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Razer Blade - fall 2012 review: PC gaming's concept car

The newest Razer Blade has faster specs and better graphics, but its most distinctive feature still isn't perfect.

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Scott Stein
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Scott Stein

Editor at Large

I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets.

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11 min read

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.

Razer Blade (fall 2012)
7.5

Razer Blade - fall 2012

The Good

The latest <b>Razer Blade</b> has improved graphics and a quad-core, more powerful Core i7 processor in the same thin body, with an excellent 17-inch 1080p display.

The Bad

The new Blade costs $300 less than the first one, but it's still very expensive compared with competitors. The unique Switchblade UI touch-screen interface doesn't have enough game support to be a killer app.

The Bottom Line

Faster and better than before, the improved Razer Blade is a better gaming laptop in an impressively thin form, but you're paying for design over practicality.

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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
Chipset Intel HM77
Graphics Nvidia GeForce GTX 660M (2GB)/Intel HD 4000
Operating system Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)
Dimensions (WD) 16.8x10.9 inches
Height 0.88 inch
Screen size (diagonal) 17.3 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 6.6 pounds / 7.4 pounds
Category Desktop replacement

The design
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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The new CPU and GPU ramp up the Blade's overall performance to levels that are finally what we expected. Street Fighter IV, an admittedly old game that we use for comparative benchmark performance on previous laptops, ran at 100.8 frames per second at native 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution and 2x anti-aliasing. The first Blade ran the same game at the same settings at 60.1fps. Metro 2033, a more challenging game for benchmarks, ran at 13.3fps at 1080p, with graphics settings at High, DX11 turned on, 4x anti-aliasing, and 16x AF. That may sound low, but the last Blade in that same test ran at 8.7fps.

So, yes, these are strong gains for the new Blade. Other games, ranging from Dirt 3 to Battlefield 3, also ran very well. Dirt 3 ran at a speedy 62.9fps at full resolution and graphics settings on high.

Are these jaw-dropping statistics? Not for the hardest of hard-core gaming rigs, no. Those tend to perform better, and many of those have slightly better graphics, too. Laptops like the Digital Storm x17 and Samsung Series 7 Gamer performed better in our tests and cost less, but these systems are also far bulkier and heavier. (Note: for this review we compared the new Razer Blade with the Samsung Series 7 NP700Z7C7-S01, not the Gamer.)

The Razer Blade still falls a little short of top-notch loaded-up customizable gaming laptops, but the Blade really does fulfill the promise of solid gaming performance in a thin body this time around.

The Blade only comes in one configuration, however. There is no loading-up. That's a relief for the upgrade-wary, but will be disappointing to any fine-tuning PC gamer. In this $2,500 configuration, 8GB of RAM is decent but equivalently priced laptops often include 16GB. Hard-drive capacity has been increased to 500GB, but it's a hybrid 7,200rpm hard drive with an additional 64GB SSD cache for speeding up access to frequently used applications and files. Doubling the previous Blade's onboard storage was smart, but considering that hybrid hard drives are less expensive, I'd have preferred a more generous bump to at least 750GB.

Battery life
The new Blade lasted through 3 hours and 31 minutes of video playback in our CNET test -- not exactly barn-burning, but better than most gaming laptops. It's also a little better than the original Blade, despite the performance increases. Obviously, playing actual games will shorten that battery life far more quickly. Incidentally, the Blade has a surprisingly compact AC charging brick.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Razer Blade has a one-year standard warranty. Razer's customer support is handled in-house, so you can expect a more boutique-style level of service for the Blade than from larger laptop manufacturers. That's more common with some other boutique gaming-PC companies like Origin. Owners of the original Blade can get a $500 discount toward the purchase of a new one, but considering the first Blade went on sale near the beginning of this year, that's a mighty quick upgrade cycle to bear.

Windows 8 and the Blade
That brings up another big question: what happens to the Blade with the arrival of Windows 8? Razer claims the new Blade is Windows 8-ready, and that the Switchblade UI drivers will be updated to support Windows 8. However, the bigger question is whether the Blade is a real Windows 8 gaming system. There are a lot of experimental, intriguing touch-screen laptops and tablets arriving imminently with Windows 8 preinstalled. These may not all be to the taste of true PC gamers, however, since many gaming stores like Steam aren't designed to run directly via Windows 8's app-driven market.

Are you buying the Blade as a futuristic laptop, or as a gaming machine? If you're looking for the former, a word of warning: many interesting Windows 8 PCs will be achieving even more eye-popping design tricks. If you're want the latter, I think it's still safe to say that the Razer Blade is one of the most aggressively designed gaming-specific laptops around.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Conclusion
The new Blade makes good on its promise of improving its internal specs to a level we expected in the first place. It's still impressively thin, runs games better than before, and has a striking design. However, the Switchblade UI, while innovative in concept, doesn't yet have the sort of gaming support it needs. Who knows when it will. The Blade is the most portable of the big-screen gaming laptops, and the new version improves on the first. Is that enough for you to spend $2,500 on it? If so, this is your sleek gaming race car of choice...but just be aware that it's not cheap, nor is it the fastest gaming PC. It might, however, be the coolest-looking.

Find out more about how we test Windows laptops.

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Digital Storm P170EM
328 

Razer Blade (fall 2012)
346 

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Street Fighter IV (in fps, native resolution, 2X AA, V Sync off)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Digital Storm P170EM
138.2 

Razer Blade (fall 2012)
100.8 

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Load test (avg. watts)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Razer Blade (fall 2012)
48.48 

Digital Storm P170EM
62.14 

System configurations:

Razer Blade (fall 2012)
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.2GHz Intel Core i7-3632QM; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 660M / 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 500GB Hitachi 7,200rpm

Origin EON17-S (Ivy Bridge - Intel Core i7-3920XM)
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.9GHz Intel Core i7-3920XM; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 675M / 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; HDD No. 1: 1TB Samsung 5,400rpm + HDD No. 2, 3: 240GB Corsair Force SSD (x2) RAID 0

Maingear EX-L 15
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-3820QM; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 675M / 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 750GB Seagate 7,200rpm

Samsung Series 7 NP700Z7C7-S01
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-3615QM; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GT 650M / 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 1TB Seagate 5,400rpm

Dell Inspiron 17R SE - 2051BK (7720)
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-3610QM; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GT 650M / 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 1TB Western Digital 5,400rpm

Digital Storm P170EM
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-3610QM; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 2GB AMD Radeon HD 7970M / 2GB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 750GB Seagate 7,200rpm

Razer Blade (fall 2012)
7.5

Razer Blade - fall 2012

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 8Battery 6Support 7
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