In what direction should PC gaming evolve? Tablet, laptop, or hybrid? Experimental or traditional? While PCs, especially Windows 8 ones, are growing out into all sorts of strange directions, it seems that gaming PCs have suddenly gone conservative. Alienware's latest laptops are a good example.
The Razer Blade 14, Razer's newest laptop, is a throwback, too: there's no touch screen. There's no Switchblade second-screen clickpad. There's no convertible tablet mode. This is a laptop. At least it's a very thin, very sleek gaming laptop.
And, it's also a smart idea. Razer's previous products were experimental to a fault, showing off impressive design chops but lacking practicality for a regular consumer who didn't want to dabble in gimmicky second screens or sacrifice battery life for a modular tablet form.
Starting at $1,800, it's hardly a bargain; but considering the latest Intel processors are inside, along with a really good Nvidia graphics card, it's not such a bad deal at all.
I tried the Blade 14 out a month ago in a deep hands-on, but waited for a final-release version to post a full review and gaming impressions.
Here's the good news: the Blade 14 is awfully thin and sexy-looking. It has no experimental gimmicks like the never-utilized Switchblade UI in the larger Blade 17, and no battery limitations like the Razer Edge. And, it delivers on its gaming promise. But there are drawbacks.
|Razor Blade 14||Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch w/ Retina Display (June 2012)||Toshiba Qosmio X875-Q7390||Sony Vaio Pro 13|
|Display size/Pixel resolution||14-inch, 1,600x900 screen||15.4-inch, 2,880x1,800 screen||17.3-inch, 1,920x1,080 screen||13.3-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen|
|PC CPU||2.2GHz Intel Core i7-4702HQ||2.3GHz Intel Core i7-3610QM||2.4GHz Intel Core i7-3630QM||1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U|
|PC memory||8GB DDR3L SDRAM 1,600MHz||8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz||16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz||4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz|
|Graphics||2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 765M||1GB Nvidia GeForce GT 650M||3,072MB Nvidia GTX 670||1,659MB Intel HD Graphics 4400|
|Storage||128GB SSD||256GB SSD||1TB 5,400rpm hard drive||128GB SSD|
|Optical drive||None||None||Blu-ray optical||None|
|Networking||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11a/b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC||802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Windows 8 (64-bit)||OS X Lion 10.7.4||Windows 8 (64-bit)||Windows 8 (64-bit)|
Design: Razor-thin indeed
Razer has carved out a role over the last couple of years as a risk-taking newcomer to the world of PC-gaming laptop hardware. The Razer Edge gaming tablet and funky second-screen Razer Blade gaming laptop were bold moves, both of which made experimental departures from a somewhat stale gaming-laptop pattern.
But the original Blade never made good on the potential of its touch-screen clickpad; few games ever had apps that took advantage of it. The Edge worked as a proof-of-concept for hard-core tablet gaming, and it has some wonderful qualities, but its price and battery life kept it a niche product. Both devices showed off Razer's ability to pull off some sharp designs, though.
Conversely, the new Razer Blade cuts a functional, slim profile: it's a smaller version of the larger Blade, but it disposes with the experimental bells and whistles. Gone is the Switchblade second-screen touch pad, with its LED programmable buttons. Instead, there's a large, basic touch pad -- with click buttons beneath, no less -- and it's under the keyboard, in the middle, where you'd expect. The backlit keyboard has a standard layout, with no macro buttons, not even a number pad. Stereo speakers flank the keyboard's right and left sides.
It's a little surprising to see the Blade suddenly look so ordinary, but that weird touch-screen Switchblade UI on the larger Blade was both iconic and an albatross. It wasn't useful, and it added cost.
Now, the Blade 14 looks very much like a matte-black 14-inch version of the Retina Display MacBook Pro, even down to the details around the front lip and the recessed keyboard's curvature.
Weighing 4.1 pounds and measuring 13.6 inches by 9.3 inches by 0.66 inch, it's a lot smaller than many laptops, but thicker than most ultrabooks -- hence the Retina MacBook Pro comparison. It slid easily into my backpack and made for an easy commute. I don't know if I've ever seen a more easily portable gaming laptop other than the long-departed Alienware M11x. The thin, nearly ultrabook-style profile of this Blade, unhampered by the wider, surfboardlike dimensions of its 17-inch sibling, make it a candidate to be an everyday laptop as well as a gamer's tool. Plus, the keyboard is extremely responsive and comfortable to type on. The adjustable backlighting sets the letters and numbers glowing green. Combined with the glowing-green Razer logo on the back of the lid, the design is just subtly flashy without adopting any rainbow-colored LEDs or glowing touch pads like Alienware.
The touch pad is fine (and large), but the discrete buttons underneath feel flat and a little too flimsy for my taste. I'd prefer a clickpad. For Windows 8 touch gestures in particular, which you'll use it for a lot since there's no touch screen, being able to do off-edge swiping from all sides is part of the gestural language. Those discrete buttons make bottom-up swiping hard to pull off. But, then again, if you're a gamer, you just might be using a mouse most of the time instead.
Display: The weak link
The Blade 14 looks like the black MacBook Pro with Retina Display for gaming. But, Razer forgot one important thing: the Retina Display.
The matte 14-inch display isn't Retina Display-competitive; it's not even close. In fact, its resolution is only 1,600x900 pixels, not 1080p, which has become expected in higher-end laptops. That would be disappointing but acceptable in some circumstances, but this display also isn't nearly as crisp or sharp as the phenomenal one on the larger-screen Blade we reviewed last year -- it's not IPS, and the quality deteriorates when it's tilted at even modest angles. It feels middle-of-the-road at best. When playing games head-on in the right lighting it's not as noticeable, but tilt the screen slightly and that annoying washed-out effect ruins dimly lit environments. Also, it isn't a touch screen. For $1,800 and up, I expect a better screen with a higher resolution.
Have I hated on the screen enough? Well, the Dolby Home Theater stereo speakers are better: shockingly loud, and booming enough to create a sense of excitement to overcome that lackluster screen.
Configurations: Set specs, adjustable storage
There's one basic version of the Razer Blade 14. It just depends how large you want that solid-state drive to be. All versions have that 1,600x900-pixel display, a 2.2GHz quad-core Core i7-4702HQ processor, 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 765M Optimus graphics, and 8GB of DDR3L RAM. The base model with a 128GB SSD costs $1,800. A 256GB SSD model costs $2,000, and going up to 512GB is $2,300. SSD storage upgrades aren't as steep as they were last year, but you're still paying $500 to climb all the way up to that half-terabyte of storage that, frankly, I think should be the baseline for this system.
Also, the Blade offers only solid-state storage options. The original Blade had a 256GB SSD but shifted to a hybrid hard drive with a larger storage capacity in the second iteration to absorb some cost.
According to Razer, the storage is user-upgradable, although that voids the warranty. Actually, the Blade 14 has two drive bays, one of which sits unused. That 8GB of RAM, however, can't be upgraded at all.