Razer tests the waters with Project Fiona at CES

Razer's Project Fiona looks just like you'd expect a prototype to look. Despite a thick but standard tablet-style body and 10.1 inch touchscreen, it has some unfinished aluminum struts sticking out of either side, with not-quite-perfect joysticks and buttons placed unceremoniously on the top. In short, it's a manufactured idea and not a real product just yet. And Razer's purpose at CES last week was to judge, reps told me, just how good that idea actually was.

Playing with the Project Fiona tablet doesn't feel quite right, but not because the games don't work. The Intel Core i7 processor powers a full Windows 7 installation (though it will eventually run Windows 8, says Razer), and the two prototypes at the show had full PC games on them, including the excellent Warhammer 40K: Space Marine. It ran quite well, but it was still difficult to play -- those joysticks and buttons just aren't fully in the right places. My thumbs did find and learn to use them after a few minutes of play, but it's unclear why, when Razer is already borrowing the "console controller" setup, the buttons are so strangely placed.

After about twenty minutes of handling and playing with Project Fiona, I came to the biggest question about the prototype: Why?

Even Razer itself is confused (or at least pretends to be so) about what Project Fiona actually is. The company calls it "a tablet designed for PC gaming," but it's not a tablet in that it doesn't run Android or any tablet apps. There is a touch surface on the front, and Razer suggests that PC games could eventually have touch interaction built in, though it would rather put that responsibility in developers' hands. In its current state, Project Fiona is just a really thin, powerful PC with a touchscreen and console controls, which makes you wonder why Razer thinks PC gamers want to abandon the mouse and keyboard setup they appreciate so much for this portable Frankenstein.

Razer has made this device "to get feedback from the fans," Associate Manager of Product Marketing Hilmar Hahn told me. "If the demand is very strong, we'll decide if it'll launch." The company has had some success with this kind of process before -- last year's CES prototype was the Switchblade concept, which eventually became the $2800 Blade laptop.

That model was tamed as it went from concept to reality. While the Blade keeps the Switchblade's video buttons and embedded touchscreen, it's a much more conventional, if very well made (thinner than the same-sized Apple MacBook, actually) laptop than a category-defining showpiece. But Razer also promises that a real Project Fiona product is "more likely than the Switchblade" was, and that if it is made it would be sold for "less than $1000," which would give it a very difference audience than the pricey Blade.

There's one more wrinkle here: While playing with Space Marine on the tablet, I casually mentioned that I'd already played that game on a touchscreen device. It's available on OnLive, and though the OnLive iPad app hasn't made it to the public yet, the game works fine on an early release version of the app. Hahn nodded solemnly, and took the tablet back to show that OnLive was installed and ready to go on Project Fiona. "We are actually talking to them, and we did integrate their client," he said.

Which brings up yet another question. If a gamer just wants to run PC games on OnLive while on the move, why spend $1000 on all the hardware when even a low-power tablet or laptop will run it? "It's almost there," said Hahn, "but [running the game locally] is a little bit more high-definition than OnLive can handle yet. It's definitely something that shouldn't be ignored, however," Hahn said.

In that sense, Project Fiona is a piece of hardware overlapping two worlds. It connects the high-end PC gaming software and hardware of old, with the tablet enclosure and controller interface of the new. It bridges both of those worlds, aiming to let PC gamers render their polygons locally and in high-def, while also using joysticks and buttons while out and about. But the question remains: Why does Razer think those worlds need to be connected at all?

This article was originally published on Joystiq.