US market, but 12 months later it announced that it would be shuttering the plant and moving its production to China and Brazil. When Google owned Motorola, it could afford to take risks on costly experiments like manufacturing in a developed country, but the sale of Motorola to Lenovo ended that sort of profligacy.
There are only two companies that currently make phones in Europe. Gigaset, which was a division sold off by Siemens in 2008, does the final assembly of its smartphones in Bocholt, Germany, but the assembly of its PCBs likely happens in China. At any rate, 55.5% of Gigaset is owned by the Golden Group, which is based in Hong Kong, so it is questionable whether Gigaset is the best phone maker to avoid interference from China. The only company doing anything comparable to Purism is Bittium, which says that its phones have “manufacturing in Finland in a controlled production line.” The €1550 (US$1842) price tag for the Bittium Tough Mobile 2 indicates that Bittium probably is paying the high costs of doing small-scale PCB assembly, just like Purism, but the security that it provides is not verifiable like the Librem 5 USA.
For people who are worried about the Chinese government implanting spy chips in their phones, I would say that there is less chance of that happening with the Librem 5 USA than any other phone that you can buy. Not only is this the first phone since the Golden Delicious GTA04 in 2014 which has free/open source schematics, but this is first phone that only stores free/open source code in its main file system and has no proprietary code that is executed by its main CPU cores in the processor (although there is one proprietary blob from Synopsys that U-boot executes on the secondary Cortex-M4F core to train the DDR4 timing). Not only is it possible to audit all the source code in the main file system, but Purism is the only phone manufacturer (that I know of) which offers anti-interdiction services so that people can detect whether the phone has been tampered with during shipping.
Furthermore, Purism is the only phone manufacturer (that I know of) that has released x-rays of its phone, so that people buying the phone can x-ray the phone to verify that nothing in its hardware has been altered. Unfortunately, the x-ray images that Purism has published are from the Birch batch, so they aren’t very useful with this version of the phone, but hopefully Purism will publish new images for people buying the current versions of the phone.
I can see the Librem 5 USA being useful for people who need to worry about governmental agencies inserting spy chips in their phones, such as the Chinese reportedly did with Supermicro servers for an Apple data center. However, I think that it is far more likely that phones will be intercepted in transit, such as the way that the American, French and British governments intercepted routers and other telcom equipment to conduct their spying, according to the Snowden revelations.
The Librem 5 USA at $1999 is an extremely expensive phone, however, it is important to keep in mind the large fixed costs of equipping and running an assembly plant. The promise that I see in the Librem 5 USA is that it shows what is possible today, but it may also become possible in the future to make its high unit costs fall with greater volume. We can imagine a scenario where a phone manufacturer could ramp up its in-house production of phones in a developed country and sell them for prices that are far more accessible to the general population. Whether it will one day happen remains to be seen, but even at a price tag of $1999, it is exciting to see a company willing to produce a phone like the Librem 5 USA in house.
The more important aspect of the Librem 5 USA is that is helping to finance the development of mobile Linux as a viable alternative to Google’s surveillance Capitalism and Apple’s “walled garden”. Purism currently employs 11 people to work on the software for Librem 5/Librem 5 USA. Having watched their work at source.puri.sm for the last 4 years, I believe that they are laying the foundation for future phones that are designed to avoid planned obsolescence and the monetization of users’ personal data, plus empower people so that they control the technology rather than letting the technology control them.
Thanks to irvinewade and Caliga on the Purism forum for the feedback. I have edited the article so it no longer says “dual” for the combined SIM/microSD tray and added the image of the 20 test points provided by Purism developer Sebastian Krzyszkowiak.