Lenovo Flex 5G First Impressions

Posted on July 2, 2020 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware, Mobile, Windows 10 with 29 Comments

I’m eager to try a modern Windows 10 on ARM-based PC, and the Flex 5G will do nicely: It’s billed as the world’s first 5G PC and it promises to deliver up to 24 hours of battery life.

We’ll see how that pans out, and how the ARM compatibility picture has improved since my last experience with such a PC. But for now, what I’m most taken by is how normal this convertible PC seems. Instead of coming with a unique tablet-based form factor, like Microsoft’s Surface Pro X, the Flex 5G looks, feels, and behaves like a more traditional PC. I like that, not just because I prefer this form factor, but because many early ARM PCs almost seem like experiments instead of shipping products. This just seems more natural, and more mature.

Everything one would expect from a premium convertible is present, from the high-quality Iron Gray aluminum build to the versatile rotating screen and its four usage modes. I’ll get to the individual pieces in a moment, but the bigger deal, perhaps, is the lack of fans and the silence that accompanies that. As a Qualcomm-based PC, the Flex 5G doesn’t just run cool, there isn’t even any visual heat venting.

That’s quite interesting, but thanks, no doubt, to its 14-inch display and ample batteries, the Flex 5G still weighs in at 2.9 pounds. I’m happy with that: I prefer the bigger display, and no one is going to complain about better battery life. But many coming into the Windows 10 on ARM world with open eyes would perhaps expect something even more portable, at least from a weight perspective.

I’m curious to see how the Snapdragon 8cx performs in the real world, but my initial impressions, based on some early setup tasks, is that the UI is notably snappy and responsive. The 8cx is an 8-core design, with four performance cores and four efficiency cores, and it runs at 2.84 GHz and is bolstered by an integrated Qualcomm Adreno 680 graphics chipset. This particular PC ships with 8 GB of RAM and a 256 GB of UFS 3.0 storage.

That latter bit is interesting: Where most PCs now use SSD storage, Universal Flash Storage comes from the smartphone world and it offers a considerable performance advantage over embedded MultiMediaCard (eMMC) storage. But the big question here is how well it performs compared to modern SSD storage. I’ll try to figure that out, but my understanding is that the performance is close.

The display is a 14-inch Full HD (1920 x 1080) IPS panel, so it’s 16:9, but it has reasonably small bezels and is quite bright at 400 nits.

The expansion capabilities make sense for a modern, always-connected PC: There are two USB-C 3.2 ports on the left, and, well, that’s about it. (There’s no Thunderbolt 3 because that’s an Intel thing.)

You’ll find the power button and a combo headphone/mic jack on the right, plus a hardware slider switch for Airplane mode (a “connectivity switch”) for some reason.

Speaking of which, that connectivity is obviously of interest: Lenovo provides mmWave and Sub6 5G capabilities, 2 x 2 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth 5.0. It looks like the firm provided me with a Verizon SIM for testing purposes, so that will be interesting.

From a security perspective, the Flex 5G is all-in with Windows Hello: It supports both the fingerprint reader, which I prefer, and facial recognition. Sadly, the webcam is just 720p, so I’m not expecting much quality-wise.

There are visible (and even attractive) stereo speakers with Dolby Atmos sound. I will test that.

Pricing is a bit tough: The Flex 5G is a premium PC, and it costs $1399.99, though Verizon will let you pay $58 per month for 24 months if that puts it over the top for you. Still not convinced? It also comes with a one-year subscription to Microsoft 365 Personal—a $69.99 a value—as well.

I don’t want to get ahead of myself here, but if my early compatibility testing pans out, I’ll see whether it’s possible for me to evaluate and write about this device over time rather than waiting for an all-up review. The possibility of “living with Windows 10 on ARM” is, of course intriguing. But no promises yet.

Either way, I’ll have more soon.

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Comments (29)

29 responses to “Lenovo Flex 5G First Impressions”

  1. Pbike908

    Looking forward to reading your review.

  2. crunchyfrog

    An interesting upgrade but I still feel that we're a few years off from seeing this technology settle down and have proper software and driver support-if ever. Came close to buying a Surface Pro X but decided to go with the flow (Intel flow) plus they dumped the SD card slot.

  3. SvenJ

    "plus a hardware slider switch for Airplane mode (a “connectivity switch”) for some reason" I wouldn't mind a hardware cell switch, as I'm not sure I want it running all the time. What with e-mails, updates and OneDrive syncing, there is a potential of burning through some data with an always on, always connected PC. The concept seems nice, but the financial reality may be something else. Besides, if I'm walking between meetings and my laptop says "you've got mail", I'm not likely to stop and flip it open to read it. That's what my phone and watch are for. So why have it get that e-mail? I get the idea of a connected laptop. I have one, but I turn on cell data when I need it. Maybe that is because of the outrageous data costs and caps in the US as compared to everywhere else.

    • wunderbar

      In reply to SvenJ:

      I mostly agree with you, but windows 10 is pretty good at managing data on a metered connection. OneDrive won't sync unless you tell it to, and windows won't download updates on a metered connection either. Store apps are also universally aware of metered connections. Stuff like that.

      That doesn't account for every third party app there is, but especially on Windows on ARM where you don't really want to run a lot of x86 stuff that may not respect metered connections, it isn't as bad as you think.

      • Paul Thurrott

        Yeah, that stuff is good. My only issue is the expense: If works isn't paying for this, an always-on cellular data connection is expensive.
  4. RobertJasiek

    If I needed a convertible, I would be tempted to say that this would have one of the nicest designs seen so far. However, the following aspects would prevent my purchase: 16:9 (instead of 4:3 or at least 3:2), tiny arrow keys, arrow keys having double function for home / end / up / down and the two superfluous labels. Concerning reflectance, the indoor photos are inconclusive.

    Needless to say, battery life versus 8cx restrictions are central questions. I would have no use for 5G, but it would not hurt. I suppose the device has planned obsolescence instead of easily removable battery?

    • Paul Thurrott

      I assume so given re: the battery given the design, but there are screws on the bottom so it's at least somewhat serviceable.
  5. crunchyfrog

    An interesting product in a fmailiar space but I still feel that we're a few years off from seeing this technology settle down and have proper software and driver support-if ever. I Came close to buying a Surface Pro X but decided to go with the flow (Intel flow) plus Microsoft dumped the SD card slot.

  6. billbeavers

    One of the big improvements in the Win10 on ARM scene is the availability of new native apps. Edge, Firefox and Visual Studio Code have native versions in their pre-release program and I am happy with the performance of all of them (on Surface Pro X). I am with you an ARM mostly being a sideshow for Microsoft at this point and that Apple this month just waxed them with their display of technical excellence. Although Microsoft led with Lakefield for Windows X, it looks to me like this version of Windows seems a natural for ARM parity.

    • kitron

      In reply to billbeavers:

      I think between VS Code, Edge, Firefox, Terminal and i think soon WSL2 the native situation is improving at least for devs.

      I am not sure what's the hold up with Office.

      Hopefully Adobe releases their suite for Arm as well.

    • Paul Thurrott

      Will have a write-up soon about the app situation. This platform is going to sink or swim on native app support, for sure.
  7. jlmerrill

    A Flex 14 with different guts.

  8. davidallen

    Even though it's a 5G device is it backwards compatable with LTE?

  9. ghostrider

    Other than the fact it runs Windows (ARM Edition), and it's using some dubious flash storage - oh the price. Really? That's a ridiculous amount of money to ask for an ARM laptop, 5G or not. I think we can be sure of one thing, if they can't get these things down to reasonable prices, they might as well give up now. If Lenovo can release a Chromebook Duet for $300 and a Flex 5 laptop for $400, what exactly justifies the price of this, because 'up to' 24 hours battery life isn't it.

  10. glenn8878

    It needs an HDMI port for second monitor. A third USB for external hard or flash drive. The first 2 USB is for keyboard and mouse.

  11. jimchamplin

    So there’s no escape from the asinine logos even on ARM? Why does it need a superfluous 5G sticker? I know that all those no-imagination clowns that run Qualcomm and the carriers are having some serious dirty dreams about this crap but do we need a permanent sticker on the machine that will look dated in 18 months?

    Sorry. Looked dated 18 months ago.

    Also, if that keyboard is anything like the one on my ideaPad Flex - which it appears to be identical to - it’s garbage. It’s one of those low-travel monstrosities like Apple’s trash butterfly keyboards.

    • txag

      In reply to jimchamplin:

      Lenovo seems to go to extremes with keyboards. For a number of years my work-supplied laptop was a classic Thinkpad with one of the best laptop keyboards I have ever used. I’m a fast touch typist and it worked great at my maximum speed. Later I got a wide-body Lenovo that was massively disappointing in many ways, but the keyboard was terrible. Lenovo spread out the keys to cover the wide chassis by setting them much further apart than a normal keyboard. I could barely touch type on that laptop, and when I did it was only at a very reduced speed.

      • jimchamplin

        In reply to txag:

        They’re definitely less consistent than when IBM built them, but I’d still take a baseline Thinkpad keyboard over almost any other!

        I just think their non-Thinkpad keyboards are average at best.

        • Paul Thurrott

          This one is definitely a very low-throw. I assume it's for effect, since there's plenty of thickness for the normal ThinkPad feel.
          • jimchamplin

            In reply to paul-thurrott:

            Is it at least clicky enough to make up for the lack of travel? One of my issues with the low-throw boards is that the only tactile bump you get is when the key bottoms out.

            edit: Fixed an autocorrect mistake

            • Paul Thurrott

              It's definitely on the very low-travel side of things. I could see some not liking it, for sure. It does feel like it bottoms out.
    • jblank46

      In reply to jimchamplin:

      I’ve had the displeasure of using a Lenovo Yoga 730 or whatever it is at work for a few months after starting my new job. Worst. Computer. Ever. I’m sure it’s because our IT team literally had no idea how to properly provision these things but it was nonstop problems in addition to seeing hideous logos and the odd keyboard that completely turned me off. We’ve since dumped Lenovo and going all Dell latitudes.

      There’s definitely a lot of old guard thinking still in the Windows ecosystem. Apple seems, by way of its culture, to be able to transcend this but Windows OEMs in a way mostly seem stuck in time. That could be partly because Windows itself seems stuck in a time loop. I am however excited for the innovations a successful arm strategy can bring if executed well.

      • jimchamplin

        In reply to jblank46:

        Ugh. Yeah, there’s quite a bit of oldthink involved. Not entirely sure why, but there’s times that it combines with the worst practices of modern design.

        How about awful keyboards combined with soldered in RAM and storage and a sealed battery? I feel the bile rising in my throat.

  12. arthemis

    Most importantly; can you install Linux on it?

    • illuminated

      In reply to arthemis:

      Of course you can. You can also bake your own bread.

    • nbates66

      In reply to arthemis:

      Drivers tend to get alot more difficult when moving between OS's on ARM architecture, Initially at least the answer will almost certainly be no, If that ends up changing or not will depends on if Qualcomm or Lenovo release driver sets or sources for drivers to be used for linux, As far as phones with Qualcomm processors go this is almost never done in a manner that is universally useful because even two phones using the same Qualcomm model processor will tend to have design differences that can require code-level changes to the drivers, though this has improved more recently.

      Also if I remember correctly the requirement in (Microsoft's?) UEFI secure boot spec for allowing boot alterations on X86-64 does not exist on ARM.(I read about that AGES ago though, back on Windows 8 release when everyone was scared about UEFI secure boot so things are probably all different now anyway)

      Personally I'm actually kinda hoping that ARM doesn't take off on PC, at least not in ARM's current form, Whilst it can allow manufactures alot more control of the platform design the same manufactures tend to cut off software and drivers support for their modifications very rapidly.

    • codymesh

      In reply to arthemis:

      I honestly doubt Lenovo allows for linux support for this thing.

    • Paul Thurrott

      That's not even remotely important, but I doubt it.
  13. illuminated

    I would expect anything with ARM to be very thin and light. This laptop does not look light. I find it mildly interesting.

  14. remc86007

    I'm interested to see your opinion of this. I can't recall, does the new Edge run natively on the ARM cores yet? I would assume so.

    Also, I think a lot of the recent doom and gloom talk surrounding the impression that Apple is hopelessly ahead of Windows on ARM is a bit unfounded. The real question is not what an old ARM part derived from a cell phone with the clocks turned up performs like now, but rather what will the ARM parts in Windows laptops perform like in the second half of 2021 and will they be "good enough"? As Paul pointed out on First Ring Daily, no person who uses and Android flagship next to an Apple flagship can say with a straight face that they can notice a difference in performance. I suspect that Qualcomm parts designed specifically to operate within the higher TDP of a laptop with faster bus speeds, memory speeds, more cache, etc., could be quite competitive with what Apple has.

    I'm not interested so much in video encoding times on ARM as that is something most people rarely do with a thin and light laptop, and it can be improved simply by throwing cores and hardware encoders at the problem. I am much more interested in normal laptop work. I worry that single task benchmarks fail to capture the real world experience of actually using a computer for work. My understanding of ARM vs x86 is that ARM tends to fall apart when multiple threads are processed on the same core at the same time. Could a 2021 ARM laptop do what my SL3 does now without any stuttering (run 20+ tabs, a Teams call, multiple Word documents, several large inboxes in Outlook, Onenote, and run text recognition in Adobe)? Maybe Brad could put together a video showing an ARM computer actually multitasking like that?

    • Paul Thurrott

      I'll have more about this soon, but to answer your questions. Yes, Edge is ARM native and runs well. Extensions all work, etc. Native performance overall seems good. Office, which is emulated, seems to work normally. But many other emulated apps are very slow. Visual Studio, for example, is almost unbearable.
    • codymesh

      In reply to remc86007:

      yes new edge runs native, and apparently it's very good!