Lenovo’s Flex 5G has a lot to live up to as the world’s first 5G-compatible Windows 10 2-in-1 laptop. Not only that, it should also convince people that putting ARM-based processors in a Windows laptop is an advantage, not a liability that means an incompatibility effect for those who rely on many apps. No pressure.
Let’s start with 5G first. This is technically the best 5G-ready laptop in the world – just because there are currently no alternatives. As you’d expect and hope, given the $ 1,399 price point, support for the Verizon ultra-broadband (UWB) mmWave 5G network means that downloads and uploads absolutely fly under ideal conditions. But it’s only as good as Verizon’s network currently allows, and since the low-band sub-6GHz spectrum (which this laptop also supports) won’t come until later in 2020, it takes a serious effort to get a fast connection find.
Ultimately, the interplay of mmWave and sub-6GHz spectrum means that the fast connection will find you, but until then you have to find it yourself. If you have to travel far out of the way to take advantage of this laptop’s defining feature, I recommend skipping this laptop altogether for now.
Using this machine in range of Verizon’s 5G nodes in Brooklyn at best offers connection speeds that are about twice as fast as what I get on my PC connected via Ethernet at home. On average, I got download speeds of about 500 Mbps and upload of 50 Mbps (note: Verizon is still pushing uploads over its LTE network). I’ve never hit gigabit speeds like my colleague Chris Welch did in a previous Verizon 5G test with phones, but the performance was much better than I’ve ever experienced on LTE. In an area where I got 335 Mbps download and got 61 Mbps upload, it took the laptop about 15 seconds to download a 355 MB video from Google Drive and about a minute to upload it.
Getting those high speeds was great, but finding the right spot was like finding an invisible needle in a broadly defined haystack, thanks to Verizon’s unclear 5G coverage map. I traveled to five different spots that were said to have 5G, and I found that having a 5G signal and losing it can amount to walking 20 feet or turning a street corner. Just like that, the download speeds of nearly gigabit nearly drop to 170 Mbps. That’s still very fast, but it illustrates how sensitive mmWave is and why it’s not worth fully relying on now, regardless of the device you use as a vehicle to access it. Sometimes the laptop couldn’t catch the 5G signal completely, although it’s hard to know if I should blame the laptop, or maybe it didn’t work in the area for any reason. I don’t have a 5G phone so I couldn’t test it on a second device.
I’m lucky to have several nearby locations in my area where Verizon has UWB nodes as it is not representative of every city in the US. While mmWave has such a short, delicate range, I wouldn’t find the process of finding a 5G hotspot even in a well-serviced area helpful at all, especially during a pandemic.
All in all, being able to use 5G on a laptop is an impressive feat, and it’s something I find much more useful in this form factor than in a smartphone. The Flex 5G’s 2-in-1 design adds more use cases with its tent mode, so you can post and stream a movie over 5G if you want. You can also rotate the screen to use it as a tablet. Additionally, even in the limited ARM version available here, Windows 10 gives me more flexibility for work in terms of application support and multitasking than a phone can.
But with the good, here comes a disproportionately high amount of disappointment if you hope this is an uncompromising laptop. The Flex 5G’s ARM processor is more powerful than I expected, but it does have some serious limitations on apps you can use in Windows 10. Ultimately, this laptop suffers a similar fate to the Surface Pro X, another machine built with an ARM processor.
I got several incompatibility errors when trying to install a few apps that I would rather not live without, such as Affinity Photo or Xbox Game Pass. As my colleague Dieter Bohn noted in his review of the Surface Pro X, the Microsoft Store didn’t help filter out which apps were or were not ARM compatible – which is unfortunately still the case. You may be able to get some apps to work through the built-in emulation settings available in Windows 10 Pro, but even those can’t fix the big issue that 64-bit x86 apps still can’t run here, and Microsoft isn’t doing anything to making the journey easier – even if it comes to a dead end.
I went on a download spree to see what kind of things would work, and it was predictably hit and miss. The .exe file for Slack that automatically downloads from its site wouldn’t install because I didn’t have the correct processor, although the version in the Microsoft Store worked fine. Also, don’t count on Photoshop running let alone downloading it. Adobe claimed that there will be support for Creative Cloud apps on ARM processors, but it still isn’t.
This is far from a gaming laptop, but I was surprised that games are fun Undertale, BioShock, and Dead cells and did so with a playable frame rate at the full 1080p resolution of the screen. But all the other games I’ve tried included Persona 4 Golden, Abzû, and Hades, shows an error on Steam that I need a processor that can run 64-bit x86 apps. Get used to seeing that.
On the plus side, Microsoft’s Edge browser built on Chromium works very well. The most recent batch of updates has provided native support for ARM processors, and I found it to be much faster at page loading and general navigation than Google Chrome. It also seems to drain the battery more slowly. Additionally, Edge’s Progressive Web Apps are a smart way to work around some, but not all, of this app incompatibility. For example, Spotify’s web player works more smoothly than trying to use the app available in the Microsoft Store. Installing it as a web app makes it feel like a special app, so that worked fine in some limited cases.
One of the major advantages of ARM over an Intel or AMD CPU is its efficiency and its impact on extending battery life. Lenovo claims 24 hours of battery life with the Snapdragon 8cx with 5G, although you will experience less if you are connected to 5G service. To give an idea of the longevity, I took the Flex 5G to connect to several 5G spots in my area, where I uploaded and downloaded a 350MB video multiple times. I then stopped to make a Google Meet video call, type this review and talk about Slack for 30 minutes. Now, after 90 minutes of home use over LTE, it has dropped to 84 percent. I think this laptop can easily endure a demanding workday or two, plus activities after work, even if you rely on its cellular connection all the time.
Unlike the Surface Pro X and the Galaxy Book S, another ARM-based Windows 10 laptop, the Flex 5G isn’t equipped with what I consider to be flagship quality hardware. This laptop was originally called the Yoga 5G when it debuted at CES 2020, and despite getting a slightly different name now, this machine has been cut from a familiar canvas. The design would be fine in a traditional $ 700 2-in-1 laptop, but the generic, tacky construction doesn’t justify the $ 1,399.99 price point. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few niceties. I love the keyboard and the grippy matte textured chassis which makes it easy to carry around with confidence I won’t drop it. The 14 inch 1080p IPS touchscreen is also a highlight. It’s hard to read in direct sunlight, which doesn’t bode well when it comes to hunting 5G service outdoors, but it’s bright, crisp, and has generously wide viewing angles when used indoors.
There will be better 5G laptops in the future, but like the state of 5G in general, we’re not there yet. And it’s not clear when there will be more options that support 5G, cheaper, easier to find or more convenient to use. For now, Lenovo’s Flex 5G is an incredibly safe bet as a first-generation device. Compared to what the first round of 5G phones looked like, there’s not much about the design that sets it apart from other laptops. And until support for ARM processors improves dramatically, the fast but volatile 5G service currently available through Verizon isn’t attractive enough to make this investment – or the monthly cost for Verizon’s 5G – worthwhile.
Photography by Cameron Faulkner / The Verge