New Razer Blade gaming laptop shrinks down to ultrabook size (exclusive hands-on)

New Razer Blade gaming laptop shrinks down to ultrabook size (exclusive hands-on)

Razer, the PC peripherals manufacturer, is now 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.
And yet, the newly announced 14-inch Razer Blade is a throwback:
no touch screen. No Switchblade second-screen clickpad. No convertible
tablet mode. This is a laptop. A very thin, very sleek gaming laptop,
the type you’d recognize.

And, it’s a smart idea.
We’ve had a prerelease
version of the new Blade here at CNET, and have been giving it a spin
over the last few days. Here are our initial thoughts.

Design: Razor-thin indeed…but traditional

The previous two Razer products were bold indeed, but not exactly
recommendation-worthy. The Blade never made good on the potential of its
touch-screen clickpad; few games ever had apps that took advantage of
it. The Edge works as a proof-of-concept for hard-core tablet gaming,
and it has some wonderful qualities, but its price and battery life keep
it a niche product. Both devices, however, showed off Razer’s ability
to pull off some sharp designs.

The new Razer Blade is a compact version of the larger
Blade, but it loses the experimental Switchblade second-screen touch
pad that was shifted off to the right. Instead, there’s a large, basic
touch pad — with click buttons beneath, no less — back under the
keyboard, in the middle, where you’d expect. The backlit keyboard has a
standard key layout, with no intrusive macro buttons, and, oddly enough,
no number pad either. Stereo speakers flank the keyboard’s right and
left sides.

The new Blade looks like a matte-black Retina Display MacBook Pro with a slightly wider base, even down to the details around the front lip and the recessed keyboard’s curvature.

Weighing 4.1 pounds, the Blade has a practical feel.
Measuring 13.6 inches by 9.3 inches and 0.66 inch thick, it’s a lot
smaller than most 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 ultrabooklike 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.

Horsepower and specs: A step above the typical thin laptop

Under the hood, the 14-inch Blade has some impressive horsepower — even matching and exceeding the specs of the 15-inch Retina Display MacBook Pro
(although that laptop came out a year ago). A fourth-gen quad-core
Intel “Haswell” Core i7 processor (unspecified, since Intel hasn’t
officially revealed full details on its not-yet-released processors yet)
is accompanied by an Nvidia GeForce GTX 765M GPU with 2GB of GDDR5
memory. The system comes with 8GB of 1,600MHz DDR3 RAM. But, the Blade
offers only solid-state storage options: a way-too-low 128GB mSATA
solid-state drive is what comes standard, but the Blade can be
configured with 256GB or 512GB. The original Blade had a 256GB SSD but
shifted to a hybrid hard drive with a larger storage capacity.

The
14-inch, 16:9 matte display has a 1,600×900-pixel resolution, but isn’t
a touch screen. There’s a 1.3-megapixel Webcam. The Blade is 802.11
b/g/n-compatible with its Qualcomm Killer
Wireless-N network adapter, and has Bluetooth 4.0. Razer’s released a
beta version of its in-game VoIP software that works with the included
array microphone.

Gaming performance

How do games perform on the new Blade? We’ve taken a sneak peek. After running a few early tests, results are promising. BioShock Infinite
ran at 47.1 frames per second at native 1,600×900-pixel resolution
(UltraDX11), and 91.4fps at 1,366×768 and medium graphics settings. The
more demanding Metro: Last Light
ran at 16fps at 1,600×900 resolution and high graphics settings. In
short, the Blade isn’t the fastest gaming laptop around, but it handles
mainstream games nicely. More to come in the full review.

The downsides

Now, for the drawbacks, starting with the screen. This 14-inch display
isn’t Retina Display-competitive; not even close. It’s 1,600×900 pixels,
not 1080p, which is a bit of a head-scratcher at this price. Also,
while it does have a matte surface, the display doesn’t seem 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 tilted at different angles. It feels middle-of-the-road … and, it
isn’t a touch screen. The Dolby Home Theater stereo speakers are
shockingly loud, but also sounded a little rattly on this prerelease
model.

Also, there aren’t very many ports on the Blade. Three
USB 3.0 and HDMI…and that’s it. No Ethernet, no SD card slot even,
and definitely no optical drive. I can live without an optical drive,
but Ethernet would have been helpful considering how download-heavy
Steam can get.
Finally, the storage capacity. The 128GB standard
configuration won’t do for serious gamers. I wish there had been a
hybrid hard-drive option — SSDs are still pricey in laptops. The
upper-level cost for a 512GB model would be too much to swallow.

Perfect size?

The new Razer Blade is more of a mainstream commodity product than
anything Razer’s ever made, but it’s still an expensive machine: the set
configuration costs a pretty high $1,799. 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…which is
something you’d hope to do after dropping nearly $2,000 on it. Razer
estimates about 6 hours of battery life, but we haven’t even started
running those tests. The most interesting question remains this: when it
comes to PC gaming mid-2013, is traditional hardware winning out over
experimental touch design, or is Razer hedging its bets between this and
the Edge?
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