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Razer Blade 15 dual storage review: too much compromise

If it’s thicker, less powerful, and cheaper, is it still the same machine?

Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

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Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Razer wants you to think of the new entry-level Blade 15 laptop as a more accessible introduction to the world of thin-and-light gaming machines, with a starting price of $1,599 — a thousand dollars cheaper than the version I liked this summer. To sweeten the supposed deal — unlike the original — this Blade 15 comes with two storage drives (instead of one) and an Ethernet port. Sounds like a good deal, no?

If you follow Razer’s marketing, you’d think this base model is just as powerful as the original, high-end Blade 15 with just a few hardware tweaks in exchange for the lower price. But that’s not exactly true. Razer downgraded the screen’s refresh rate, keyboard, battery, cooling, thickness, and even the speed of the SSD. Keep in mind, these were all defining characteristics of the original Blade 15 experience that were either removed or are completely different.

Having lower-end specs doesn’t make the Blade 15 a terrible laptop to use, but it also raises the question: Can this laptop be called a “real Blade 15”? It’s capable of the same tasks, has a more generous selection of ports, and is even lighter than the original. But Razer’s compromises mean it may no longer be the laptop you’re looking for.

I’ll explain why in detail, but you should also read my original $2,600 Blade 15 review so you get a better idea of what you might be missing in comparison.

The most important thing you’ll see in the spec sheet above: the base model’s gaming performance isn’t $1,000 worse than the original Blade’s.

You can still play games at max settings, 1080p / 60 fps

The base Blade 15’s GPU tops out at a GeForce GTX 1060 Max-Q, which, yes, is considerably less powerful than the GTX 1070 offered in pricier Blade 15 models. But you can still play a game like Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 at max settings and lock your frame rate to 60 fps. PC games that perform similarly include League of Legends, Overwatch, Destiny 2: Forsaken, and Rainbow Six: Siege. However, more intensive titles like Arma 3 and Shadow of the Tomb Raider — which the original Blade 15 could run better — force you to take the graphics settings down a notch or two to reach the 60 fps goal.

For some extra oomph, I used Razer Synapse — the Blade 15’s system management software that allows you to overclock your GPU — to eke out an extra 10-15 fps in high-intensity games like R6: Siege. The boost comes in handy sometimes, but hearing the fans run at full blast, plus the excess heat, forces me not to use it frequently.

High-end Blade 15 (left) vs. base Blade 15 (right).
High-end Blade 15 (left) vs. base Blade 15 (right).

With that, I’d say the base Blade 15 passes a basic gaming performance test, despite having the least powerful GPU in Razer’s lineup. But that’s true of even cheaper laptops with a GTX 1060, too, which you can find as low as $1,199. Now for the rest.

The base Blade 15 shares the same heat issues as the high-end Blade. Despite lower-end specs, more vertical space inside the chassis, and a different cooling system, the Blade 15 is just as annoyingly hot as the original. This is weird and not the first time Razer has had this issue in their machines; this was my primary gripe with the original Blade 15.

The base model is still loud and hot to touch

Razer should have seized the opportunity to give the base model a leg up over the more expensive, vapor chamber-equipped Blade 15. Yet for some reason, the company didn’t really do anything in the months since to address it. That’s a deal-breaker for me, especially when it comes to preserving the internal health of the laptop over time. On the $2,600 system, I figured it was a first-gen fluke, but for this follow-up, it’s not just a problem. Heat plus the added noise makes the base Blade 15 less desirable.

Despite the heat above the keyboard, the palm rest stays cool (just like it did on the original Blade 15). But move your hand anywhere above the function row or toward the exhausts and you’ll feel the heat. This isn’t always the case; it normally occurs when playing games.

Razer needs to take cooling more seriously

Worse, unlike the higher-end Blade 15, the fans can spin up even if you just leave the laptop sitting on a table with a blank Windows desktop, not a single app in sight. This is not okay. They get even louder when you’re running games or a few apps. At the cafe, in the office, people sitting next to me began to notice.

At the cost of making the Blade 15 even warmer — if you dare — you can manually control fan speeds via the Synapse app. But let’s be real: you shouldn’t have to micromanage the fans of a $1,600 machine.

And in many ways, admittedly ones I could live with, this $1,600 laptop just doesn’t feel like the same premium machine. Lifting the Blade 15’s lid, I noticed that it has less stability compared to the original Blade. It’s not wobbly but it’s less stable than before; you can feel the mechanism turning over. The less fluid range of motion reflects the hinge design changing entirely to make room for the cooling system’s exhausts. One bonus: the display lid is thinner than before.

Overall, it’s a less premium experience

The lack of quality control doesn’t end there. While they work fine, some of the ports are slightly misaligned on my review unit. And while this isn’t a quality issue, the base Blade’s thicker rubber feet could make it more difficult to slide into some backpacks because of the extra friction.

That’s not all. There’s noticeably slower boot and wake from standby speeds on the base Blade 15. Unfortunately, Razer will happily sell you a slower SATA III SSD (solid state drive) in the base 128GB / 1TB mode, instead of a faster NVMe model. Unless you’re willing to upgrade to the $1,799, 256GB NVMe SSD / 2TB storage configuration or upgrade one (or both) of the drives yourself, you’ll be stuck with a slower SSD. Thankfully, you can switch the drives out by unscrewing the bottom plate’s ten Torx screws.

Of course, you also don’t get the same buttery-smooth 144Hz screen — admittedly, it’s an upgrade — as the pricier Blade 15. Even so, I noticed the difference playing games and even just moving the cursor around Windows. But, the base Blade 15’s screen comes factory-calibrated which is always appreciated.

On the bright side, the function key row is backlit this time, making it easier to turn up the screen brightness in the dark. Even though the typing experience hasn’t gotten worse (or any better; the keycaps are still tiny), the keyboard isn’t quite the same: you’ll no longer be able to stare at dazzling light shows while you type. Razer’s subtly downgraded the Chroma keyboard, switching from individually backlit LEDs (a light under each key) to single-zone lighting (one light source for the whole keyboard).

There are a couple things about the base Blade 15 that haven’t changed or been watered down for the sake of being cost-effective. The speakers still sound great and are some of the best I’ve heard on a gaming laptop. The glass Windows Precision touchpad — also one of the best I’ve used in a gaming laptop this year — returns to the base model. Like the speakers, the touchpad is a spitting image of the original Blade 15’s, which brought me a sigh of relief.

The keyboard and touchpad are fine — battery, not so much

Battery life is… complicated on this model. Using the base Blade 15’s battery conservatively (backlighting off, lower performance modes, etc.) I usually got the same four to five hours of battery life browsing the web, watching the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina on Netflix, browsing the web with Chrome, and spending a while in Google Docs. Not bad, considering Razer chopped off a chunk of the battery capacity; it’s just 65Wh now.

But the smaller battery does change how I look at this Blade 15 when it’s away from a wall outlet. I found the higher-end Blade 15 gave me an extra 30-60 minutes, using the larger 80Wh pack, for the tasks you’d actually perform on a powerful thin-and-light laptop, like photo and video editing. On the base model, I ended up taking the charger with me everywhere, or even using apps that I know don’t drain the battery as quickly.

Most of what I’ve experienced (and enjoyed) about the base Blade 15 exists in other Max-Q laptops; you don’t need to spend $1,599 to have this sort of performance. Still, there’s a hole in the market for a laptop that has great build quality and solid gaming performance that isn’t over $2,000. I’ve been testing as many Max-Q gaming laptops as I can get my hands on and I haven’t seen that combination yet — typically you have to deal with build quality or a heavy chassis if you buy a sub-$1,500 gaming laptop.

I wouldn’t recommend the base model

Still, more affordable thin-and-light gaming laptops from OEMs like Asus and Dell / Alienware are also on the way. For example, the upcoming Alienware m15 starts at just $1,379 with the same Core i7 chip and GTX 1060 graphics, leaving you more money for upgrades. (Though Alienware doesn’t offer as much RAM or an SSD at that price.)

I wouldn’t recommend the base Razer Blade 15. There’s just too much about the user experience that’s been watered down to the point where it doesn’t feel like a trailblazing thin-and-light performance laptop, like the higher-end Blade 15 is. Razer’s attempt to pass it off as being worthy of the same praise as the original is slightly misleading.

Razer might have stripped away everything I enjoyed most about the original Blade 15, but they didn’t take away its ability to play games on high settings at desirable frame rates. I’d wait for another manufacturer to attempt what Razer hasn’t quite done here... and hopefully do it better.

Correction: We originally stated that the upgraded version of the dual-storage model started at $1,899, that the new Blade 15’s battery capacity had been reduced to 60Wh, and that Razer had longer than we had thought to improve the Blade’s cooling system. That upgraded model actually costs $1,799 and the battery capacity of these models has only been reduced to 65Wh. We regret the errors.

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