Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 14 $999
7th Mar 2014 | 00:14
You're getting you money's worth with Lenovo's Flex 14
Introduction and design
Between Windows 8 and Haswell, the $650 laptop has become something so powerful - relatively speaking - that it is a virtually unrecognizable category of computing when compared to 7 years ago.
In ye old days, giving someone buying advice in this price range was a little shameful. No matter what that someone bought, they would be doomed to 2 minute boot times, sluggish drive access, and poor battery performance.
For students or those who would primarily use their laptop for standard computing tasks, this was deemed an acceptable - if somewhat shameful - sacrifice.
In 2014, all laptops have essentially become instant-on devices. Say what you will about the extra expense of flash memory, but the notion that you can reliably pop out of sleep mode in under 5 seconds is now a given. Rapid software switching, browser performance, and productivity performance are givens as well.
Lenovo's IdeaPad Flex 14 embodies this change. It sports the same load-out as Lenovo's standout Yoga 2 Pro, but packed into a larger plastic chassis with a lower-tier display and without the ability to convert into a tablet. At the budget end of the scale, these specifications result in surprisingly powerful performance – for the fully loaded SSD at $999. Cheaper, mechanical hard drive configurations start at just $649.
With this in mind, the most pertinent question here is: how big of a negative impact do the compromises Lenovo has made around the display and form-factor have on the overall quality of this laptop?
A simple, comfortable, and attractive system
The first thing most people notice about the Flex 14 is that it doesn't initially look or feel like a value-range laptop. It doesn't look that big, partially due to the slimming effects that the matte black paint job provides, but mostly because at 13.25 inches wide by 9.50 inches deep by 0.85 inches thick, it just isn't big. It is not small by any means, but the Flex 14 won't elicit chuckles at cafés when plopped onto a table.
Overall, this system looks sleek but fairly basic. The use of a black rubberized exterior makes it easy to grip, and conveys a decidedly non-shiny, non-budget look and feel. There's nothing flashy here, save the mousepad, which has a bright metallic chrome ring around it.
Hold onto the laptop a little longer, however, and the budget nature of the chassis becomes more apparent. In comparison to higher-end devices such as Lenovo's Yoga 2 Pro or the ThinkPad line, the Flex 14 feels decidedly more, erm, flexible. The plastic tends to give with heavy key presses and clicks, so the Flex lacks sturdy, unbending nature of more expensive models.
The other noticeable attribute is that the Flex 14's display can be placed into stand mode by pushing the screen 300 degrees back so that the system sits keyboard-down. This is a family friendly mode for video chat, watching movies, and more touch-oriented functions - and will be a welcome feature for students or parents tired of watching their kid pound away on the keyboard during chats with grandma.
What it cannot do, however, is flex all the way into tablet mode like the Yoga or Yoga 2 can. Furthermore, because there is no motion sensor to flip the display, this laptop can't be placed into tent mode. Finally, this relatively limited flexibility comes with a downside. The Flex 14's hinge is an unsightly bulge that is not evident in Lenovo's Yoga chassis.
That being said, the most glaring and most obvious weakness by far is the screen. We'll go into more detail later in this review, but know this: at a resolution of 1366 x 768, you don't get a whole lot of pixels to start with, and the those pixels don't look great on this screen either.
Like many Lenovo laptops, the Flex 14 comes in a number of different configurations. The model we tested packed the following components:
- CPU: Intel 1.6 GHz Core i5 4200U
- Graphics: Intel integrated HD 4400 graphics
- RAM: 8GB of DDR3
- Storage: 128GB SSD hard drive
- Screen: 14-inch 1366x768 LED screen
- WiFi: Intel Wireless-N 7260 network adapter (2x2 802.11bgn)
- Ports: 2 USB 2.0 ports, 1 USB 3.0 port, 1 Ethernet port, headphone/mic jack, HDMI out, SD/MMC card reader
- Webcam: 720p front-facing camera
- Weight: 4.4 pounds
- Size: 13.25 x 9.50 x 0.85 inches
At the low-end of the Flex 14's configuration, the unit comes with Intel's 1.40GHz Celeron ULT 2955U CPU, the previous iteration of Intel's integrated HD Graphics part, 4GB of memory, and a 500GB 5,400 rpm mechanical drive for $469. At the mid-range, $549 buys Intel's 1.7GHz Haswell-based Core i3 4010U with integrated HD Graphics 4400, 4GB RAM, and the same 5,400 rpm 500GB drive as above.
Intel's Core i5 4200U is a nice choice for the brains behind this laptop. This mid-range 22nm Haswell processor runs at 1.6GHz across two cores, with Turbo Boost up to 2.6GHz when a single-core is active, and up to 2.3GHz with both cores active. The processor also supports HyperThreading, which means that each core is capable of handling an extra thread.
For graphics, Lenovo wisely chooses to rely on Intel's HD Graphics 4400 part, which is integrated into the Core i5-4200U. It is worth noting that this is the same exact CPU Lenovo used in the Flex 14's higher-end cousin, the Yoga 2 Pro. That says a lot about both the Haswell microarchitecture: a processor fast enough and affordable enough to exist in one of Lenovo's flagship systems as well as its budget laptop is definitely doing something right.
The presence of a standard Ethernet port is commendable because so many thin-and-light laptops are choosing to omit it these days. It's not the kind of thing you miss until you really need it. It's yet another part of the Flex that flexes, expanding to accommodate an Ethernet plug while keeping the system's frame nice and slim.
Also commendable is the 128GB of solid state storage, even if it left us concerned that this might not be enough space for many home/school users.
Aside from a higher-resolution screen, the only thing we found ourselves wishing for was a network adapter that supports 802.11ac. This would be a nice way to future-proof the Flex 14, but it is not essential or expected at this price point.
The Flex 14 won't win too many flat-out sprints, but it packs quite decent performance for the price tag. Here are the relevant numbers:
- Cinebench - 9,943 (4,977 with 1x core)
- 3DMark - Ice Storm: 33,819 // Cloud Gate: 3,794 // Firestrike: 513
- PC Mark - Home: 2,026 // Work: 3,150
- PC Mark Battery test: 202 minutes
- Battery Eater: 146 minutes
While the Flex 14 pales in comparison to higher-end laptops - particularly those with discreet mobile graphics adapters, these are impressive results for a budget-range laptop.
In real-life, the combination of Windows 8, an SSD, and the Haswell processor make for one snappy portable computing experience. The system starts up fast, quickly moves between apps, and provides enough pop that it can play low-end Steam games, strategy games like Banner Saga, and even shooters like Call of Duty with the graphics options relaxed.
An important consideration for laptop performance is how much heat they throw off during normal operations. True laptop users will be grateful that the Flex 14's single exhaust vent on the left-side puts out very little heat while being used in a regular fashion.
Budget price = mediocre display
The only real downside here is screen quality. The specifications don't lie: The 1366 x 768 display feels like a throwback in every regard. Not only does the Flex 14 not allow for full HD video, the screen quality itself is average at best. The screen is not very bright, and off-plane viewing angles are poor. Truthfully, at this price point, this is to be expected, even if it is disappointing.
The upside to such a mediocre display is that since the processor doesn't have to push as many pixels around the screen, the Flex 14 boasts top-notch battery life. Both of TechRadar's synthetic tests hammer away at the CPU, graphics, and hard drive; this system was up to the task, putting out power for over three hours in PC Mark's battery test, and over two hours in Battery Eater's even more grueling benchmark.
Lenovo claims that this translates into nine full hours of computing time. Our hands-on experiences with battery life came quite close to this boast. When used for standard computing tasks and online access, we saw upwards of 6-7 hours on a single charge.
In classic Lenovo style, the keyboard is responsive and comfortable to type on, although the absence of a backlight will disappoint users who work in low-light conditions.
The mousing experience is similarly great. Lenovo has been hit or miss with its trackpads lately, but I'm happy to report that we experienced no phantom clicks, accidental text selections, or general unresponsiveness. The pad itself is surprisingly clunky when clicking, but supports more gentle touch gestures as well.
One final note: The Flex 14 boasts surprisingly solid sound quality thanks to the stereo speakers located on its front underside. While light drum sounds can feel a little too snare-y and high-end notes a little bright, the mid-range and bass effects are excellent. In total, this laptop sounds much better than most other laptops on the market today, especially in its price range.
Lenovo bills the Ideapad Flex 14 as an entry-level laptop that offers some of the bells and whistles of more expensive portables. For a $999 device with similar specifications to higher-end systems like Lenovo's Yoga 2 Pro, this feels like an accurate claim, and an appealing one as well.
To achieve such a low-price point, a few compromises were necessary. Our perspective is that power and performance should be the last sacrifices made for the maximum long-term satisfaction of any computer, and this is precisely what Lenovo has done here.
For it's affordable price tag, we like a whole lot about the Flex 14. First and foremost, the system packs solid power and performance via Intel's Core i5 4200U processor into an attractive - if basic-looking - package. The battery life is particularly impressive because it actually feels possible that a student could carry this thing around all day without ever needing to plug in. It definitely passes the cross-country flight test in this regard.
One of the nice things about Lenovo's current laptop line-up is the high-quality keyboard that the manufacturer uses for its system. The Flex 14 is no different - this system is a joy to type on. The mousepad is no different. Although the fact that it travels a bit more than other pads upon clicking may be off-putting to some, we find it surprisingly close in responsiveness to the trackpad Apple uses in its MacBooks.
I also like the sound quality, and the ability to place this laptop into a touch-oriented stand mode while watching videos or listening to music.
Finally, we like that the Flex 14 has a built-in Ethernet access, thanks to a clever port implementation on the left side of the system.
Without a doubt, the Flex 14's greatest weakness is the quality of its display. We can appreciate the need to cut corners in a budget system, but it doesn't make the absence of 1080p resolution any less surprising. In similar fashion, the poor viewing angles also stand out...in a bad way.
I really disliked the absence of a backlit keyboard, which feels like a big deal at this price point. So many of us operate our laptops in dark and low-light conditions these days, this omission will almost certainly annoy everyone at some point in time.
The overall build of the Flex 14 is somewhat suspect. While it looks good, and I'm not expecting a metal body at this price, the plastic is bendy and gives more than I'd like when I press the trackpad. It might be called the Flex, but it shouldn't flex this much.
Finally, while we appreciated the relative snappiness the 128GB SSD in our review unit provided in regards to overall performance, I'm left wondering if this will be enough disk space for users looking to store large quantities of photos, music, or videos on their laptop. Thankfully, Lenovo does offer a 500GB mechanical configuration—and at a lower price-point to boot. A 256GB SSD is also available for more money.
While the screen quality will disappoint video junkies, it doesn't feel like a deal breaker for the most common users of the Flex 14: students and users interested in a common, everyday device for straightforward computing needs. At its most basic, this system is affordable, comfortable to use for long stretches of time, and - most importantly - makes no compromises around performance.
Reviewing laptops for TechRadar can make it easy to become so accustomed to hyper-HD IPS displays and extravagant performance that it's easy to forget how important and popular the budget sector is. After spending a week using the Flex 14 full time, we found ourselves pleased with the caliber of performance offered at this price point. Truth be told, on a day-to-day basis performing common tasks, it was hard to detect any discernable difference between this system and far more expensive ones - gaming of course, is a whole other matter.
This, in combination with the high-quality keyboard, the touch screen, and the remarkable battery life makes it easier to recommend this laptop.
And what to make of the Flex 14's namesake flexibility? Ultimately, it's a bonus perk for users, who will likely find themselves using this device in stand mode far