It can be hard to find good-looking laptops under $400. I try, very hard, every year. You see a lot of low-resolution screens, clunky keyboards, bad webcams, and — most commonly — very ugly devices.
This is what makes me very happy to hear about the IdeaPad Flex 3i Chromebook, which Lenovo just announced this morning. This Chromebook will start at $349.99 — and that, from what I’ve read about this device, seems like a surprisingly low price point. For a sub-$400 computer, the Flex looks remarkably not terrible and has a number of handy features.
Here’s the Flex 3i Chromebook that’s coming in May 2023:
You may not find this design eye-popping, but check out its predecessor, which I reviewed back in 2021:
Big improvement, right?
Let’s unpack it. First off, the new Flex 3i has a way better screen. Not only has the size increased from 11 inches to 12 inches (which is a nice development in itself), the resolution is finally, let’s say, usable. The previous Flex I reviewed was a grainy 1366 x 768, and I literally wrote “I can’t wait to never have to look at this terrible screen again” in my review. The new model’s 1920 x 1200 display is much more in line with today’s premium laptops (example: the $1,299 Dell XPS 13). As a bonus, it ditches the 16:9 aspect ratio for 16:10, allowing for extra vertical space. It’s even brighter, reaching 300 nits, where the predecessor maxed at 250 (which is just too dim in this day and age).
The other thing that I’m frankly surprised to see in this $349 device is a backlit keyboard. (This feature is optional, so I assume it will add a bit to the price, but I don’t see it adding a ton.) Even Lenovo’s Chromebook Duet 3, one of my favorite budget devices and Chromebooks of this year, doesn’t have a backlit keyboard. Even some premium devices still don’t have one. It’s a shame that this feature still isn’t considered a must-have in the budget sphere since it makes nighttime use so much easier and can be essential for some visually impaired users.
From the photos we have, it looks to me like the new Flex 3i will have a keyboard that’s similar to, if not the same as, the one on the 2021 model. That keyboard was already stellar, with a click and texture so comfortable that I still remember it well over a year later. While I can’t say this will be the cheapest backlit device on the market (and certainly can’t lock that prediction in without knowing exactly how much backlit models will cost), I imagine that it will be one of the cheaper ones available.
And then there are a couple of video conferencing features that, while staples of Lenovo’s more expensive offerings, aren’t even guaranteed for premium devices. In particular, the webcam has a physical privacy shutter, which is great for peace of mind, as well as a dedicated mute button. These will join great speakers that already deliver great audio (assuming those are the same as the last model’s).
All in all, this device seems like an exceptional value for $349. And keep in mind that this is Lenovo, and you basically never see Lenovo devices selling for their MSRP because it’s a company that likes to play fun games with its price tags. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see models selling for well below $300 shortly after release. (The current Chromebook Flex 3i had a $349.99 MSRP when we reviewed it but now can be purchased for $189.)
In the next few weeks, we’re going to be getting our first looks at many of the laptops that will be coming out in 2023. I have no doubt that you’ll see all sorts of fancy, flashy devices that will cost over a thousand dollars. As I, and other journalists, bring you these announcements, I hope you’ll keep two things in mind.
First: the more affordable devices are more important. That doesn’t mean pricey, premium devices are unimportant. But I ask companies every year across spheres which of their laptops are selling the most units. It’s never the boldest and flashiest devices — it’s always the lines that offer people the best value for their money. So I’m very happy to see elements like a backlit keyboard, a camera shutter, and a 1920 x 1200 screen available at lower prices and in a wider range of devices to more people.
And second: features trickle down. We’ve seen HP’s midrange Envy devices look more and more like its premium Spectre devices each year. We’ve seen Lenovo’s pragmatic ThinkBook line borrow more features from its very fancy ThinkPad family as time goes on. As companies announce flagship business and consumer devices that fold or have two screens or bring other sorts of futuristic bells and whistles, remember that the most important thing about those devices isn’t necessarily their potential for use today; it’s how they might look as more affordable, accessible devices down the line. It wasn’t too long ago that 16:10 screens and fancy webcams could only be found in the high end. It’s great to see them here.