Razer Switchblade hands-on at CES 2011
Unfortunately, Razer's on-hand prototype wasn't far enough along for the company to allow video, but we were able to snag a gallery's worth of images and get quite a bit of extra information that wasn't mentioned in the official press release. We're told that the design seen here is fairly close to what it'll look like when it hits mass production, and for those questioning Razer's ability to actually build a computer, we're told that the company pulled in talent from the team previously assigned to OQO in order to get the requisite pieces in place. 'Course, no one at Razer would admit that the Switchblade actually has a future on retail shelves, but we'd bet cold, hard cash that it will. Essentially, the company's been working on producing something like this for years, but Intel's mobile platforms simply weren't powerful enough (and power efficient enough) to make the crew in Carlsbad happy.
For all intents and purposes, this is a miniature netbook. But unlike the UMPCs and MIDs that never really caught traction years back, this one has a very specific purpose: gaming on the go. And it's well equipped to handle it. A full-on copy of Windows 7 is loaded on, and Razer's happy to let users surf around on the standard desktop if they so choose. If not, Razer's created an in-house overlay that makes access to the internet, media, games, etc. a cinch. Quite frankly, it's one of the most stunning overlays we've seen -- it's lightweight, non-intrusive, and it actually makes using a machine of this size more practical. The 7-inch capacitive touchscreen was decidedly glossy (and thus, a fingerprint magnet), but the 1024 x 600 screen resolution looked downright luscious.
There was also a mini-HDMI output and an AC input along the right edge, while a full-size USB 2.0 port graces the left edge. Since there's a bona fide copy of Win7 underneath, you can hook up any USB peripheral you'd like: a keyboard, mouse, webcam, whatever. There's also a front-facing webcam along the top edge of the LCD, and it'll ship with Bluetooth and WiFi radios within. Oh, and then there's the topic of 3G. The company's still working through details, but there's a fair chance that a 3G and non-3G version will be available. Razer's also talking with carriers in hopes of landing some sort of data deal -- possibly similar to the one Google worked out for the Cr-48. Imagine this thing shipping with 500MB of free data per month. Just imagine.
As for the fit, finish and feel? In a word, lovely. It's about as compact as we'd want a machine like this to be, but Razer still manages to fit a legitimate keyboard on there. You'll get 1 through 0 number keys along the top row, and all of the most basic English characters below. It may strike some as a wee bit thick, but we're certain that the engineers will try to slim things down before launch if they can do so without creating a molten hot lava rock. The LCD hinge was smooth -- even on the handmade prototype -- and the whole unit was shockingly light. Definitely fit for a cargo pocket.
KeyboardYeah, the keyboard is technically part of the hardware design, but the keyboard here deserves its own space. The company informed us that a "magical" LCD is on the lower half, with enough physical keys here to create a standard English keyboard. While typing, it feels almost exactly like any other chiclet keyboard, and we never actually felt as if the keys were overly cramped. Could you bang out an email on this thing while parked on the subway? With ease.
The key travel was excellent, and when it really became magical was when World of Warcraft was launched. Whenever a title is launched that contains a keyboard morphing profile, the keys are transitioned over to fit whatever game you're in. In WoW, users can actually disable the row of on-screen icons to save screen space, particularly since all of those squares are lit up below. There's a 'Function' key that flips over to page two when it comes to icons, and on the standard keyboard, a 'Symbol' button converts your numbers to... well, symbols.
It's still unclear if users will be able to drastically control what icons and functions the keys have, but we got the impression that it'll mostly rely on keyboard profiles for major games. Still, the sheer potential here is just magical. Razer also installed a rather interesting lighting panel beneath the keys so that you can see what lies beneath clearly while looking at them from an angle. You know, the angle at which most people look at their laptop keyboards while using them. We were immensely impressed with just how clear each of the icons were underneath, and can only hope this becomes more the norm than the exception on mobile keyboards.
Graphics / user interfaceRazer wouldn't cop to what kind of Intel chip was within, but Intel's also got a Switchblade concept at its booth. Its word? Well, let's just say we got a strong vibe that Oak Trail is being used, but don't quote us there. Or do. Your call. The graphics on World of Warcraft were impressive, and while gameplay wasn't perfectly smooth on the prototype, it was more than playable. And by the time Razer actually gets around to shipping it, we're guessing it'll be improved further. There's likely still a bit of driver work to be ironed out. The software overlay was beautiful, responsive to swipes and perfectly laid out. We aren't huge fans of third-party UIs in general, but this is one case where we actually felt it did the unit proud.
Wrap-upWe begged and pleaded, but Razer wouldn't commit to a release date or price range. Frankly, we have no idea whatsoever what the MSRP on this will look like. It's clearly a high-end, cutting-edge product, so you can almost definitely count on it not being cheap. But there's still quite a bit of work to be done between now and release day: the company's still deciding on what type of storage system to use, whether to include 3G or not (or to have a non-3G version alongside of a WWAN-connected version), what type of memory card slot to add, etc. But in our eyes, this is what UMPCs and MIDs should've been.
Portable devices that are actually powerful enough to get work done, and to engage in games during your downtime. Razer also wouldn't commit to a battery life figure; it's clear that the company's still working on improving those figures, and we're hoping that they can squeeze out three to four hours of gaming (and more when just browsing the web). It's a shame we won't see a shipping version of this for at least a year (our guess), but hey, at least you can rest assured that 2012 will be the best last year of your life ever.