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Opinion: Is the Razer Blade gaming laptop worth the risk?

When is experimentation a good idea, and when should laptops play it safe? CNET's Scott Stein and Rich Brown debate.

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After reviewing the bold but polarizing Razer Blade gaming laptop, we were inspired to discuss whether Razer's gamble made sense for a laptop debut, or whether Razer should have pursued a more conventional approach with its first system. We go a few rounds, in which we discuss the Blade's ultrathin form, the second-screen Switchblade user interface, and the value of design versus performance.

Razer's first laptop has solid construction, a slim design, and a great screen, but I had the sense when using it that Razer could have achieved whatever it liked as far as building a gaming laptop, and chose to make the Razer thin and zippy (at the expense of a beefier GPU) as a fashion statement.

The Razer Blade's a conversation starter of sorts as a gaming laptop concept, but a truly must-get gaming laptop needs graphics that push the limit before it needs to be ultraportable. The compromise wasn't worth the effort at the price the Blade carries. It's true that the Blade's design will make competitors sit up and take notice, but the Blade's reliance on a solid-state drive (256GB, more limiting than some gamers would prefer) and eliminating an optical drive might turn off some of the potential target audience.

As far as the Switchblade UI is concerned, the Blade's innovative combination of a touch screen and LED hot keys promises potential that's unfulfilled. I'd rather that Razer waited to iron out better software, programmed hot-key sets, and apps for the second screen before launching a Switchblade UI-equipped laptop. The Switchblade UI, and the Blade, lack a "killer app" game or app to show off their prowess, and that's a problem when it comes to debuting next-gen tech.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I don't fault Razer for embracing our inevitable SSD-based, optical-drive-free future. Digital distribution of PC games is widespread enough that trading local storage for fast boot and load times isn't unreasonable. The biggest issues for me have to do with the timing of the Blade's release.

First, Razer started selling the Blade in December. Nvidia's new Kepler GPUs launched in March, and Intel's Ivy Bridge CPUs come out later this month. That means the Blade you bought back at the end of 2011 will be out-of-date before the end of spring 2012. Razer could have waited until May 1 and launched the Blade with totally current parts. Such a system would stay performance-competitive for a year.

Waiting might also have given Razer the chance to lock up software support for the UI. Here we are four months after launch and Razer still has no games that use the touch pad for anything other than basic cursor control. Without that support, the Blade isn't worth the premium Razer wants for it. At least in its current state, Switchblade is a novelty you can replicate with any $99 smartphone.

All that said, Razer deserves lots of credit for the Blade's design. It at least looks like a more cutting-edge gaming laptop than anything else out there right now.

I guess I think of gaming PCs as a commodity, to some degree, since their flexibility and function and higher price place them in a different echelon than game consoles. So, I'm on the lookout for value. That being said, I agree that the Razer Blade has a design and a concept that totally try to reinvent what a gaming PC means, and that's admirable. However, next-gen ultrabooks with more-advanced graphics will arrive later this year that will offer alternatives to the "thin gaming laptop" concept -- possibly with differences in performance, but also at more-reasonable prices.

The Switchblade UI reminds me of so many experimental ideas I've seen in tech: the original Nintendo DS, the Wii U, the Acer Iconia, the Toshiba Libretto. I don't like boring laptops; I've often wished for change. The Razer Blade offers some of that change, but the difference between successful experimental ideas (the Nintendo DS) and unsuccessful ones (the Acer Iconia) has been implementation of great ways to use the technology.

Razer has insisted that the Switchblade UI will see the development of more apps down the road, and updates to the software that will allow users to share customized profile information. I'd like that, and even more. Ideally, that Switchblade UI should be the ultimate PC game controller. To be that, games need to incorporate that second screen somehow; or, if that's not possible, then why can't that screen be a smarter control pad/launcher for the 10 color LED buttons above? I should be able to use that Switchblade UI as a cool command center, and it should feel less tedious to operate. I want the magic of an Apple device in the concept Razer has implemented, and that takes better software and UI design.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Right now, the Blade is a risk because Razer doesn't have a mainstream gaming laptop to offer as an alternative. With another year of Switchblade UI refining and, hopefully, some apps (and updated graphics, of course), the Blade could be something special. I do want it to be. I think PC gaming needs a kick in the pants, and maybe Razer is the company to make it happen. But, you can't ask the average consumer to invest this much money in an experimental device that, while working quite well as a laptop, doesn't offer the best value.

Razer could have developed the Switchblade UI on a device other than a laptop, as it's done with the Star Wars: The Old Republic keyboard. The company could have offered it as a USB accessory, kept it a "hobby" like the Apple TV, tried developing the platform that way. Incorporating it into a real laptop feels premature in its current form.

As much as the boutique PC gaming vendors will deny it, those $5,000 and $10,000 desktops are kind of a commodity. They all pick and choose from the same primary components from Intel, Nvidia, and others. Despite their best efforts at innovating in the areas of case design and overclocking, the Maingears, Falcon Northwests, and Origins of the world ultimately all land within a few percentage points of each other in performance. A new PC vendor like Razer absolutely needs a distinguishing feature like the Switchblade.

Voodoo's Omen desktop
Voodoo's Omen desktop CNET

I find it appropriate that the former CEO of Voodoo PC, Rahul Sood, came out with an endorsement of the Blade. Voodoo's ambitions were even more ostentatious than what Razer is trying here. I didn't always see the value in them from a consumer's perspective, but I always appreciated the fact that Voodoo put a lot of energy into differentiating itself. I agree with the headline from Sood's blog post. It really does feel like Razer has picked up Voodoo's mantle.

Of course part of Voodoo's success was brand strength, which Razer hasn't earned yet for its PC business. That means it needs real innovation that provides tangible benefits, not just hype. This version of the Blade doesn't deliver that yet. It might with a future iteration, or perhaps some other crazy experiment. The rewards for both Razer and PC gamers could be great if Razer can nail it. The question is whether Razer and its investors have the risk tolerance to keep trying.

What do you think: is the Razer Blade too much too soon, or was the risk worth it? Read our review of the Razer Blade.