You can't accuse Razer of playing it safe. The first laptop from the longtime PC gaming accessories maker, the $2,800 Blade is an eye-catching, innovative, expensive gaming PC that looks the part thanks to its thin design, gorgeous 17-inch screen, and the LED-based touch pad and hot-key layout Razer calls its Switchblade UI. The thin design gives the Blade uncommon portability for a gaming laptop, but the Switchblade UI doesn't achieve enough of its potential to justify the Blade's cost in relation to its performance.
The Blade is a capable-enough gaming laptop, and if you're willing to sacrifice performance for the Blade's seductive looks and the novelty of its interface, you may come to like it. But if you're a PC gamer who puts performance first, you'd be better off with a different laptop.
Razer's bold gaming-laptop debut is undeniably thin: at 0.88 inch, it's practically ultrabook-sized. From all angles, it resembles a matte-black metal 17-inch MacBook Pro fused with the design sensibility of an Alienware laptop. It's nearly the same weight as a 17-inch MacBook Pro, too, at 6.46 pounds.
Open the Blade up, and what will strike you is its minimalism: the green-accented keyboard is backlit in a neon glow, but the Blade generally leaves off the rocketship/carnival/car grille absurdities that tend to grace most gaming laptops. That minimalism won't appeal to everyone; the Blade achieves its thinness in part by not including an optical drive, and the only ports line the left side of the laptop.
Still, even if you're annoyed by having to snake the USB cable around the back, it's hard to deny that the Blade is a real design achievement for Razer. No other gaming laptop I know offers this degree of portability. It's a design that puts pressure on other vendors.
|Price as reviewed||$2,800|
|Processor||2.8GHz Intel Core i7-2640M|
|Memory||8GB, 1,333MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||256GB SSD|
|Graphics||Nvidia GeForce GT 555M (2GB)|
|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||6.46 pounds / 7.16 pounds|
Reach for a touch pad below the Blade's keyboard and you'll get nothing but palm rest. That's because Razer moved the touch pad to the right side, incorporating it into the Switchblade UI. The touch pad is in fact a second color LCD screen, enabled with multitouch gesture support. Above the Synaptics-powered touch pad are 10 buttons that have their own embedded color LED displays, which you can customize with programmable functions and icon graphics. These work like hot keys, or the extra buttons on a gaming mouse.
Sound exciting and confusing? It is. While the concept shows potential for offering second-screen functionality in games, the actual use cases for the Switchblade UI in its current offering are pretty limited.
A set of 10 "apps" mapped to the Switchblade's 10 buttons show off some of the Blade's potential. A YouTube button launches YouTube right in the Blade's touch-pad screen, where you can browse videos the way you would on a smartphone. Facebook, Twitter, and Web browser buttons work the same way.
These ideas aren't that earth-shattering. Being able to browse the Web without switching out of a game is useful, but it's nothing you can't do with a smartphone. Still, the included apps do whet your appetite for the novelty of games that could use the Switchblade UI in a truly innovative way. Razer demos of the Blade have shown the touch pad displaying in-game inventory and map screens from the competitive multiplayer game League of Legends, for example.
Unfortunately, Razer has yet to deliver on the full promise of the Switchblade touch pad. In order for the screen to work with a game, a developer would have to write code for it. Here, two months after the Blade's release (and after presumably multiple years in development), Razer says only that discussions with developers are ongoing. At press time, the Switchblade UI has no games that take advantage of its second display. Even the preview code Razer showed with League of Legends is unavailable.
Whether developer support is likely to thrive on the Blade is debatable. Organic market pressure won't be enough given that the Blade is an expensive niche product, and thus won't likely drive enough game sales to offset a developer's coding costs. Razer itself could offer developers an economic incentive to support Switchblade, but with no compatible games so far, at the very least Razer hasn't been aggressive enough in courting that support. With no games using the touch pad at launch, it's worth asking whether Razer can offer enough value over the life of the Blade to justify its high price tag.
Even if broad game support does materialize, Razer still needs to improve the software behind the Switchblade UI.
Razer includes an application called Synapse 2.0 that, even without developer support, you can use to assign custom commands, macros, and even custom imagery to Switchblade's 10 LED hot keys. And although Razer has not tied up any feature-oriented game support for the touch pad, it did apparently come to an agreement to use graphics assets from Electronic Arts' Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Red 5 Studios' Firefall. Synapse 2.0 software includes a set of icons from each of those games that you can assign to the LED buttons. You can also assign your own image files to the buttons, at least in theory.
In practice, Synapse 2.0 and the Switchblade UI have problems communicating. I set up a profile in Synapse that was supposed to use the Star Wars:The Old Republic icons when I launched the game. I tried associating the profile with multiple files, including the game's shortcut, launcher.exe, and swtor.exe, but the software never repopulated the Switchblade icons with the SW:TOR images.
Equally frustrating is that Razer offers essentially no documentation online or in the box to walk you through Synapse 2.0. Experienced PC gamers will understand the idea of profiles and the involved task of assigning custom commands and launch files, but a less experienced gamer enticed by the Blade's sleek looks will feel completely lost. The fact that Synapse 2.0 doesn't work as reliably as it should is, of course, also a problem.
Despite all of these difficulties, I still feel the pull of the Switchblade UI's potential. The best route for Razer might be to follow Logitech's example with its G15 gaming keyboards. The first gaming keyboards to include a separate, programmable LCD display, the G15 series also launched with a free, publicly available software developer's kit. Gamers embraced the kit and came up with all sorts of useful mini applications displaying ammo counts, inventory lists, chat logs, and other in-game info. It helped that the G15s cost only about $100, and that their software worked reliably, but given the Blade's high price, its niche appeal, and Razer's extremely limited success partnering with developers so far, a public software development kit might be the most effective way to produce some useful Switchblade functionality.
The touch pad as input device and the Blade's real killer feature
Judged purely as a cursor control device, the touch pad works much better than the average PC touch pad. It has more surface area, for one. Placing it off to the right side where a number pad usually exists seems odd, but it has a certain gamer's logic: you won't accidentally activate it while you're typing on the keyboard, and its side placement mimics the feel of a separate gaming peripheral like a mouse, at least for right-handed mouse users. You may also appreciate that Razer is currently throwing in one of its Orochi notebook gaming mice with the purchase of a Blade.
Despite all the effort Razer put into the touch pad, the Blade's real killer app is the 17.3-inch, 1,920x1,080-pixel-resolution matte display: it's radiant, bright, and has excellent viewing angles. Colors and graphics pop.
For audio output, the stereo speakers aren't as good as those on Alienware laptops or on higher-end media laptops like the Dell XPS 15, but they hold their own.
|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||1 USB 3.0, 2 USB 2.0||2 USB 2.0, 2 USB 3.0, SD card reader, eSATA|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
|Optical drive||None||DVD burner, optional Blu-ray player|