When Lenovo launched its Chromebook Flex 5 at CES 2020 and then sent the device for review, I fully expected the device to deliver on most fronts. But at under $425, I also expected a huge variety of drawbacks and caveats. That would account for the price, forcing some buyers to look elsewhere but equating to a fairly enjoyable experience for others.
Now, that wasn't entirely off the mark but, on closer examination, this device rises well above those expectations in most respects.
To begin with, Lenovo built this Chromebook with high-quality materials for a premium feel during use. It also focused efforts on usability in terms of internal specs and its 2-in-1 13-inch design. The gadget is lightweight enough to effectively take advantage of the folding design and tablet mode. But it's sturdy enough to not be uncomfortable taking outside.
The company also packed in top-tier Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections, plenty of ports, and a backlit, spill-resistant keyboard. The latter piece of hardware is comfortable to use as well.
Put simply, this device surprised me with how very little there was not to love. In fact, that would have remained the case even if this gadget cost closer to $600. Taken as one cohesive device, the Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5 is arguably the best device around for the money.
So let's take a closer look at where it falls just short and where it stands apart.
There are only a couple of noteworthy complaints about the overall hardware
Among the first things that need to be said about the Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5, although it made very little difference to me during my review, is that the bottom segment is plastic. The keyboard, lower frame, and touchpad are all comprised of a sturdy but less glamorous PC/ABC material than the all-aluminum lid.
That makes the device more heat resistant and helps with the spill-resistant features of the keyboard. It also doesn't really take away much, given its solid construction and smooth but not "too smooth" texture, from the premium feel of this laptop.
That doesn't mean it's not going to be a caveat for some. The plastic is certainly more flexible than the lid of this device and there is a difference in how it feels in-hand. More importantly, the material is going to be more susceptible to dings and scratches than aluminum would have been.
Lenovo mounted that to the display by sturdy aluminum. The hinge is a 2-in-1 design, allowing for laptop, tent, stand, and tablet modes. While there's some flex in the keyboard and lid, there's absolutely no jostling in the hinge. And that hinge seems to hold well in any position, allowing easier use. Especially with the consideration that this one supports stylus input via a separately sold Lenovo digital pen.
So, on the whole, it's a very well designed laptop. And it feels premium to use. And its Graphite Grey coloration ensures that there's not too much discrepancy in color between the lid and keyboard frame.
The Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5 is thinner than most Chromebook devices on the market as well, adding to that. It isn't the thinnest by any stretch. But thanks to cleverly designed beveled edges, it certainly feels thinner than it is. At under 3lbs, it measures 12.2 x 8.34-inches and just 0.7-inches thin.
The keyboard itself is backlit, complete with software features to help dim or brighten that. It's also exceedingly comfortable to type on. The keys are a solid material but are soft on the press-through all the way up to the satisfying click. The click-through happens at 1.4mm, which is the key-travel here, and it isn't the quietest I've used. But is quiet enough to not be distracting or annoying. The click-through on the Mylar-coated touchpad is satisfying too.
For privacy- and security-focused users, Lenovo affixed a Kensington Lock slot into the edge. And it packed a physical privacy cover under the lid glass in the above-screen HD 720p webcam too. And it equipped that with a physical privacy cover. That cover moves via a toggle slider just above the camera. And it slips smoothly in and out of place noiselessly, to physically block the camera from seeing anything.
Similarly, there doesn't appear to be any wiggle in the two USB-C ports, single USB-A port, or MicroSD slot. Those worked as well as would be expected, as does the 3.5mm audio jack.
One final caveat to the design here is that the physical buttons are mounted in such a way that they barely protrude at all. And they're squishier than would be expected, given the rest of the build here. The buttons still push through with a slight click. But Lenovo mounted them almost flush with the frame on the Chromebook Flex 5 and, throughout my review, they felt as though they were going to get stuck in the frame itself.
The display here is one of the few aspects that simply felt underwhelming
Lenovo built its Chromebook Flex 5 around a 13.3-inch glossy display panel packed between thinner-than-average bezels. And it enhanced that with built-in support for an optional pen stylus as well as up to 10-point multi-touch support. The display is arguably one of the few components of the Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5 that felt underwhelming during my review of the gadget though.
And that chiefly comes down to its brightness and its resolution. The resolution makes various UI elements, such as the dock and websites seem smaller than I'd have liked to have seen, for starters. That may or may not be a subjective opinion coming over from a 2K panel on my daily driver Chromebook.
The 1,920 by 1,080 resolution display isn't bad by any stretch of the imagination. But it made a difference when it came to day-to-day use for me. And Lenovo likely compounded that with this laptop's 16:9 ratio, which simply isn't the best for web content.
Summarily, users more accustomed to a more high-res panel likely aren't going to appreciate the 1,080p used here. And neither will those who are more accustomed to a slightly taller ratio for work or web tasks.
For under $425, this panel performs well, though. Pixelation is not an issue and clarity is high enough to make up for the issue noted above under almost all circumstances. Media consumption is better too since the 16:9 ratio is still fairly ubiquitous when it comes to video or app content.
One caveat that can't be overlooked though is brightness. While the panel is more than bright enough to utilize indoors or under overcast skies, it isn't great for full daylight. So portability and use on-the-go, while the hardware allows for that, aren't quite as good as they might otherwise be. At just 250 nits, the glossy coating on the display quickly becomes reflective and almost but not quite unusable under direct sunlight.
Under just about any other conditions, that isn't a problem though. So this Chromebook should only really be avoided on that front if use under direct sunlight is going to be a common occurrence.
Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5 gets the work done and it doesn't struggle to do it
The Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5 comes in two distinct variations, with up to an Intel Core i5 chipset. But the company sent the Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5 sporting an Intel Core i3-10110U for review. Up to 8GB RAM and 128GB storage are available too. But this unit shipped with 4GG DDR4-2666 for memory and 64GB of eMMC 5.1 storage. And, despite having been effectively an entry model, it genuinely excelled on the performance front.
As noted in the battery segment just below, I mostly tapped into the hardware for work-related tasks and Android gaming. On both fronts, even with multiple tabs open, including more than 24 permanently-open tabs, there was never any single instance of lag or latency. Instead, this Chromebook simply handled whatever tasks I threw at it.
That remained the case even when several games were left running in the background while I completed a work-related photo editing task and listened to a podcast on YouTube with all of those tabs still open and periodically being refreshed.
The fact that this device never broke a sweat or slowed down is a testament to the efficiency of the processor in use here but also to the OS itself. We'll cover that momentarily but this Chromebook should easily handle just about any other task well too, as long as a Chromebook can undertake that task. Whether that's light video- or sound-editing, heavier web-based programs, Linux apps, or coding tasks. This Chromebook should be able to manage.
Art-related tasks such as drawing and productivity-focused tasks such as note-taking did nothing to bring the performance down either.
Now, there are undoubtedly some instances with larger projects on any of those fronts that will slow things down. It goes without saying that there are perks to having an Intel Core i5 or i7, even with a Chromebook.
Having more than 4GB of RAM is an obvious advantage too, with regard to multitasking. But this Chromebook offers more than enough for day-to-day users and most who want to get more serious work done. And there's an i5 variant available for a bit more money for those who just want to be sure it will cover their needs.
Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5 offers you one of the very best battery experiences
As always, battery life is a highly subjective aspect of any device. Depending on how heavy the processes are that a user relies on, as well as screen brightness, volume, keyboard backlighting, and other factors, the experience is going to vary. As such, my battery test during this review of the Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5 won't necessarily provide a clear picture of how long it will last for anybody else.
For my test of this Chromebook's battery, I kept the brightness of the screen and volume turned up to around 65-percent. On the screen side, that was bright enough for outdoor use on an overcast day. The volume was loud enough to easily hear in a moderately busy environment. In this case, that was a moderately sized home with children running around, playing, watching TV, and using their phones and tablets.
I split this test into five categories — four for actual use and a fifth for charging. Those were work, standby, and entertainment in terms of 'gaming' and media streaming. On a single charge, the bulk of my time was spent on work-related tasks. That typically includes a bit of photo editing, loading dozens of websites per hour for research purposes, listening to music, and word processing tasks. For the purposes of this test, I worked for approximately 4-hours and 26-minutes on a single charge.
Gaming, conversely, was split into two groupings but the bulk of my gaming — this is a Chromebook after all — was via Android apps. I also played Google Stadia for a period but that likely isn't going to impact the battery quite as much as an Android game will. I spent an hour and 24-minutes in games. Video streaming fell in at around an hour and 16-minutes.
The Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5, for my battery test, was on standby for approximately 2-hours and 25-minutes. With only around an hour of that time dedicated solely to screen-off time.
In total, that equates to around 8-hours and 31-minutes of use on a single charge, with another full hour on top from a period of screen-off time. That figure does fall over an hour short of the advertised battery life. But it comes close enough to fall within an acceptable range.
In terms of charging, this Chromebook seemed to do quite well too. In fact, it charged to full in under 2-hours, at just an hour and fifty minutes. That is far better than most Chromebooks I've had the opportunity to test out, in many cases by more than an hour.
So, on top of offering a better-than-average battery life, this device also charges up more quickly. And the obvious end result of that is that users will see less downtime — without the hassle of having to run the device while it's plugged in.
Audio on the Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5 is, in a word, unimpressive
The final caveat worth noting for the Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5 is its speakers, which failed to impress on several levels under review. Now, for movies, classical music, and some other media, they perform just fine.
Lenovo chose to include two speakers, each at 2-watts, in the frame bordering the keyboard. It left very little room there, allowing for a more comfortable, larger keyboard. But the speakers both lack bass punch utterly and are poorly positioned for a 2-in-1.
On the first front, the speakers are going to be more than acceptable for some music and video watching. When it comes to voice chatting or those areas they did perform well, they're clear and balanced. But they lack any and all bass punch. In fact, some of the more complex songs I tested for this review revealed no bass sound at all. The tones are still present in songs that focus chiefly on lower registers, of course. But they lack any power and come across as tinny. And that's going to be a problem if that's a primary use of this computer.
As to their positioning, that works well in either tent or clamshell mode. That's because, in those configurations, Lenovo positions them in a way that either directly or acoustically, they point the sound directly at the user. But when the device is placed in tablet mode, the problems with tone representation becomes worse. The audio is, in effect, pushed directly away from the user. That's made worse when placed on a surface in stand or tablet mode because then it's muffled by whatever surface it's placed on.
Audio from the 3.5mm audio jack is far superior but there isn't any specialty hardware included on that front either. So it simply isn't going to be the best experience from a Chromebook, let alone a great one. Not even in this gadget's price bracket.
Audio input, tested via a variety of software applications, is great. The dual-array mics pick up sound well. So this will, overall, be a great device for voice or video chatting. Or, conversely, for using Google Assistant.
Chrome OS shines through in all of its glory here
It goes without saying that the Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5 includes Chrome OS out of the box. And, as would be expected from an almost walled-garden OS approach, that performed under review for the Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5 just about identically to any other Chromebook.
Here, the biggest advantage is that an Enterprise, ready Google Security H1 Chip is included in the build. That requires no extra input or interaction from users to work. But it encrypts and protects on-device data just as it would on any business-specific device.
For those who have never used a Chromebook before, Chrome OS is one of the most intuitive operating systems around. Not only does it keep itself up-to-date automatically. Users can sign into any Chromebook and carry their Google Drive files, their apps and software, and system settings with them. I work almost exclusively from Chromebooks, for instance. So conducting this review didn't require a lot of set up time. Just a few minutes of logging in and downloads and this device was ready to use to write things up and perform associated tasks.
That also means that security is at the forefront outside of the chip noted above. System security checkups happen every time the system is booted up. Updates take just a few minutes or down to just a few moments to install.
On the productivity and entertainment fronts. Chromebooks like the Chromebook Flex 5 from Lenovo are compatible with Android apps. The Google Play Store is pre-installed. Linux apps can be downloaded and used with the flip of a toggle in settings. Google Assistant provides all the AI help a user could ask for. All of that means that this device is fully compatible with a plethora of apps such as Microsoft Office, Google Docs, games, and more.
Meanwhile, the file system is fully integrated with Google Drive. And adding other cloud storage is fairly straightforward. So a large amount of storage isn't necessarily needed, although there's plenty with this particular Chromebook for those who do want that.
For multi-user use, Chrome OS allows that via a simple click on the sign-in screen and then a straightforward login with a Google account.
Of course, all of that is setting aside a wide assortment of other features. But, summarily, users can expect all of what makes Chromebooks great to perform as expected and without hitch from the Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5.
Lenovo includes plenty of ports and plugs, but also the latest in connectivity
For ports and connectivity, Lenovo packed its Chromebook Flex 5 with all of the ports listed above. The company worked to ensure the USB-C ports output display content at UHD resolutions. And those work as expected. But what about other connections?
Well, Lenovo isn't skimping here at all. In fact, while the technology is still young and won't be supported for many users just yet, it even included support for Wi-Fi 6 via an Intel solution. I wasn't able to test that particular technology. But, if it performs as the older protocols do, then that's going to be blistering fast for users who need higher speeds and have compatible hardware. The hardware also supports Wi-Fi 5 and older protocols too.
Bleeding-edge technology effectively ends there since Lenovo opted not to include Bluetooth 5.1. But it did package this with Bluetooth 5.0 and, as expected, that offers a great connective option for both audio and accessories. On audio, Bluetooth 5.0 is nearly lossless. The Chromebook offers more stability and greater range for other accessories, such as a mouse or keyboard. So I was able to easily hook this Chromebook up to an external display and interface at a distance using Bluetooth connectivity.
Of course, because this is Chrome OS, casting out serves as another connectivity option, and that works well. Although that didn't work as well as might be hoped. Blame for that, however, can be placed chiefly on Chrome OS and not on the hardware.
If you're in the market for a mid-range Chromebook, Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5 is the one
Now, some of the caveats noted here are to be expected. Lenovo seems to have made a decision to include a PC-material in the lower frame, for instance, chiefly for the purposes of ensuring a lightweight build. But also to ensure spill resistance and keep costs down. A full-aluminum body also isn't necessarily expected at below the $500 or $600 mark. This Chromebook falls well below that price point.
Problems with a 16:9 ratio, 1080p display panel are a good example here. Those are only really going to be caveats for those who are accustomed to a higher-resolution panel. But, at 13-inches, it won't be a big issue even then. Moreover, and more importantly, it's a high enough resolution to offer an HD experience without raising the cost.
Problems with audio are almost ubiquitous across all laptops. So that's not necessarily a "problem" here either.
Where this Chromebook does perform is exactly where it needs to. Under review, the Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5 is versatile. It performs a wide range of tasks without struggling and there's undoubtedly a lot more to be had. I never managed to push this device to its limits with my day to day use. So, for the overwhelming majority of users, this Chromebook can easily serve as a primary device.
Under the hood, the inclusion of a higher-quality security chip solution and automatic updates solidify that fact. As does the included privacy shutter for the webcam and latest-gen connection options.
On battery life, this is arguably going to be among the very best available gadgets for the price. Or for a much higher cost. 8.5-hours of use on a single charge is, summarily, ludicrous. Especially since I typically see closer to six from a Chromebook.
The build quality, despite the above-mentioned plastics, is top-notch too. This Lenovo laptop is comfortable to use and feels like a much higher-cost laptop. It looks good and is going to withstand quite a lot of abuse. At just shy of $410, it would be completely irresponsible not to recommend the Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5 for anybody in the market for solid work and play Chromebook for either individual or family use.