Way back in 2003, I spent in excess of £1,600 ($2,500) to buy my first laptop, which was a Samsung X10. My thinking was naively simple: I wanted a laptop that could do everything and I was prepared to invest heavily to obtain it. The flaw in that plan was that such a laptop didn't exist back then, and it arguably doesn't exist today either.
The X10 was one of the thinnest machines on the market and it had a discrete Nvidia GPU inside it, so it had the potential to fulfill my dream of an ultraportable gaming PC, but the reality of using it was a lot less rosy than the promise of its specs. On the portability front, this extra-thin laptop could only muster four hours of battery life when brand new and no more than two (I'm not kidding) after the first year of use. Consequently, I found myself taking a lot more lecture notes on paper than a laptop owner would usually anticipate. As to gaming, I was able to play Madden NFL 2004 and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time on the X10, though neither was anywhere near its maximum graphics quality. It was just okay.
This tale of expensive woe is characteristic of the buying dilemma facing any gamer that wants to also have a portable computer to take to college or on trips away from home. We want the power to enjoy resource-demanding experiences, but we also want to be able to untether and move around with the same machine when the situation calls for it. Now that VR is on the near horizon, it won't be just gamers tackling this challenge — virtual reality will expand the hunger for more powerful PCs to a much broader audience.
Razer is treading an old path in a new way
CES 2016 is the first time since the beginning of this century that I've been willing to entertain the idea of buying a gaming laptop again. Well, a gaming laptop plus a big, aluminum-clad accessory box into which I can strap a full-sized and full-powered desktop graphics card. I am of course talking about the Razer Blade Stealth ultrabook and its accompanying Razer Core GPU box. This is the most versatile laptop I have yet seen: both an agile gazelle out in the lecture halls and a chest-thumping gorilla when gaming at home. Is it cheating that it requires a separate box to make the latter happen?
Power when you need it, portability when you don't
The truth is that gaming laptops have never been able to contain all the power for the latest games within a realistically portable solution. It's never happened. Size, weight, and most importantly battery life have always been compromised to the point of making any aspiring portable gaming PC into a desktop anchor just like a conventional tower-of-power gaming rig. I don't care which manufacturer you go to, whether it be Alienware, Asus, MSI, or smaller boutiques like Origin PC, none can provide you with a thin, light, long-lasting laptop that can also handle every current and near-future PC title with high graphical fidelity. Ergo, Razer's GPU breakout box is a necessary dose of realism and a reasonable compromise: offloading the most intensive graphical processing to the Core lightens the Blade Stealth's load in all the important ways while still offering a kickass gaming solution when the situation allows for it.
Razer is far from the first company to have thought about creating an external-GPU solution that can add this extra layer of modularity and capability to laptops. Sony did something similar with the VAIO Z back in 2011, and at last year's CES Alienware introduced its own Graphics Amplifier. That accessory box did the things the Razer Core promises, but used a proprietary connector and was compatible only with Alienware's rather bulky laptops. The difference this year is that Razer is using the new standard USB-C connector, relying on the expanded bandwidth of Thunderbolt 3 to handle the high-speed communication requirements of a pixel-crunching GPU. At launch, the Razer Core is only compatible with the Blade Stealth, but Razer tells me that it's "not doing anything to close off the Thunderbolt 3 connection to make it proprietary [and would] love to see as many devices as possible compatible with it."
A future where every laptop can be a gaming laptop
Yes, it sounds like another naive dream: a world where any laptop with a USB-C connection can simply plug into a powerful desktop box and suddenly transform into a modern gaming machine. There are indeed major challenges on the road ahead. Alienware has spent the past year working out bugs and imperfections with its external-GPU solution, and Razer's had a few hiccups here at CES when demonstrating the Blade Stealth and Core working together. This is the very definition of immature technology, and only the boldest and bravest should be jumping on board at such an early stage. Another important consideration: we don't even know how much the Razer Core will cost yet.
This CES has clearly drawn the outline of a future where full-power graphics cards can be as easy to plug in and deploy on a laptop as they already are on a desktop PC. Razer will not be alone in this venture, and I expect Acer, Asus, and Lenovo — three companies who have shown a distinct interest in expanding their sales of gaming gear — to offer their own takes on the USB-C-connected external GPU box. Even if gaming isn't everyone's priority, the rapid rise of VR will make a powerful, high-quality graphics processor an indispensable part of any future PC.