Look and feel
Unpacking Razer's latest gaming laptop gives me some serious déjà vu: This newest model echoes the form, design and packaging of last year's model, even down to the smallest details. Everything here is familiar; its aluminum hull and meager port selection (three USB connections and HDMI-out) haven't changed at all. For a moment there, I was worried -- has Razer's notebook team grown complacent? Is the Blade slipping into a pattern of iterative hardware refreshes? No, thankfully; not just yet. There are notable changes here. They're just fairly subtle.
Still, my first impression wasn't wrong: This is the same thin chassis Razer designed last year -- it has the same keyboard, flanked by the same stereo speakers and headlined by the same black power button. The aforementioned ports are accompanied only by an AC plug and an audio jack. It's refreshingly simple and elegant -- kind of like a MacBook Pro draped in black with green keyboard backlighting. It's so lovely, in fact, that I almost didn't notice the notebook's one visual refinement: the reflective glass surface of the new touchscreen display.
It seems like a small change, but it makes a difference: The Blade's touch panel makes the new model's lid just a hair thicker than last year's version, increasing the laptop's overall girth to 0.7 inch. It's still gloriously thin, but it's no longer slimmer than the MacBook Air at its thickest point -- rendering my favorite bit of Razer trivia sadly obsolete. The machine has put on a little weight too: It now tips the scales at 4.47 pounds. Even so, these changes are minor; the Blade is still the best-looking gaming laptop on the market. A marginally thicker waist and a slightly heavier frame don't change that.
Keyboard and trackpad
The Razer Blade's 80-button keyboard serves as a reminder of what Razer used to be. Before it started making lighted key interfaces, gaming laptops and overpowered tablets, the company was known for building PC gaming peripherals, and that history shows. The chiclet keyboard is a joy to type on, with firm keys that depress with a light click and just the right amount of downward travel. It also boasts niche features like anti-ghosting, and has fully programmable, macro-ready keys. That said, it's not quite perfect -- the keyboard still lacks a hotkey to disable the Windows button (though this can be accomplished through Razer's Synapse software).
Although the touchpad hasn't undergone any physical changes since last year, it seems to perform a little better. It's still a large, smooth surface with a pair of quiet, if slightly mushy buttons, but it handles Windows 8 gestures better than the 2013 model did. That trackpad, if you'll recall, had an occasional tendency to zoom while scrolling -- an issue I never encountered with Razer's latest system. It's a good mouser, but I'm still not completely sold on its left and right clickers. They do the job, but their quiet depressions just feel out of sync with the satisfying clicks of the keyboard.
Display and sound
As much as we loved Razer's previous Blade laptops, they all fell short in the display department. Middling screens with poor viewing angles and low resolutions (specifically in the 14-inch Blade and Razer's Edge tablet) were the standard -- they got the job done, but they were nothing special. Finally, that's changing: The new 14-inch Razer Blade features a bright, 400-nit, 3,200 x 1,800 panel. It's a gorgeous answer to its predecessor, with bright colors, wide viewing angles and a resolution befitting a high-performance gaming rig. At worst, it loses a little brightness when you view it from off-center, but its colors don't run until you gaze at it from extreme, impractical angles.
Games and high-resolution content look stunning on the screen, of course, but it forces yet another comparison between Razer and Apple. Specifically, I mean Cupertino's MacBook Pro with Retina display: The Blade's new panel is excellent (it's true), but not everything scales well. Programs like Origin insist on displaying text, icons and windows optimized for a 1080p display, making them appear miniscule at the Blade's default resolution (Razer tells me that patch for this is incoming, however). Similarly, games configured to run at 1080p will be displayed in a large, black border unless the Blade's desktop resolution is dialed down to match. While this isn't a hard task to accomplish, it makes running games on the laptop a little less user-friendly; I found I had to be far more mindful of game and display settings than usual.
The Blade's new panel is also a touchscreen, a feature that initially took me off guard. I couldn't help but wonder if it was included as a compromise for the Blade's orphaned Switchblade interface. Razer CEO Min-Liang Tan tells me it's just the opposite. "We set out to design a truly no-compromise product," he said. "Windows 8 was designed with a touchscreen in mind." It's true; the Windows 8 Start Screen fares much better under the tip of a finger than the pointer of a mouse. Still, Tan admitted that touchscreens aren't for everyone, joking that Razer happens to make plenty of gaming mice, too.
It's hard to find fault with the Blade's speakers. Sitting on either side of the machine's keyboard, they offer loud, clear and well-separated stereo sound. They don't pump out a particularly rich sound, but they don't come off as cheap or tinny, either. Naturally, a proper gaming headset will trump any embedded speaker, but the Blade's stereo drivers sounded fine to me. Average, perhaps -- but fine.
Performance, battery life and software
Last year, Razer reined in the Blade's performance by anchoring it to a mediocre, low-resolution display. It was a practical move that created an intentional bottleneck -- if games can't run at higher resolutions, they aren't likely to outpace the machine's GPU. The 2014 Blade has no such limitations; its 3,200 x 1,800 panel leapfrogs the display capabilities of most gaming portables, leaving the user to choose just how far they want to push their in-game settings. It's a welcome change, but it's not necessarily a user-friendly one. Razer Blade owners now have to consider their in-game settings more carefully than ever.
In an ideal situation, most PC gamers would want to run their favorite titles at the maximum configurable visual settings at their monitor's native resolution -- a challenging proposition on all but the most powerful gaming rigs. The new Blade has plenty of power, of course -- a 2.2GHz Intel Core i7-4702HQ CPU, 8GB of DDR3L RAM and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 870M graphics -- but its enormous display resolution stretches even those internals to their limit. Tuned to ultra or very high-quality settings, most games stuttered at 3,200 x 1,800. Battlefield 4, The Witcher 2, Thief and Crysis 3 all struggled to break 15-20 fps in our tests, reaching playable frame rates only after I downgraded the settings (BF4 managed 36 fps on high, for instance, and a strong 50 fps on medium). Although some games took to the ultra-high resolution naturally (BioShock Infinite, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Dark Souls II averaged 32, 30 and 40 fps on maximum settings, respectively), reducing the resolution produces more consistently impressive results.
At 1,920 x 1,080, the Blade can handle almost anything. Battlefield 4 bounced between 54 fps and 45 fps on maximum settings, depending on the map, with Thief and The Witcher 2 seeing similar gains to 40 fps and 50 fps, respectively. Crysis 3 stubbornly refused to break 30 fps at its highest visual settings, but managed to hit 40 fps when I stepped down to the second-best configuration. Games that tolerated the laptop's native display size fared even better, boasting frame rates in excess of 60, sometimes 70, frames per second. Still, many titles wouldn't run at full screen in 1080p unless I scaled down the Blade's desktop resolution. It's a minor inconvenience, but it can be irritating if you prefer the panel's native resolution for general use.
While the Blade's internals didn't leave me wanting for power, its screaming performance comes at a price: battery life. Our standard rundown test exhausted the machine after four hours and 27 minutes -- a respectable runtime for a gaming laptop, but still a solid two hours short of last year's model. It's understandable, I suppose -- Haswell giveth and Haswell (or perhaps the Blade's gorgeous display panel) taketh away. Still, it's always sad to see a machine lose longevity from one year to the next. Oh, and that power generates a fair bit of heat, too: The area just above the keyboard and part of the machine's underside can get quite hot during gaming sessions. Keep your pants on, literally, or risk burning your legs.
The Razer Blade is traditionally lightweight on pre-installed software, and the latest iteration is no exception. A freshly unpacked Blade is outfitted with little more than Windows 8.1, a handful of drivers and Razer's own Synapse software -- a device, backlight and keyboard macro manager. It's almost nothing, and that's perfectly fine.
Configuration options and the competition
When the Blade first hit the scene in 2012, it was expensive -- almost prohibitively so -- but Razer kept knocking down the price with each successive release. That trend seems to be over -- this year's Blade costs $400 more than its predecessor, regardless of configuration. It's pricey, but also powerful: Our $2,400 review unit is kitted out with a 2.2GHz Intel Core i7-4702HQ processor (3.2GHz with Turbo Boost), 8GB of DDR3L-1600MHz RAM, NVIDIA GeForce GTX 870M graphics (3GB GDDR5 VRAM), a 256GB solid-state drive and a 14-inch, 3,200 x 1,800 QHD+ multitouch display. Customization begins and ends with the machine's SSD -- it can be doubled for $300 or halved, a move that shaves $200 off the price.
Razer does offer a larger Blade too, but it's not quite the same machine. The 17-inch Blade Pro starts at $2,300, and features a 2.4GHz/3.4GHz Intel Core i7-4700HQ CPU, 16GB of DDR3L RAM and an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 860M GPU (2GB of GDDR5 VRAM). It also boasts Razer's unique Switchblade interface -- a collection of programmable keys, each with their own embedded LED display. Its display panel isn't a touchscreen like the 14-inch model's screen, but it's a good choice for buyers intimidated by higher resolutions: It tops out at 1080p.
Most of the Blade's competition comes in the form of larger, but less expensive systems -- but if your heart is set on a thin machine, take a look at MSI's GS60 Ghost. This machine isn't quite as thin as the new Razer Blade, but it matches the Blade Pro's internal components part for part, and then some. In addition to all the above specs, the Ghost boasts a 1TB HDD for storage and a lower price of $1,800.
Razer CEO Min-Liang Tan describes the 2014 Razer Blade as a "no-compromise" gaming laptop, and that's almost accurate. Between the machine's screaming graphics performance, its thin chassis and that new QHD+ touchscreen, I was hard-pressed to find a legitimate complaint. Even so, the shadow of compromise is indeed here. The 14-inch Blade's enhancements undo one of the previous models' best features: battery life. Lasting only about four hours on a single charge, the new Blade still has a decent runtime (for a gaming machine), but it used to be exemplary. It's a loss worth mourning.
It's also worth noting that the new Blade is the first in the product's history to launch with a higher price than the previous model, further solidifying it as a premium gaming machine that won't compromise features for the sake of price. Either way, Razer's 2014 Blade is the company's best laptop yet, trumping its previous machine in nearly every regard. If you've got deep pockets, an appreciation for finely crafted electronics and the know-how to navigate the machine's enormous touch display, you may have found your next laptop.