There's something fundamentally broken in the world of PC laptops: Machines designed nearly four years ago still provide the basic model for how to build one correctly today. The Razer Blade is, in some ways, one of the best Windows laptops I've used in a long time. But I can't decide if it's merely ironic or outright depressing that a PC designed to reinvigorate PCs is ultimately most interesting because it steals something from Apple that most PC makers only wish they could grasp:
How to steal like Apple.
Why It Matters
If you don't buy a PC at Best Buy, the process of purchasing one is often something like this: Pick one model out of dozen or so made by your company of choice (or a small handful if you're shopping for gaming PCs) then configure a dozen specifications to your liking. It's an ocean of choice, even if your choices are mostly terrible. Razer makes one computer. The Blade. It has one configuration. That's it.
The idea is fairly seductive: re-inventing the PC as a new kind of platform. One that's more homogenous, in a way -- console-like, even -- but which promises to ultimately take PCs forward again by more aggressively evolving the platform, leaving the legacy cruft like optical drives behind. (The Blade does not have an optical drive.) This in a world where HP contemplated selling its PC business and Dell says it's no longer a PC company, but an IT company. Well, we need another PC company.
Oh, and the Blade's multitouch glass trackpad is a screen (!).
If you were to don a blindfold and grasp the Blade -- touch the aluminium unibody, try-but-fail to make it bend and creek -- you'd probably think it was a MacBook Pro. And even if you managed to peek out from under your mask, you'd probably still think it was a MacBook Pro, just eviler. It's just about as thin as the 17-inch Pro -- so like, actually portable! -- though the 7 pounds of heft make lugging it anywhere a commitment.
The last PC laptop to feel this way, to feel this special when you opened the box, was Dell's ill-fated design dream Adamo. This is an exciting piece of kit. So when you boot up the Blade for the first time, it's almost disappointing that what awaits you is a basically vanilla build of Windows 7 Home Premium. And then you have to install a bunch of Windows updates and new drivers and update the cloud-connected Razer Synapse software. It feels like the Blade deserves something more. But the Synapse software is nice -- it syncs and carries your Razer settings for custom key bindings and peripherals from machine to machine to machine. Handy, since setting up custom icons and macros/commands for the 10 much-ballyhooed Switchblade interface keys, while not an exercise in total misery, is something you won't really want to do ever again.
You would expect a company that got its start making ludicrously expensive keyboards and mice to produce a laptop with an appropriately decent keyboard. It is pretty nice. So's the multitouch glass trackpad -- two-finger scrolling doesn't make you want to kill yourself, as PC trackpads typically do. That said, the screen aspect feels like a gimmick -- albeit a very good one -- more than a game-changer right now. Mobile Twitter, Facebook, Gmail and even Internet Explorer are too small and stunted to be truly useful, even if the game mode and other settings are indeed handy. The great white hope is cool software from devs interested in scribbling magic for the screen, but I wouldn't hold my breath too long waiting for those killer apps to arrive.
OK, so real talk: The Blade is nearly $US3000. The first true gaming laptop, according to Razer. What's the performance like? Keep in mind these numbers are using the Nvidia drivers that shipped with the system we tested, which are due to be updated right quick. Well, with maxed settings running at the full 1920x1080 res, I was seeing an average of 65 frames per second in Team Fortress 2, and around 60 in Left 4 Dead 2. In Rage, with 2x AA and the anisotropic filter set to low at full resolution, I was getting around 35-40fps. And for the big test, Battlefield 3? With all medium settings, and resolution set to 1600x900, I was getting 25-27 frames per second, though on low settings at 1920x1080, I could get 30-32fps. Battery life? In one test, we got 49 minutes of Team Fortress 2 with the screen at 50 per cent brightness and backlit keys on. Running simply Netflix got two hours and five minutes.
So you're not buying a gaming monster, so much as a very capable vision of something more.
There's a lot to love, largely because you can feel how much love went into the Blade. It's put together. The design, the materials, the construction. There aren't many machines like this. The 1920x1080 screen is pretty solid. The tiny power brick is the size power bricks should be. The Blade makes the case that laptops should never be over an inch thick again. You can see how the cloud-connected Razer Synapse software is the start of something more. And how can you not like the batshit-craziness of a trackpad display?
The super polished end-to-end experience is diminished over and over again by some of the quirks in Windows: The updates, and in particular, driver pains, which made me stroke out more than once. It's one of those painful reminders that as much as Razer wants to deliver something like the seamless experience of a console, the software technology they're bound to isn't there yet.
And while Razer isn't trying to sell performance here in the way that say, the cats at Origin are with their gaming PCs, it's still hard to not want something slightly more out of machine that costs nearly three thousand dollars and isn't really upgradeable, even if niceties like the SSD make everyday computing plenty fast. Oh, and while it's a tiny thing, the placement of the trackpad -- to the right of the keyboard -- was something I never quite got used to. That or the very squishy mouse buttons, which I thought needed some more click to them.
Should I Buy This?
I want to buy Razer's vision of a new kind of gaming PC very, very badly. I'm not so sure I'd buy the Blade though, even if it is very clearly the first step toward that vision. It's not that the Blade is bad, either. I just have a gut feeling that the next version is going to be so much better you're going to feel kind of sad if you buy this one.
Razer Blade Specs
OS: Windows 7 Home Premium Processor: 2.8GHz Intel Core i7 2640M Processor RAM: 8GB 1333MHz DDR3 RAM Graphics Card: Nvidia GeForce GT 555M, 2GB GDDR5 video memory Screen: 17-inch, 1920x1080 LED display Storage: 250GB SSD Weight: 3kg Battery: 60Wh Price: $US2700