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Lenovo Flex 5G review: A murky glimpse into the laptop’s future

Lenovo Flex 5G

Score Details

“The Lenovo Flex 5G is held back by limited 5G connectivity and mediocre performance.”

  • The best battery life we’ve seen
  • Solid build quality
  • Good keyboard and touchpad
  • Built-in 5G connectivity
  • Performance is mediocre
  • App and driver incompatibilities are a pain
  • 5G is still hard to find

MSRP $1.00

Two massive PC revolutions are waiting in the wings: 5G connectivity and ARM-based processors. The new Lenovo Flex 5G is a device that seeks to launch us forward into a future that embraces both technologies.

Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 8cx chip is the key, bringing both built-in 5G connectivity and enough performance to combat Intel Core processors. That makes the Flex 5G a Windows vanguard against Apple’s own transition to ARM-based Macs.

But don’t get too excited. 5G’s roll-out has been slow, as has Windows’ support of ARM processors. Throw in a high starting price of $1,500, and the Lenovo Flex 5G is being forced to fight an uphill battle. Is the world ready for Lenovo’s vision of the future?

5G connectivity

So, what’s the big deal with 5G? Simply put, it’s the next generation of mobile broadband, and it’s taking the place of today’s fastest standard, 4G LTE. It promises to provide internet speeds that rival or even beat the connections most people have at home and at work. But its roll-out across the nation has been slow.

You won’t find it outside of only the biggest cities. I had to make a trip to Venice Beach (never a bad thing) to test the Flex 5G’s connectivity, as there are only a few areas in Los Angeles where Verizon has coverage, and none are very close to my house. The coverage is ultra-wideband, though, which theoretically should give the best possible performance.

I say theoretically because at least in Venice Beach, I wasn’t able to achieve connectivity anywhere close to the two gigabits per second (Gbps) speeds that ultra-wideband 5G promises. The best download speed I saw (via Speedtest.net) was 465 megabits per second (Mbps) and the fastest upload speed I saw was 51Mbps — I was hoping to see closer to 2Gbps download speeds and so seeing just a quarter of that was disappointing. And Verizon’s coverage is spotty — Los Angeles, for example, only has a few locations with very limited coverage and the number of cities covered by Verizon’s 5G network is pretty small.

I could walk 10 feet in one direction or another and drop to an LTE connection. This isn’t only Verizon’s issue. T-Mobile, for example, reaches more areas with their 5G coverage, but it uses sub-6GHz bandwidth that provides speeds more comparable to 4G.

It’s much faster than 4G LTE, but it’s nowhere near what 5G promises.

To see how that translated to real life, I downloaded a 1.7GB file from OneDrive and hit a 44 megabytes per second (MBps) download speed. That’s much better than I’d see on 4G LTE, but again, it’s nowhere near what 5G promises.

I’d have to say that, in Venice, at least (and I did roam around looking for better spots), Verizon’s 5G isn’t quite up to par. Perhaps its faster elsewhere, or perhaps the Flex 5G’s modem drivers need tweaking. In any event, the Flex 5G will keep you working at a fast clip wherever there’s 5G connectivity available, but not nearly as fast as it will one day provide.

If it’s not obvious, once 5G hits its stride it will be a game-changer for computing. Today, if you want a fast internet connection — that is, measured in gigabits per second and not just megabits — then you’re stuck using Wi-Fi or a wired Ethernet connection. That ties you to specific locations and keeps you on the hunt for a safe connection when you’re out and about. With a fast 5G connection, though, you’ll be speeding along wherever there’s coverage — imagine driving down the road and working with a fast internet connection — which will eventually be just like 4G LTE today. It’ll be everywhere, meaning you’ll finally be unleashed from the Wi-Fi tether.

Performance

Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8cx is the company’s latest ARM processor and the first made explicitly for PCs rather than based on smartphone designs. Not only does it have to compete with Intel and AMD, but the Snapdragon 8cx also faces the challenge of running Windows on ARM.

In the past, it hasn’t been the most impressive platform around when it comes to pure speed. That’s because most legacy Windows applications weren’t built natively to run on ARM, and instead have to run in emulation. Performance is, therefore, the second most important factor behind connectivity in determining whether the Flex 5G is a viable platform for mobile workers.

More than just being slow, many applications won’t run at all on Windows on ARM. That includes a lot of the benchmarking applications I typically use to test performance, which turns out to be a good example of the large problem with app compatibility. It’ll work with Microsoft’s Office suite, and it’ll work with Windows 10 apps (to the extent that you use any). And thanks to drivers that aren’t written to support the platform, it’s hit or miss with peripherals.

For example, our real-world Handbrake test video encoding won’t run on the Flex 5G. That’s a bummer because this test gives the best idea of how well a processor will perform when running demanding tasks.

More than just being slow, many applications won’t run at all on Windows on ARM.

I was limited to Geekbench 4 and 5 among our performance benchmarks to get a glimpse into just how much faster the Snapdragon 8cx really is. Going by these two tests, the new Snapdragon chip is definitely an upgrade from the Snapdragon 850 that preceded it. That doesn’t, however, make it a fast laptop by any means.

In Geekbench 4, the Flex 5G managed 3,322 in the single-core test and 11,348 in the multi-core test. That’s a major bump up from the Lenovo Yoga C630 (which uses the Snapdragon 850), which scored 2,292 in the single-core test and 6,710 in the multi-core test. Clearly, the Snapdragon 8cx is much faster. In fact, it even beat out the dual-core Intel 10th-gen Core i3-1011U in the Lenovo Yoga C640 in the multi-core test, which scored 4,670 and 8,750.

In Geekbench 5, the Flex 5G hit 700 in the single-core test and 2,802 in the multi-core test. That beat the Yoga C640’s 486 and 2,155 and even competed with the 2020 MacBook Air‘s Core i5-1030NG7 that scored 1,140 and 2,770.

Does that make the Flex 5G a fast laptop? Of course not. It performed right in line with these synthetic benchmark numbers and similarly to the comparison laptops. It was just fine for productivity tasks, web browsing, watching video, and other uses that don’t ask too much from the processor. If that’s what you use your laptop for, then you’ll be satisfied with the performance. But if you need it to ramp up as needed, you’ll be disappointed.

Battery life

Longevity should be a strength of the Flex 5G thanks to the efficiency of ARM processors in general and the Snapdragon 8cx in particular. I expected good things, and I wasn’t disappointed.

In fact, I was blown away. The Flex 5G demonstrated the best battery life we’ve seen on a laptop, period — it literally beat out every other machine we’ve tested.

I’ll start with the most impressive result, namely the video test that loops a local Full HD Avengers trailer until the battery runs out. Simply put, the Flex 5G was spectacular, lasting basically 28 hours looping the video (it came up three minutes short). That’s the longest we’ve recorded by almost five hours, beating out the previous best Lenovo Yoga C640 that lasted around 23 hours. The Dell Latitude 7400 2-in-1 is the other laptop that’s lasted longer than 20 hours, at almost 22 hours.

This is a laptop that will last you multiple days of use.

In the web test, the Flex 5G was just as impressive. It lasted for 17.25 hours, again the best among all of the laptops we’ve tested. The only other machine that came even close was the Microsoft Surface Book 2 at 15.5 hours, and the Surface Book 3 didn’t do nearly as well.

Finally, in our demanding Basemark web benchmark test, the Flex 5G — you guessed it — bested all other machines. It lasted for a whopping 10.5 hours, which is — you guessed it again — another record among the laptops we’ve tested. Now, granted, the Flex 5G didn’t break any speed records, but as fast as the laptop will run, it will run for a long time.

Note that these results trounced the Yoga C630, which lasted 17 hours on the video test and about 11 hours on the web browsing test. Qualcomm’s claims of improved efficiency with the Snapdragon 8cx are well justified.

Clearly, this is a laptop that is going to last you days of typical productivity tasks, web browsing, video watching, and the like. Even if you push the CPU — which isn’t saying much in terms of overall performance, of course — you’ll get a full day’s work, and then some.

Design

The Flex 5G is a spitting image for the Yoga C630, with only a few changes to account for differences in ports. And while that makes for a very conservatively designed laptop — in accordance with Lenovo’s recent aesthetic — in its Iron Gray color that’s darker but not quite black, it’s not a bad thing. Yes, there’s zero bling and so the laptop isn’t going to stand out in a crowd, but some people like that. It’s nowhere near the HP Spectre x360 13, for example, which is perhaps the epitome of chiseled, gem-cut design that screams for attention.

Better yet, the Flex 5G is fairly well built. It’s an all-aluminum chassis that exhibits just a bit of flex on the keyboard deck but nowhere else. It has a solid feel, which extends to the 360-degree hinge that holds the laptop in its four modes — clamshell, tent, media, and tablet — and it’s pretty thin at 0.58 inches and light at 2.97 pounds. Compare that to the Spectre x360 at 0.67 inches and 2.88 pounds, and the Dell XPS 13 at 0.58 inches and 2.65 pounds. The Flex 5G took a bit of a jump in size over the Yoga C630, but that’s likely to account for the increased battery capacity — always a good thing in my book.

Most important, the Flex 5G feels like it’s worth its $1,500 investment, which is particularly significant given that you’re not getting the best configuration at this price. You won’t be left feeling like you spent so much money on a laptop that just isn’t built well enough.

Connectivity is relatively limited, with just two USB-C 3.2 ports on the left-hand side and a 3.5mm audio jack on the right-hand. There’s also a Nano SIM card slot and a switch to physically turn on airplane mode. For such a futuristic device, we were disappointed to see Wi-Fi 5 and not Wi-Fi 6 to go with Bluetooth 5.0.

Keyboard and touchpad

The Flex 5G has the same keyboard as pretty much every Yoga and Flex laptop out there. It has wide keycaps with plenty of spacing, and a snappy mechanism with a soft bottoming action. It might be my imagination, but the Flex 5G’s version seemed a little shallower than some I’ve tried, and that’s not my favorite quality. I like a bit of travel in my keyboards. Overall, though, I doubt many people will complain, and I was typing at pretty much full speed very quickly. To compare with some other excellent keyboards, the Flex 5G falls a bit behind the excellent examples on the HP Spectre x360 13 and Dell XPS 13, not to mention the awesome Magic Keyboard on the latest MacBooks.

The touchpad is of average dimensions for this size of a laptop, and it supports Microsoft’s Precision Touchpad protocol. Multitouch gestures and overall cursor control was therefore excellent, and I had no complaints. The touch display was also responsive, although I’m sure some people will be very disappointed that there’s no active pen support. That’s pretty much a given with modern 2-in-1s, and it’ll be missed here.

Windows 10 Hello password-less support is provided in two ways. First, there’s an infrared camera providing facial recognition, and that worked as well as on any other similarly equipped machine. Second, there’s a fingerprint reader on the keyboard deck, and it, too, was fast and responsive. It’s nice to have the option.

Display

My colorimeter won’t work with the Flex 5G for a lack of drivers, and so I couldn’t run the display through the usual battery of tests. I did give the display a good workout and can provide some subjective observations.

First, the display is bright, likely approaching Lenovo’s rating of 400 nits. I wouldn’t say it competes with direct sunlight, but it’s bright enough to use in most other ambient lighting.

Second, colors were bright and seemed natural, and the display demonstrated plenty of contrast. Black text on white backgrounds — my bread and butter — popped, and I never found myself thinking that text looked washed out.

Finally, I enjoyed watching Netflix on the display, and so I’m guessing the gamma is close to spot on. I can’t attest to how accurate the colors are and whether it’s a good display for creative types, but the typical productivity worker and the home user should find the display a pleasure.

The audio quality was mixed. Volume was low, in spite of the two upward-firing speakers next to the keyboard, but there was zero distortion. Bass was lacking, not surprisingly, but mids and highs were right where they should be. Again, it’s a good laptop for watching Netflix, although a set of headphones wouldn’t be a terrible idea.

Our take

The Lenovo Flex 5G isn’t the game-changer it wants to be, but it’s not entirely to blame. 5G speeds and coverage makes it hard to justify a purchase based on connectivity alone. Meanwhile, Windows support for ARM is an ongoing project that Microsoft is still dragging its feet on.

These two technologies will likely play a big role in the future of laptops. The Flex 5G’s incredible battery life is proof enough. But Qualcomm, Microsoft, and Verizon each have a lot of infrastructure to build before a laptop like the Lenovo Flex 5G can truly succeed on its own merits.

Are there any alternatives?

There aren’t any other 5G laptops currently on the market, but they’re coming. And if they support more than Verizon’s relatively limited 5G coverage, they might be better options from that perspective alone. So those are something to look out for.

If you don’t need 5G, then you could consider the HP Spectre x360 13 with 4G LTE. You’ll spend about $150 less and get a much faster laptop, but you won’t enjoy nearly the battery life. Think in halves here.

How long will it last?

The Lenovo Flex 5G is a well-built laptop that should last for years, but its performance is only going to get relatively slower. Meanwhile, 5G and Windows on ARM technology could see a much broader roll-out in the coming years, and the Flex 5G should last long enough to see the benefits.

The one-year warranty is typical and disappointing.

Should you buy it?

No — at least not yet. While battery life is stellar, performance is mediocre and barely keeps up with basic productivity and media consumption tasks. That always-connected lifestyle will be convenient — but only once 5G sees a more impressive roll-out.

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