Razer's Blade Laptop Gets a Much-Needed Overhaul; Still a Luxury Item
Razer's Blade represents a much better value the second time around, costing $300 less while receiving a significant boost from the new GTX 660M GPU.
Portable gaming laptops are gradually becoming thinner and lighter, but none has surpassed Razer's Blade in this regard. Even at 17 inches, the narrow 0.88-inch profile and meager weight of 6.6 pounds puts Razer's design miles ahead of the competition. The first model shipped with a modest CPU/GPU combo that, in light of the retail price of $2,800, left much to be desired from a performance standpoint. Thankfully, things are much better this time around. The lower price point of $2,500, with the increase in power, makes the Blade a much more accessible gaming machine.
The most notable change to the Blade's internals is the new Kepler-based GPU, the Nvidia GeForce GTX 660M with 2GB of DDR5. The new system also uses Intel's latest HM77 chipset, featuring a third-generation IvyBridge Core i7-3632QM CPU, clocked at 2.2GHz (3.2GHz turbo). Razer replaced the 256GB SSD with a hybrid solution, composed of a 500GB 7200rpm physical drive, coupled with a 64GB SSD utilized as a cache drive.
These specs aren't unique among gaming laptops, but the fact that the same hardware exists within the diminutive Blade is reason for Razer to celebrate. True, other manufactures like Alienware and Origin PC cram similar power into larger chassis for around $2,000, but you obviously lose out on portability. Razer has cornered the market for high-end, portable gaming, but it's only a matter of time until other manufacturers come up with rival hardware in a similar form factor. The Blade was never intended to be the one gaming laptop to rule them all, at least in terms of raw power, but you can count on it to run any modern game in a reasonable fashion. Realistically, most games will have to scale back antialiasing and DirectX 11 effects. Metro 2033 is a perfect example. Benchmarking the game on the highest possible settings didn't achieve desirable frame rates.
Metro 2033 - Very High, DirectX 11
Settings: Resolution: 1920x1080; DirectX: DirectX 11; Quality: Very High; Antialiasing: MSAA 4X; Texture Filtering: AF 16X; Advanced PhysX: Enabled; Tesselation: Enabled; DOF: Enabled
- Total Frames: 521, Total Time: 59.58s
- Average Frame Rate: 8.85
- Max. Frame Rate: 70.72
- Min. Frame Rate: 1.83
In order to get the demanding Metro 2033 to achieve decent results, we had to scale down the resolution to 1600x900, ditch DirectX 11 in favor of DirectX 9, and scale back the settings to "medium," rather than "very high."
Metro 2033 - Medium, DirectX 9
Settings: Resolution: 1600x900; DirectX: DirectX 9; Quality: Medium; Antialiasing: AAA; Texture Filtering: AF 4X; Advanced PhysX: Disabled; Tesselation: Not Supported; DOF: Not Supported
- Total Frames: 2587, Total Time: 59.55s
- Average Frame Rate: 43.54
- Max. Frame Rate: 97.34
- Min. Frame Rate: 6.61
Far Cry 2, on the other hand, performed very well with settings on Ultra.
Far Cry 2 - Ultra, DirectX 10
Settings: Demo (Ranch Small), 1920x1080 (60Hz), D3D10, Fixed Time Step (Yes), Disable Artificial Intelligence (No), Full Screen, Antialiasing (8x), VSync (No), Overall Quality (Ultra High), Vegetation (Very High), Shading (Ultra High), Terrain (Ultra High), Geometry (Ultra High), Post FX (High), Texture (Ultra High), Shadow (Ultra High), Ambient (High), Hdr (Yes), Bloom (Yes), Fire (Very High), Physics (Very High), RealTrees (Very High)
- Total Frames: 2243, Total Time: 51.00s
- Average Frame Rate: 43.98
- Max. Frame Rate: 63.51
- Min. Frame Rate: 35.19
The 17.3-inch screen's resolution maxes out at 1920x1080 and features outstanding contrast, producing bright whites and deep blacks. It thankfully comes in a matte finish, so glare shouldn't be too much of an issue unless you are in direct sunlight.
The biggest downside of investing in any gaming laptop is the limited viability as a gaming machine, primarily due to the lack of upgrade possibilities. At some point, your gaming potential will hit its limit. The Blade may not be able to run contemporary games with max settings, but it's more than capable of achieving decent frame rates with modest graphical settings. The GTX 660M is leaps and bounds better than the GTX 555M included in the original model, but it is possible to purchase a laptop equipped with the 680M (thus extending the performance/life span of the laptop) for $2,500 from other manufacturers.
One feature that will likely never be paralleled by Razer's competition is the Switchblade UI. We reviewed the Star Wars: The Old Republic keyboard from Razer earlier this year and found the Switchblade UI ill-fitting for a stand-alone keyboard priced at $250. Razer has had ample time to improve the software and usability of the touch screen, and though most of the interface and functionality remain the same, the latest iteration of the UI is a notable improvement. The Synapse configuration software is snappier this time around, as is the activation of profiles. Bugs found in the Star Wars-themed Switchblade UI keyboard have been ironed out, it seems, but occasional crashes of the built-in apps required hard reboots to restore functionality.
There are a handful of "tools" developed by EA and Valve that interface with a select list of games, including Star Wars: The Old Republic, Battlefield 3, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and Team Fortress 2. "Tools" is in quotes because only one of them, the SWTOR Battle Log Parser, is anything but a preset background and key configuration. Considering these inclusions are optional and don't impact the cost of the laptop, it's not necessarily a problem worth griping about. The SWTOR Parser is handy, doling out statistical readouts relative to your recent battle performance and skill selections, but it's not a deal maker in the grand scheme of the Blade.
This brings up the question of the need for something like the Switchblade UI. The value of the screen and the customizable keys is difficult to measure. True, it provides a secondary display capable of presenting information that would otherwise exist in a window behind your game, or perhaps on another monitor, but have users ever requested a device that supplants a traditional monitor? It's not an evil insomuch that it tarnishes the Blade's identity as a slim, capable gaming laptop, but it's not enough to be the de facto killer feature either.
The main keyboard is composed of chiclet keys with quite shallow actuation, but they are easy to get used to. In place of the number pad is the Switchblade UI, with the touch screen acting as the mousepad. Placing the mousepad and the Switchblade on the right-hand side solves the problem of gaming on a laptop without an external mouse, but anyone accustomed to the touchpad existing beneath the space bar will have to adjust to the new location.
The speaker bar inlaid above the power button is an improvement over the original's, but there's still room for Razer to improve. There's plenty to like about the volume range, but the minor bass distortion at full blast may deter most from pushing the decibels. At the front of the left-hand side sits the combo headphone/microphone port. The HDMI port also supports Digital 7.1 Dolby Surround Sound, allowing you to easily integrate the Blade into a home theater setup.
One of the biggest hurdles to overcome when developing a portable gaming laptop is reducing the size of the power brick. Impressively, Razer managed to ditch the brick and design an adapter closer in size to a wide candy bar, maintaining the air of portability set by the incredibly thin 0.88-inch profile of the laptop proper. It's a blessing that the power adapter is so small, because the battery won't last long while gaming on the Blade. You can expect five to six hours of uptime during normal use (Wi-Fi, Web browsing, Word editing, playing music), but after almost an hour of pushing the Blade to its limit, the battery eventually took its final breath. For the most part, the Blade maintains a cool exterior, only heating up when charging or gaming. When it's running at full throttle, a lot of its heat transfers through the casing near the left-hand side of the wrist rest. After a solid week of use, however, there were only a handful of occasions when the temperature peaked above "warm."
The original Blade was deeply rooted in its portability, unfortunately at the cost of performance. The new revision represents a step in the right direction, and though it still qualifies as a luxury product, the improved hardware and lower MSRP are great signs for the future of the Blade line. The Switchblade interface isn't a feature that will lure customers toward the Blade, since it's usefulness beyond standard macro keys is entirely subjective. While Razer could benefit from selling a sub-$2,000 15-inch Blade, without the Switchblade UI, the current model is still one of the best gaming laptops on the market. It has the right mix of design and functionality that a lot of people will gladly pay $2,500 for, and it's by far the most portable 17.3-inch gaming laptop available. If you need to game on the go, have some extra cash to spend, and don't require that every game perform on the most demanding settings, Razer's Blade should be at the top of your shopping list.