It seems like just months ago that Razer released the Blade, a superthin big-screen gaming laptop that favored sharp design over top-end specs. Actually, it was just months ago: the original Razer Blade was reviewed on CNET in March. Here we are in October, and Razer has unsheathed an update to the Blade -- call it Blade 2.0, if you will -- that looks exactly the same from the outside.
Inside, however, this Blade has many updated specs, starting with a 2.2GHz Intel Core i7-3632QM quad-core CPU, and finishing with a 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 660M graphics card, and fitting in a larger hybrid 500GB hard drive with 64GB solid-state drive (SSD) cache, up from a 256GB SSD in the previous model. Razer's also dropped the price on the Blade down to $2,500. That's still incredibly expensive for a laptop, considering that most gaming laptops go for far less money (even the Retina Display MacBook Pro costs $300 less). Even so, it still manages to be $300 lower than the price of the previous Blade.
If you've read the review of the last Blade, read it again. That black metal design, that excellent 17-inch 1080p matte screen, that oddball, odd-duck touch-screen touch-pad Switchblade UI, are all back.
So, who is this 0.88-inch-thin, 6.6-pound laptop for? The gaming show-offs, the e-gamers who want a sports car for a laptop, the Razer hardware lovers who somehow have $2,500 to spend. This isn't for value shoppers, or the practical-minded. However, credit Razer for this: the compromise that the last Razer Blade had to make -- less horsepower for a thinner design -- is largely gone. The new Razer Blade may not be the fastest gaming laptop around, but it's a highly capable one, and a far better one than its predecessor. That may not justify the price (or its still not-fully-baked Switchblade UI), but it does make the Razer Blade undeniably a quality product.
|Price as reviewed||$2,500|
|Processor||2.2GHz Intel Core i7-3632QM|
|Memory||8GB, 1,600MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||512GB 7,200rpm HDD, plus 64GB SSD cache|
|Graphics||Nvidia GeForce GTX 660M (2GB)/Intel HD 4000|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||16.8x10.9 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||17.3 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||6.6 pounds / 7.4 pounds|
Matte black aluminum. An alien-green logo that looks like a carved rune. Huge glowing power button. Raised backlit keyboard. Huge, beautiful 17-inch screen (sounds a lot like a description of an Alienware...). A lot of the Razer Blade's design I'll leave to my previous review to describe. Suffice it to say that Razer's aggressive design philosophy for its first-ever PC seems more logical now than it did back in March.
Apple's thin MacBook Pro with Retina Display, which also dropped an optical drive and shifted to SSD storage, feels like a distant cousin of sorts to the Razer Blade. Both push for high-powered computing with a thin, flat chassis. Of course, the MacBook Pro is a 15-inch laptop, and the Blade is a far wider and larger 17-inch machine. They're apples and oranges, so to speak, but both try the same tactic: shrinking a lot of computer into an ultrathin (but not-quite-ultrabook) form.
The world of 17-inch laptops is an increasingly rarefied one, and few if any are as thin as the Blade. This makes Razer's laptop a unique quantity, and perhaps a special one, but be forewarned: it doesn't fit easily in a backpack. You'd better make sure your gear is ready for a 17-inch machine. The new Blade is a bit heavier than the last one, but it's still lightweight, at 6.6 pounds, making it similar to other big-screen gaming rigs.
The wide, flat island-style backlit keyboard feels great, but lacks a number pad. That's because the Switchblade UI, with its 10 LED-screened buttons, takes that space on the right side. Meanwhile, the place where you'd normally expect to find a touch pad -- below the keyboard -- is empty. It'll throw you off the first time, or even the second or fifteenth time. I keep reaching down there from time to time, even on my second Blade.
Switchblade UI, revisited: A solution in search of a problem (in search of a solution)
Let's dive right into that Switchblade UI, because it's the centerpiece of the Blade's design. Razer's proudly unique second screen-meets-customizable-buttons interface meshes a Synaptics touch pad with its own touch screen with 10 buttons above, all with color mini-LED screens that emit a ghostly, somewhat holographic glow.
The touch pad is surprisingly comfortable, and responds very well. Two dedicated buttons beneath handle all your physical click needs. The touch pad has standard-issue multitouch as well, but the screen element adds a theoretical additional dimension, a second-screen element in a laptop.
The apps, however, remain in the embryonic state. A few second-screen baked-in apps like a YouTube browser, Web browser, and Twitter and Facebook apps allow for smartphone-style browsing on the Switchblade touch-pad screen while you play games, but you could do the same thing on a smartphone or tablet. A new gaming timer and screenshot-taking tool have been added to the bundle of included apps, but these aren't particularly groundbreaking, even if they are somewhat useful.
There are new game-specific apps this time around, but only for a few games: Battlefield 3, Team Fortress 2, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Counterstrike. These apps offer basic features. SW:TOR's app is a combat-logging tool for collecting in-game data. The apps for Counterstrike, Team Fortress 2, and Battlefield 3 apps amount to touch-screen dashboards that pull up pre-programmed sets of in-game buttons for each class, displayed on the Switchblade's LED keys with custom graphics.
It's a useful idea, but the Switchblade UI has a such a limited set of compatible games that it's barely a platform yet. These apps can be pulled up from the Switchblade main display by three-finger swiping across: they're baked into the latest software update.
Also, selecting custom button-sets doesn't go as far as true second-screen gaming; there isn't much of a Wii U or Nintendo DS-like second-screen functionality at work. That depends on game developers, and while Razer promises more Switchblade UI apps on the horizon, they're not here yet. You can, of course, program your own buttons and use included graphics assets or make your own. The library of included graphics icons has grown considerably since April, but using the Switchblade UI in this way amounts to having a very fancy set of programmable macro buttons.
With second-screen tech everywhere -- gaming and home entertainment included -- the Razer Blade doesn't do enough yet to raise the bar. There are finally game-specific apps, but it has yet to reach critical mass. More apps for new supported games are on the way, but there's still no app store or app marketplace for additional features. The concept is futuristic, but the execution is not what you'd expect.
The killer feature: Still the screen
Instead, I maintain what I said before: the Razer Blade's killer app is its beautiful matte display. It's every bit as big and bright as on the original Blade, but the 17.3-inch, 1,920x1,080-pixel-resolution display has company in a sense in the Retina Display MacBook Pro. The Retina Display isn't as ideal for gaming because the extra-high resolution isn't optimized in all games; others might prefer a larger screen over a smaller, higher-resolution one. Either way, the Razer Blade's display towers over the competition.
The speakers...well, not so much. I'd recommend plugging in headphones or external speakers instead.
|Razer Blade||Average for category [Desktop replacement]|
|Video||HDMI||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jack||Stereo speakers with subwoofer, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||3 USB 3.0||2 USB 2.0, 2 USB 3.0, SD card reader, eSATA|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
|Optical drive||None||DVD burner, optional Blu-ray player|
Ports and connections
There still aren't all that many ports on the Razer Blade, especially considering it's a 17-inch desktop replacement. Also, these ports all line the left side of the laptop: three USB 3.0 (up from a single USB 3.0 port last time), HDMI 1.4, Gigabit Ethernet, and a headphone jack. That's it: no optical drive, no SD card slot. There is support for Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11 a/g/n, though.
I would have preferred a right-side USB port for a mouse, but then again, using a mouse plus the right-side Switchblade UI would be a bit of a feat.
New processor, better graphics
The Razer Blade has stepped up its game, so to speak, with a quad-core 2.2GHz Intel Core i7-3632QM CPU, an improvement over the last Blade's dual-core Core i7-2640M processor. Also new is an Nvidia GeForce GTX 660M GPU with 2GB of memory. The first Blade's GeForce GT 555M graphics were noticeably less powerful than those of other gaming laptops in this class.