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.
Specs: A step above the typical thin laptop
Under the hood, the 14-inch Blade has very impressive horsepower indeed. A fourth-gen quad-core 2.2GHz Intel Core i7-4702HQ offers significantly better performance than the average laptop; even better, it's accompanied by an Nvidia GeForce GTX 765M GPU with 2GB of GDDR5 memory. For the moment, this makes the Blade 14 one of the most powerful slim Haswell laptops we've seen. As mentioned above, the system comes with 8GB of 1,600MHz DDR3L RAM.
Ports are limited: three USB 3.0, one HDMI, and that's it. No SD card slot, no Ethernet, and no optical drive. I can live without an optical drive, but Ethernet would have been helpful considering how download-heavy game services such as Steam can get.
A 1.3-megapixel Webcam is good enough for good-looking chats. Better is the array microphone, intended for in-game chat. Razer recently released in-game VoIP software, too, although I didn't spend much time testing it. The Blade is 802.11 b/g/n-compatible with its Qualcomm Killer Wireless-N network adapter, and has Bluetooth 4.0.
How do games perform on the new Blade? Pretty damn well. BioShock Infinite ran at 36 frames per second at 1,600x900-pixel resolution with graphics settings high and Ultra DX11, plenty fast for everyday fun. With graphics settings at medium, it buzzed at a perfect 62 frames per second. And a seriously rigorous game, Metro: Last Light, ran at 15 frames per second with high graphics settings and 1600x900-pixel native resolution, not bad for a high-intensity benchmark -- the actual game played more smoothly than that.
Of course, the lower-res display helped frame rates somewhat, but outputting to a 1080p display still produced good results: 27fps for BioShock Infinite on high, and 11.3fps for Metro: Last Light. Other games on Steam were equally fun to play on the Blade 14; it handled them all well.
The Edge gaming tablet made compromises to shrink down PC gaming, while the Blade 14 handles games a lot more like the full-fledged 17-inch Blade from last year. Our gaming benchmarks have changed since then, but we ran similar tests for comparison: the Edge Pro tablet ran BioShock Infinite's benchmark at 1,920x1,080 and medium graphics settings at 24fps, while the Blade 14 ran the same resolution/settings benchmark at 54.5fps. Meanwhile, the 17-inch October 2012 Blade ran Metro 2033's challenging high-end benchmark at 1,920x1,080 at 13.3fps, while this year's Blade 14 did it at 14.7fps. Higher-resolution tests than the native screen resolution of the laptop/tablet were done via HDMI on an external monitor.
The Razer Blade 14 is a robust, serious laptop. It's not as fast as a bleeding-edge dual graphics-card behemoth, but it's the best in its weight class by a mile, and better than any mainstream gaming laptop we've seen so far.
Gaming laptops usually suffer when it comes to battery, but the Blade 14 pulls off a bit of a coup: we were able to get 7 hours and 46 minutes of video playback in our test. Fourth-gen Haswell chips do a very good job at video playback efficiency, but this exceeds anything I would have expected. Really, it's good enough to use as an everyday machine and not worry too much about recharging. But, be advised that gaming will drain that battery a lot faster. Nvidia Optimus graphics switch automatically to the Intel HD 4600 integrated GPU when not in use.
The new Razer Blade is more of a mainstream commodity product than anything Razer has previously produced, but it's still an expensive machine; the entry-level configuration costs a pretty high $1,800. That's hard to swallow, but the upside here is that this Blade looks like a laptop you'd actually want to carry around with you and make your everyday computer.
What I love most about the Blade 14 is its fearless no-gimmick approach to making a really usable and very slim gaming laptop. This is a laptop you'd gladly make your main computer and not feel saddled by.
What I don't like is the screen: non-IPS, only 1,600x900-pixel resolution, and simply subpar compared with alternatives. When immersed in a game it becomes more acceptable than when staring at text or static high-res images, but at this price, you'd expect a higher-end option.
If the Blade had a display like its 17-inch cousin, this would be an Editors' Choice laptop. Without it, it's still a unique and rather excellent product if you care about a thinner, far less bulky gaming laptop alternative. Razer's on to something here. And it just might be the sexiest nontouch Windows 8 laptop I've ever seen.
Just be forewarned: you're not going to love that screen. But I bet that's the only thing about the Blade 14 you won't like.
|iTunes and HandBrake|
Razer Blade 14
Windows 8 (64-bit); Intel Core i7-4702HQ; 8GB DDR3L SDRAM 1,600MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 765M; 128GB Samsung SSD
Sony Vaio Pro 13
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1,659MB (Shared) Intel HD Graphics 4400; 128GB Samsung SSD
Toshiba Qosmio X875-Q7390
Windows 8 (64-bit); 2.4GHz Intel Core i7-3630QM; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; Nvidia GeForce GTX 670 3,072MB (Dedicated) HDD#1 1TB Hybrid Toshiba 5,400rpm HDD#2 1TB 5,400rpm Toshiba
Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch w/Retina Display (June 2012)
OS X 10.7.4 Lion; 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-3610QM; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1GB Nvidia GeForce GT 650M + 512MB Intel HD 4000; 256GB Apple SSD