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Razer’s Blade Pro 17 has sights on the future, but is stuck in the present

Enthusiast gaming laptops are still just out of reach

Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales

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Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Razer’s latest Blade Pro 17 offers a glimpse into the future of gaming laptops. It’s one of the few to have a 17.3-inch 4K touchscreen with a 120Hz refresh rate; that’s an elusive combination of screen specs that’s tough to find in a standalone monitor, let alone integrated into a gaming laptop. With it, you can get the best visual quality, and the high refresh rate makes your content move more fluidly across the screen than your average laptop screen can manage.

For a while now, gaming laptops have been built with capable hardware, effectively mirroring the performance of a desktop, but of course, without the massive tower in tow. High refresh rate screens on laptops are nothing new, either. Gaming laptops with 144Hz refresh rates hover around the $1,300 mark, though with lower quality panels than you’ll get if you spend more. But for enthusiast gamers who don’t want to compromise on visual fidelity, the lack of a 4K — or even 2K — resolution screen with a 120Hz refresh rate, thus far at least, means that they haven’t yet earned the moniker of a true gaming desktop replacement. Razer wants to change that, and the Blade Pro 17 is certainly a step in the right direction, but ambition gets the best of this machine. 

Part of that is because this $3,699 laptop relies on parts that you can get in a far more affordable laptop. It has a hexa-core processor (Intel’s i7-9750H with a base clock speed of 2.6Ghz; you’ll find this in many budget-friendly gaming laptops) when, ideally, it should have an octa-core i9. It has 16GB of RAM, which wasn’t the sole root of any issue that I could see, but Razer, please give me more RAM in exchange for my small fortune.

This machine relies on the Nvidia RTX 2080 Max-Q graphics chip; a laptop graphics card that allows the Blade Pro to stay thin, but limits its power compared to a larger machine with a desktop GPU, like the Alienware Area 51m. The 2080 Max-Q isn’t a slouch, and it plays a big role in this laptop being able to play every game that I threw at it at a playable frame rate. But this combination of specs just isn’t enough to simultaneously power the latest games at maximum settings and take full advantage of its 4K / 120Hz display. 

As we saw with the Acer Predator X27 monitor, which has a 4K screen with 144Hz refresh rate, not even fully powered desktop versions of the RTX 2080 and RTX 2080 Ti GPUs are capable enough to run games well beyond 60 frames per second at 4K. So, if we’re still that far off in desktop land, we’re even further away from that being a reality for laptops.

If the end goal of this laptop is for it to be powerful enough to run games in 4K, and at a high enough frame rate to see its 120Hz refresh rate display in action, Razer’s Blade Pro 17 is more of an amateur than a pro at its biggest selling point. It works far better with the resolution turned down to 1440p (and with other graphical settings turned down), but at this price, that’s a compromise that you shouldn’t have to make.

This sparks an interesting question, though: why aren’t there gaming laptops with 1440p screens with a 120Hz refresh rate? Despite the popularity of fast-refreshing 1440p standalone monitors, that tech hasn’t trickled down to laptops. Given that manufacturers have mastered the art of making great 144Hz 1080p panels, and in the case of this laptop here, an even better 120Hz 4K display, the lack of available 1440p panels is odd. That’s a shame because the Blade Pro 17 operates favorably when running games at 1440p resolution, and if you’re accustomed to staring at 1080p screens, the jump up to 2K is a noticeable improvement, even if it’s not quite as sharp as 4K.

Razer’s Blade chassis in general gets a lot right. It’s black all around (except for the glowing Razer logo on the lid) and matte-textured, and both qualities give it a clean, sophisticated look. It has a large, centered trackpad that is a joy to use, thanks to its Windows Precision drivers. And whether you’re gaming or casually browsing, Razer’s big laptop is surprisingly lap-friendly. It doesn’t get too hot, unless you’re really taxing it, and heat dissipates through its back near the hinge, so your legs or fingers won’t get fried. Razer says that this laptop is meant to be used as a desktop replacement, so ideally, you’ll be able to keep it plugged in at all times. Otherwise, don’t expect much out of the battery: it’s a 70.5Wh cell, and you’ll be lucky to get two hours of use from it away from its 230W wall charger.

The left side features a power plug, Ethernet jack, two USB Type-A 3.2 Gen 2 ports, a USB-C 3.2 Gen 2 port, and a headphone jack.
The left side features a power plug, Ethernet jack, two USB Type-A 3.2 Gen 2 ports, a USB-C 3.2 Gen 2 port, and a headphone jack.
Over on the right, there’s a Kensington lock, HDMI port, one USB Type-A 3.2 Gen 2 port, a Thunderbolt 3 port, and a UHS-III SD card reader.
Over on the right, there’s a Kensington lock, HDMI port, one USB Type-A 3.2 Gen 2 port, a Thunderbolt 3 port, and a UHS-III SD card reader.

For such a slim laptop (19.9mm thick), this machine is packed with ports, including three USB 3.2 Type-A Gen 2 ports (two on the left, one on the right); a USB-C 3.2 Gen 2 port on its left side; one Thunderbolt 3 port on its right; an HDMI port; a headphone jack; Ethernet; and a space for Razer’s proprietary power plug. That’s all great, but what gets the biggest nod out of me here is the SD card reader, which supports super fast UHS-III transfer speeds. Every laptop aimed at professional whatever-your-trade-is should have one of these (Apple disagrees).

Razer’s laptops usually come with some undeniable perks like Thunderbolt 3 ports and impressive design, but I have a few qualms from past Blade models that still go unanswered here. First, this laptop attracts all of the fingerprints, so enjoy it as it comes out of the box while you can. Thankfully, that can be wiped away with some isopropyl alcohol, but what can’t be fixed so easily is the awful key arrangement in the lower right corner. Razer places the up arrow in between the forward slash and the shift keys, and I tripped up on it about once every five minutes. When I’m typing an email, this means my text will appear on the line above. I don’t have a solution for Razer, but thankfully, there is a tremendous amount of space surrounding the keyboard to experiment, since there isn’t a numpad.

There’s a lot of unused space on the chassis, so much that Razer could have spaced things out a bit.
There’s a lot of unused space on the chassis, so much that Razer could have spaced things out a bit.
Here’s the scene of the crime: the up arrow is heinously wedged between the forward slash and shift keys.
Here’s the scene of the crime: the up arrow is heinously wedged between the forward slash and shift keys.

I spent most of my time with the Razer Blade Pro 17 playing The Outer Worlds and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, two different kinds of games that tax the system in different ways. The Outer Worlds isn’t the most graphically demanding game ever made, but it has to load in a lot of visuals and other data to account for the vast environment and nonlinear gameplay. The new Star Wars game, on the other hand, is a linear game with lots of closed-in corridors (at least by comparison), and emphasis is placed on top-notch textures, particle effects, and physics.

This laptop can run both games at 4K resolution with all of the graphics settings turned to the max, but the results vary. In The Outer Worlds, the frame rate fluctuated between 30 and 50 frames per second with v-sync switched off, both of which are playable frame rates for this kind of game. Fallen Order kept a relatively steady 40 frames per second at its maximum settings, again a playable clip. This laptop’s 120Hz refresh rate means that the 120 frames per second is the ceiling that it can display, and neither game comes close, which is a big disappointment.

The screen also lacks G-Sync support, Nvidia’s technology that syncs the screen with the graphics chip to provide a smoother picture with less input lag than traditional v-sync puts out. That would have made this laptop’s frame rate fluctuations less jarring, and nowadays, I expect it to be in any premium gaming laptop that claims to care about screen quality and gaming performance.

Where the Blade Pro 17 makes its mark is with gaming performance locked to 1440p resolution. While keeping all other graphics settings set to their highest options, The Outer Worlds jumps up to nearly 100 frames per second (hovering between 70 and 100), while Star Wars achieves over 60 frames per second most of the time (dipping below 40 fps and rising above 80 at times). It’s rewarding to see both games start to take advantage of the high refresh rate display — at 1440p, no less. Little details that you might have missed on a 1080p display, like Fallen Order protagonist Cal’s hair looking fine and blowing in the wind, as well as bigger ones, like the responsive controls, come to the forefront of the experience. 

But still, without some major graphical tweaks, you’re not going to hit the screen’s ceiling at 4K resolution. I was eventually able to get there with some compromises that don’t impact my enjoyment of either game, but compromise is a dirty word when you spend over $3K on a laptop. You won’t run up on these limitations as much if you primarily play games like Dota 2 or Overwatch. But it will likely be a recurring issue as your ever-growing backlog fills up with recent games that are graphically demanding.

What gets none of my ire is the display itself. It’s a touchscreen with 254 pixels per inch that offers generous viewing angels, and whether you’re gaming or not, contrast and colors pop with accuracy. When it comes to running through various work tasks, flipping through desktops in Windows 10, and running a couple dozen Chrome tabs with Slack and Spotify running in the background, this machine is able to hold its own — and the display is a sharp, spacious, and touch-friendly canvas to view it all on. At home, I use a 1080p gaming monitor with a 240Hz refresh rate, and while I would pick a high refresh rate over resolution for gaming any day, it’s great (and spoiling) to have the best of both worlds with Razer’s display. However, given that this machine can more handily run demanding games at 1440p than at 4K, I’d still be happy if Razer went with a 1440p screen, especially if it led to a lower price.

Razer’s laptop offers brief and jarring glimpses into the future of mobile computing. If you’re a hardcore gamer, there are rarely any moments when games look better than I’ve ever seen them. Since this machine will likely remain parked at your desk, I would have gladly accepted a thicker design for a more powerful desktop GPU (a la Alienware’s Area 51m) if it meant that it could get closer to reaching its 4K / 120Hz claims.

But if you can look past that, and are fine with turning down the resolution to game at a smooth clip, you’ll be hard pressed to find a display that’s this impressive in another similarly priced laptop any time soon — especially one with such a stacked, capable set of ports and a fast SD card reader.

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