I was drawn to the Lenovo Flex 4 after seeing it in a showroom. On a floor full of laptops with mushy Chiclets for keys, the Flex 4 was a callback to the glory days of the IBM ThinkPad. The keyboard had full-size keys with actual travel! They even audibly snapped (well, a little) when you typed on them. Could it be that the freefall of notebook keyboard quality, driven by the inexorable push toward ever-thinner ultrabooks, was finally slowing down?
Lenovo Flex 4
Superstar keyboard. Plenty of ports. Potentially a great value if performance issues are addressed.
Too big and bulky, particularly when converted into tablet mode. Performance is dragged down by a dog-slow hard drive. Floppy hinge system makes casual screen taps difficult.
Lenovo loaned me a Flex so I could check it out in earnest. Here’s the unfortunate spoiler alert: The rest of the machine just doesn’t measure up to the typing experience.
Essentially a budget version of Lenovo’s Yoga line, the Flex strips out features and dials down specs in an effort to keep pricing as low as possible; These machines start at $400, but my review unit was configured at a still-decent $549. At the same time, while the focus is still on being a thin-and-light convertible with a 360-degree wraparound hinge, the screen size is bumped up to a full 14 inches. A 15-inch version of the Flex is also available.
Those shortcuts are problematic, namely because they result in performance that is so dismal as to make the Flex’s awesome keyboard largely irrelevant. Bless Lenovo for fitting this machine with a spacious 1TB hard drive, but sadly that drive is so slow that it drags down the system as a whole. While specs like a Core i5 CPU and 4GB of RAM aren’t exactly cutting edge, they’re enough to get the job done, as long as it’s a very basic job. But the hard drive can’t even keep up with that, resulting in endless waits for apps to load and other key actions to complete. The Flex 4 benchmarks better than you’d expect, but the real-world user experience is far from flattering.
Like many notebooks today, the Flex is a laptop and a tablet in one machine, though this implementation isn’t as successful as it has been in other—namely smaller and lighter—devices. The touchscreen tracks decently to fingertips, but the hinge system on the Flex—a relatively standard two-hinge design, nothing like the Yoga’s mesh watchband design—makes casual touchscreen use a problem. While the hinges are tight enough that you can’t adjust the laptop screen with one hand without tipping the Flex over, they’re loose enough that tapping on the screen causes it to flop and wobble uncontrollably. Sure, you can convert the laptop to slate mode by pushing the screen all the way around to lie flat against the back of the notebook, but by then the Flex’s considerable size, weight (4 full pounds), and thickness (24mm, which would have been fat three years ago) become problematic for any kind of extended use.
Despite its size issues and performance hiccups, as well as a relatively dim screen that maxes out at 1920 x 1080 pixels, I can at least praise the Flex for its battery of ports, which includes two USB 3.0 ports, an always-on USB 2.0 port, full-size HDMI, full-size Ethernet (wow!), and an SD card slot. That’s a rare configuration in today’s world, where you’re lucky to get two ports of any variety, let alone five-plus. And I’m still high on the keyboard, which is a best-in-class typing experience. The touchpad is spacious and accurate too.
Lenovo offers a 256GB SSD option on the Flex, which probably goes a long way toward improving performance, but 256GB just isn’t enough space today, even in a world of ubiquitous cloud storage. Give us a 512GB SSD version of this machine and it might be worth a look from those who need a more capable input system and a reasonable amount of power, all at a solid price.