Lenovo Flex 5G review: The first 5G laptop offers crazy battery life, as well as compromises
- 28 September, 2020 20:37
The Lenovo Flex 5G is the first laptop capable of tapping into 5G networks—Verizon’s, in this case—and unleashing cellular download speeds that will leave your Wi-Fi router in the dust. Even better, the Flex 5G’s battery will last you all day, and then some.
The Flex’s crazy battery life comes at a price, though. This 14-inch, 2-in-1 laptop ($1,400 at Verizon) tips the scales at nearly three pounds, while its Snapdragon 8cx 5G CPU chugs during some everyday computing tasks. We were less than impressed with the Flex 5G’s shallow keyboard. Finally, you’ll need to consider Verizon’s still-sketchy 5G coverage area (in just 36 cities so far), as well as the slew of competing 5G laptops that are poised to go on the market.
This review is part of our ongoing roundup of the best laptops. Go there for information on competing products and how we tested them.
Flex 5G Configuration
Lenovo offers a wide variety of Flex-branded 2-in-1 laptops, including 14- and 15-inch models with 10th-gen Intel Core i3 and i5 Comet Lake CPUs. But with its Snapdragon 8cx processor (officially known as the Snapdragon 8cx 5G) and integrated 5G networking capability, the Flex 5G stands alone in Lenovo’s Flex lineup and has no 5G competitors—at the moment.
The Lenovo Flex 5G will set you back $1,400, or you could go with Verizon’s two-year, $58.33 installment plan. Besides the cost of the laptop itself, you’ll need to consider Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband Connected Device Plan, which costs $30 per month with an existing line,or $90 per month without one.
The Flex 5G won’t be the sole 5G laptop for much longer. A veritable avalanche of competitors was announced earlier this year, including 5G versions of the Dell Latitude 9510, the HP Elite Dragonfly G2, and Lenovo’s own ThinkPad X1 Fold, a foldable laptop that knocked our socks off during a brief hands-on this summer. More recently, Samsung unveiled the Galaxy Book Flex 5G powered by Intel’s brand-new 11th-gen CPU. Acer is prepping the 5G-capable Spin 7, a 2-in-1 laptop running on the next-generation version of the (already outdated!) Snapdragon 8cx 5G that sits inside the Lenovo Flex 5G.
So while the Lenovo Flex 5G currently stands as the best—and only—option for anyone who wants for a 5G laptop, shoppers will have many more choices in the months ahead. That reality alone should give those considering the Flex 5G a moment of pause, unless you really, really want to be the first on your block to own one.
With that preamble out of the way, here are the specs for the Lenovo Flex 5G:
- CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx 5G
- Memory: 8GB LPDDR4X
- Graphics: Qualcomm Adreno 680
- Storage: 256GB UFS
- Display: 14-inch 1920x1080 IPS touchscreen, rated at 400 nits’ brightness
- Webcam: 720p webcam
- Connectivity: Two SuperSpeed USB 10Gbps (formerly known as USB 3.2 Gen 2) Type-C ports, one combo audio jack
- Networking: Verizon 5G (mmWave and sub-6GHz), Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac)
- Biometrics: IR facial recognition, fingerprint reader
- Battery capacity: 60 watt-hour
- Dimensions: 12.65 x 8.46 x 0.58 inches
- Weight: 3 pounds (measured), 3.6 with power brick
While 5G is the headliner as far as the Flex 5G’s specifications are concerned, let’s tackle some other details first (we’ll have plenty to say about 5G a little later), starting with that Snapdragon chip.
Qualcomm’s Arm-based Snapdragon 8cx processor was initially touted as a viable alternative to more common X86-based Intel chips. It packed in roughly the same performance as Intel’s U-series Core i5 CPUs and delivered amazingly long battery life.
The reality is a bit more complex. Our review of the Snapdragon 8cx-powered Samsung Galaxy Book S showed decent results in multimedia and graphics performance (the latter courtesy of the 8cx’s Adreno 680 CPU), but disappointing scores in photo editing and (crucially) day-to-day productivity. You’ll see the details in our Performance section.
The 8cx’s Arm architecture also has important implications for the kinds of Windows apps you will—and won’t—be able to run.
The 32-bit Windows programs encoded for X86 (as the vast majority of Windows apps are) can run on an Arm laptop thanks to the magic of emulation, but 64-bit X86 apps can’t. While many of the most popular day-to-day programs—you know, Microsoft Office, Edge, Google Chrome, and Firefox—do have 32-bit versions available, Adobe Creative Cloud is a notable exception. Most AAA games will be out of the question too, not that the 8cx’s integrated Adreno 680 graphics core would have a prayer of running any of them smoothly.
Before making the jump to a Snapdragon-powered laptop like the Lenovo Flex 5G, make sure that your must-have programs—particularly the arcane ones, not to mention your company’s VPN—have either 32-bit X86 versions available, or 64-bit versions that are compiled for Arm.
Moving on from the CPU, the Lenovo Flex 5G’s 8GB of low-power RAM is adequate (although 16GB would have been even better), as is the 256GB SSD (although you’d be better off relegating media to the cloud). The 14-inch full-HD touchscreen promises to be relatively bright, while the integrated Qualcomm Adreno 680 GPU should offer a slight boost over Intel’s competing UHD integrated graphics. While the Flex 5G’s cellular support (including both the ultra-fast mmWave and slower but more widespread sub-6GHz versions of 5G) grabs all the headlines, the laptop’s Wi-Fi 5 networking feels a tad behind the times as the new Wi-Fi 6 standard gains momentum.
Groundbreaking though it may be from a cellular networking standpoint, the Lenovo Flex 5G’s design is otherwise familiar.
From its pedestrian “iron gray” aluminum magnesium shell and nearly featureless flat lid to the twin 2-in-1 hinges that rotate for tablet, kiosk, and tented tabletop use, the Flex 5G cuts a slim, nondescript figure. There’s one subtle innovation: a notch directly above the webcam makes it easier to pry the laptop open with your fingertips.
The Flex 5G does feel a little heavy for a 14-inch laptop. Of course, that extra heft includes a 60 watt-hour battery, which (as we’ll see in a bit) earns its keep and then some.
The Lenovo Flex 5G’s 14-inch, full-HD (1920x1080) display is pleasingly vivid and bright, with a specified maximum of 400 nits that was readable outside under an umbrella on a sunny day. The touch-enabled display does have a glossy finish, however, so glare could be a problem in direct sunlight.
Viewing angles on the Flex 5G’s IPS display are unsurprisingly solid, dimming only slightly when viewed from off-center vertical or horizontal angles.
The Flex 5G’s touch display reacted smoothly to my taps and swipes. A stylus is optional—you can snap up the battery-powered Active Pen for $45 from Lenovo.
Keyboard, trackpad, speakers, and webcam
I’ll just cut to the chase here: I wasn’t a big fan of the Lenovo Flex 5G’s keyboard. The key caps themselves sit awfully low in the Flex 5G’s chassis, making the keyboard feel like it’s nearly flat. Travel distance didn’t feel that great either. On the plus side, I did like the tactile, rubberized feel of the Flex’s inside surface, including the palmrest.
The Flex 5G’s touchpad did a nice job, scooting the cursor around with a minimum of jitter. The touchpad was also adept at rejecting false inputs: Even when I brushed my palms back and forth on the trackpad’s surface, the cursor rarely budged.
The twin upfiring speakers on the Flex 5G sound reasonably good, cranking out crisp, detailed sound, albeit with little in the way of low-frequency response. The speakers on the Flex are optimized for Dolby Atmos, an audio format that can deliver immersive 3D audio from as few as two drivers. We’re seeing—and hearing—Atmos in more and more laptops and even smartphones (iOS has natively supported Dolby Atmos since 2016). The effect is impressive for a laptop, although you’re still usually better off using external speakers or a decent pair of cans.
The video produced by the Lenovo Flex 5G’s 720p webcam looks about as blotchy as you’d expect, although the Flex 5G’s video images look a tad more washed out and herky-jerky than the norm. The laptop does come with an IR camera for facial recognition, which I used almost exclusively—and quite successfully—during my testing. The Flex also has a fingerprint reader if you’d rather sign in to Windows with your fingertip.
The Lenovo Flex 5G comes with exactly two USB ports, and they’re both SuperSpeed USB 10Gbps Type-C connectors, situated on the laptop’s left side.
On the right side of the Flex 5G is the power button, a combo audio jack, an airplane mode switch, and … that’s it.
So, what’s missing? USB Type-A ports for starters, so you’ll need a USB-C hub (we have some recommendations) if you want to use the Flex 5G with a wired mouse or printer with legacy connectors. There’s also no memory card reader or HDMI port, although you can always connect a 4K monitor to one of the USB-C ports in DisplayPort Alt mode.
When the Lenovo Flex 5G manages to latch onto a 5G signal, its cellular throughput is fast—astoundingly fast, in fact. It’s finding a Verizon 5G signal that’s the problem.
The state of Verizon’s 5G deployment is a mixed bag compared to that of its rivals. On the one hand, Verizon’s high-band, mmWave-based 5G network offers some of the fastest 5G speeds in the country. Recent surveys indicate that Big Red’s 5G throughput can be up to 10 times faster than that of its competition.
On the other hand, Verizon has yet to pull the switch on its sub-6GHz 5G network (which it plans on doing by sharing bandwidth with its existing 4G network, via a technology known as Dynamic Spectrum Switching). That means Verizon lacks the nationwide (albeit far slower) 5G coverage offered by AT&T and T-Mobile, which have concentrated on sub-6GHz 5G networks. (The Lenovo Flex 5G’s bespoke 5G antenna supports both mmWave and sub-6GHz 5G signals.)
For now Verizon’s 5G coverage is limited to just 36 cities, including Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, New York City, Salt Lake City, San Diego, and Washington, D.C. (Here is the complete list.) A closer look at Verizon’s 5G coverage maps reveals a patchwork of 5G areas in each of those 36 cities, generally concentrated around streets and intersections. Cross the street, and you could easily lose your 5G signal.
My Brooklyn apartment happens to be only a block away from the nearest 5G coverage area in my neighborhood. This particular area stretches barely two blocks down Court Street in Carroll Gardens, encompassing all of three intersections.
Standing in front of a toy store on the corner of Court and Carroll, the Flex 5G registered a 5G signal, and boom! Speedy goodness. My Google speed tests registered download speeds between 381Mbps and 476.7Mbps—a far cry from the maximum theoretical mmWave download speeds of 2Gbps, but very much in line with the top Verizon 5G speeds reported in real-world surveys. Upload speeds were generally quite impressive, ranging from 44.8Mbps to 55.5Mbps. Pretty cool. But just a few steps away the 5G signal faded, and the Flex 5G slipped back into 4G LTE mode.
In short, your 5G experience with the Flex 5G is all about location, location, location. Verizon execs have been bullish about their 5G rollout, promising to begin deploying sub-6GHz 5G service—which would lay the groundwork for nationwide 5G coverage—before the year is out (although to be clear, that doesn’t necessarily mean coast-to-coast Verizon 5G by Christmas). But unless you happen to be in a Verizon 5G city and you’re near one of the little red blotches on Verizon’s 5G coverage map, the Lenovo Flex 5G won’t—for the time being, anyway—live up to its name.
The Lenovo Flex 5G’s Arm-based CPU can't run our standard laptop performance benchmarks, which are mostly designed for X86 systems. We ran a modified suite for Arm-powered laptops, including a couple of app-based PCMark tests and a web-based benchmark. We’ve grouped the Flex 5G with similar laptops running on Snapdragon processors. We’ve also tossed in a few Intel Core-powered laptops to give you an idea of the inherent tradeoffs.
Cutting to the chase, the Flex 5G turns in a decidedly mixed performance. While its test results (along with my own real-world experience) indicate that it can handle everyday productivity apps with relative ease, the Flex 5G’s Snapdragon 8cx processor can’t deliver the silky-smooth performance of, say, an Intel Ice Lake Core i7 CPU or even a Whiskey Lake Core i5 chip. The octo-core 8cx also hits some turbulence when it comes to multimedia and photo editing. What the Flex 5G’s Snapdragon does undeniably deliver, however, is spectacular battery life.
PCMark 10 Apps
To test how the Lenovo Flex 5G handles day-to-day PC duties, we fired up PCMark 10 Apps, a benchmark that uses the actual Microsoft Office suite to simulate working in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, while also measuring how long it took to load those various programs.
The results are aren’t bad, but we’ve seen better. The Flex 5G does manage to snag a third-place finish behind the Microsoft Surface Laptop 3, a 4K laptop powered by a bleeding-edge Intel Core i7 Ice Lake CPU, although it also trails a system (the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Tablet) with an older Whiskey Lake Core i5 chip. It’s more equal to a 7th-gen Core i5 system (the first-gen Microsoft Surface Laptop), and it turns in a substantially better showing than the Samsung Galaxy Book S and its (non 5G-enabled) Snapdragon 8cx CPU. Overall (and as I can attest after my real-world experience over the past few weeks), the Flex 5G simply doesn’t deliver the ultra-smooth Office performance that recent Intel Core-powered laptops can.
PCMark 8 Creative
Our next benchmark tests how a laptop handles a mix of media and entertainment content, including web browsing, photo and video editing, video chat, and light gaming. While these tasks generally demand just a single CPU core, we’re expecting that full-on Intel Core processors will have a leg up compared to Snapdragon-powered laptops.
As we predicted, the Lenovo Flex 5G sits near the bottom, in a tight race with the Snapdragon 8cx-powered Galaxy Book S, the Microsoft Surface Go with its Pentium 4415Y chip, and the Surface Pro X with a Microsoft SQ1 CPU, a semi-custom processor developed by Microsoft and Qualcomm. While the Flex 5G’s PCMark 8 Creative score is the lowest of the four, the results in this subgroup are essentially too close to call. Sitting in the top three, the Intel Core laptops easily outpace the Qualcomm- and Pentium-based systems.
Similar to PCMark 8 Creative, WebXPRT 3 measures a laptop’s performance in various multimedia and light editing tasks, although unlike the PCMark benchmark, WebXPRT runs in a browser (we used Microsoft Edge) rather than as a standalone app.
Here we can see the Lenovo Flex 5G closing the gap with the two Core i5 laptops, delivering that “i5-equivalent” performance that Qualcomm initially promised with its Snapdragon 8cx CPU. Interestingly, the Flex 5G’s WebXPRT 3 score is a notch better than that of the Galaxy Book S and its (non 5G-enabled) 8cx chip, while all the Qualcomm-powered laptops (save for the older Lenovo Yoga C630 and its aging Snapdragon 850 chip) easily outstripped the Surface Go and its Pentium CPU. Perched atop the chart: the Ice Lake-powered Surface Laptop 3, no surprise there.
3DMark Night Raid
Besides its multimedia performance, we also wanted to take the Lenovo Flex 5G’s integrated Adreno 680 graphics core out for a spin. While the Adreno 680 can’t compete with a dedicated graphics card or Intel’s new, super-charged Iris Plus integrated graphics, it should turn in solid numbers compared to Intel’s mainstream UHD Graphics core.
Checking the results, the Flex 5G’s Adreno 680 performance is right where it should be, just a sliver ahead of the Galaxy Book S and its twin Adreno 680 chip. Slightly ahead of the Flex 5G and the Galaxy Book S is the Surface Pro X with its marginally more powerful Adreno 685 core, while the two Core i5 laptops with UHD 620 and HD 620 chips sit considerably further back. In short: The Flex 5G has solid graphics chops under the hood, good enough for light photo editing or (very light) gaming. We’d put Adobe Premiere on the list too, but don’t forget, Adobe’s Creative Cloud suite won’t run (or at least, not yet) on the Flex’s Arm-based CPU.
Get ready for the Flex 5G’s mic-drop moment.
To test battery life, we loop a 4K video using the stock Windows Movies & TV app, with screen brightness set to approximately 250 nits (81 percent for the Flex 5G) and the volume set to 50 percent, headphones on. Keep in mind that looping a 4K video doesn’t consume nearly as much juice as, say, encoding video or rendering 3D images, so these numbers reflect lightweight real-world performance.
And, wow. Armed with its 60 watt-hour battery, the Flex 5G blows away all comers and enjoys a comfortable cushion over its closest competitors, the (otherwise underpowered) Lenovo Yoga C630 (which also sports a 60Whr battery) and the Galaxy Book S (which, actually, turns in a great performance given its 40Whr battery). While you can’t expect 27 hours of battery life from the Flex 5G during real-world use, I did routinely get a full day’s worth of work out of the Flex on battery power, with hours to spare.
Now let’s consider a couple of issues. For starters, while we turn off all user-accessible adaptive brightness settings before running our battery drain test, we still saw the Flex 5G aggressively adjusting its screen brightness as the video looped, particularly during bright scenes. That kind of behavior will surely boost the Flex 5G’s results in our test.
Also, remember how we were saying earlier that the three-pound Flex 5G feels kinda heavy? Well, blame the 60 watt-hour battery. So while the Flex slays the Samsung Galaxy Book S and its “mere” 40Whr battery, the Galaxy Book S (which, to be fair, has a 13-inch screen versus the Flex’s 14-inch display) weighs a mere two pounds rather than three. In other words, the Flex 5G’s amazing battery life will cost you about a pound, and trust me, you’ll feel it when you toss the Flex into a backpack.
If you absolutely, positively need a 5G laptop this very second, by all means, head on down to your local Verizon store and sign up for the Lenovo Flex 5G. It delivers the goods once it connects to a 5G signal (provided you can find one), it delivers all-day-plus battery, and it boasts a solid (if heavy) design with a bright full-HD display and plenty of biometrics. But the Flex 5G’s Snapdragon 8cx processor constrains its productivity performance. Given the army of competing 5G laptops that’s about to arrive, our instinct would be to wait on this one.