Lenovo's IdeaPad Yoga series is one of the best laptop lines of the past couple of years, and one of the few real standouts of the still-young Windows 8 era. But Yoga systems, with flexible hinges that fold all the way back into a tablet mode, are expensive, starting at around $1,000.
As a follow-up, Lenovo is trying a variation on the theme, giving you a larger system (available in 14- and 15-inch sizes) that costs a bit less, and does a bit less.
The IdeaPad Flex doesn't fold all the way back into a tablet like the Yoga does. This is more of a touch-screen laptop with some extra flexibility, bending its screen back by 300 degrees to allow for what we've been calling a kiosk mode, with the screen pointing out from the rear of the laptop, away from the keyboard and touch pad.
Why would you want a kiosk mode in a laptop? We've seen this feature on the Yoga line, Dell's XPS 12, and a few detachable hybrids. It's good for presenting a photo slideshow or PowerPoint, or for viewing videos, giving the screen extra visual impact by hiding the keyboard and the rest of the laptop body from sight. It's also good for Webcam chats via Skype or another app.
Flex 14 configurations start at $569 for a fourth-generation Intel Core i3 CPU, 4GB of RAM, and a 500GB HDD. Our configuration has a fourth-gen Core i5, 8GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD. Lenovo initially quoted us a price of $750 for that configuration, but on the Lenovo site as of this writing, it'll cost you $999. Lenovo has a long-standing habit of offering confusing and conflicting discounts on its site, and right now a version with the same specs, but a 256GB SSD, is actually less, $899, whereas models with Core i7 CPUs top $1,100.
If you keep it under $800, it's a good deal, even without the trick hinge. More than that and I'd look instead to a higher-end system (such as the Yoga line), as the Flex has a budget/plastic feel that doesn't hold up at higher prices.
I like the Flex 14 as a reasonably priced midsize laptop. There's a definite budget feel to the chassis, but for the less-expensive configurations, it's a good collection of components, including the latest Intel processors -- even if you never fold the hinge back into its kiosk mode.
|Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 14||Acer Aspire E1 572-6870||Samsung Ativ Book 9 Lite|
|Display size/resolution||14-inch, 1,366x768 touch screen||15.6-inch, 1,366x768||13.3-inch, 1,366x768 touch screen|
|PC CPU||1.6GHz Intel Core i5 4200U||1.6GHz Intel Core i5 4200U||1GHz AMD A4 Quad-Core|
|PC Memory||9,192MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz||4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz||4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz|
|Graphics||1792MB Intel Graphics 4400||32MB Intel Graphics 4400||512MB AMD Radeon HD 8250|
|Storage||128GB SSD hard drive||500GB 5,400rpm hard drive||128GB SSD hard drive|
|Networking||802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Windows 8 (64-bit)||Windows 8 (64-bit)||Windows 8 (64-bit)|
Design and features
The Flex 14 has some design elements that follow Lenovo's current IdeaPad line. Like the Yoga, S-series, U-series, and other IdeaPad laptops, the Flex has a matte, smooth lid that tapers slightly at the edges, with a subtle Lenovo logo in the top-left corner. We've seen models with orange accents, another Lenovo standby, but this review unit has a gray plastic border around the edges of the screen and base.
The typical elegant Lenovo hinge has been replaced with a big, bulky tube that's squared off in front, rounded in the back. It's a marked difference from, for example, the Yoga hinge, which is so good at camouflaging its dual purpose.
A pair of heavy-duty rubber bumpers at the rear of the bottom panel keeps the screen from moving past the 300-degree mark, although psychologically you'll want to keep going until it's flat like the Yoga. Two smaller rubber bumpers at the far left and right front corners of the wrist rest keep the keys slightly more protected when the system is in its kiosk mode, with the keyboard down against the table.
Folding the screen back to its second position is easy enough, and the stiff hinge holds at any angle, but there's too much flex in the lid to make it a completely smooth transition. In the kiosk or display mode, you can call up the generally very competent Windows 8 onscreen keyboard, and the rubber bumpers give you a solid enough surface to type and/or tap on.
You also get Lenovo's excellent keyboard and touch-pad designs, which count for a lot. The company has put a ton of research and development into key shape and spacing, and it gives typing a very natural feel with fewer errors than other budget laptops. That said, while the key layout and design is cribbed from Lenovo's higher-end laptops, the implementation here feels clacky, with loud keys that flex more than they should under even a light touch.
The 14-inch display has a native resolution of 1,366x768 pixels. That's low for a midsize laptop these days in general, but for $600 to $700 or so, it's acceptable. If I were buying one of the more-expensive configurations, I'd want at least the option to upgrade to a higher-resolution screen. IdeaPad screens are typically very good, and this one, while on the glossy side, has excellent touch response, and is bright and colorful -- at least when viewed head-on.
This is not an IPS screen, so the image washes out quickly from off-axis views. That's not optimal if you're using the kiosk mode for displaying a video or PowerPoint for a group. Interestingly, HP's new Chromebook 11, which runs Chrome OS has an 11-inch IPS screen in a $279 ultraportable (but it's certainly not an apples-to-apples comparison).
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone combo jack|
|Data||1 USB 3.0, 2 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
Connections, performance, and battery
The ports and connections here feel a bit thin for a midsize laptop, especially the single USB 3.0 port (there are two USB 2.0 ones). But again, it's a function of price. At the $600 to $800 level, it's reasonable. Buying one of the $1,000-plus configurations, it would feel like you're missing out.
The widely varied configurations offered are frankly maddening to work through, especially as half of them have "discounts" applied, which are of indeterminate lifespan. That led to the odd situation of Lenovo quoting our review configuration at $750, but as of this review, there is no $750 configuration on the Lenovo Web site, only a $999 one that matches our Core i5/8GB RAM/128GB SSD setup. Even odder, upgrading the SSD to 265GB actually drops the price by $100 to $899 (again thanks to one of those ill-explained discount codes). Long story short, if you can get a decent configuration for a decent price -- either the $750 originally promised for this version, or maybe the 256GB configuration for $899 -- it sounds like a good deal.
We certainly have no complaints about the performance of the Flex 14, at least in its Intel fourth-generation Core i5 version. The system matched up well against other midprice current laptops with similar Core i5 CPUs, and handily beat another wallet-friendly model, the AMD-powered Samsung Ativ Book 9 Lite.
For everyday use, including multitasking, Web surfing, office work, media playback, and social networking, this is more than enough laptop for mainstream consumers, although the lower screen resolution won't give you the best result for playing back 1080p video content.
The battery life is impressive, beating several other similar laptops, and running for 7:09 in our video playback battery drain test. That's a great bonus, especially if you're going to flip the screen back and use the kiosk mode for watching movies during a long flight.
Thanks to some all-over-the-place pricing, the Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 14 is hard to pin down. The less-expensive configurations make sense for a midsize, Haswell-generation laptop, with a trick hinge that you may or may not ever use. But as you move into more expensive versions -- including the current $999 price of our review configuration --- it feels like less laptop than you'd expect for the money.
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Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 14
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 4200U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1792MB Intel HD Graphics 4400: 128GB Samsung SSD
Samsung Ativ Book 9 Lite
Windows 8 (64-bit) 1GHz AMD A4 Quad-Core; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 512MB AMD Radeon HD 8250; 128GB Samsung SSD
Sony Vaio Fit 14
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.8GHz Intel Core i5 3427; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 750GB Toshiba 5,400rpm hard drive
Acer Aspire E1 572-6870
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 4200U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 4400: 500GB 5,400rpm hard drive