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    Razer's Blade Stealth and 'Core' add up to the gaming laptop I always wanted

    Almost, anyway.
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    For as long as I can remember, I've dreamed of a computer that didn't exist: something that could get me through the work day but also transform into a gaming powerhouse at home. It's taken decades, but that old fantasy is finally starting to coalesce into reality. Laptops from Alienware and MSI can be bought with an external graphics dock that lends them the power of a desktop-class GPU. Earlier this year, Razer even made a bid for my dream laptop -- but its Blade Stealth stumbled with middling battery life and by launching before its companion GPU dock hit the market. Recently the company updated the ultraportable with more storage and memory, a faster processor, a higher-capacity battery and the graphics extender that makes it so special: the Razer Core. Now that we finally have the complete package, it's time to revisit the Stealth and see if it makes good on its promise.

    Gallery: Razer Blade Stealth and Core review | 16 Photos

    Engadget Score
    Poor
    Uninspiring
    Good
    Excellent
    Key

    Pros
    • Fast performance
    • More RAM than the last-gen model
    • Excellent touch display
    • Plays high-end games with external GPU dock
    Cons
    • Disappointing battery life
    • No memory card reader

    Summary

    The Razer Blade Stealth is a good Ultrabook, maybe even a great one -- but middling battery life continues to hold it back from being the ultimate ultraportable laptop that Razer wants it to be.

    Engadget Score
    Poor
    Uninspiring
    Good
    Excellent
    Key

    Pros
    • Simple setup
    • Lends the power of a desktop to the Razer Blade laptops
    • Uses an open standard rather than proprietary connectors
    Cons
    • Won't make the most of your desktop GPU
    • Needs an external monitor for maximum performance
    • Pricey

    Summary

    The Razer Core allows you to easily upgrade the Blade Stealth into a gaming powerhouse, but it won't make the most of your desktop GPU.

    Hardware

    Like every Razer Blade laptop before it, the updated Stealth is a study of black, anodized aluminum accented with the glow of a customizable LED keyboard. This is hardly a surprise -- the new Stealth is less a "new laptop" than a modestly updated version of the ultraportable Razer that came out earlier this year. Yes, there's a new processor inside and a bit more memory, but all of that is contained in the same chassis as the original Stealth. Not that I'm complaining: Razer's first take on the Ultrabook was thin, light and well built. This one is too.

    The Blade Stealth ticks every box it needs to in order to qualify as an ultraportable. It measures just a half-inch thick at its fattest point, with a silhouette that gently tapers toward the palm rest. Its weight is almost negligible; it'll add less than three pounds to your bag (2.84 pounds, to be precise). At 12.5 inches at its widest point, it won't take up much space either. It's solid and durable, too -- there's nothing like a CNC milled aluminum chassis to lend a device a high-end feel.

    As for looks, Razer has always walked a fine line between subtle design and conspicuous branding. Like all Blades before it, the Stealth is draped in an attractive matte black finish and adorned with a glowing Razer logo. And it's kind of cool. Maybe too cool. For Razer's line of thin gaming laptops, the standard Blade design language looks sleek and almost sophisticated. But in a professional environment, the Stealth will stand out. Folks thinking about picking up the machine to double as a work and gaming machine should ask themselves, does the Stealth look too awesome for you to be taken seriously in next month's board meeting? If the answer is "yes," consider turning off the backlight behind the Razer logo and covering it with a sticker.

    There isn't a lot of room for connectivity on the Blade Stealth's thin frame, but there's enough. Each of the laptop's sides houses a single USB 3.0 port, as well as an HDMI socket on the right, and a 3.5mm headphone jack and a Thunderbolt 3 connection on the left. Short of adding a built-in memory card reader, you can't expect too much more from an ultraportable. Still, that Thunderbolt 3 connector adds some versatility; Stealth users who buy the Razer Core GPU dock will gain four additional USB 3.0 ports.

    Keyboard and trackpad

    Like the Stealth's chassis, the keyboard here is one we've seen before -- but it may also be the last time we see it. Don't misread me: The Stealth's keyboard is quite good. Its full-size keys are well spaced, comfortable to type on and even feature Razer's Chroma backlighting, which allow the keys to glow in any of 16.8 million colors, with up to six accompanying animations, to boot. It's not a bad keyboard, but Razer itself has already shown that it could be even better.

    Just before Razer announced the refreshed Blade Stealth, it unveiled an iPad case that featured new low-profile mechanical keys. It's a new kind of key technology that could potentially give laptops keyboards the feel of a full-size mechanical keyboard -- complete with defined actuation and reset points and up to 70 grams of pushback force. Razer told us the new key technology was developed too late to make it into this generation of Razer laptops, but we might see it in laptops later down the line. It's something I'm looking forward to; the Blade laptops already offer a great typing experience, but I won't say no to something even better.

    For years, I searched for the Windows-user's answer to the MacBook Pro's excellent trackpad -- and Razer nailed it with the original Blade Stealth. The company's trackpads were always pretty good but tended to suffer from mushy buttons. The Stealth got rid of those, and the mousing surface has been perfect ever since. It's smooth, spacious and handles multi-touch gestures with aplomb. I couldn't ask for more.

    Display and sound

    Perhaps nothing better exemplifies Razer's attitude toward laptop design than the Blade Stealth's screen options. The laptop's 12.5-inch display can be had in two flavors: a 3,840 x 2,160 4K panel with a 100-percent Adobe RGB colorspace, or a 2,560 x 1,440 QHD screen with 70-percent RGB color gamut. Our review unit came with the latter, but both panels represent what seems to be the unspoken philosophy of Razer's design process: gorgeous at any expense. Both of these display options are indeed stunning, with vibrant colors, deep blacks and wide viewing angles -- but the cost is real. These beautiful screens bestow the laptop with the burden of short battery life.

    To be fair, this problem isn't unique to the Stealth -- the next generation of high-resolution displays are killing laptop battery life across the board -- but Razer's latest portable was advertised as having longer battery life than the previous generation. It doesn't (more on that later), and the display is the likeliest culprit. The Stealth's screens are touch sensitive, too.

    As standard as touchscreens have become on Windows systems, reaching across the keyboard to tap the screen still feels odd to me. That said, you have to give the company some credit: The Stealth's display is beautiful. Movies, web pages and apps all look great, but the screen was at its best when the laptop was hooked up to the Razer Core GPU dock; playing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt on maximum settings at 2,560 x 1,440 is a thing of beauty.

    I've consistently found nothing to complain about when it comes to the Razer Blade line's audio quality, and that's true of the new Stealth too. The laptop's stereo speakers live on either side of the keyboard and push out balanced sound with no noticeable distortion and minimal tinniness, but there's not much depth to the sound either. Razer recently bought THX, so the audio quality could one day improve, but for now these are merely good speakers. Not great, but good. And for laptop speakers, that's more than enough.

    Performance

    PCMark 7 PCMark 8 (Creative Accelerated) 3DMark 11 3DMark (Sky Diver) ATTO (top reads/writes)
    Razer Blade (Fall 2016) (2.7GHz Intel Core-i7-7500U, Intel HD 620) 5,462 3,889 E3,022 / P1,768 4,008 1.05 GB/s / 281 MB/s
    Razer Blade (Fall 2016) + Razer Core (2.7GHz Intel Core-i7-7500U, NVIDIA GTX 1080) 5,415 4,335 E11,513 / P11,490 16,763 1.05 GB/s / 281 MB/s
    ASUS ZenBook 3 (2.7GHz Intel Core-i7-7500U, Intel HD 620) 5,448 3,911 E2,791 / P1,560 3,013 1.67 GB/s / 1.44 GB/s
    HP Spectre 13 (2.5GHz Intel Core i7-6500U, Intel HD 520) 5,046 3,747 E2,790 / P1,630 / X375 3,810 1.61 GB/s / 307 MB/s
    Huawei MateBook (1.1 GHz Core M3, Intel HD 515) 3,592 2,867 E1,490 / P887 2,454 538 MB/s / 268 MB/s
    Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Tablet (1.2 GHz Core M7-6Y75, Intel HD 515) 4,951 3,433 E1,866 / P1,112 2,462 545 MB/s / 298 MB/s
    Dell XPS 13 (2.3GHz Core i5-6200U, Intel Graphics 520) 4,954 3,499 E2,610 / P1,531 3,335 1.6GB/s / 307 MB/s
    Razer Blade Stealth (2.5GHz Intel Core i7-6500U, Intel HD 520) 5,131 3,445 E2,788 / P1,599 / X426 3,442 1.5 GB/s / 307 MB/s
    Microsoft Surface Pro 4 (2.4GHz Core i5-6300U, Intel HD 520) 5,403 3,602

    E2,697/ P1,556/ X422

    3,614 1.6 GB/s / 529 MB/s
    Lenovo Yoga 900 (2.5GHz Core i7-6500U, Intel HD 520) 5,368 3,448

    E2,707 / P1,581

    3,161 556 MB/s / 511 MB/s

    Razer calls the Blade Stealth the "ultimate Ultrabook," and as far as light, powerful laptops go, it fits the bill. I brought the Stealth with me when I covered Oculus' Connect 3 conference earlier this month, and it didn't let me down. For three days, the Stealth juggled multiple active browser windows with half a dozen open tabs apiece, a mess of disorganized Google Drive documents, multiple social media streams, video and image capture and editing tools and a handful of team messaging apps. Yes, my workflow is a complete disaster, which makes the Stealth's tolerance of it all the more impressive. The Intel Core i7-7500U CPU and 16GB of RAM shrugged off everything I threw at it.

    Unfortunately, killer performance is only half the puzzle. Ultraportable notebooks are supposed to be able to handle a full day's work on a single charge, or at least something close to it. I just couldn't get that kind of longevity out of the Blade Stealth. Engadget's standard battery test (looping an HD video at a fixed brightness) exhausted the Stealth's 53.6Wh battery in a little over five and a half hours -- far short of the nine hours promised on the laptop's product page. A second test, simulating an active browser workflow, lasted just 10 minutes longer.

    Battery life

    Razer Blade Stealth (fall 2016) 5:36
    Surface Book (Core i5, integrated graphics) 13:54 / 3:20 (tablet only)
    HP Spectre x360 (13-inch, 2015) 11:34
    Surface Book (Core i7, discrete graphics) 11:31 / 3:02 (tablet only)
    Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display (13-inch, 2015) 11:23
    iPad Pro (12.9-inch, 2015) 10:47
    HP Spectre x360 15t 10:17
    Chromebook Pixel (2015) 10:01
    ASUS ZenBook 3 9:45
    Lenovo Yoga 900 9:36
    Apple MacBook (2016) 8:45
    Samsung Notebook 9 8:16
    Dell XPS 13 (2015) 7:36
    Microsoft Surface Pro 4 7:15
    HP Spectre 13 7:07
    Huawei MateBook 6:35
    Razer Blade Stealth (Spring 2016) 5:48
    Dell XPS 15 (2016) 5:25 (7:40 with the mobile charger)

    It's actually not uncommon for laptops to fall somewhat short of their promised battery life, but the Blade Stealth's failure stands out because the refreshed model was advertised as having longer battery life than the original. Our review unit didn't. Not only did it fall 10 minutes short of the first-generation Stealth in our standard test, but it did so with a lower-resolution display than the 4K model we reviewed in the spring. To get the Stealth to run for more than seven hours on the battery, I had to reduce its screen brightness to its absolute minimum, disable all keyboard lighting features and turn off the sound completely. It's a manageable problem, but I also didn't see the improvement I was hoping for.

    The Razer Core

    If you can accept the Stealth's middling battery life, you'll have yourself a rather nice ultraportable -- but you won't get the full Stealth experience unless you pick up the Razer Core. This $500 accessory dock lends the laptop the power of a desktop-class graphics card, and it's what makes my modular gaming laptop dream possible.

    The GPU accessory dock is built from the same high-quality black aluminum as the Stealth itself; it's heavy, durable and looks like a miniature desktop tower. The solid metal body is only broken by stylistic grooves on its front and top sides, a Razer logo on the left and a grated window on its right. On the back, the Core features four USB 3.0 ports, an Ethernet jack, a single Thunderbolt socket for connecting to the laptop and an AC power plug. Just don't plan on lugging the Core around: It weighs a hefty 11 pounds.

    Lifting a recessed handle from the dock's back panel unlocks it and allows you to slide the Core's internal components out of the metal chassis. Inside, the Core is as simple as it gets, offering users nothing more than two power supply cables for the graphics card and single PCI-E port in which to install it. Even if you've never installed a desktop GPU before, setting up the Core is straightforward; there's only one place for the card to go.

    Using the Core with the Stealth is easy too: As soon as you plug it in, the Core automatically installs its own drivers. I fed the Core an NVIDIA GTX 1080, which it recognized almost instantly. After it finished installing, a new NVIDIA GPU activity monitor appeared in my system tray. "There are no applications running on this GPU," it told me. Well, let's change that.

    I challenged the Razer Core-equipped Stealth to run two of my library's most intensive games: Just Cause 3 and The Witcher III: Wild Hunt. Both were playable at the laptop's native 2,560 x 1,440 resolution, even tuned to their highest graphic settings, but neither performed quite as well as I expected. The Witcher III looked gorgeous at 40 frames per second, as did Just Cause 3 running at a steady 50 -- but with a GTX 1080 calling the shots, those numbers should have been higher.

    At first, I thought the Stealth's dual-core processor might be holding the Core's performance back, so I switched to a less CPU-intensive game to double check. Sadly, Overwatch was underperforming as well, struggling to break 50 fps on multiple graphics presets. Eventually, I figured it out: The Core's Thunderbolt 3 connection simply doesn't have the bandwidth to pass the graphics processing to the external GPU and pipe the results back to the laptop. Hooking up an external monitor directly to the GTX 1080-equipped core yielded much better results: 76 to 100 frames per second in Overwatch and 60+ in Just Cause 3. The Witcher III still hovered around 40 fps at 2,560 x 1,440, but that might be the processor's fault -- that game is a CPU beast.

    And there, we have the rub: The Razer Core can absolutely turn the Blade Stealth into a gaming machine, but it won't quite match the performance you'll get with a desktop. It's also a segmented experience; the Core performs better when it's outputting games to an external monitor, making games on the Stealth's gorgeous display a worse experience by comparison. Frankly, I expected that: Thunderbolt 3 is fast, but asking it to farm graphics rendering out to an external dock and pipe those results back to the laptop eats up a lot of bandwidth. That isn't to say the Core is underperforming, but it's limited by today's technology. No matter what GPU you install into Razer's Core, it won't be living up to its potential -- but to realize the dream of an external graphics dock, you have to be OK with that. That's where the technology is right now.

    Beyond the technical bandwidth limitation, I experienced one other issue with the Core: It got a little confused when I tried to switch graphics cards. Specifically, the GPU dock failed to automatically recognize my AMD Radeon R9 Nano the same way it did with the GTX 1080. It still installed the drivers right away, but the Radeon control panel didn't realize the graphics card was installed. When I tried to reinstall the drivers manually, the machine suddenly recognized that the Radeon software was already installed, at which point it started working.

    Despite these hiccups, the Core works as promised. Getting into a game is as simple as plugging a single USB-C wire into the Stealth, which piped in the GPU, power and any accessories I hooked up to the Razer Core. Going back to mobile mode is just as easy; you can unplug the Core (even while in a game!) without restarting the laptop, and everything works fine. It's a dead-simple plug and play experience. And it needs to be: The Core's $500 price tag wouldn't be tolerable if the machine were hard to use.

    Configuration options and the competition

    Choosing a Razer Blade Stealth configuration is mostly a question of screen resolution and storage space. The $999 base model will get you a 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-7500U dual-core processor (3.5GHz with Turbo Boost), integrated HD 620 graphics, 8GB of RAM, a 128GB PCIe SSD and a QHD (2,560 x 1,440) display. Tacking on an additional $250 or $400 will net you 16GB of RAM and 246 and 512GB SSDs, respectively. The 4K Stealth starts at $1,599, also with 512GB of storage. Finally, the $1,999 configuration steps up to 1TB SSD.

    The Blade is a decent value for an ultraportable with a seventh-generation Intel Core i7 CPU, but if you need something with better battery life, you may need to look elsewhere. Dell's XPS 13 is still a good option, starting at $800 with an Intel Core i3-7100U, 4GB of RAM and over 10 hours of runtime, and can even be upgraded to match the Stealth's Core i7. But if you're dead set on a 4K display, you're out of luck -- the new XPS 13 tops out at 3,200 x 1,800. If you're not married to Microsoft's platform and don't mind having only a single USB-C port for connectivity, you might consider Apple's latest MacBook, which can handle 4K resolution for more than eight hours.

    If you're looking at the Blade Stealth in the first place, however, that Razer Core GPU dock is probably part of the reason why. Technically, the $500 Core should work with any Thunderbolt 3 equipped laptop that supports Intel's switchable graphics standard, but it's only officially supported on Razer's Blade and Blade Stealth machines. It works great on those, and comes with a $100 discount when purchased with one of Razer's own notebooks but it's hardly the most affordable external graphics dock on the market. Alienware's Graphics Amplifier sells for about $200 less but only works with Dell's own gaming laptops, which are significantly bulkier than the Blade Stealth. MSI's $1,300 GS30 Shadow is a thin and light laptop with an external GPU dock, but it's stuck with a fourth-generation Intel processor.

    Ironically, the best alternative to the Blade Stealth's GPU dock might actually be a desktop computer. If you're willing to learn to build a PC yourself, $500 can go a long way toward building a killer desktop gaming setup -- one that won't throttle the potential of your GPU the same way the Core does. In fact, taking this route won't even hamper your ability to play high-end PC games on an ultraportable laptop: Steam in-home streaming can easily bridge the gap for most games.

    Wrap-up

    The Razer Blade Stealth initially caught my eye for its potential to fulfill a long-dormant dream: a portable, powerful laptop that could borrow the power of a desktop-class graphics card to transform into a gaming powerhouse. I've waited decades to realize this fantasy, and the Blade Stealth finally made it a reality... with some caveats. While the Stealth is indeed a powerful, thin and gorgeous laptop, its battery life keeps it from living up to Razer's claim of the "ultimate Ultrabook." The shadow of compromise hangs over the Core as well. At a high level, the GPU dock delivers on its promise, but today's technology simply can't siphon the full, unadulterated power of a desktop GPU through a single Thunderbolt 3 cable.

    Still, I love the Razer Blade Stealth and Core combo. It's not the best ultraportable, and it won't make the most of your desktop graphics card -- but it's one of those products that "just works." For gamers without the patience to maintain a desktop but aren't willing to sacrifice size, weight and battery life for a full gaming laptop, it's worth all of the tradeoffs. Ultimately, the Razer Blade Stealth isn't for me, but the Stealth is nonetheless going to make a very specific niche of laptop-loving PC gamers very happy.

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