Lenovo Flex 5G Review: Not done cooking yet
This laptop is an adventure for me in two different ways. In both ways, I am surprised and disappointed. While both surprises fail to meet my admittedly high expectations, I nonetheless can see why this laptop exists and its exciting potential. So let’s dive right in.
The Lenovo Flex 5G fills out a lot of firsts for me – first time testing a Windows ARM PC, first time testing an always connected PC, and first time testing a 5G PC. That’s a lot of firsts. The Lenovo Flex 5G covers all of those bases in a really nice package. The 14” FHD touch display looks great, but doesn’t get nearly bright enough for my tastes. Minimal bezels surround the screen, and hold a 720p front facing camera with infrared. The hinge closes tightly and doesn’t pass the one-handed opening test. When open, the hinge is a little on the loose side, which is fairly ironic.
The keyboard has great pitch with nice travel on the keys. It’s not my favorite keyboard I’ve ever used, but it’s in the top 5. Plus, the keyboard is covered in a delightful soft-touch coating that makes it really comfortable to use. I occasionally have a problem with dropped keystrokes which was similarly reported by another reviewer. We both had trouble finding anyone else reporting that same trouble though, so take that for what you will.
On the deck, you’ll also find a large touchpad – not the largest, but large – a fingerprint sensor, and dual speakers on either side of the keyboard. Both of those should be standard on every laptop ever. The touchpad is very smooth and clicky when you’re not using the touchscreen. The fingerprint sensor is very fast and makes Windows Hello a joy to use since it almost never sees my face on the first try. The speakers are not terribly loud, but they do the job. Like a lot of laptop speakers, you lose a lot of low frequencies, but there’s no distortion in the higher range, so they’re nicely suited to the task. Around the sides, you’ll find two USB Type-C ports, a headphone jack and airplane mode switch, which is a nice touch.
The display is a very pretty 14-inch IPS display with a 16:9 aspect ratio and resolution of 1920×1080. Unfortunately, the screen does not get nearly bright enough. We’ll talk about 5G in a bit, but the technology is mostly geared toward outside use and this laptop does not cut the mustard for outside use. Inside, you’re in great shape, buta 5G laptop should be built for the outdoors. Or at least, a laptop built for mmWave 5G should be built for outdoors.
The laptop is quite thin and light, weighing in at just under three pounds. Of course, since it’s a 2-in-1, the screen also folds all the way around to tent mode and tablet mode if you want to consume some media, or appear in a Stargate: Atlantis episode. From a hardware perspective, aside from the dropped keystrokes and screen brightness – which are annoying – there’s little to complain about with this laptop.
On the software side, things get complicated. Ordinarily, when I’m reviewing a laptop, I like to be able to write “I did all my work on this laptop.” However, aside from stating the fact that I can’t say that, I can’t actually say that. Windows 10 on ARM is limited to a select number of apps in the Windows store, a seemingly random set of apps you can install from downloadable executables, and a long list of Progressive Web Apps you can install from various websites. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for most people. You can get Microsoft Office, Photoshop Express, and even Audacity on here. I found that the Windows version of Netflix didn’t run on this machine, but the PWA did, so go figure.
I learned early on that the Edge browser is a much better option than Google Chrome. Sure, I miss password autofill, but that’s about all I miss. Indeed, Edge runs better than Chrome on most sites meaning it bogs down the computer less often. The rest of the apps you can run are fairly lightweight, with Audacity being the heaviest hitter I used on the regular. I’m positive I’ll disappoint the Booredatwork faithful when I mention that I did not try any gaming on the laptop because I’m frankly not a gamer. Sorry.
As far as performance is concerned, I have few complaints. I already mentioned how Google Chrome can bog down this laptop, but Chrome is a notorious resource hog. ARM processors are powerful these days, so that isn’t much of a surprise. The problem is ARM processors are based on completely different architecture from their x86 counterparts. Apple has a commitment from Adobe to build its apps for ARM-based Macs. Will that catalog be more extensive than what’s offered for Windows? Will any Mac extension translate over to Windows? Those are important questions that do not yet have answers.
Put simply, you cannot do everything on an ARM-based Windows machine that you can on an x86 based machine. But, x86 machines aren’t always connected to a mobile network, nor do they boast multi-day battery life. The Lenovo Flex 5G is and does. So, let’s talk about that network.
I live in the Chicago suburbs. Verizon’s 5G efforts are focused on millimeter wave 5G technology, and that does not live in Chicago’s suburbs. It lives in downtown Chicago, so I spent half a day in downtown Chicago using this laptop on Verizon’s network. I rode my bike all over downtown Chicago stopping in over a dozen places from the Civic Opera House to Daley Plaza, to the lakefront, to Navy Pier, to the riverwalk to the Thompson center. Never once did my speed test top 400+ mbps. Don’t get me wrong, that’s fast internet. But it’s not Gigabit fast, which is Verizon’s claim to fame in this category. It’s the reason Verizon is going with mmWave. During my travels downtown, I consulted Verizon’s 5G map and made certain I was in the reddest of red spots. That’s the reality of Verizon 5G.
In theory, a laptop sporting mmWave technology is a good idea. The laptop is the type of device you set down in one place and work for a good stretch of time. mmWave 5G is extremely finicky, and tiny movements can adversely affect your signal. A phone’s mobility is a detriment in that scenario. In short, it makes far more sense to build 5G into a laptop than it does into a phone.
During my travels, I never found a spot that couldn’t connect to Verizon at all, which is a good thing. I was able to accomplish quite a bit in half a work day because of that connectivity. But the reality is that Verizon’s 5G network still is not there yet. Even in cities where Verizon has good signal, it’s still hard to find one. So where does that leave us?
The Lenovo Flex 5G is a great idea, but honestly it’s probably at least a year ahead of its time. Don’t get me wrong, ARM-based PCs are strong enough for most everyday activities, especially those in the business world. You can’t install some applications, but for the most part, those applications are heavy duty, probably wouldn’t run well on this hardware anyway, and fairly niche products. If you’re a podcast producer, should you buy this laptop? No. If you’re a writer, should you? Provisionally yes. Now, let’s talk about the 5G.
An always connected PC is great. Dropping down any old place you want and having the internet is powerful and awesome. Having mmWave 5G is theoretically awesome. But 5G, especially mmWave 5G is not there yet. Not unlike ARM-based computing, 5G is still in its infancy. Add to that the fact that most of the mmWave happens outside, the dim screen on this laptop becomes especially problematic.
Is all that worth $1399? Add to that $90 per month for a 5G line from Verizon? No. Not at all. Even if you work in a 5G saturated neighborhood and you know of a spot that gets perfect 5G, I can’t recommend picking this up. That being said, the very fact that this laptop can connect to 5G, makes it unique in its field. But until Verizon can address the obvious and painful holes in its network coverage, your money is better spent elsewhere.