Update: Looking for the new Razer Blade with more power at a lower price tag? This is where you belong.
At CES 2011, over a year ago, Razer showed off an incredible concept beneath glass. The peripheral manufacturer had produced a tiny clamshell PC with LCD keys that could change their function and appearance to match any application or game. The Razer Switchblade, as it is called, never made it out of its acrylic cage, but somehow, in the course of just seven months, it morphed into a 17-inch gaming laptop called the Razer Blade.
The Blade's spec sheet isn't incredible for a dedicated gaming laptop — there's a dual-core Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM, and Nvidia GeForce GT555M graphics on tap — but there are three things that set the Blade apart. First, Razer stuffed that hardware into an sturdy aluminum chassis just 0.88 inches thick, and 6.4 pounds. Second, the Switchblade DNA is alive and well. Like the company's Star Wars: The Old Republic keyboard, there's a set of ten clear keycaps atop an LCD screen, and a second multitouch LCD screen underneath, which run apps, fire off macros, and serve as the primary touchpad for the machine. Last and perhaps most importantly, the Razer Blade is priced at $2,799.
Did Razer build a machine worth that much money on its very first try? Read on.
Hardware / design
Cupertino after hours
The Razer Blade is a black MacBook Pro. No, that's not quite right: the Razer Blade is what you get when you take the peripheral company's laser-focus on midnight black, gamer-centric machines, and apply it to a no-holds-barred clone of Apple's famous chassis. With the possible exceptions of Sony and Lenovo, we can't think of a single mainstream PC manufacturer who hasn't ripped off Apple in the past couple of years, but the Blade is perhaps the most egregious offender of all. From the notch and sleep status light on the front of the machine to practically the entire design of the hinge and lid, it's Apple through and through. Even fine details like the rubber ring around the lid and the gentle curve of the keyboard tray stick out, not to mention the sharp edges that can dig into your wrists. (Ouch.) Still, as Steve knew well, theft has its perks: the Razer Blade's milled aluminum frame is as solid as they come, and having the smooth metal deck underneath your wrists feels really good. Despite being a two-piece sandwich rather than a true unibody design, the result is rigid and firm, and there were only a few points on our unit's rear panel where it would flex and creak if pressed hard. At 6.4 pounds, it's not a light laptop, but it's a featherweight compared to many gaming machines, and it's both lighter and a tenth of an inch thinner than the 17-inch MacBook Pro. That's no mean feat for a company building its first laptop.
Besides, the Blade is gorgeous. The seemingly matte black aluminum surfaces take on a fantastic sheen when light falls on their curves, and bright green light emanates from the keyboard and the Razer logo on the lid like a magic symbol of power. On the bezel, right beneath the matte (yes, matte!) screen, the word Blade is carefully etched, black on black, so that you can only see it at just the right angle, in a distinctly Razer font: all the letters are squared off, and the B is actually a mirrored E for symmetry. (The keyboard's full of the same: W, E and M are all the same letter at different angles, as are R and L, and N and Z.) Two raised waves in the lid evoke a cobra snake's hood, and there's a vast expanse of space above the keyboard, occupied only by a single, gently pulsating green power button that bears the Razer logo. (Sadly, it doesn't have a satisfying press to it.) It's all surprisingly tasteful, too: gaming laptops can often be rather garish, but the mixed Apple and Razer aesthetics make it palatable to those for whom piercing LEDs and cold cathodes aren't part of the religion. The one clear mistep, visually, is the use of a shiny, cheap looking plastic for the cover of the lid's hinge. It feels terribly out of place, but perhaps that's where Razer hid the wireless antennas to avoid attenuation. As Asus can tell you, a solid aluminum shell can potentially block signals.
Unfortunately, Razer's seemingly subscribed to the Cupertino school of thought on port selection, and even gone a bit beyond. Though you'll have dual-band 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 3.0 for wireless duties, there's really not a generous array of physical jacks to speak of. Power, Gigabit Ethernet, HDMI 1.4, one USB 3.0 and two USB 2.0, and a 3.5mm headset port are all on the left side of the machine. The right side only holds a Kensington Lock slot, and no DVD drive. We suppose at 0.88 inches thin, they couldn't stuff it inside.
The packaging is pretty awesome too. You're going to want to keep the lovely black box, with its edgy design and textured snakeskin pattern on top. Also, I have to give the custom power brick a special nod. It's a nice, compact, visually pleasing, rounded, elongated lump that fits nicely in a hand — not really a brick at all — and it uses a standard figure-eight two prong power cable, and comes with a generously thick silicone strap to wrap up its cord. The strap is a little hard to securely fasten, though.
Display and speakers
Hope you've got a good pair of headphones
Arguably the most important part of a laptop is the screen, because that's what you're going to be staring at all day, and the Razer Blade's 17-inch, 1080p screen isn't quite what we expect for a laptop in the $2,000+ price range. It's not a horrible panel by any means — it can show color gradients without banding, for instance, and it doesn't have any trouble distinguishing red from orange or magenta from orange or violet from blue — but viewing angles aren't great, and even when you're looking at the screen straight-on it feels like parts of the image are a little bit washed out. The LED backlight is easily adjustable in 10 percent increments, but your choices are pretty much bright and slightly overblown or slightly dim and dull. On an extremely positive note, it's a matte display, so you won't suffer much from glare when playing in a well-lit room, and the panel feels pretty responsive, which is particularly important for competitive gaming. It's not bad at all, but if you care about displays, you might be a little disappointed.
Though the Razer Blade's box proudly proclaims that the notebook has Dolby Home Theatre v4 software on board, the notebook's speakers feel like an afterthought. They're terrible, tinny little things with no bass, some genuine static, and they're harsh at high volume. Since they're positioned together right under the screen, there's also almost no stereo separation to speak of. You know how sometimes reviewers tell you that a device's speakers aren't very good for music, but acceptable for movies and games? Don't be fooled. I'd sooner pipe audio through my smartphone.
Even if we accept the premise that the Blade is strictly for games, not sharing movies or music with those around, I imagine that even hardcore gamers would want these things to be a good bit better for $2,799.
Looking at the beautiful anti-ghosting keyboard, you could be convinced that Razer had been making laptops all its life.
Actually using the keyboard, you can tell that it's the first time. Given that the company builds peripherals every day, I expected Razer to be able to imbue the Blade with a set of comfortable, well-placed keys, but they could definitely use a bit more work. The chiclets here have fairly shallow travel, and they're stiff: there's not a lot of cushioning when they hit bottom, and you sometimes need to hit bottom to get them to actuate reliably. There's a satisfying clack as you type, if you're into that kind of thing, but the keyboard is a little bit cramped, which is odd considering all the unused vertical real estate here. The spacebar is abnormally short and skewed to the left side, too: your right thumb has to reach farther to press it, which can be a bit of an annoyance. Speaking of annoyances, while the backlight helps for dark gaming sessions, Razer forgot to carve out lighting for the function keys' hardware controls. It's nice to know where F1-F12 are, sure, but it's much more important to know which button turns down the volume and / or the screen brightness when I'm fumbling around in the dark.
On the plus side — and I wish every laptop keyboard did this — every single key (save Start, Fn and the Synapse button) can be remapped. You can set any single one of them to be another key, emulate a mouse button, perform a macro, or directly launch a program. It's a power user's dream, and the possibilities are endless. What's more, you can even set a profile where most of the keys do nothing at all, so if you accidentally press a button you didn't mean to, it won't affect your gaming session.
What's the Synapse button? I'm glad you asked.
Capable, but takes some getting used to
Touchpad / Switchblade UI
Sure, there's some good gaming silicon in the Blade, and we'll get to that in a sec, but the highlight of the laptop is the Switchblade UI. This is that set of dynamic adaptive LCD keys (yes, they're real buttons on top of a display) and the multitouch LCD underneath, and when you hit that Synapse button on the lower right-hand corner of the keyboard, you can launch a series of miniature apps for the four-inch, 800 x 480 screen.
Okay, let's back up a sec. While not a ding on the Blade, it's important to know that you won't be installing any apps, recording any macros or generally having much fun with the Blade until you go through a lengthy install process so that you can sync your profiles with Razer's cloud. Seriously, you can't use any of those special dynamic keys until you do so. It's a one-time nuisance, though, and then Razer can automatically push new updates to you from then on. More importantly, that four-inch 800 x 480 screen isn't just for apps: it's the laptop's only trackpad, and not an amazing one.
The only trackpad, and not an amazing one
My former colleague (and now bitter frenemy) Joanna Stern often wondered why larger laptops would have their touchpads off center, but the Razer Blade must set some sort of record. You actually have to move your entire right hand to get to it... which admittedly also adds some benefits. While you can't just move your thumb beneath the keyboard to navigate Windows (which my muscle memory had me doing time and again), palm rejection worries are a thing of the past: there's no chance you'll accidentally swipe the pad in the middle of a game session.
When you do have to use the touchpad, though, it's a bit of a pain. The Synaptics tracking is actually quite accurate, better than most Windows laptops we've used, and supports four finger gestures for smooth scrolling and easy multitasking... but the physical surface of the pad is extremely tacky. Without quite a bit of finger oil and sweat on the (nice durable) surface, it was hard to get my fingers to glide properly. Razer includes a pair of screen protectors which change the texture slightly,
but neither of them solved my issue.
Update: Actually, I simply failed to remove the cover for the screen protectors. The touchpad is a good bit smoother with them attached, and we've bumped both the touchpad score and the overall score slightly to reflect that.
There are also a pair of real, physical mouse buttons beneath the touchpad, but they're incredibly shallow, tiny things, and set so close to the keyboard tray valley that you can't rest a finger on top comfortably.
Long story short, you'll want to use a mouse, and assuming you will, that frees up the four-inch screen and those dynamic adaptive tactile keys for the other, far more interesting things they can do. Namely, macros and touchscreen apps. Mind you, there aren't a lot of them right now, but Razer tells us it has plans to update the UI at around 30, 60 and 90 days after release. Here are the modes the Blade comes with for the time being:
- Touchpad below with ten macro buttons above, each with their own programmable icons, and a three-finger swipe to bring up two more sets of ten each
- Virtual numpad below with ten keyboard functions above (insert, delete, home, end, page up, page down, pause, num lock, scroll lock, and print screen), and a D-pad when you press the Num Lock key
- Macro recording tool, which lets you record macros on the fly and quickly bind to any of the ten physical LCD keys
- Gaming mode toggle, to turn off Alt + Tab, Alt + F4 and the Windows key
- Web browser, with pinch to zoom and Flash video playback
- YouTube, which hooks into the video service's API so you can manage your account from the miniature screen
- Facebook, Twitter, and Gmail, which are each just shortcuts to their respective mobile websites
- Clock, merely showing the date and time. The lack of an alarm, stopwatch or timer, or even just some macro keys, feels like a missed opportunity.
The interface is really quite cool, and the LCD equipped buttons look and feel good, not at all like you're pressing down on a fragile screen, so it's really a shame that the software is so half-baked here. Right now, the "dynamic adaptive tactile keys" don't adapt to the game you're playing (except The Old Republic, perhaps), but most of the apps are a bust. The numpad and macro recorder are both quite useful, and if you're willing to dedicate time to building your own icons, the keys themselves can be exceptionally cool. The ability to take any button, macro, or program and give it the visual icon of your choice would be a fantastic addition to any laptop, and we'd gladly buy a Razer peripheral that did that and that alone, but the browser and three other apps that live within it are rather terrible compared to the ones that live in your smartphone.
There are no tabs or bookmarks to be found, and each app is rather difficult to manipulate on the small screen: no matter how carefully I tried to tap a link, the brower often thought I was trying to scroll instead. There's also no copy / paste and the apps don't remember the website you were last on or the tweet you were about to send, making multitasking a chore, and it's also difficult to search because the small screen isn't well integrated with the keyboard. You have to switch to the app and click on the text entry field to get the keyboard connected, then type in your query, but you can't hit enter or tab to move on; you have to click on the checkbox or touch the next text entry field, constantly moving your hand back and forth. Only the YouTube app, with its nice big display and host of dedicated contextual buttons, feels like it was fully thought out.
Obviously, there's loads and loads of potential for the touchscreen and adaptive keys here if app development takes off — an chat client would be killer — but at $2,799 for the Blade or $249 for the ST:TOR keyboard, I have to wonder if it will. For now, numpad and macros aside, I'd be better off whipping out my smartphone.
Did I mention that the Switchblade software has a few major stability issues? More on that in a sec.
Performance and battery life
With a dual-core 2.8GHz Intel Core i7-2640M processor, 8GB of DDR3-1333 RAM, Nvidia GeForce GT555M graphics with 2GB of dedicated memory and a 256GB solid state drive, the Razer Blade isn't ready to take on dedicated gaming desktops or monster laptops, but it should still be screaming fast. For the most part, that's true. Our unit booted into Windows 7 Home Premium in just 19 seconds and was ready for action 27 seconds after we hit the power button, and proved to be a capable multitasker, too, popping open application windows just as soon as I launched them and notching a score of 14494 in PCMark Vantage, much of that on the strength of its SSD.
The solid state drive was a last minute upgrade Razer made to the Blade, and while the 256GB Liteon M2S isn't the best one you can buy -- in some tests, like random access checks and small-chunk file transfers, it's actually comparatively slow -- it definitely gives the Blade a speed boost while still providing enough space to install a small game library, a hard thing to do even in a $2,800 system. I measured over 400MB / sec reads and 285 MB / sec writes in the AS-SSD benchmark, in case you're curious about sequential performance.
I don't know if I've ever seen a cleaner desktop than the one on the Razer Blade. It's completely free of software bloat: just a fresh install of Windows 7 and Razer's Synapse software and Switchblade UI on top. You even get to set up Windows yourself. I'd appreciate that more, though, if the software that controlled the touchpad and LCD keys didn't have some nasty bugs. I tested two different machines, each of which exhibited the following behaviors:
- If you put the Blade to sleep while the touchpad is in certain modes, two of Razer's applications controlling the software go nuts, eating up over 50 percent of the computer's CPU time, heating up the machine, causing the fans to run full bore and triggering a massive memory leak
- Sometimes, when the Blade's screen shuts off, the touchpad, LCD keys and keyboard shut off too, and sometimes there's a delay before they wake up
- Sometimes, they don't wake up at all: several times, I had to restart the machine after the touchpad failed to load, and another time I had to plug in an external keyboard and mouse when the included one failed as well.
- Occasionally, the LCD key controller hangs, eating up CPU time and disabling those awesome buttons until you restart
- Occasionally, the Synaptics driver will fail, disabling all gestures (like two-finger scrolling) on the trackpad
Razer tells us that it's hugely committed to the Blade, and that any software bugs will be sorted out in time. Also, it's worth noting none of these immediately appear after you restart the machine. As of today, though, they can be a bit annoying.
If you're hoping to play the latest titles at maximum detail, the Blade isn't the machine for you — instead, try our formula for a homebuilt gaming rig — but it still soundly trounces every machine its size and weight. Just Cause 2, my favorite mid-range benchmark, is quite playable at around 40-50 FPS at the system's 1080p native resolution, as long as you turn down the eye candy to medium setings, and surprisingly Batman: Arkham City will let you take the Dark Knight up to 1080p on high settings, just so long as you turn off DX11 and anti-aliasing. The Witcher 2 eats the Blade for lunch, though, as I needed to drop down to 1366 x 768 resolution and low detail to maintain an average 30 FPS through the opening siege, and you'll want to play at 1600 x 900 and low detail (or lower) to enjoy Battlefield 3. For a general purpose computer, these results are pretty great, but I have to admit I expected more from a dedicated gaming machine.
All of our benchmarks were performed with the AC adapter connected, because it seems the Blade's original BIOS doesn't allow the the discrete graphics card to properly engage unless it's plugged in. Half a dozen times, I literally started playing a game on battery, as sluggish as can be, and as soon as I plugged the power jack in, framerates quadrupled immediately. Mind you, Razer has already fixed this in a future BIOS update, and I can confirm the fix works on my test machine.
Battery, noise, and heat
So long as the machine's just browsing the web free of tethers, the Blade lasts longer than you might expect. Nvidia Optimus tells the machine to switch to its integrated Intel graphics core most of the time, and when we ran our Verge Battery Test (which cycles through 100 top websites and downloads high-res images with the screen brightness at 65 percent, the 5440mAh battery lasted 3 hours and 21 minutes before dying. Not bad. Even after the aforementioned BIOS update, though, you're not going to want to play games without a cord: starting at 50 percent battery, we only managed 20 minutes of Battlefield 3 before the Blade told us that our juice was running out. Heat and noise are also concerns. Though most of the heat is directed out the far corners of the machine by a pair of fans, the palmrest can get pretty warm, and at full bore those fans are loud enough to wake light sleepers. The cooling design is clever, though: the CPU and Nvidia GPU each have their own fan. If you hear a buzz from the left side, you'll know your CPU is hard at work, and if you feel hot air rushing out the right side, the discrete graphics are chowing down on something.
Not the machine to buy if you're hoping for cool and quiet, but it won't burn your lap.
Respectable, but not a gaming beast
|Windows Experience Index||6.9|
|HAWX bench||75 fps|
|Just Cause 2 bench||46.26 fps|
|Boot time||19 seconds|
Like that Switchblade clamshell that Razer unveiled at CES 2011, the Blade is a concept — only Razer is actually selling it. In fact, if you take the manufacturer at its word, the laptop's actually doing rather well, selling out of its first shipment and filling up pre-orders for another. I can't wholeheartedly recommend the machine to you, though, because while the Blade has some fantastic ideas that I want to see fulfilled, the actual product I tested has a little ways to go. The machine just doesn't have the overall quality (chassis aside) or amazing performance to justify its $2,799 price point. Razer succeeding in making the Blade look fantastic, sure, and we've never seen a competent gaming PC this thin, but when it came to the keyboard, touchpad, speakers and software, the company has yet to follow through. Would I tell Razer to give up the PC business and stick to killer peripherals, though? No, not at all. I'd challenge the company to learn from the missteps and build something even better next time around. In fact, that's what I'm doing right now. This is Razer's first computer, after all.
At the end of the day, the Blade is still a niche product that doesn't nearly manage to deliver its full promise, but it manages far more than it did earlier this year. Now, it can competently play games of all stripes, if not at the highest settings, and do so in a chassis that no other manufacturer has yet delivered. Unlike chunky, garish machines from the likes of Alienware and MSI, which weigh more and come with clunky power bricks, the Razer Blade can be comfortably toted around. The problem is that the rest of the world hasn't stood still: those chunky machines can now be configured with even more powerful graphics chips (GeForce GTX 680M, Radeon HD 7970M) that can max those settings out. Meanwhile, machines like the MacBook Pro with Retina Display are packing only slightly less capable graphics chips (the GeForce GT 650M) in even thinner machines.
Are gamers willing to pay a premium for a thin, stylish laptop rather than the extra horsepower for their games? If they do, what's to keep them from picking a even more svelte machine? The answer should be that Razer uniquely addresses gamers' needs using its technology (the Switchblade UI) and design expertise, but that doesn't quite describe the notebook that Razer is presently selling. The Blade is a handsome, capable machine with the potential to be so much more. It's not that the price is wrong. We just expect more from Razer.