Hardware Type and Software Freedom

Hardware Categories

Every piece of hardware falls into one of three categories.

a) Free

Anyone may audit/study all aspects of the hardware, share/modify designs, and manufacture.

No chips are free hardware. Some devices have free PCB design (but often requiring nonfree design software) or free HDL for FPGAs (which need nonfree toolchains for compiling into a form installed on the device). Many more devices have available schematics or repair documentation, often leaked with no support from the developer.

Free hardware (if any existed today) would qualify for the Free Software Foundation's "Respects Your Freedom" certification:


b) Proprietary, and Compatible with Free Software ("Freedom Compatible")

Freedom-compatible hardware which is not free hardware. It's freedom-friendly (also called "freedom-compatible") so long as it works with free software, even if it does contain non-free parts.

Users can use this kind of hardware with GNU systems. But the non-free components in some devices will undermine one or more of users' software freedoms. Other devices have no support for software updates, making their possibly modifiable software an implementation detail of hardware that we cannot easily study.

Most hardware falls under this category.

Some have no proprietary software that users normally update (or install) and work with most features using a fully free operating system. This is required by the FSF Respects Your Freedom certification. Examples: Gluglug's modified Thinkpad X60 notebook computers, Thinkpenguin's USB wireless adapters (specifically the TPE-N150USB and TPE-N150USBL) and Aleph Objects, Inc. Lulzbot 3D printers.


  1. Many HP printers can interface with GNU with free drivers (like in HPLIP), but the printer firmware on the device is non-free.
  2. Boot firmware for many computers is proprietary, but the operating system and drivers it loads are free.
  3. All recent Intel systems have nonfree firmware that only Intel can replace. This firmware is called AMT and it exists (officially only) on certain devices.

c) Proprietary, and not compatible with free software

Examples: Most Wireless cards that are not from Atheros, GPS systems, AMD graphics etc. If it doesn't work on any Free GNU/Linux distribution such as Trisquel or on Replicant; the free Android, it is almost certain that it is proprietary.

See http://trisquel.info/en/forum/amd-ati-graphic-cards-only-chipset-matters-not-brand-and-version for more details on such hardware.

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printer freedom computer single board computer


02/15/2014 - 22:04
02/25/2014 - 01:54
09/21/2014 - 03:57
10/19/2014 - 10:57
Michał Masłowski
01/04/2015 - 20:09