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Razer Blade Stealth review: Razer's slick new laptop will make your MacBook Air jealous

Press down the Fn key, and any keyboard lights are muted, except for the top row of function keys, which are now highlighted. That's handy for adjusting volume or screen brightness on the fly, but it's a shame the actual icon images of the corresponding function for each F-key isn't also backlit -- you'll just have to remember that Fn+F1 mutes the speakers, for example.

Command and control

Of course, all of this fun comes at a cost -- and that cost is battery life, which is especially important when driving a UHD display and a Core i7 CPU. The included Razer Synapse settings app allows for battery-saving preferences, such as setting the keyboard backlight to be dimmer, or off entirely, when running on battery power. The Synapse app allows for easy access to many system tools, such as keyboard and touchpad settings, system lights and programmable macros. If allowed to, it will also record heatmaps of gameplay using data from your mouse.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The only odd note is that the Synapse app insists on registering you via an email address and logging you in to use it, which is exactly the kind of over-the-top personal information gathering that so many consumers are rebelling against in the age of data security paranoia. Put another way, why does Razer need my email address to allow me to change my keyboard preferences?

Besides playing with the keyboard colors, I also used the Synapse app to quickly get to the Windows 10 settings menus for the touchpad. At its default settings, it felt too sluggish moving across the 4K display, or when using multitouch gestures to scroll down long Web pages and documents. Cranking up the sensitivity for both helped, but no Windows laptop has managed to come close to the gesture control and ease of use of Apple's MacBook touchpads. The keyboard is also not among the best we've used for everyday typing, and it suffers from very shallow keys. It's not as shallow as the 12-inch MacBook, but for fans of a deep, satisfying click from each key press, there's a learning curve to getting comfortable with it.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Connectivity consists of a pair of USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI output and Thunderbolt 3, which is routed via a USB-C connection. This small, reversible plug type is only found in a handful of newer laptops, such as the 12-inch Apple MacBook. Like the MacBook (but unlike most of the other small handful of USB-C laptops), the USB-C connection here works for both data and power. When using the not-yet-released Core unit for external graphics, the Core connects at Thunderbolt 3 speeds through the USB-C connection. For now, USB-C is still uncommon enough that it's handy to have the traditional rectangular USB-A 3.0 ports as well.

Performance and battery

Because even the base model has a current-generation (Skylake) Intel Core i7-6500U, performance will be more than powerful enough for everyday tasks no matter which configuration you get. In our benchmark tests, it was faster than the MacBook Air, HP Envy 13 and Lenovo Yoga Y900 in some tests, but closely matched in others. Keep in mind the chip here is a low-voltage dual-core Core i7, versus the quad-core Core i5 and Core i7 chips found in many midsize laptops. In the low-voltage "U" series of current-gen Intel processors, i5 and i7 chips don't always have a ton of performance daylight between them.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Even though this isn't a gaming laptop, and won't be until that Core accessory is available, that doesn't mean you'll never play a game on it -- this is a Razer laptop after all. The combination of Core i7 CPU and built-in Intel 520 graphics works surprisingly well, even on some newer games. The main points to keep in mind are dropping the game resolution to 1,920x1,080 and keeping in-game detail settings to low/medium. By doing that, I was able to easily play the new puzzle game The Witness at 1,920x1,080 and medium settings, and my old standby, BioShock Infinite, at the same resolution but low graphics settings.

But all this good stuff -- performance, design, cool keyboard, reasonable price -- has to come at a cost. And in this case, it's battery life. It's already known that a 4K display on a laptop is a battery killer, and this is no exception. Streaming HD video nonstop, but keeping the Chroma keyboard lights turned off, the Razer Blade Stealth ran for 3:12, far shorter than other 12- and 13-inch laptops. That's not entirely unexpected, and the QHD version with its lower screen resolution should run for at least a few hours more.

Conclusion

For use as a travel laptop, I'd lean towards that QHD model, as the resolution is still more than high enough for something this size, plus it costs less and promises better battery life. With a QHD display and 128GB of storage, it's a fantastic value if you're looking to hit that magic $999 number, and likely will run for significantly longer per charge, based on our previous experience with 4K vs. non-4K laptops.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

But the 4K display and added storage space make the higher-end configuration tested here are worthwhile upgrades, too, and the extra-bright display is really a joy to watch. While we're eager to see if Razer can pull off the Core add-on and its promise of high-end slim laptop gaming, the Stealth is a fantastic highly portable laptop all on its own.

For another option in a 12.5-inch 4K/Core i7 laptop, Toshiba has dropped the price of its similar-on-paper Radius 12 from $1,599 to just $1,199, but that system had so many ergonomic and usability issues that it failed to impress. Plus, you can't set it in a dark room and have it cycle through a trippy rainbow of keyboard colors until your eyes bleed.

Multimedia Multitasking test 3.0

Razer Blade Stealth
515
Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2015)
505
HP Envy 13
626
Lenovo Yoga 900
586
Microsoft Surface Pro 4
519

Note:

Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Geekbench 3 (Multi-Core)

Razer Blade Stealth
6,874
Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2015)
5,672
HP Envy 13
6,931
Lenovo Yoga 900
6,713
Microsoft Surface Pro 4
6,775

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Streaming video playback battery drain test

Razer Blade Stealth
192
Apple MacBook Air (13-inch,2015)
608
HP Envy 13
358
Lenovo Yoga 900
422
Microsoft Surface Pro 4
298

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance (in minutes)

System configurations

Razer Blade Stealth Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.5HGz Intel Core i7-6500U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1,024MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 520; 256GB SSD
Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2015) Apple Yosemite OSX 10.10.2; 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-5250U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1,536MB Intel HD Graphics 6000; 128GB SSD
HP Envy 13 Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.3GHz Intel Core i5-6200U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 520; 128GB SSD
Lenovo Yoga 900 Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.5HGz Intel Core i7-6500U; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 520; 512GB SSD
Microsoft Surface Pro 4 Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit) 2.4GHz Intel Core i5-6300U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 520; 256GB SSD

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