Lenovo Flex 11 Chromebook review: Tough, durable and inexpensive

The Lenovo Flex 11 is one tough SOB.

The Lenovo Flex 11 Chromebook is a consumer version of Lenovo’s very solid Chromebooks For Education products. It’s built tough — rated to take a 2.4-foot drop and has a water resistant keyboard tray to keep spills out, but still comes in at a very reasonable $279.99. Finding a “rugged” Chromebook that’s not EDU branded and uber-expensive isn’t a common thing, so we were instantly interested.

After a bit of time with it, the strengths outweigh the drawbacks and we like the Flex 11. It’s not the most powerful Chromebook we’ve tried but it wasn’t made to be. It’s a decent, solid performer designed to take more abuse than most other products in its class.

We think the durability factor and low price make the Flex 11 a great Chromebook for kids or someone who tends not to treat his or her stuff all that respectfully. And while the body is pretty darn durable, the keyboard leaves a lot to be desired. Read on for our full take.

See at Lenovo

Tech specs

The Lenovo Flex 11 won’t win any performance awards, but it’s got a decent lineup of specs that keep its price under $300.

Category Spec
OS Chrome
Display 11.6-inch 1366 x 768 IPS Touchscreen
Processor MTK 8137C @2.10GHz
RAM 4GB
Storage 32GB
Full-size SD card slot
Connectivity 802.11 a/g/n/ac
Bluetooth 4.0
Ports 1 USB-C
1 USB-A (USB 3.0)
HDMI
Kensington Lock
Headphone/Microphone combo jack
Size 11.65 x 8.11 x .8 inches
Weight 2.9 pounds

Overall hardware

Let’s address the elephant in the room: the Lenovo Flex 11 is not a pretty laptop. It’s not an ultralight aluminum model designed to be light and look good; instead it’s a polycarbonate machine designed to take a bit of a beating. It’s a uniform gray top and bottom, with a lighter gray rubber bumper around the edge of both the top and bottom of its clamshell body. Even the text is gray. I like gray, and I like subdued, muted things but even I have to say the Flex 11 isn’t a looker.

The way the Flex 11 is built clearly puts ruggedness over appearance.

The body of the Flex 11 is solid. There’s no give if you push on the top of the lid, no wiggle when it’s flipped open, and no soft spot on the bottom inside of the bumper feet. The right side of the body holds the Kensington lock, power button, volume rocker and the combo headphone and microphone jack while the USB and HDMI ports are on the left along with a full-size SD card reader.

With the lid closed, the Flex 11 is bland but tough. I appreciate the fact that it’s tough and I know that others (especially those with younger kids) will, too. But I would like to see just a little bit of flash instead of the stoic gray. Order a cool sticker for this one if you decide to buy.

When you open the lid, you’re faced with a metal-finished keyboard pan and palm rest (gray metallic in looks only, it’s still plastic) with a standard island-style keyboard and trackpad. The keyboard is your normal Chromebook style, with Chrome keys replacing the function row and backspace. The display is surrounded by a rather wide bezel, though it’s black and under the glass rather than the same metallized plastic used for the keyboard pan. Again, everything is a testament to function, not form. This works better on the inside, as colors and extras by the way of logos or other markings can be a distraction.

Even the hinges are built better than most others.

The 360-degree hinges mean you can flip the screen over and use the Flex 11 in tablet mode or flip it halfway and use it in easel or tent mode for watching a video. The hinges are solid, no matter the position of the screen. Satisfyingly so, even. Where some models will shimmy and twist with a little force when “tented”, the Flex 11 doesn’t. Again, a testament to what this model was designed to do — be more rugged than average.

Lenovo says the Flex 11 can survive a 2.4-foot drop. 2.4 feet is not very high, but it is about the height of a lap while sitting down or the top of a child’s desk. I’ve dropped it multiple times while closed and open onto a carpeted office floor as well as hardwood floors in my dining room, with no ill effect. I don’t suggest anyone try to manhandle or drop their own unit, but I’m satisfied with Lenovo’s claim of durability here. And of course, I was going to try dropping a review model that’s said to be able to withstand it because it would be unfair not to.

All in all, the chunky 3-pound Flex 11 isn’t much to look at. But it feels durable and solid and lives up to the claims of surviving a minor fall or two. Or twenty. I also went a bit above and beyond to see how well the Flex 11 would handle a bit of torture. Let’s just say that 80-pounds on the lid had zero effect on the operation and that Lenovo doesn’t suggest it should survive this. It’s tough. Very.

Display

The 11.6-inch, 1366 x 768 display on the Flex 11 isn’t the best I’ve seen. It’s not terrible, but in an age of 1080p or higher displays on even a few budget models, seeing last generation’s 1,366-pixel resolution is never ideal. I understand that it’s standard for most laptops under $300, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Most cheap laptops have a 1366 x 768 display. Still waiting for the budget-priced model that bucks this trend.

It’s also on the dim side which means colors don’t pop the same way they would on a brighter display. This is most evident when looking at dark shades layered on each other while watching a video. Dark blue struggles to stand out against black, for example, and it’s obvious when using the Flex 11 somewhere with plenty of ambient light. When you’re in a dark room or looking at a static image, you won’t notice it as much. This isn’t uncommon to see from inexpensive IPS displays but still needs to be mentioned.

The 10-point multitouch, however, is great. Touches register immediately, and multi-finger gestures like two-finger zooming or alt-clicking work flawlessly. Touch response rivals the Chromebook Pixel, which retailed for $1,100 more than the Flex 11 when it was available.

Overall, the display is acceptable when you factor in the sub-$300 price tag. I’m not knocking the Flex 11 for its screen because it compares favorably to other models in its class and has a touch screen as good or better than any other Chromebook on the market. It just doesn’t have any “wow” factor.

Keyboard and Touchpad

While the screen is fine, the keyboard is a little disappointing. Everything works and it works well, but the keys are very shallow and easy to press. I find that combination makes it difficult to type quickly and accurately with errant key presses or double letters being the result. If you hunt and peck with two fingers, you won’t have too many complaints but touch-typers or anyone who has Ms. Beacon’s proper form will struggle. My biggest complaint is that a laptop clearly designed for youngsters has a keyboard that would be bad to use when learning to type. I’m sure using the Flex 11 full-time would help us get used to the keyboard, but I never like having to “deal with” or “get used to” something that’s not great.

The trackpad is much better. It’s nice and smooth with just a hint of texture and has a very discernable edge where it’s recessed into the keyboard pan. Touch and tap gestures worked great, and if I had to find a complaint it would be that pressing/clicking the trackpad seems a little stiff. That could be the hardware itself, or it could be that I never click the touchpad and use tapping gestures instead so it seems stiff in comparison. Like the touch response, I was pleasantly surprised with how good the trackpad is on the Flex 11.

The keyboard is advertised as water resistant, with “innovative internal channels beneath the keyboard to divert liquid away from sensitive electrical components. It can handle up to 330 ml – about 1 cup – of liquid without damage.”

The Flex 11 handles spills just fine, but it’s not “waterproof.” Don’t treat it as such.

It passes that test with flying colors. I tested just under a full cup of tap water, and while it made a mess on the desk it had zero effect on the keyboard. I shied away from using any sticky liquids like soda or coffee, and wouldn’t recommend trying it.

In the end, one of the perks of using a Chromebook instead of a tablet is that you have a good keyboard. While the Flex 11’s keyboard is far better than anything you would find for an Android tablet or iPad, it’s not a great keyboard. It’s completely serviceable for most users, but I can’t ignore the issues.

Other features and performance

The Flex 11 uses a basic industry standard MediaTek ARM processor, bundled with 4GB of RAM. Not too long ago I would have told you to shy away from a Chromebook with an ARM processor, but times have changed. The performance is on par with every other laptop in its price range. You can have multiple Chrome tabs open and won’t hit the “lag wall” you see in some 2GB models. You can comfortably use 10-12 browser tabs before the system slows down or suspends any older tabs.

The MTK8137 CPU provides decent performance, but battery life could be better.

Full-screen HD video through YouTube and Netflix renders well, and outside the issues of dark colors as described above you won’t have any complaints provided you have the bandwidth to stream. The speakers are loud and bright, which is great for watching a video or listening to a podcast, but not optimal for music — there is the definite lack of bass response you find with most laptops. The 3.5mm combo jack provided better audio and should satisfy most users with typical headphones or headsets.

Connectivity was fine, with both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi having good range. It’s worth noting that the lack of 802.11 b in the specs is not a typo, and if you’re hanging on to ancient equipment that uses the “b” Wi-Fi standard you won’t be able to connect the Flex 11 to your network. Bluetooth connections from a phone, headset with microphone, headphones, and a portable speaker went without a hitch and performed well throughout the Bluetooth’s standard 33-foot range.

The battery life was a minor disappointment. Lenovo suggests up to 10 hours of life away from a charger, but that’s optimistic; seven or eight hours is a more realistic figure with “average” use. Most ARM Chromebooks have the same battery longevity, so this isn’t a problem. My issue is the way the battery drains while watching a video because it seems to deplete much faster and the device gets warmer than other Chromebooks with the same basic processor arrangement. The screen could be more power-hungry or there could be a difference in the device configuration, but it’s noticeable. You’ll have less juice in the tank after watching a video with the Flex 11 than you would with other similarly priced Chromebooks.

Seeing USB-C instead of a proprietary charging port is always a plus.

The battery charges via the USB-C port, which uses the standard power-delivery feature. With a USB-C to USB-C cable, you can charge your phone or anything else that also uses the USB-C PD standard.

On the flip side, standby times were off the chart. If you shut the lid and put your Chromebook away instead of shutting it down, you’ll appreciate coming back to a battery in the same shape it was in when you put it away. I saw a mere 2% loss in the battery indicator after 72 full hours of standby.

Android apps

The Flex 11 has access to Google Play if you switch to the Chrome beta channel. The experience is the same as you’ll find on any Chromebook with Play Store access, with most Android apps working fine but not quite optimized for a bigger screen. Hopefully, being placed on the fast-track for Android means that when Android for Chrome is updated to 7.1 with better controls for sizing windows the Flex 11 should see the update soon after.

Today, the experience is as expected with none of the troubles recent Intel-based Chromebooks are having. It’s worth moving to the beta track and installing your apps to the 32GB of storage.

Should you buy it?

If you’re looking for a Chromebook that’s durable and a great fit for a youngster, the Flex 11 is the best buy. I wasn’t thrilled with the keyboard, and the display isn’t the brightest I’ve tested, but the overall package has plenty to make up for the shortcomings. If buying for a student with an interest in learning to type, I have to change my recommendation and suggest that you’ll simply need to spend more money for the Lenovo N23 Education model which provides a rugged frame and much better keyboard.

If you need something built tough, the Flex 11 is where you should start looking.

If you’re looking for a laptop that you can toss in your bag or on the back seat and not worry about bumps and bruises, the Flex 11 is also a good fit. There aren’t any other Chromebooks this durable in this price range. The performance is solid and outside of our keyboard niggles, you’ll be satisfied with how it works when you need it. The standby time is a great bonus here, too.

Of course if how your Chromebook looks is a factor or if you need something with a bit more power for tinkering you would be better served by something else.

I take a Chromebook with me most times I leave the house, and knowing that it can take a little more rough handling would put the Flex 11 on my radar if I were in the market for a new Chromebook.

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