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Razer Blade gaming laptop: Is bolder better for PC gamers?

Razer's bold, thin 17-inch laptop has its own second screen and programmable LED buttons, but who is it for?

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The last time I took a look at the Razer Blade, it was sitting amid the crowded show floors and weird wireless networks of CES 2012. Razer's bold, somewhat experimental foray into gaming laptops has finally begun shipping, and we have one here at CNET to check out at long last.

First off, the Razer Blade is hardly cheap; $2,799 places it at the higher end of gaming laptops. Regular laptop shoppers would quake in their boots at those prices, and rightfully so. However, the Blade does incorporate some design and technology that make it a design piece of sorts.

It's a bit like a collectible Nike shoe: not completely practical, but sexy for a certain kind of person. The matte black, solid-metal construction has an attractive if fingerprint-collecting appeal, and the Blade does have some solid specs, with a 2.8GHz dual-core Intel Core i7 processor (3.5GHz in Turbo mode), Nvidia GeForce GT 555M graphics, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD, and a 17.3-inch 1,920x1,080-pixel display.

The Blade has no optical drive, which means you'll be downloading your games from Steam, Origin, or something similar. In that regard, having only 256GB of storage could be limiting for some (the Razer Blade comes in only one configuration). There are gaming laptops with faster graphics than the included Nvidia GeForce GT 555M, which is another consideration. Of course, Razer representatives have explained that this is partially because of thermal concerns, and a desire to make a more portable gaming laptop. That makes sense; after all, the Alienware M11x made similar sacrifices to fit into an 11-inch ultraportable chassis. However, one problem with the Razer Blade is that, though it's thin, it's most definitely wide. The large footprint resembles a 17-inch MacBook Pro. Some love that type of design in a laptop, but it's not for everyone.

Neither is the Razer Blade, but in all fairness to Razer, it's clearly not trying to be. The Razer Blade is a living concept laptop, a first-gen take on a new platform, an evolution of the Switchblade prototype we saw two CESes ago. The most surprising and revolutionary feature of the Razer Blade is its Switchblade UI, which consists of a touch pad that doubles as a second LCD screen, and 10 customizable LED buttons above it. Those buttons have full LED color graphics that can be customized for separate profiles and game functions. They can be programmed with macros, like dedicated gaming keyboards and mice can, and a triple-finger swipe on the touch pad can cycle between different sets of key functions, enabling a theoretically vast degree of flexibility.

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The Switchblade UI's biggest limitation right now is developer support. Razer says that around 10 or 15 games will have their own preset button configurations and graphic assets that will work on the Razer Blade, while others will be easily customizable via Razer's own software tool. Switchblade requires initial setup using Razer's Synapse 2.0, a cloud-based way of syncing game customization settings for the Blade across multiple peripherals (Razer's Star Wars: The Old Republic keyboard and Razer Naga mouse, for instance). Once that setup's done, you can use the customizable LED buttons even when offline.

Razer supplies a default set of button apps to start with, including a calculator button that turns the touch pad screen into a number pad, and YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Gmail launch buttons that launch videos and mail or news feeds into the smaller screen. It's a clever, show-off idea, but it's clearly a demonstration of how second-screen gaming could expand into PC gaming at large. Unfortunately, no PC games have such second-screen functionality on the Razer Blade at this point. Investing in a Razer Blade and its Switchblade UI, therefore, is an investment in a concept that's still in its infancy and may not necessarily gain traction. The Switchblade UI SDK has been made available to developers, but it hasn't been made fully open. That could challenge adoption.

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In my time with the Razer Blade so far, here's what I've found it gets right:

A very responsive touch pad. You'd think that a touch-enabled screen on a laptop would be finicky compared with a regular touch pad, but the Razer Blade's screen-pad feels exactly the opposite: smooth and fast, even with multitouch. It's reminiscent of a smartphone display, but a little less crisp.

A beautiful screen that's bright, clear, and has great viewing angles. It's IPS-like, and one of the best laptop screens I've seen.

The Synapse 2.0 cloud-based Switchblade UI initiates easily. At first, it seems intimidating. However, setup was easy. It requires creating an account with Razer (a step I wish I could skip), but the advantage is syncing macros and settings with Razer's cloud account.

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And, here's what's not been quite so great in my very initial impressions:

Shifted touch pad layout. I kept feeling for my touch pad below the keyboard, instinctively, but it's not there. Using the side touch pad works fine (similar to setting up an external touch pad/mouse), but it takes time to get used to it.

Shallow keyboard keys. They're not quite as accurate and smooth as on a top-notch laptop keyboard, for writing at least. I missed keys more often than I'd like. Then again, Razer claims it's designed its keyboard keys for gaming, with a different, speedier responsiveness in mind. I will update my impression after gaming on it.

Ports only on one side. Plugging in a mouse would require running a cable behind the screen if you're right-handed. It's a shame, since it makes no sense; the right side of the Razer Blade is bare and has no optical drive.

Customizing buttons on the Switchblade UI. It seems like a somewhat time-consuming process, if you want to do it right. Ideally, I'd love if fans could upload their own macro-mapping button layouts so that others could quickly install button-mappings and be good to go.

Check back later this week when the Razer Blade is done benchmarking, and after I've had a chance to play a bunch of games on it, for the full review.