Thursday 23 February 2012

Razer Blade review

Razer Blade review



Typically, when a company wants to meet, you expect more of the same -- not a change in strategy, nor a decision to enter an entirely new product category. So when Razer wanted to meet us one bright, oddly cold San Franciscan morning last August, we certainly weren't expecting to meet its CEO, Min-Liang Tan, and we definitely weren't prepared to find a 17-inch prototype laptop, henceforth known as the Blade.

Shaving puns aside, we listened to Tan proudly wax on about the results of nearly three years of development, much of which involved recruiting a bevy of talent from the now-defunct OQO. What they'd accomplished, according to Tan, was the "world's first true gaming portable." An audacious statement, sure, especially considering the Blade was to be Razer's foray into the PC market. No matter. Tan's impetus was clear: the outfit would cater to gamers who'd been left in a vacuum after formerly gaming-obsessed companies sold out, leaving the segment to languish. His angle, however, would be different. The Blade wasn't going to be a gaudy, gargantuan, no-holds barred device with outright performance in mind. No, instead the 0.8-inch thick aluminum beaut would attempt to straddle the worlds of portability with performance, seeking to hit a perfectly balanced middle ground.

That sounded reasonable, but judging by reactions from most of you, the decision to stuff this $2,799 rig with a mid-range GeForce GT 555M card wasn't. Nor was the call to kit it with a paltry 320GB of rotational storage. Razer would rectify the latter in December, promising 256GB SSDs for all -- a concession that would push shipments back, well, until now. Still, even after toying with it briefly at CES, our impressions were ultimately shallow, as we couldn't get much of a feel for it in that controlled environment. Which brings us to the present day, and with Razer graciously airdropping a Blade onto our doorstep, does this experimental laptop stand up to its maker's gutsy claims? Or will those who've shelled just shy of three grand be sorely disappointed with its execution? Well, there's only one way to find out, and that's to join us past the break.

Look and feel

We hate using the term, but we will anyway: the Blade is sexy. That's a grossly overused word, sure, but if we ever really meant it, that time would be now. The Blade feels premium in a way that's difficult to quantify, but we're sure it has something to do with that sturdy shell and relatively thin profile. There's no question in our mind, though, its inspiration, down to the minutiae, borrows heavily -- and we mean heavily -- from the 17-inch MacBook Pro. Details like its latchless design, sunken chiclet keyboard, to the shape of its outer shell down and its identical hinge. But we're perfectly okay with that, as they've been remixed into something far more arresting.

That luxurious experience begins not with the hardware, but the elaborate packaging. To say we weren't expecting much would be an understatement -- can you remember the last time you unboxed a PC laptop? -- but how could you not, with the faux-carbon fiber weave adorning the box above? Not to mention those gorgeous asymmetrical cut-outs, giving way to a Razer-green layer beneath, subconsciously begging you to peel it away. Lifting off the top half reveals an interior dominated by the rather large laptop, which you'll conveniently lift out with a similarly hued green ribbon. Underneath, you'll find the usual suspects: a pouch containing manuals, stickers and so forth, alongside a custom oblong power brick. So far so good.

To achieve that relatively thin 0.8-inch profile, Razer's kitted its offering with a sparser number of ports than you'd find on a traditional "gamer-focused" machine. On the left side, just past the beefy cooling vent, there's power, Ethernet, HDMI, three USB ports (one of the 3.0 persuasion, demarcated in green) and a headphone jack. That's it connectivity-wise, as on the right you'll find another exhaust (identical in size and placement to its leftward cousin) and a Kensington lock slot about half way down. It's around this time you realize the Blade is devoid of an optical drive, so those thinking about installing games the old-fashioned way better invest in an external unit or get cozy with a service like Valve's Steam or EA's Origin. Other exterior highlights worth mentioning are a backlit logo on the lid, which glows green, and an additional set of chrome-accented vents festooning the base.

Lift the lid and you'll see that sparse aesthetic extends onto the laptop's interior. Which, apart from the already mentioned backlit keyboard and LCD-stuffed trackpad, is home to a rather large power button, which glows green when the laptop is powered on, and pulses when the machine's asleep. The only remaining features crammed onto the deck space are a speaker grille that runs the entire length of the hinge, and a chrome-ringed webcam, just north of the screen.

While tastefully designed and well-built, unfortunately not all is perfect in the land of the Blade. There's one niggling flaw that taints the otherwise top-notch experience, and it has to do with difficulties in prying the latchless notebook open. Either the hinge isn't lubricated enough, or the front-portion of the system isn't privy to enough mass, but with the unit shut, attempts to lift the display are met with frustration, as its bottom (read: computer-housing portion) comes along for the ride. You eventually adjust to opening it more slowly and with less force, or by holding the base while you attempt the maneuver -- neither of which, we think, are satisfactory options for a machine this expensive. It's an unfortunate oversight (or engineering compromise, perhaps) and our only real gripe with the hardware, though unfortunately it rears its head every time you open it.

Keyboard and touchpad

While the rest of the Blade isn't functionally different from other laptops, its party piece, the LCD-toting touchpad and the ten configurable buttons directly above it, are certainly novel. We'll begin with the mousing device. As best as we can tell, its top-most layer houses a rather thick layer of tempered plastic, which unfortunately introduces more friction than we'd like, in addition to the fact that it just doesn't feel as premium as the rest of the laptop. Although in fairness, with time (and of course, grease) swipes do become easier. But for what it lacks in feel, the pad makes up for in accuracy: we found tracking excellent and can happily report that for once we've got a trackpad that can actuate two-finger scrolling in a non-frustrating fashion. Like all PC scrolling, it's linear -- there isn't any spiffy physics-induced acceleration of content here -- but the Synaptics pad was more than responsive otherwise. Multitouch also makes an appearance, naturally making that previous two-finger scrolling endeavor possible, as well as a few others: like pinch-to-zoom, two-finger rotations and three-finger swipes which provide a modicum of functionality depending on what app has focus. Those additional gestures weren't nearly as polished, but seeing as they're less generally useful, we didn't mind much, except for the last, which you'll have to be rather deliberate to actuate as you swap between pre-programmed sets of icons in one mode of trackpad.

But stuffing a trackpad with an LCD can only get you so far, which is where the company's Switchblade-UI comes in. After creating or logging into the company's Synapse service, the ten keys above burst into life. From the initial screen above, you can use the touchpad as you normally would, or throw it into one of ten alternative modes -- nine of which hijack all trackpad mousing functionality altogether (leaving all cursor control to a dedicated external mouse). Returning to the default mode is thankfully easy, though, as one hits the dedicated Razer button in the bottom right corner of the keyboard. We spent most of our time in the first mode, which is the one you'll want, as this is the only one in which those delectable ten keys can be configured as you please. To customize them you'll use the company's Synapse utility, which is where you can create and save multiple profiles -- a fancy name for groupings of your button-machinations. Within each profile, you can configure infinite sets of ten keys, which you'll then swipe between with that three finger swipe we mentioned earlier.

From Synapse those buttons can be assigned to mimic any key press, any mouse button, a pre-recorded macro or alternatively launch a program. Once you've assigned a function, you can optionally choose an icon (your own, or one of the company's pre-sets) and voila, you're good to go. While some of you will no doubt painstakingly go through and create multiple profiles for all your favorite games, we reveled in primarily using this functionality as our application launcher. With one-touch access to our favorite ten programs, and only a swipe away from twenty, we nary had to touch the Windows taskbar or desktop shortcuts to launch our browser, Photoshop or whatever game we pleased. It's an Optimius mini-six mini-ten on our laptop and it's the next best thing since sliced bread.

Believe it or not, that's only the trackpad's first view. Tapping the Razer key and returning to its initial screen, the next three options are widget-y type screens: a numpad, a mode to record macros and a pane to enable and tweak settings pertaining to "Gaming mode." Following that is the browser (more on that later,) which also serves as the basis for the following four: YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and GMail. Apart from YouTube (which is more customized and gets a custom mapping of buttons), these all load mobile versions of those sites, which can range from workable (Twitter), frustrating (Facebook) or pretty much unusable (GMail). The final and tenth function, is a clock -- something we'd have loved to use as our trackpad's background (instead of the persistent Razer logo), but curiously this mode blocks our mousing endeavors, despite being non-customizable and unresponsive to gestures.

Circling back to the touchpad's browser, it actually runs a separate process of Internet Explorer -- the giveaway being the tell-tale clicking sound effect you'll hear when you tap links. When surfing, the bottom five keys swap to pertain to navigation, with the last two allowing you to bringing up URL and search fields which you populate with input from the keyboard. It's serviceable when you need a walkthrough, but no way to store bookmarks or change the default homepage, we found it simply quicker to pull out a smartphone, reach for a tablet, or even use the Windows key to hop out of a game and open a real desktop browser to find what we were looking for.

That's unfortunate, because while stuffing a screen underneath a trackpad sounds like a geek's dream, the software powering the trackpad is lackluster. In a day and age with mobile devices housing far richer experiences, there isn't any way you'll be using the mobile website of Facebook here, over the purpose-built app on your phone. In our time with it, the trackpad was a conversation starter, sure, but ultimately the widgets onboard need a significant investment of time and resources to make them practical enough for us to recommend them. You could argue that Razer should just run Android on the touchpad instead, and while that would assuage some of our concerns, if given the choice, we'd just dump the screen entirely and put those savings toward a cheaper starting price. Put simply, had the screen beneath the Blade gone "missing," from prototype to production, we'd have been just as pleased in our time with it -- keep the ten customizable buttons above it, though -- those can stay.

When it came to the keyboard, there was better news, as we've got unwavering praise for the tactility of the unit on the Blade. We'd have preferred if the entire deck were shifted a bit northward, allowing for a roomier palm rest, but now we're just nitpicking, as that chiclet keyboard is top-notch. As you'd expect, every key is backlit, though for whatever reason, despite the F-row being backlit, the secondary Fn-based controls that co-inhabit them, aren't. That sets you up for some inconvenience when adjusting brightness or volume in low-light, but we'll hazard that before long you'll have their respective F1-F12 mappings committed to memory. Lastly, we're told it's anti-ghosted too, which might not have made a huge difference when typing this review, but certainly caters to the kind of serious gamers for whom Razer seeks.

Display and sound

If one piece defines our time with the Blade, it's the gargantuan 17.3-inch display. Defining the unit's massive footprint, the full 1080p matte panel (1920 x 1080) is a particularly bright spot. Ripe with color and vibrant from all angles, we had no complaints about the panel's black levels, contrast or brightness. White balance skews a little blue, but nothing that couldn't be rectified with some calibration. Finally, did you hear us say it's matte? Because it is, and that's your only choice. Kudos, Razer -- death to glossy displays.

As splendid as its primary display is, our general feeling of disappointment with secondary LCD found underneath the trackpad continues. Its certainly not of the same caliber, suffering primarily from a lack of brightness and poor black levels. Weak contrast aside, the reflective screen is more squint-inducing than we'd like, rendering it especially dim in bright environments. We also noticed its tendency to diagonally shear while displaying fast-paced content -- say like when rapidly scrolling a webpage, or whilst watching video with fast-paced action. Seeing as you won't be using it much, neither are deal-breakers, but we'd hoped for more when we were told it was equivalent to a smartphone panel. In contrast, the ten programmable keys sitting directly above (all powered by a separate LCD, we'd imagine), are bright and delectably tactile as ever.

Which brings us to the Blade's acoustic performance. Unlike some of its flashier contemporaries, Razer didn't team up with a speaker manufacturer to serve up audio on the Blade. Setting aside the question of whether or not marketing infused tie-ups actually derive better sound, the unfortunate fact is the audio experience on the Blade is woefully subpar. Our unit wasn't particularly loud, but more alarming was the complete dearth of any meaningfully low bass notes. Not unlike listening to earbuds lying on your desk, the sound lacks any warmth -- which is unacceptable, given that $2,799 price tag. You can ameliorate the situation slightly by flipping the included Dolby Home Theater software on, but ultimately software enhancements can only go so far. We know, serious gamers will use plug in a proper headset, but it's definitively the weakest area of the Blade -- so bad mind you, we initially questioned if our unit was faulty.


PCMark Vantage
Razer Blade (2.8GHz Core i7-2640M, GeForce GT555M, 8GB) 14,379 11,556
MSI GT683DXR (2.2GHz Core i7-2630QM, GeForce GTX 570M, 16GB) 7,210 16,862
Toshiba Qosmio X775-3DV78 (2.0GHz Core i7-2630QM, GeForce GTX 560M, 8GB) 7,900 15,169
HP Envy 15 (2.4GHz Core i5-2430M, AMD Radeon HD 7690M 1GB) 7,210 8,839
Dell XPS 15z (2.7GHz Core i7-2620M, NVIDIA GeForce GT525M) 8,023 7,317
15-inch Samsung Series 7 Chronos (2.2GHz Core i7-2675QM, Intel HD 3000 / AMD Radeon HD 6750M 1GB) 7,824 8,891
Sony VAIO SE series (2.4GHz Core i5-2430M, Intel HD Graphics 3000 / AMD Radeon HD 6630M 1GB) 5,632 6,898
2011 15-inch MacBook Pro (2.2GHz Core i7-2720QM, Radeon HD 6750M / Intel Graphics 3000) 8,041 10,262

Despite being tuned for balance, the Blade eked out a rather respective showing in our usual collection of benchmarks. Armed with a 2.8GHz Core i7-2640M CPU, it notched a speedy 14,379 in PCMark Vantage. It wasn't nearly as triumphant in the graphics department, where it was held back by that GeForce 555M card, which managed 11,556 in 3DMark06 and P1,536 in 3DMark11.

Performance isn't all about raw numbers, though, and happily the Blade doesn't disappoint in real world use. Throughout our testing, the Blade was able to handle typical computing tasks aplomb: heavy web browsing, Photoshop editing and serving as an Engadget workhorse were all dealt swiftly and without complaint. It's when you ask the Blade to serve as your gaming compatriot, however, things begin to get a little murky. While after-work Starcraft II matches cranked just shy of ultimate posed no problem (with framerates consistently in the high forties to fifties,) we can't say the same about newer titles which invoke strain, even after you reel in the visuals significantly. While playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, for example, we reeled graphical settings all the way back to medium to make the game passably playable -- we're talking frame rates in the high twenties at full resolution [Update: Fresh drivers from NVIDIA drastically improved performance for Skyrim, enabling the game to run on the GPU instead of integrated graphics card. With graphics cranked to high we saw frames hover around high twenties, and in medium a very playable low forties]. With something like Battlefield 3 on the other hand, we had more luck, eking out more respectable mid-30FPS from medium settings, again at full resolution.

When it came to heat dissipation, we had no complaints in our time spent with the Blade. As you'd expect, things get a little toasty while running full tilt, but even then it won't lacerate, and for general purposes it kept decently cool. Fans weren't loud obnoxiously loud either, however, in time you'll notice the fairly aggressive leftward unit which has a tendency to flare up any time you encounter peaky CPU work. We weren't particularly dismayed by the behavior, but it's definitively noticeable, perhaps more so here, as the Blade's SSD makes it silent otherwise.

Finally, thanks to its aforementioned reliance on flash storage, loading times, installs and boots were speedy, with the latter clocking in at 17-18 seconds from a cold start to the Windows login screen. Running the disk benchmark ATTO informed us that peak reads happened at 467MB/sec and writes at 362MB/sec. Finally, we'd like to applaud Razer for making the right choice in delaying shipment to opt for that SSD -- in 2012 as far as we're concerned, it's a must-have in a machine in this price range.

Battery life

Battery Life
Razer Blade 2:57
MSI GT683DXR 2:40
Toshiba Qosmio X775-3DV78 1:26
2010 HP Envy 17 2:10
HP Envy 15 4:07
Dell XPS 15z 3:41 (Optimus disabled) / 4:26 (Optimus enabled)
15-inch Samsung Series 7 Chronos 5:47
2011, 15-inch MacBook Pro 7:27

So we've determined it isn't quite the graphical sprinter, but can the Blade still come out ahead in the marathon that's battery longevity? In a word no. As shown above, running Engadget's video-rundown test at roughly half brightness reveals things are a little more complicated than you might have initially thought. Yes, the Blade's less power hungry graphics are primarily responsible for it running circles around its more pudgy, brute-ish rivals. Still, that's not saying much, as being just shy of three hours, it falls considerably short when compared to more mainstream notebooks. Still, that bests MSI's 15-inch GT583DXR by a full 20 minutes despite wielding a larger screen (but with a lesser card) and demolishes the more comparable 17-inch Qosmio X775's by a whopping hour and a half -- all, in a thin profile.

Alas, if you were planning on a sojourn sans charger, you'll be out of luck. Even with casual use and exercising brightness restraint, we were only able to coax just shy of three and a half hours of work out of its 60Wh battery -- dwindling down to around three with full brightness. For those daring to game on the go, unlike other laptops which'll significantly pare down their performance, the Blade will cheerfully run at full throttle for about an hour before simmering down. Ultimately neither are legendary, we know, but compared to other laptops, definitely workable.


Seeing as its exterior is devoid of all stickers -- save for one -- why would Razer go and mess with its innards? Thankfully it hasn't, leaving the Blade free of additional software or crapware, with an almost clean install of Windows 7 Home Premium. And we mean "almost," as you'll still get Dolby Home Theater software and a copy of Razer's Synapse app -- the later of which you'll want to configure that those LCD buttons.

The competition
The market for laptops that cost nearly three large is by no means sprawling, but indulge us for just a moment while we compare the Blade to other systems that compete in this arena. We'll begin with the granddaddy of them all, the Alienware M17x. Though configurations of that beastly guy start at $1,499, it can be stuffed with all sorts of doodads, pushing it beyond the Blade's $2,799 price. To match the Blade's price tag, we began with the $1,899 machine and kitted it with a 2.5GHz Core i7-2860QM, 256GB of solid state storage and opted for the 1080p panel upgrade. Standard on that model is 8GB of RAM (identical to the Blade) as well as the much more potent GeForce GTX 580M. The combination of a quad-core chip and graphics would make mincemeat out of the Blade, but at twice the thickness and double the poundage, we'll leave it up to you if that's worth the trade-off. Still, it merits noting that even the base $1,499 model with its quad-core i7 and Radeon HD 6870M would most certainly give the Blade a run for its money.

Then there's something like the MSI GT780DXR. Like the m17x, it's not as pleasing on the eyes, but at $1,799 it's hard to dismiss its bang-for-your-buck specs, which include: a Core i7-2630QM, 16GB of RAM, dual 750GB drives and the beefy onboard NVIDIA GTX 570M. When we reviewed it's smaller 15-inch brother, we took issue with some of its cheap materials -- like an abysmal keyboard and bargain-basement glossy plastics -- but one can't deny the results of its internals. Ultimately, the same caveat applies here though, you'll have to decide how much you value portability while hulking two-inch thick machine such as this.

We have yet to review it, but we'd be remiss if we didn't mention Samsung's Series 7 Gamer. Like some of its contemporaries, it, too, has a quad-core Core i7, 1080p 17-inch display, yet we're unsure on how punchy it'll be with its ho-hum Radeon HD 6970M. You're probably looking at better build quality than say MSI's offering, and we think rather striking in the optional red or marigold yellow hues. We'll find out how good it is when it ships in April, but for $1,799 there's another gaming option at under two grand to put on your radar.

Finally, this is a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison -- insofar that Apple doesn't make a "gaming" focused laptop -- but it's worth mentioning the 17-inch MacBook Pro, as it, too, is known for offering a slim profile, given its otherwise sprawling dimensions. Starting at $2,499, you've got to tack on additional $200 for 4GB of RAM, $500 for a 256GB SSD and $50 for the anti-glare display to rival the Blade in the spec department. For those keeping track at home, that's $3,249 -- a configuration with a faster quad-core i7 paired with a slower Radeon 6770M GPU. That's a hefty chunk of change for a machine thats roughly as thin as the Blade (albeit at 0.9 inches, somewhat thicker), yet also one that's devoid of a hinge and speaker problems that blemish Razer's offering.

So where does Razer's first foray into the PC realm leave us? On the one hand, this is one beautiful, well-made, powerful, impossibly thin laptop. On the other, you'll need a stack of cash to the tune of $2,799. No matter how you slice it, that's a lot of dough to shell on a computer from a company that's just getting its feet wet in the category. Frankly, you wouldn't be crazy to sit this one out, with flaws like abysmal audio, a disobedient hinge and the indisputable fact that most of the latest gaming titles give this guy a run for its money. Additionally, there's that LCD-trackpad, which despite oozing cool, is destined to be more of a gimmick than must-have, at least until Razer invests in some better widgets.

Ultimately, though, the Blade was never about specs, and despite its maker's penchant for calling it a "gaming" machine, it's really just a striking, fast and beautiful laptop. Despite its flaws, the Blade is greater than the sum of its parts. We're cognizant $2,799 is a tough pill to swallow, though, and despite our rational selves saying "no" we've nonetheless grown quite attached after spending a week with it. For those of you with that kind of dispensable cash, go for it -- who knows, you've probably also got enough laying around to build a serious dedicated gaming rig. Personally, we're waiting for Razer to ditch the LCD-touchpad (but keep the customizable keys) and offer a similarly specced 15-incher for around two grand. Razer will really have a winner then, and yes, we'll take two.

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