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Computerized Investing > April 19, 2014
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by Wayne A. Thorp, CFA

Starting at $799 (as configured no longer available from manufacturer; as configured available for $749.99 from Newegg.com)

Dual-mode, “convertible” Windows 8 notebook with touch screen.

It’s been a year since I’ve reviewed any portable PC; at the time, there were some very good options on the market. The biggest drawback for me, though, was that many portables were coming to market loaded with Windows 8 without having a touch-screen interface. The new Windows operating system is optimized for touch, so to have it installed on a non-touch platform was like dropping a lawnmower engine into a Lamborghini. Microsoft has been tweaking Windows 8 with its latest updates, making it more like Windows 7 for non-touch users. However, lately I have been finding more portable PCs with touch screens on the market that won’t break the bank.

One of these is the Lenovo Flex 14, which marks a developing trend from PC makers frustrated by weak Ultrabook sales. If you recall, Ultrabook is a specification developed by Intel to counteract the success of Apple’s Macbook Air ultra-portable system. These systems were designed to feature reduced bulk without compromising performance and battery life. They use low-power Intel Core processors and solid-state drives (SSDs) and typically omit common laptop features such as optical disc drives and Ethernet ports.

However, Ultrabook sales have been rather disappointing, mainly because of the cost. So to try to jumpstart notebook sales, some manufacturers are developing dual-mode or convertible notebooks, which offer the features of a typical notebook but can also double as a tablet. The Flex 14 is an example of this approach. This thin, light laptop has a screen that flips 300 degrees to “stand mode” for viewing movies or to optimize the touch experience.

Design & Features

Lenovo, in my opinion, produces some of the most stylish Windows notebooks on the market today. I adore my Carbon X1 Ultrabook, which I use whenever I am traveling because of its featherweight design and battery life. The Flex 14 takes some design elements from the Carbon X1, including its tapered look and black-matte finish. However, it’s important to point out that the Flex 14 isn’t an Ultrabook; keep that in mind when comparing its weight, dimensions and price tag to other portable PCs you look at.

The black brushed metal surrounding the keyboard has a great look to it, although it also attracts fingerprints. Since Lenovo notebooks are popular in the business world, the Flex 14 has a subdued but stylish design.

The Flex 14 isn’t necessarily light at 4.4 pounds, but it’s still a reasonable weight even for road warriors. The same goes for its width, which is 0.85 inches. Overall, the Flex 14’s footprint is 13.25 inches by 9.5 inches.

What I missed right from the start was Lenovo’s trademark red pointing stick, but it wouldn’t have been a problem if I hadn’t found the touchpad to be so painful to use. The touchpad was so sluggish and unresponsive that within 30 minutes of booting up the system for the first time, I had given up and plugged in a USB mouse. The Flex 14 also is missing the dedicated mouse buttons found on higher-end systems. Instead, Lenovo opted for mechanical corners for left and right mouse clicks.

The 14-inch display has a native resolution of 1,366x768 pixels. While this is low for a midsize notebook these days, it’s not surprising given the Flex 14’s price point. The issue is that when you start looking at the higher-priced configurations that are available, you don’t have the option to upgrade to a higher-resolution display.

The display is a little too glossy for my taste, and created some annoying glare when used in areas with bright overhead lighting. Also, the Flex 14 doesn’t have an IPS (in-plane switching) screen. This is a screen technology used in higher-end liquid crystal displays for better off-axis viewing higher-quality color reproduction. As a result, the image gets washed out rather quickly the more severe the angle of the screen. However, when viewing the screen head-on, I was very pleased with the brightness and color of the display.

When using the multitouch-enabled display for touch navigation, I found it to be very responsive. While Windows 8 has been beaten up for its radical redesign from Windows 7, the touch environment makes you develop a true appreciation for what Microsoft was trying to achieve.

The Flex 14’s display folds around 300 degrees for “stand” or “kiosk” mode. In this regard, the Flex isn’t really a true convertible PC. If it were, the display would fold all the way over on itself so you could hold the system as a tablet. Instead, you are able to set the PC on a desktop with the screen pointing away from the keyboard and touchpad. This feature would be useful if you are presenting to a small group (the poor off-axis viewing makes presenting to larger groups difficult). For everyday use, I see this feature as having limited functionality or appeal.

The Flex 14’s keyboard is typical of a mid-range notebook. The keyboard is well laid out, meaning I didn’t find it cramped or uncomfortable for typing for long stretches. The keys aren’t backlit, which is a bit disappointing. I also found the chiclet-style keys lacking the tactile and overall response I’ve found in other notebooks that I’ve reviewed. As a result, I found myself making an above-average number of typing errors.

Looking at the Flex 14’s ports and connectors, it offers three USB ports, but only USB 3.0. This, again, is a function of keeping the price down. Surprisingly, though, it does offer an HDMI out port as well as SD/MMC card slot, headphone jack, and Ethernet port (although it is a 10/100 Ethernet instead of the faster gigabit Ethernet).

For wireless connectivity, the Flex 14 offers Intel 802.11n 2.4 GHz wireless and Bluetooth 4.0.

There is also an integrated 720-pixel HD camera and built-in stereo speakers with Dolby Advanced Audio.

The Flex 14 I reviewed came with a fourth-generation Intel Core i5-4200 processor at 1.60 GHz, with optional upgrade to an i7 or downgrade to an i3. Having the latest-generation i5 chip in a mid-level notebook is an impressive feature. My review model also came with 4G of memory and a smallish 128G Samsung solid-state drive SSD. However, the Lenovo website does not currently have a Flex 14 configuration with an SSD. Instead, there are only 500G or 1T hard-disk drive HDD options. If you are able to find a Flex 14 with the SSD option, be aware that Lenovo, like many other PC makers, clogs the hard drive with “bloatware” that reduces the available free disk space. My 128G SSD actually had less than 50G of free hard disk space when I received it.

If you are not a Windows 8 fan, the Flex 14 isn’t for you. With its touch display, which is only Windows 8 compatible, you don’t have the option of downgrading to Windows 7. However, in the touch environment and with the recent updates that lend more of a Windows 7 feel, Windows 8 isn’t the disaster it’s been painted to be in some corners.

Finally, the Flex 14 comes with integrated Intel HD graphics, typical of notebooks and Ultrabooks these days. This is more than enough for day-to-day video viewing.

Performance

The fourth-generation Intel Core i5 chip certainly impressed in my basic benchmarking tests. Last year I reviewed three notebook systems with i5 chips, two with a third-generation chip and the other with a second-generation chip. The Flex 14 bested all three in my speed tests. My highest-rated Ultrabook from 2013, the HP Spectre XT Pro, came the closest to it in tests based on hard drive speed. This isn’t a surprise, since both the Spectre and Flex 14 have a Samsung SSD. But the Flex 14 thoroughly dominated in terms of processor performance. Its closest competitor was its cousin, the Lenovo X1 Carbon, which has a third-generation Intel Core i5-3427 processor at 1.80 GHz. Even then, however, the Flex 14 was roughly 20% faster.

The SSD also provided amazing “cold start” times of five seconds, by far the fastest I’ve come across with a notebook or Ultrabook. From sleep mode, the Flex 14 awakens almost instantaneously.

Battery

The Flex 14 comes with a four-cell (48 Whr) Lithium-ion battery standard. Lenovo claims the battery delivers nine hours of battery life under “normal” operating conditions. My real-world results fell short of that, but were still an exceptional seven-plus hours.

It’s also worth pointing out that the Flex 14’s battery is removable so, in theory, you can carry an extra battery with you to extend your productivity time even further.

Price

My review model was produced in August 2013, and it appears that Lenovo has drastically changed the Flex 14’s configurations since then, since I couldn’t find my model available for purchase directly from the Lenovo website. However, on Newegg.com, the same model number of my review model is currently priced at $749.99. This is a good value for what you are getting. However, I’d caution against spending much more than this. Currently the Lenovo site is selling a Flex 14 configuration for $1,000. While it has a fourth-generation Intel core i7 processor, it only has 4G of memory and a 500G HDD, not an SSD. This, in my opinion, is not a very good deal.

Overall

The Flex 14 is a good mid-range notebook PC. The issues I have with it are somewhat nitpicky in the grand scheme of things. The only real knocks against it, in my opinion, are the disappointing touchpad and the smallish SSD clogged with Lenovo bloatware. When taking into account the impressive processor performance and battery life, and the fact that it has a touch display, the Flex 14 is a worth a look from consumers and enterprise users alike. The key is to get the right configuration that gives you the best blend of performance and value.

Pros

  • Impressive battery life
  • Responsive touch screen
  • Properly configured, good blend of performance and value

Cons

  • Unresponsive touch pad
  • Screen doesn’t fold a full 360 degrees, so lacks true tablet feel
  • Small SSD loaded with “bloatware”

Lenovo Flex 14 Laptop
Starting at $799 (as-configured no longer available from manufacturer; as-configured currently available for $749.99 from Newegg.com)

Wayne A. Thorp, CFA is a vice president and senior financial analyst at AAII and editor of Computerized Investing. Follow him on Twitter at @WayneTAAII.


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