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You are here: Home Bulletins Bulletins from 2009 Spring 2009 Free software laptops

Free software laptops

by root Contributions Published on Dec 18, 2009 02:41 PM
by Danny Clark, FSF Systems Team

Richard M. Stallman is one of the first users of the most hackable laptop currently in existence, the Lemote Yeeloong. Its modifiable binaries, including those that control the boot-up process (often called firmware, somewhat like the BIOS in most computers) and wireless card, have corresponding source code that is free software.

RMS by chance met someone from Lemote during his travels, and found him and others at Lemote to be interested in the GNU philosophy. RMS and the FSF have worked with Lemote and interested hackers to produce a port of gNewSense, a fully free distribution of GNU/Linux. Most GNU/Linux distributions incorporate nonfree software, such as device driver binary blobs with explictly nonfree licenses or no source code at all, but gNewSense contains only software which is completely free.

The gnewsense-mipsel-l port runs on the Yeeloong laptop, which uses a MIPS64 compatible CPU, the Loongson 2f; PMON 2000, a free software boot loader; and the RTL8187b wifi chipset. It seems to be as usable as the current generation of less free, inexpensive x86-based laptops, which are often also called netbooks.

The current lack of a supplier pre-installing the Yeeloong with gNewSense does make it harder to set up initially than less free netbooks running less free GNU/Linux distributions. However the gNewSense team and often FSF Systems Team are very active in helping people via IRC, mailing lists, and web sites. From personal experience we can say that the thrill of using a computer so close to our ideals is worth the relatively trivial time commitment involved in getting it up and running.

But what can you do to move towards freedom if you do not have around $400 to spend on a Yeeloong? On a hardware level, if you can, use coreboot on x86 systems instead of the typical proprietary BIOS, and help the coreboot project support more x86 hardware.

On an operating system level, use one of the free GNU/Linux variants, such as gNewSense or Trisquel. If you need a newer kernel in order to support freedom-respecting devices such as ath9k wifi, the Linux-libre project distributes up-to-date versions of the kernel Linux with all nonfree software removed.

There is also still some work to do to reach a completely hackable laptop. The software that is on hard drives (both magnetic and solid state) can be updated by the user, and is nonfree. This software is usually used for things like making sure no parts of the disk wear out, but could also be used to do things you could not detect and would not like, such as making a copy of data written to it in an area not detectable by software not running on the drive itself.

But the Lemote Yeeloong is the most free laptop that has ever been available, and we would like to thank all those who made it possible, especially Robert Millan for doing the bulk of the gNewSense port, and many Lemote employees for their answers to our questions and willingness to work with us towards freedom and control over the computing hardware that we purchase from them; we all should demand no less from all of the vendors that we buy hardware from!

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