You can still find cheap Chromebooks with 11.6-inch non-touch screens for $199, but the market’s moved upscale. Models like the $449 Samsung Chromebook Plus and $499 Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA are 2-in-1 laptop/tablet convertibles with bigger, higher-resolution touch displays in sleek aluminum cases—perks that help the Asus nab our Editors’ Choice for consumer chromebooks . The Lenovo Flex 11 Chromebook ($279) is plastic, not aluminum, and it has an 11.6-inch display with just 1,366-by-768 rather than 1080p or higher resolution. But it’s an IPS touch screen in a flip-and-fold convertible chassis. Straddling the consumer and classroom realms with vigor and value, the Flex almost unseated the Asus Chromebook Flip as our favorite mass-market Chromebook, until it sputtered in one torture test.
Besides being priced $70 below a comparably equipped Dell Chromebook 3189 Education 2-in-1 ($239.00 at Dell Technologies) , the Flex is slightly more compact at 0.8 by 11.7 by 8.1 inches (HWD) versus 0.8 by 12 by 8.2 inches. It weighs 2.9 pounds, lighter than the Dell’s 3.16, but heavier than the Asus’s 2.43 pounds despite the latter’s larger 12.5-inch full HD display. Even so, it’s no burden in a briefcase or backpack, or at home on a lap or on an airplane tray table, even if you find yourself stuck in a middle seat.
The convertible is clad in gray plastic with a silver palm rest. The familiar four-color Chrome logo and a Lenovo logo decorate opposite corners of the lid, and a rubber bumper borders the outside just as a thick black bezel borders the glossy, reflective screen. A slightly grainy webcam centered above the screen serves for Google Hangouts (the Chrome OS counterpart to Skype chats).
Asus Chromebook Flip (C302CA-DHM4)
Dell Chromebook 3189 Education 2-in-1
Asus Transformer Mini (T102HA-D4-GR)
Microsoft Surface Book (2016, Intel Core i7)
Two rounded hinges let the 11.6-inch screen bend through the four operating modes familiar to users of Lenovo’s Yoga Windows systems: laptop mode; an easel-style stand mode, with the screen tilted back and keyboard face down on a desk; an A-frame tent mode, with screen and keyboard forming an inverted V; and tablet mode, with screen and keyboard back to back. Stand mode is handy for giving presentations or sharing your work, while tent mode lets you swipe at touch-screen apps in confined spaces. As with all convertibles, the keyboard is disabled as the display swings past 180 degrees, so your fingers holding the underside of the tablet don’t type gibberish.
Though not MIL-SPEC rated for ruggedness like the Acer Chromebook 14 for Work ($349.99 at Acer) , Lenovo says the Flex 11 is built to survive rough treatment such as drops from 2.4 feet (75cm) and spills of almost 1 cup of liquid. Except for the screen flopping flat or open on impact, our test unit shrugged off a dozen drops, and kept running after we splashed half a glass of water on the keyboard. When we shut down after the spill test, however, the system didn’t want to switch on again until given a weekend to dry out, after which it worked fine.
What’s on the Outside?
While the Dell 3189 lacks a USB-C port, the Flex 11 has one—also used for charging the laptop via the supplied AC adapter—on its left edge. On that side, you’ll also find a USB 3.0 (Type A) port, an HDMI port, and an SD card slot. The right edge holds only an audio jack, volume rocker, power button, and cable lock slot. We found it all too easy to accidentally hit the power button when grasping the Lenovo to lift it off our lap, but fortunately the button merely puts the convertible to sleep instead of shutting it down and possibly losing work.
The keyboard follows the standard Chrome layout, with a search instead of Caps Lock key and browser and system command keys (such as volume and brightness controls) instead of function keys up top. It’s not backlit for typing in dark rooms, but it is full-sized (the A through apostrophe keys span the desktop-regulation 8 inches). Typing feel is flat and firm, with somewhat shallow key travel but good feedback and a commendable lack of flex in the keyboard tray; we were typing swiftly and accurately with only a little practice. The buttonless touchpad glides smoothly and responds crisply to one- and two-finger taps (the equivalent of left and right clicks).
The 1,366-by-768 screen offers wide viewing angles and ample brightness for routine work—typing in Google Docs, we routinely turned it down three or four notches to help conserve battery life—but proves a little dim for video viewing; even with brightness turned up, shadowed areas of YouTube movie trailers look murky. Colors in presentations and games, however, are clear and bold, as is audio from the Lenovo’s bottom-mounted speakers: The little convertible easily pumps out enough sound to fill a medium-sized room, though bass is predictably muted.
Waiting for Android
The Flex 11 features a MediaTek 8173C processor—a 2.1GHz ARM quad-core—along with 4GB of RAM and 32GB of eMMC flash storage for downloads. These specs should make it a natural when, as Google has promised and as the Samsung Chromebook Plus ($828.00 at Amazon) has already previewed, Chromebooks get access to the thousands of Android apps in the Google Play Store, an advance Lenovo describes only as “coming soon in 2017.”
Meanwhile, of course, the 2-in-1 happily runs Google Docs, Microsoft Office Online, and the legions of apps in the Chrome Web Store. Most of these run in tabs in the Chrome browser, but a respectable number also perform offline, syncing your work when your Wi-Fi connection returns. Like almost all Chromebooks, the Lenovo is eligible for 100GB of free Google Drive cloud storage (plus unlimited Google Docs file storage) for two years.
Chromebooks don’t run our Windows-based performance benchmarks, but we had no complaints with the Flex 11’s multitasking: We easily opened and switched among more than a dozen tabs, including video playback sessions, without hesitation, although we were able to force some stumbling and stuttering by playing three 4K videos at once. And in our battery rundown test, where we play a locally stored MP4 video of The Lord of the Rings at full screen with brightness set at 50 percent and volume at 100 percent, the Lenovo excelled, lasting for 12 hours and 13 minutes—half an hour longer than the Dell 3189 and almost two hours longer than the Asus Flip ($699.99 at Amazon) .
A Nicely Outfitted Bargain
Chromebooks come in all shapes and sizes. A few, like the Acer Chromebook 14, are even tougher than the sturdy Flex 11. A few have extra features, like the Asus Flip’s backlit keyboard or the light on the Dell Education 2-in-1’s lid that a student can use to signal a teacher at the front of the classroom. But as a well-equipped performer priced barely above a bare-bones non-convertible, the Lenovo is a flat-out bargain. We’d keep it away from liquids, but give it a solid recommendation.
Lenovo Flex 11 Chromebook
Strong battery life.
Survives minor drops.
Includes a USB-C port.
Keyboard isn’t backlit.
Easy to hit power button by mistake.
Our test unit balked at bath time.
The Bottom Line
The Lenovo Flex 11 Chromebook is a well-equipped and semi-rugged convertible-hybrid laptop that offers just enough features to make it a strong bargain over other budget laptops.
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