Chromebooks have come a long way in the decade they have existed. In the early days, it was all about delivering a cheap, affordable device to house Chrome OS on since the software really wasn’t up to the task of being a full-blown replacement for something like Windows, Linux or MacOS. In a lot of ways, Chrome OS still isn’t that full replacement of those other operating systems, but as it has developed and matured over time, it has easily become the go-to OS for tons of users like myself who value speed, simplicity, and flexibility over other legacy operations.
As that maturation has happened, the hardware has also grown to meet the demand of a larger user base that wants nicer, more well-equipped laptops to do their work on. As we’ve seen in the last few years, devices like the Pixelbook, ASUS Flip C434, and Pixelbook Go (to name only a few) have really pushed the status quo of Chromebook manufacturing forward. As this began to happen, price increases followed and we quickly ended up in a spot where a well-equipped, well-made Chromebook was priced at or around $599 with regularity.
Sure, we could argue about the legitimacy of those starting prices and further consider regular sale prices all day, but in my opinion, the past couple years saw an inflation in prices for Chromebooks that outpaced the level of innovation just a bit. I don’t want to say that devices like the HP x360 14 or Dell Inspiron were grossly overpriced, but they sure sold a whole lot better when they frequently went on sale. This recurring fact only made it quite clear to most of us that it was possible to deliver a great Chromebook for less than what had become the norm.
And this is exactly what Lenovo has gone and done with the Flex 5 Chromebook. Though I shrugged it off a bit while we were in Las Vegas at CES 2020 drooling over the Samsung Galaxy Chromebook, I’ve since recanted that nonchalance and come to grips with the fact that I missed what could be one of the most important Chroembooks of 2020 in the Flex 5.
This Chromebook does a better job of combining all the great elements of a solid Chromebook into a single package than any that have come before it and it does so at a staggering price point. The quality of the product and user experience are so good that it doesn’t seem possible that it could only cost $409 or less, yet here we are. I won’t make you read any further or even watch the review if you are here to be convinced that this is a great Chromebook. I 100% recommend it and you don’t even have to wait for it to go on sale. Buy it for $409 right now and be blown away by all you get in this package, because I sure am. If you need more, though, let’s take a bit of a deeper look at the Flex 5 and see why I’m so ready to tell you to buy one.
The overall construction of the Flex 5 is very solid and mostly aluminum. There’s nothing too fancy about it, but at 17mm thick and right under 3 lbs, it is perfectly portable. There are fan ports unapologetically around the outside and the look is industrial at best, but looks on a laptop don’t go that far. As long as it feels sturdy and well-made, I’m satisfied, and that is exactly what you get here. A firm chassis, understated looks, and a portable size are what I really value in any Chromebook, and the Flex 5 delivers in all these areas.
As a convertible, the hinges are solid and the Chromebook works in clamshell, tent, display and tablet modes just fine. The size and weight will make you never want to use it as a tablet for more than a few minutes at a time, but with a 13.3-inch laptop, I don’t think that is a downside. The non-clamshell modes are really just there when you need them and most times you will be interacting with this one as a good old Chromebook. In that mode, it does just as you’d expect.
Where most affordable Chromebooks fall down is the screen. Quality is generally OK with most screens, but brightness suffers. Thankfully on the Flex 5, neither is a problem. The colors look good, the viewing angles are great, and the 300 nits of brightness make this Chromebook easy to use in most environments. Is it the best display I’ve ever used? Nope, but it doesn’t get in the way or detract from the experience at all and I found it to be better than nearly all the displays on all the last generation Chromebooks, too. At 13.3-inches, the 16:9 IPS panel and its 1920×1080 resolution get the job done and, at the end of the day, that’s what this Chromebook is all about.
Above the screen we have a nice addition in the webcam. The camera itself is simply a crummy 720p camera like most Chromebooks have, but it has a lovely privacy shade that is a physical slide that covers the lens when you need it. For all those out there that live with tape over their camera, this device will save you the effort and you can feel and see the camera being covered up, resting assured that no one is spying on you.
Keyboard, Mouse and Pen
Lenovo continues to deliver when we move down to the keyboard and trackpad. The keys are well-spaced, have great travel and a very reassuring click to them. I was so accurate on this keyboard that it may have become my new favorite amongst all Chromebooks. I go back and forth on key travel and what I like, but I feel like the Flex 5 delivers a satisfying amount of feedback that made long articles and emails a bit simpler and I genuinely looked forward to working on it. Oh, it is backlit as well, and that’s always a welcome addition.
The mylar trackpad worked as well as any glass trackpad I’ve used and I never even had to wipe it down. Usually, plastic trackpads have a bit of drag to them and feel a bit flimsy compared to the more high-end glass variety. This just wasn’t the case for me on the Flex 5. The trackpad stayed smooth and the click mechanism was tight and easy to use. No complaints, here.
Finally, this Chromebook does support the widely available USI pen input, but no one has a pen that we can really test yet. We have a pre-production pen from HP in the office and it hasn’t been great on any of the USI devices we’ve tried, but I can’t tell if that’s the pen or the USI tech. Until we have more pens to test, I’m simply withholding judgement.
Ports and Speakers
The port selection is great, utilizing a USB Type C on either side for charging, display output, and data transfer. I had a question on whether or not both sides work for extending the display and I can confirm that both USB C ports work as expected. You also get a USB Type A port for older dongles, a headphone/mic jack, microSD card slot and Kensington lock. Standard fare, here, but I always like seeing that USB Type A port.
The speakers are upward firing, but don’t expect too much in the way of large, round sound. Pixelbook Go speakers these are not. They work fine for calls and video chats, but I wouldn’t want to watch a bunch of TV shows or movies on them. They are mediocre, but I do appreciate that fact that I don’t have to worry about my lap muffling the sound when I’m not at a desk or table.
The device we tested came equipped with the 10th-gen Core i3 processor from Intel, 4GB of RAM, and 64GB of eMMC storage. The lower-end versions coming soon will have the 10th-gen Celeron U-series processor, 4GB of RAM and either 32GB or 64GB of storage. I find it hard to recommend the lowest-end $359 version with its paltry 32GB of storage, but I suppose the Celeron with 64GB of storage at $379 wouldn’t be bad. However, with the step up to the Core i3 and the addition of keyboard backlighting, I have to simply recommend moving up to the highest-end version that we tested for only $30 more.
Not surprisingly, the 10th-gen Core i3 flies running Chrome OS and I never had a performance issue the entire time I tested it. The Celeron will undoubtedly perform well, too, but with the small price gap I can’t recommend even bothering with it. For $409, you’ll be hard pressed to find any laptop that moves this fast and you’ll be glad to have that extra performance over the 8 years this device gets updates.
Battery life was fantastic as well, coming in over 10 hours on a regular basis for me. Sure, there are fans with this U-series processor and they quietly kicked in every once and a while, but I never gave a passing thought to overheating and this thing can last a full day without breaking a sweat.
Lastly, as a 10th-gen Intel Chromebook, you also get Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5 along for the ride. I connected a few Bluetooth peripherals and everything hooked up as expected and stayed connected as long as I needed. Wi-Fi connections were strong as well, but we won’t really see the benefits of Wi-Fi 6 until more place (like your home, office and businesses) begin deploying Wi-Fi 6 capable routers. These connection upgrades are well worth having, however, with a device that you’ll likely own for quite some time.
To put it simply, buy this Chroembook. It has already become my go-to recommendation for anyone looking at a mid-range Chromebook that feels way more like a high-end device than it ought to. It is fast, it looks good, it feels great, it has all day battery, it gets updates for 8 years, and it is affordable. There’s just not much more I need to say, here.
With this sort of device available, other manufacturers are going to have to adjust or they will simply get eaten alive in this space. The Flex 5 is far too good and far too inexpensive for ‘good’ Chromebooks to launch at $599. The recently-announced HP Chromebook x360 14c will debut at $499, but that isn’t’ the Core i3 model. Instead, the Core i3 model will start at $629 at Best Buy, and I’m already left wondering how in the world that device will compete with the Flex 5 that comes in at a staggering $220 less. I suppose aggressive sales will have to happen with these other devices in order to compete, but that won’t be an issue for the Flex 5. At $409 MSRP, this one is fantastic and will always be ready for your purchase when the time comes to buy a solid, fast, enjoyable Chromebook. It is by all measures the new standard in the mid-range Chromebook space. Now it’s time for others to try and follow.