Look and feel
The more things change, the more they stay the same -- an old French proverb, the lyrics to a Bon Jovi song, the Razer Blade gaming laptop. If you've seen the original, you've seen the latest, too. We'll get to the granular hardware upgrades shortly, but our previous impressions are worth repeating: the Blade is a gorgeous machine. Its thin, 0.8-inch profile and elegant aluminum casing lend it a premium feel that other 17-inch gaming rigs can't hope to match. It's also worth mentioning in passing that it bears a loose resemblance to the MacBook Pro. Razer CEO Min-Liang Tan even joked with us about it, casually jesting that the Blade could fill the gap the discontinued 17-inch MBP left in the market.
That homage notwithstanding, Razer does give the Blade some unique flourishes, including the company's triple-snake logo, a subtly ridged chassis and green USB 3.0 slots. The trio of USB plugs that adorn the rig's left side (now all USB 3.0, as opposed to the original Blade's mix-and-match affair) are flanked by HDMI, Ethernet and a power socket to their left, with a solitary audio jack on the right. The rest of the machine's edges are left blank, however, save for a pair of vents and a Kensington lock slot. Luddites hanging on to their optical media won't find solace here: the Blade once again forgoes a disc drive -- a concession, perhaps, to keep the chassis as thin as it is. Matching the machine's own slim profile is an equally trim power supply, which is easily half the size of most gaming laptop AC adapters.
A large, glowing power button separates the laptop's keyboard from the speaker bar riding along the hinge. This looks very clean, but isn't the best use of available space -- the power toggle could have been moved to either of the frame's edges to afford the keyboard a slightly higher position on the body's face, giving users just that much more room to rest their palms -- not that it isn't comfortable already, but folks with larger hands (this editor included) would appreciate the extra space.
Speaking of nitpicks, there was one specific complaint we registered with the original Blade that's worth revisiting: the hinge. The old unit's base had a nasty habit of lifting off the table whenever we lifted the lid. Before sending out a machine for review, Razer's CEO personally assured us the problem had been solved. We'll admit, the very first time we lifted the Razer's screen, its body tagged along -- but every opening since then has gone by the book, with the base staying put on the desk where it belongs. Suffice to say, we're satisfied.
Keyboard, trackpad and Switchblade UI
It's hard to recommend any trackpad for gaming, but Razer's touch-sensitive "Switchblade Display" is actually quite tolerable. That's largely thanks to its location. Since it sits in the 10-key's typical spot, the pad lends itself to comfortable gaming more so than what you'll find on most laptops. With so many superior mousing alternatives, there's no reason any respectable gamer should need to take aim with the touchpad, but those willing to try (or those who accidentally left their peripherals at home) will at least find it relatively well-suited to the task. It performs admirably as a regular trackpad as well, and executes multitouch gestures more reliably than most inlaid pointers. Still, the starboard touchpad takes some getting used to -- more than once we found ourselves brushing up against the area below the keyboard, staring in bewilderment at the unmoving cursor on the rig's screen. Ah, right. It's over there.
The Razer's LCD touchpad is far more than a mere mouse, of course -- it's a cornerstone of the outfit's Switchblade interface. This is hardly the first time we've seen Switchblade -- it's appeared in various Razer keyboards, the original Razer Blade and even a prototype that never saw the light of day. It's a neat idea -- 10 customizable screen-packed buttons headlining a small touch display for using custom apps, creating macros and launching applications -- but not much has changed about the interface over the last eight months. Razer's own Synapse software still allows the user to create sets of pre-programmed keys, each with a custom icon and specific task. For instance, you can perform a keyboard or mouse function, launch a program, switch profiles or even tweak settings on another connected Razer product (like a standalone gaming mouse). Again, though, it did all of that before, so this is mostly just a refresher.
The Switchblade UI has learned a few new tricks, which have been pushed out to compatible devices over the past several months. In addition to sporting special modes that stuff Internet Explorer, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, a traditional numpad and a clock in the touchpad's screen, Razer has slowly been adding additional game-specific applications to the Switchblade. The Star Wars: The Old Republic Combat Logger, for instance, keeps track of in-game damage, threats and healing data on-screen. Some of the new offerings aren't so robust, sadly -- the UI's Team Fortress 2 and Battlefield 3 apps are little more than pre-configured profiles -- and not all of their toggles actually correspond to action in the game. Fingering the button that displays the TF2 Engineer's pistol, for instance, brings up a quick-menu for team voice commands. We found we were better off building our own profiles, and ignoring most of the new "apps" entirely.
Razer's interface is nothing if not consistent. Its 10 configurable keys are still a joy to use as an application launcher, and being able to customize the display of each individual key is a geeky pleasure of the rarest kind -- but that consistency means the pad's shortcomings are the same, too. The setup's display-laden keys, for instance, appear to ghost and bleed if they aren't looked upon from just the right angle. Similarly, the trackpad's screen lacks visual fidelity and plays back YouTube videos at a choppy framerate. Using the Switchblade to peek at Twitter or Gmail mid-game is novel, to be sure, but our initial opinion still hasn't changed: a lot of this miniature display's functions are better had on a smartphone.
The pad can be a bit finicky, too -- while it does a fantastic job of recognizing standard Windows multitouch gestures, its own three-finger swipe, used to view the next or previous page of configured buttons, fails to register unless your fingers are lined up perfectly. Three fingers, but staggered, rather than in a straight line? Try again. And again. And again. It becomes tedious. When things go according to plan, though, Switchblade is a joy to use -- it provides quick access to any key combination imaginable, stamped with a colorful custom image. We just see major room for improvement, both on the hardware and software front. Razer's second-gen laptop would have been great for introducing a remodeled Switchblade.
Keyboard preference is a tricky thing, and gamers are among the pickiest -- not that mobile computers offer them much choice. Falling in line with the latest trends, the Blade keeps the same chiclet layout used on the original, though it's worth noting that the keyboard's backlight now illuminates the previously dim Fn functions on the F1-F12 keys. The Blade's alphabet islands live in the shallows, barely traveling at all with each depression. The keys don't feel very mushy, but they don't have particularly soft landing either. At first glance the space bar appears to be a tad short, but our thumbs never wavered, resting comfortably on its outer edge. Our biggest issue with the Blade's keys is also something we admire about it: the delete key. Positioned conveniently above backspace, it granted us immediate access to multi-directional text eradication -- but its close proximity caused more than a few mistakes. As a gaming keyboard? Its anti-ghosting features lend it the necessary cred. We were able to log up to 13 simultaneous key presses on the chiclet clacker, depressing at least four keys on each row of the board's QWERTY alphabet without conflict. Suffice to say, gamers counting their APM (actions per minute) shouldn't have any hardware handicaps to contend with here.
Display and sound
Like most laptops in its class, the Blade features a luxuriously large 17.3-inch 1,920 x 1,080 display. It's the kind of looking glass that makes you feel like your rig is only technically portable. Big, yes, but forgivable for the sake of the broad viewing angles it provides -- truly, it's the next best thing to taking your desktop with you. That said, the Blade's humongous screen isn't the most vibrant we've seen on a gaming rig. The LED-backlit display doesn't have any contrast or color issues, mind you, nor does it have particularly bad viewing angles, color banding or any other common plagues -- it just isn't spectacular. This is a well-balanced monitor -- its colors are bright where they need to be, and its blacks are fairly deep. This is a display that won't disappoint, but certainly won't dazzle. It also won't soak up too much glare, featuring a matte finish rather than the glossy mess most displays wear.
The unit's speakers are equally average -- though in this case, "par for the course" is a marked improvement. The first-gen Blade flirted with tinniness and distortion, but we found few hints of either in this refreshed model. The newest hardware still can't shake the table with significant bass, but it won't distort at maximum volume either. Even so, cranking the Blade to 11 sounds a bit more like dialing in to a modest five -- its acoustic chops simply don't reach very far, and couldn't hope to fill a decently sized room. The speakers' central location don't help much either -- positioned dead center below the rig's display, they offer very little in terms of left / right recognition.
Performance and battery life
As much as we'd love to keep gushing about the Razer Blade's slim profile and aluminum styling, the heart of this second-generation laptop comes down to its internals: this is where the real difference is. And believe us, it's a difference worth noting. The newest Blade kicks its old Sandy Bridge CPU to the curb in favor of a brand new Intel Core i7-3632QM 2.2Ghz (that's 3.2GHz with Turbo Boost) processor. In fact, the Blade is one of the first machines out the door with Intel's new silicon -- and man, this thing really cooks. Not only did it net the Blade a hearty 17,120 in PCMark Vantage, but when paired with the rig's Kepler GPU it easily handled two top-tier games running at max settings. It also had no problem juggling a word processor, a few benchmarking tools and six web browser windows whose tabs were streaming music and video, or loading assorted blogs. Save for a bit (well, a lot) of extra heat pouring out the machine's vents, we were hard-pressed to notice a significant difference in system performance. Of course, if you're looking for quantifiable, sane and thoroughly less ridiculous tests, benchmark numbers speak for themselves.
The original Blade's lofty price (a staggering $2,799) made its mid-range internals a sore spot with many consumers. It plodded its way through nearly every contemporary game with lackluster framerates. Yes, dialing down the settings produced playable results, but the OG Blade had positioned itself as the "world's first true gaming laptop." Its GeForce GT 555M simply couldn't live up to that promise. NVIDIA's GeForce GTX 660M, on the other hand? Now that has potential. It still isn't the most powerful mobile chip on the market (or even in NVIDIA's own lineup), but it packs more than enough oomph to give the machine the kind of performance we were expecting all along.
Whereas the Blade's predecessor struggled to run The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim without making major concessions in visual fidelity, the newest iteration had no such problems. Tamriel's frozen North came to life in ultra high quality at 43 frames per second. Battlefield 3 didn't shine quite as brightly, but still clipped 30 fps on high, and 38 fps on auto, which tuned textures to ultra while dialing most of the regular settings to medium. Its performance in Starcraft II saw improvements as well, with framerates climbing to an average of 50 fps with settings at their highest levels. Other titles required some concessions, however -- Batman: Arkham City played like a dream as long as DirectX 11 features were disabled, scoring 47 fps with PhysX tuned to high. In Grand Theft Auto IV, it clocked a respectable 32 fps average as long as texture filtering and draw distance were reeled in slightly. Team Fortress 2, on the other hand, required no adjustments -- we blazed along at 54 fps with maximum video settings enabled.
Unfortunately, not everything we threw at it ran smoothly. The Witcher 2 stuttered at a meager 9 fps. Yikes. Turning off über-sampling brought it up to an almost playable 20 fps, but we had to abandon the Blade's native 1,920 x 1,080 resolution to eke out a decent framerate (1,366 x 768 turned out to be the sweet spot.) That visual concession allowed us to push 40 fps on the game's high settings by trading sharp visuals for smooth gameplay. The result was completely playable, but muddied and unsatisfying.
The Blade's CPU and graphics aren't the only upgrades Razer had in store -- it also kitted the rig out with 8GB of slightly faster 1600MHz DDR3 RAM and a 64GB / 500GB hybrid solid state drive. Pitted against the ATTO disk benchmark, the dual-identity drive wrote at 180 MB/s, and read at 476 MB/s. The drive is a tad slower than a dedicated SSD, but the Blade's 25-second boot time is nothing to shake a stick at. Razer says the drive will learn to prioritize your most-used applications over time, but we didn't notice any specific increase in speed for any particular item during our time with it.
When Razer's CEO first told us about the Blade refresh, he let out a slightly sad sigh when he said the one thing the company couldn't improve was battery life. Intel's and NVIDIA's latest chips apparently take too much power. Despite Min-Liang's words of caution, our review unit survived nearly three and a half hours in Engadget's standard battery test -- besting not only its predecessor by a solid 20 minutes, but the runtime of many of its competitors, too. Gaming without a charger yields less impressive results, burning through the rig's reserves in about an hour. High performance activity also generates a fair bit of heat, radiating from the area just above the keyboard and the rear of the machine's underside. It's not so hot that you couldn't tolerate it through a pair of jeans, but it's warm enough that you'd want to keep the Blade off your lap without proper attire. No short shorts, in other words.
In a stroke of pure genius, Razer omitted needless bloatware from its original Blade laptop, a move we're happy to see turning into standard practice for the company. Like its predecessor, the second-generation machine comes pre-loaded only with Razer's own Synapse software -- a suite you'll need to make use of the rig's Switchblade interface. In fact, the fancy keys are reliant on the software -- if Synapse crashes, or is closed for any reason, you can kiss that 10-key program launcher goodbye. The program does more than just manage the Blade's magic buttons, however. It allows you to click on any key -- not just the special Switchblade toggles -- and reassign its function. Do you find the right Alt key to be a bit redundant? Turn it into a program launcher or a sensitivity switch for a compatible Razer mouse. The app is fairly versatile, but not terribly intuitive. Managing the Switchblade keys in particular isn't as straightforward as we'd like, and the experience gave us a rare yearning for a nagging start-up tutorial. Like the interface itself, the Synapse software suite has room for improvement.
Razer's second-generation Blade comes in a single $2,500 configuration -- with that Core i7-3632QM CPU, NVIDIA GeForce GTX 660M graphics, 8GB of DDR3 RAM and a 500GB / 64GB solid state hybrid drive for faster boot and load times. Virtually no other 17-inch gaming rig on the market is going to be able to go toe to toe with the Razer on size, but price and performance? That's another matter altogether. Samsung's Series 7 Gamer, for instance, rings in at a full $600 less than the Blade, outpacing it in game performance without making visual concessions. Still too rich for your blood? Take a look at the MSI GT70 -- it costs nearly $1,000 less than the new Razer Blade and delivers similar performance, albeit with a last-generation GeForce GTX 670M GPU in tow. Each of these machines have marked advantages over the Blade as well -- the GT70 flaunts a far superior sound system, powered by Dynaudio. The Razer's passable display also can't hope to compete with the Series 7 Gamer's 400-nit SuperBright Plus panel. On the other hand, both of these contenders are inferior when it comes to style.
If you're hooked on the Blade's slim profile, but aren't sure black is your color -- there's another option, but you might get laughed out of your next LAN party. Kitted out with its own Kepler-based GT 650M and an Ivy Bridge i7 processor, Apple's latest MacBook Pro puts on a passable facade as a Windows gaming machine -- lagging only slightly behind the Blade when running games at 1,920 x 1,080 on their highest settings. Starting at $2,199 for the Retina display MacBook Pro, however, doesn't net you much in savings -- but if you aren't sold on the Switchblade interface, if you're a Mac fanboy at heart or if you just have money to burn, it might just be a viable alternative. Just don't come looking for us if gamers on the other side of the aisle shoot you a few nasty looks.
It's hard to hit the market with a self-given description as the "world's first true gaming laptop" only to get knocked down by critics. Subpar audio, a finicky hinge and crippled performance were all common complaints about the original Razer Blade. The reaction among gamers sent a shockwave through Razer, and the company vowed to do better. As for us, we're seeing a fixed hinge, better (but still lackluster) audio offerings and a significant leap in performance. And we'll say this: if we had to choose one gaming laptop to lug outside the house, it'd be this. It's slim, attractive, slightly more manageable than other gaming rigs and -- perhaps most importantly -- it won't stick out like a sore thumb in public.
But even with a $300 price drop, the Blade remains firmly fixed in luxury-item territory. Before dropping $2,500, prospective buyers should understand they're purchasing style, not staying power. The new Blade may be fit to take on most contemporary PC games, but it's far from future-proof. Owning the best-looking gaming laptop on the market means making compromises: dialing down performance in games and accepting the fact that you may need to upgrade sooner than you might have if you spent less on a homelier rig. That's a tall order, and it's hard to say if it's worth it. Nobody ever said these kinds of decisions were easy.