In use and app compatibility
The most fascinating feature of the Flex 5G is the Snapdragon 8cx CPU that keeps it running. It’s similar to the Qualcomm-Microsoft SQ1 chipset that powers the Surface Pro X, and the technical differences aren’t very clear. The 8cx is supposed to provide “extreme” performance for Qualcomm’s Windows on ARM computers, and is meant to compete against Intel’s Y-series chips for thin-and-light notebooks. In addition to the Snapdragon processor, the Flex 5G also comes with the same 8GB of RAM the Surface Pro X offers, though Lenovo provides a 256GB SSD while Microsoft’s only has 128GB at the base level.
The Flex 5G was mostly capable of managing my usual workload… Until it wasn’t. After I drained the battery with our video rundown test and restarted the laptop, getting all my Chrome tabs reloaded and apps running took an excruciating 10 minutes. I just wanted to get back into my Google Doc and address some edits or open Gmail to clear out my inbox, but each tab took minutes — plural –to load. Even apps that weren’t reliant on an internet connection, like Events viewer or File Explorer, took forever to start. This was not the Always On experience that Qualcomm and Microsoft promised, and it was noticeably slower than other Snapdragon laptops I’ve tested.
I also ran into odd little delays here and there, like an occasional two or three-second stall when I was Alt-Tabbing to other windows or images not loading when I opened them from File Explorer, for example. But these little hiccups aren’t as frustrating as my biggest problem with Windows on ARM: confusing and incomplete app compatibility. I’ve complained about this ever since I reviewed the first Snapdragon PC. Microsoft and Qualcomm have done a lot to make Windows on ARM run better, like improving Chrome performance and adding 64-bit support. I basically live in Chrome, and the browser did feel more stable overall, and battery life seems better than before.
But the problem, as always, comes when you need to install less popular apps. When setting up the Flex 5G, I ran into a snag almost immediately. Handbrake, one of the apps we use to benchmark performance, wouldn’t install, saying it required a 64-bit system and that my PC was only 32-bit. I also tried installing the 64-bit version of Slack and couldn’t, though the 32-bit option worked. It’s infuriating, because according to the system’s “About your PC” page, the Flex 5G runs a “64-bit operating system on an ARM-based processor.” Most of our usual Windows benchmarks also aren’t compatible.
This is a serious problem that Microsoft needs to work on because it’s crippling the entire platform, including the Surface Pro X. I understand that getting widespread app compatibility is hard, but the messaging needs to be clearer. And, more importantly, don’t lie to the user — if 64-bit apps won’t work, don’t call this a 64-bit operating system.
5G and LTE
So, app compatibility sucks, but the Flex 5G does have its merits. One of the highlights is right there is its name: 5G connectivity. Lenovo announced it was making a 5G laptop with Qualcomm back in June 2019, but took a year to actually launch the thing. The company probably needed the extra time to figure out how to get its 5G antennas in the system. The Flex 5G works with both mmWave and sub-6 Ghz technologies for up to 2 Gbps downloads over 5G. And while 5G coverage is still pretty sparse, you’ll get plenty speedy service over gigabit LTE the rest of the time.
Our review unit came with Verizon service and I was able to rely on LTE for all my work. (Note: Verizon is our parent company, but has no control over our editorial content.) I downloaded benchmarks, program installers and even had a four-way video conference with no speed or image quality issues.
The problem with Verizon’s ultra wideband 5G network is that coverage is still pretty sparse. According to the carrier’s maps, I’d have to cross the street or walk down the block for 5G, but even when I went out hunting for a signal, I never found one. It’s nice that Lenovo was able to build support for the super fast mmWave technology that Verizon’s network relies on, but I’m not sure the tradeoff in size and weight are worth it.
At least the company didn’t compromise on battery life for 5G, though. My gosh the battery life on this thing. The multi-day runtime claims here are true. I could generally use the Flex 5G for a whole workday and part of another on a single charge. Since I haven’t been working outside much, I haven’t connected the Flex to 5G, but it’s fair to expect that would ding the battery life a bit.
On our battery test, the Flex 5G’s hit an impressive 16 hour and 47 minutes, beating every other laptop we’ve tested this year by a pretty significant margin. In second place is the Dell XPS 13 with a 15:55 runtime. And that’s despite the fact that the Flex 5G only has a slightly more generous 60 Whr battery compared to Dell’s 56 Whr cell.
The Flex 5G delivers on its two biggest draws: fast cellular speeds and long battery life. But these days, few people are traveling and the need for a long-lasting machine that will stay online when on the go is minimal. Plus, Windows on ARM still needs a lot of work.
The much prettier Surface Pro X starts at $999, and even after adding the keyboard its total of $1,200 is still cheaper than the Flex. The Galaxy Book Flex starts at $1,300, but it uses a more-powerful Intel Core i7 chipset, comes with an S Pen and has a gorgeous QLED screen.
Sure, neither of these machines support 5G (or even LTE in the Samsung laptop’s case). But $1,400 is a lot to pay for a laptop that might not run every app you need. And that’s not counting the extra $15 to $30 a month you’ll have to fork over for a data plan. If you wait till next year to buy a 5G laptop, not only will there be better coverage, but the device will likely be thinner and lighter, too. The Flex 5G is an adequate machine, but it’s not worth buying during a global pandemic and recession.