A Tale of Two Laptops

Posted on July 9, 2020 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware, Mobile, Windows 10 with 24 Comments

I’m currently reviewing two laptops, the AMD-based HP Envy x360 13 and the Snapdragon-based Lenovo Flex 5G. Despite some obvious physical similarities—both are modern convertible laptops—they could not be more different.

To be clear, this isn’t about HP vs. Lenovo. Both firms offer AMD- and Snapdragon-based hardware in addition to the more standard and widespread Intel fare, and it’s just coincidental that I happen to have each of these PCs in for testing at the moment, and have been using them side-by-side and noting the differences.

The most interesting part of this discussion, to me, is that both run on hardware platforms seeking to undermine Intel, and that both are doing so using wildly different approaches.

The HP is based on the AMD Ryzen 4000 series processor with Radeon graphics, while the Lenovo runs on the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx. That means that the HP runs what I think of as “normal” Windows 10, or what Microsoft now calls Windows 10 desktop, while the Lenovo relies on what we should be calling Windows 10 on Snapdragon but Microsoft calls Windows 10 on ARM (WOA).

Performance is starkly different on the two PCs. The WOA-based Lenovo stutters sometimes when using the shell and with native apps, and I’ve experienced unresponsive app problems far more than is typical. Everything seems to come with a bit of a wait, even when it does work. This is troubling, as I had expected the 8cx to provide a much more seamless day-to-day experience than I’m seeing.

The AMD-based HP, meanwhile, is a performance champ, and I’ve actually noticed that Visual Studio compiles are much faster on this PC than is the case with the Intel-based HP EliteBook x360 14 that I normally use. (I’ve been using the HP to recreate .NETpad in UWP in my UWP Notepad Project (Redux) series, for example.) The performance is excellent.

I wrote about my early compatibility experiences with the WOA-based Flex 5G last week, but I’ve expanded my understanding of its limitations since then and am somewhat overwhelmed by the fact that my early takeaway about WOA still applies two years later: Everyone will have that one app or one driver-set or whatever that they absolutely rely on but WOA can’t run. And in my case, those incompatibilities are adding up. This platform simply isn’t ready for the mainstream, and I shudder to think about the reaction of any normal person who confronts this kind of problem a few weeks or months into ownership. It’s a real gotcha moment.

The AMD-based Envy is, of course, (almost) one hundred percent compatible with all of the software and hardware peripherals one would need. I was curious about things like Hyper-V and Android device virtualization in Android Studio, but they both work fine. The one issue that some may run into, but not the mainstream users I worry about above, is Thunderbolt 3 compatibility: The Envy supports USB-C, but not Thunderbolt 3.

As an Always-Connected PC, the WOA-based Lenovo ships with a SIM card slot and is, in fact, the world’s first 5G-based PC. Lenovo was nice enough to ship the review unit with a Verizon 5G SIM for testing, though I’ll never see 5G speeds here in rural Pennsylvania. Or hell, anywhere in Pennsylvania, since Verizon doesn’t even offer 5G in Philadelphia. But I’ve been testing it, and it seems to work well. HP doesn’t offer a cellular option in the Envy, to my understanding, but such a thing would certainly be possible. (And HP does offer this capability in many of its PCs.)

I know battery life is a key concern for both PCs. And so far, I’ve been impressed with both.

The WOA-based Flex 5G has delivered an average of 14:20 of battery life, almost solely in typical productivity usage since I can’t get Visual Studio to run acceptably well to even bother. The HP, meanwhile, has performed well, too, delivering an average of 7:50 of battery life during mixed usage (typical productivity work sometimes and Visual Studio development in others).

Clearly, this one is no contest. But if given the choice, I’d take the full compatibility and superior performance of the AMD-based HP over the stellar battery life of the WOA-based Lenovo any day. In fact, I find myself making the very choice, despite the Flex 5G’s bigger 14-inch display. The performance issues with the WOA-based Flex add up too.

Look, it’s clear that ARM or something like it is the future of personal computing. But AMD’s approach of meeting and then beating Intel where the market is now seems like the sounder investment at this time. This experience has also driven home the correctness of Apple’s approach with its own ARM-based silicon: Rather than foist what is essentially experimental early hardware on its customers as Qualcomm, Microsoft, and their PC maker partners have done to date, waiting until this platform was ready from performance and compatibility perspectives would have been the better choice.

I’ll keep testing each, of course, and will eventually summarize it all in separate reviews. But from this mid-way standpoint, it’s clear that only one of these PCs—and thus, only one of these underlying platforms—delights me at the moment. And sorry, folks, but it ain’t Windows 10 on ARM.

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Comments (24)

24 responses to “A Tale of Two Laptops”

  1. Scott O'Connor

    Paul, would you recommend either for college students? My son is going to a freshman in college the upcoming year but living at home. I am looking for a well made laptop that's good for him to take back and forth to school.

    • Paul Thurrott

      In reply to soconnor:

      I would not recommend anything WOA-based for anyone. But yes, either in an Intel- or AMD-based config would be great.

      • RobertJasiek

        In reply to paul-thurrott:

        With WOA, we get 14+h battery life and silence. This is also possible with well chosen x86 devices and will be more common with coming CPUs. Even if all compatibility issues are overcome, what remaining point favours WOA from the enduser's view?!

        The real decision for Windows devices is speed versus battery life + silence.

        • michael_babiuk

          In reply to RobertJasiek: Agreed. Even though I am mostly using Apple ecosystem hardware and software now, I’ve made a similar observation. The speed and silence of the iPad Pro 12.9” tablet (with the magic keyboard and Pencil 2 accessories) is quite addictive.
          Speed and silence. That is a very nice combination.

        • 02nz

          In reply to RobertJasiek:

          I've been using an IdeaPad 5 15-inch with the 4500U (my first AMD-powered computer of any kind). The fan rarely turns on, the computer is silent in normal use. Battery life is excellent - 10-12 hours easy in normal use. Lenovo's own specs have the Ryzen lasting longer than the Ice Lake variants (under identical test conditions and same battery capacity). Reviews of other Ryzen 4000 laptops have also commented on how cool and efficiently they run. The Ryzen 4000 CPUs are a home run, basically they've eliminated or even reversed all the previous downsides vs Intel (single-core performance, thermals, battery life, glitchy drivers with initial Ryzen mobile chipsets) while maintaining or expanding their advantages (multi-core performance, integrated graphics performance, price).

          Unless WOA can seriously up its game, it seems totally uncompetitive, the worst of all worlds. Maybe it was DOA from the beginning, just like Windows RT. Apple's approach on ARM seems much more likely to succeed.

    • fpalmieri

      In reply to soconnor:

      I personally had a lot of luck with the HP Envy 360 if they fit in your budget - one daughter in Architecture, the other in Engineering and the laptops both were pushed a bit by the software they need/needed to use - got 5 years out of the Architect's (which surprised me frankly - it was starting to show small performance issues with larger projects but workable) and on year 4 with the Engineer. The small size and drawing/touchscreen for note taking also was helpful to them - but they are beefy enough.

    • sykeward

      In reply to soconnor:

      My wife has had an Envy x360 for about 3 years and it's been a great, trouble-free laptop. All the Envy laptops I've used are quick and have decent build quality without being overly expensive (Costco often has them bundled with a stylus for around $700)

  2. jordan_meyer

    The 7th paragraph, 2nd to last sentence has a typo:

    "This platform simply isn’t ready for the mainstream, and I shudder to think about the reaction of any normal person who confronts this kind of person a few weeks or months into ownership."

    You have "person" twice, where the second time it should be problem.

    ...normal person who confronts this kind of problem a few weeks or months into ownership.

  3. dougkinzinger

    The big question to me is how is Apple able to do this as well as they claim? That is, I know Apple makes excellent chips but will their new MacOS 11 run great on them because Apple made the chips or just that they're ditching legacy stuff when they switch?

  4. geoff

    Thanks Paul.

    I didn't realize AMD had improved so much. My memory tells me they were rubbish, back in the day.

    I'd say they're worth a look now.

    • Paul Thurrott

      They were rubbish as recently as last year. (Look up the Surface Laptop 3 reviews to see what I mean.)
  5. MikeCerm

    Amazon's got a Lenovo Flex 5 with a Ryzen 5 4500U and 16 GB of RAM for $599. I'd gladly pay $599 for a Flex 5G with an 8CX instead, trading amazing performance (which I don't need in a laptop) for amazing battery life. At the price they're charging, it's laughable. It's even more laughable when you realize that in 6 months they'll be dumping the Flex 5G on Woot or eBay for $399, just like they did with the Yoga C630.

  6. proftheory

    They should give up on trying to make RISC chips into x86 clones. Fork the code and call it Door #1. They could say they are "Opening a Door into a whole new world."

    • behindmyscreen

      In reply to proftheory:

      considering Paul said he had stuttering and delays running native ARM apps says it's not an emulation issue but the actual chip combined with Windows' inability to perform well on it.

      • wright_is

        In reply to behindmyscreen:

        It is the problem that Qualcomm makes low powered chips designed for smartphones and IoT devices, where there is limited multi-tasking and they are designed for low power use. Windows is a traditional desktop operating system and needs a processor optimized for that.

        This is, hopefully, the conundrum that Apple has now solved, as they have dedicated themselves to making laptop and desktop class chips as well as smartphone chips. They have very different properties and power profiles.

        Part of my guess is that Qualcomm saw this as a hobby project, with low volume sales, so they didn't put the effort into it that Apple did and a half-hearted result makes it a self-fulfulling prophecy.

        • Paul Thurrott

          This was a problem three years ago when this experiment started. Since then, both Qualcomm and Microsoft have designed multiple versions of ARM chips that are explicitly tailored for desktop PC use. That performance is still an issue with these newer and unique chips is a new problem and a bad sign for the future.
  7. danno

    I think the difference between Macintosh on Apple silicon and Windows on Snapdragon, is that Apple has taken the time to perfect the hardware subsystems around it's ARM chip. Without the neural engine et al, there may not be an advantage over Intel/Ryzen. I still remember all remember the RISC vs SISC debates back in the day when Intel seemingly won by hyping their higher clock speeds. Thank goodness, real world performance and battery life is what is important now.

  8. tghallin

    I recently replaced my Surface Pro 5th gen with the m3 processor tablet with a Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 tablet. I use(d) both in a strictly tablet mode in my living room (My main PC is an HP Spectre). The Tab S6 runs almost all of the Microsoft programs that I had on the Surface Pro and they run faster. So I wonder if Microsoft's Surface Duo Android makes more sense for future ARM based devices. Since a large percent of Windows desktop/laptop users are also Android phone users, it is not difficult to go between Android tablets and Windows laptops/desktops. If your data is stored on a NAS or in the cloud, it is easy to work on the phone, tablet or desktop using the same Microsoft programs working almost the same.

    I look forward to see if the Duo Android makes a better "Windows on ARM" solution.

  9. martinusv2

    Hello Paul,

    Hope to see your AMD HP review soon. I am just happy to see real competition in the laptop CPUs. I hope HP, Lenovo and others adds more AMD products in the laptop market.

  10. Ajay213

    ARM (and others) has been a (so far un-fulfilled) promise for decades now, things could certainly turn around of course, but I wouldn't bet too heavily on it given that both Intel and AMD are very dominant forces in the marketplace, and like a lot of things, I don't think there is going to be room for a 3rd, especially if that third requires a totally different architecture to work. Consumers aren't going to accept that (gee, do I need an ARM video card or x64 video card so I can play Minecraft?!).

    This can work for Apple pretty easily because they control both the hardware and software side of things, so moving from one platform to another just involves a short term pain period that is basically gone in a year or two and honestly with virtualization the way it is today it won't even be that painful compared to the last time they did this type of move.

    The battery life comparison doesn't track well either, comparing a very under-powered device to a higher powered device it shouldn't be a surprise that one gives better battery life. How's the battery life of a base MacBook Air vs an i7 fully speced out 16" screen MacBook Pro...now compare using one for light tasks and the other heavy tasks.

    No doubt Intel has been stuck for awhile, and part of that means portable performance has been off, but with AMD doing what they have been doing lately, it's going to kill the Windows on Arm thing IMHO.

    • nine54

      In reply to Ajay213:

      Can we quantify the advantages of controlling both the HW and SW? Intuitively, there should be performance and optimization benefits, but why can't this be replicated with an ecosystem approach? What if Qualcomm completely opens the kimono and gives Microsoft engineers access to the whatever architectural specs and designs that its own engineers have? What is it that Apple SW guys have access to, specifically, that gives them such an advantage? It's not like they're walking around the fabs...

      Could it just be that given the years of experience with PowerPC, Apple just has built up more inherent RISC expertise?

    • behindmyscreen

      In reply to Ajay213:

      Apple's system will run just fine as we are seeing in the dev devices. It's not an issue with the instruction set, its an issue of technology used to implement it and Apple has demonstrated that they are far and away better than QUALCOMM and given where they are right now, in the future will be out competing AMB and Intel.

      If Apple goes for a growth play, they will expand their business into enterprise servers that lets them sell high end hardware to companies to run high efficiency and powerful ARM based server systems (maybe partner with MS and Linux dealers)

      • wright_is

        In reply to behindmyscreen:

        Because Qualcomm sells mobile chipsets. Apart from Microsoft, it has never been asked to make laptop or desktop class chips, so they have never tried. Now they have a very small side project (thousand of chips, compared to the billions in their main line of work), so it wouldn't surprise me if they aren't putting their full R&D weight behind the project. Even if the bet paid off, it would be heavy R&D for a "small" return, compared to their mobile business.

        Until people take it seriously as a desktop alternative - if Apple's gamble really pays off - things might change.

        But a majority of businesses are stuck with legacy software that runs on Intel, is unsupported and can't be ported to work on a new platform (heck, just look at the number of XP and W7 machines still in use in industry, getting a new version of the software to run on W10 means buying a new production line for 7 figures or more).

    • martinusv2

      In reply to Ajay213:

      I think Microsoft can make a native Minecraft for their WOA if they want. And it may run just fine.

  11. Pbike908

    Nice article. I am in the market for a new laptop. My I5-6200U powered laptop is getting a bit long in the tooth.

    I have my eye on either a Ryzen 7 4700U or I5-10210U based 14" laptop.