Latest in Gear

Image credit:

What we're using: The Razer Blade and switching back to Windows

Six months with the Razer Blade laptop.

Welcome to IRL, our series dedicated to the things that Engadget writers play, use, watch and listen to. This week, Features Editor Aaron Souppouris explains his switch to Windows and a new laptop, after an extended stint dedicated to MacBooks and Mac OS. How did that work out?

Aside from a few months with the "lamp" iMac and a brief affair with Linux, I grew up exclusively using Windows. That changed in 2011, when I traded my aging Sony Z1 laptop for a MacBook Pro. After just a year with macOS, I became the type of person who uses a MacBook, iPad and iPhone, and never really considered anything else. And so I watched last fall's MacBook Pro announcement with great interest.

I was hoping to upgrade from my mid-2015 15-inch Pro, which, even when I bought it, was a little long in the tooth. But what Apple offered up was far from what I wanted. The Touch Bar seemed, and still seems, less convenient than function keys for someone used to keyboard shortcuts; the dearth of ports bothered me a little too, but it was the marginal CPU and GPU improvements that really stung, and the sharp like-for-like price increases only compounded my decision: It was time to look beyond Apple, and back to Microsoft, for my next laptop.

This might sound strange if you've never been immersed in Apple's hardware ecosystem, but buying a new Windows machine can be a little scary. There is so much choice, so many different factors to consider. Even among Microsoft's hardware options, you find vastly different takes on what a PC even is. I began asking myself what I actually wanted from a laptop; I'd spent so long letting Apple dictate a narrow set of options, I wasn't really sure.

So I made a little checklist for what I needed. I travel a fair amount, so portability is quite important: I didn't want anything heavier than my 4.5-pound MacBook. Battery life isn't a huge concern for me -- I only need enough juice to get me from outlet to outlet, and perhaps see me through the occasional live blog. In terms of ports, USB, USB-C, HDMI and an SD slot would be ideal. Performance is by far the most important factor for me: I have Photoshop running near-permanently, I like training neural networks to do stupid things and I also use InDesign, Premiere and Illustrator very regularly.

Then there's gaming. The switch to Windows would grant me access to a giant library of games -- should gaming performance be a consideration too?

I looked at tons of machines, but none of them were really a good fit. The front-runners were the Surface Book, which is immaculate but too small, and Dell's XPS 15, which is super-portable but not quite powerful enough for my needs. It soon became clear that, at least in terms of performance, a gaming laptop was perfect for someone switching from a "Pro" Apple system to Windows.

I've got a strange affection for ASUS' ROG lineup, but the models I like tend to weigh the same as me, and so I found myself looking at Razer's laptops. I guess it makes sense: The Blade Stealth, Blade and Blade Pro essentially seem like ultra-powerful, matte black versions of the MacBook Air, the 15-inch Macbook Pro and the old 17-inch MacBook Pro. Sure, they're a little gaudier -- especially with the illuminated green snake logo and Chroma keyboard -- but I was reassured that you can turn off all of the lights, should you wish.

After reading through countless reviews, I settled on a Razer. More specifically, a Razer Blade. It had almost everything I was looking for. The model I picked had an i7-6700HQ processor, a 6GB Nvidia GTX 1060, 16GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD. The screen -- a 14-inch 3,200 x 1,800 panel -- was a little smaller than I wanted, and it doesn't have an SD reader, but the next option up in Razer's range is the Blade Pro, which, despite being impressively thin, wasn't quite portable enough, thanks to its 17-inch display.

It's now been six months since I picked up the Blade, and I'm happy. But it took me nearly all of that time to get there.

Life with Windows

Switching over from macOS to Windows was simple enough. Almost all the apps that I use daily -- Chrome, Creative Suite, Slack and Steam -- offer the same or a better experience in Windows vs. macOS. But there are some I still miss on a daily basis. For the past few years, I've used Tweetbot for my personal Twitter and Notational Velocity to both write and take notes. If there's a Windows app equal to Tweetbot, I've yet to find it, and I've tried using Simplenote (the note-taking service that Notational syncs with) for writing, but it lacks the streamlined interface and keyboard shortcuts of the app I'm used to.

Perhaps the hardest thing to come to grips with on the software side is Windows itself. It's almost back to Windows 7 in terms of simplicity, but I still struggled for weeks with basic navigation. On macOS, I launch everything through Finder, and using the Start Menu for the same thing proved tricky. Running apps by pressing the Start key and typing works fine, but the rest of Finder's functionality is sorely lacking in Microsoft's implementation.

The main issues are that file searching through the Start Menu is very hit-and-miss, and that Windows 10 ignores your browser and search preferences, opening them in Edge and Bing, respectively. The former, as best I can tell, is because Windows' file system isn't indexed as well as macOS's, while the latter seems like a desperate and user-hostile way of fighting Google's dominance in those markets.

After a while struggling -- and even installing third-party apps to divert Start Menu searches back to Google and Chrome -- a friend recommended I try Wox, which is essentially a Finder/Alfred clone for Windows. It loads apps just as well as the Start Menu, opens web links and searches according to your preferences and also taps into the Everything disk-indexing app for near-instant file searches.

My remaining issue is one of troubleshooting. I can customize macOS with my eyes closed through System Preferences or Terminal, and diagnosing and fixing problems also comes naturally. In Windows, tweaking simple things often becomes a game of cat-and-mouse as I search through the inexplicably distinct Control Panel and Settings menus. This isn't really a knock against Windows; it's more that I'm still getting attuned to the way Microsoft has organized things.

Life with the Blade

My first impressions of the Blade were great. Its black aluminum shell is very attractive, and it's slightly thinner and lighter than my old Pro. The 14-inch 1800p display is attractive, with well-balanced colors, good max brightness and only moderately reflective glass. The black levels aren't quite as deep as Apple's, but this doesn't get to the point where it really bothers me. I run Windows at a 200 percent scale, so my desktop resolution is effectively 1,600 x 900, which can be a little cramped, especially coming from a MacBook with a larger display. Part of me wishes I'd gone for the 1080p matte version, but I do appreciate the extra sharpness in Creative Suite.

Two things I was very worried about at first were the keyboard and the trackpad. I've tried some atrocious Windows laptops over the years, but I didn't really find much to complain about here. The keyboard is a little shallower than my MacBook's, sure, but it has better travel than Apple's new models. And the trackpad, after tweaking a few settings, is nearly as accurate and smooth as my MacBook's. I usually have a mouse plugged in for gaming and a tablet for Creative Suite anyway.

Everyday performance outpaces my older MacBook, as you'd expect, but battery life was a huge problem. When I first started with the Blade, I was getting highly erratic results: Sometimes it would last six hours, other times just two. That inconsistency meant that, when it came to picking a machine to take with me on a work trip, I opted for the old MacBook every time. (It's almost two years old, so the battery isn't perfect, but it's still good for around four hours.) I finally got around to working out what was wrong after returning from my last trip away, and I think I've fixed the issue by changing a mixture of Windows-, Intel- and Nvidia-specific settings. I now regularly get around five hours unplugged, in exchange for slightly less smooth performance.

Then there's that other big problem with gaming laptops: fan noise. Out of the box, the Blade was beyond loud. Its idle noise was similar to my MacBook's at full load, which itself isn't exactly quiet when the GPU kicks in. When playing even simple games, the whine was so unbearable that I either had to use headphones or turn the game volume up high. Thankfully, a firmware update (which apparently came out in March, but I only found out about it a few weeks ago) changed the fan curves so significantly that there's barely any noise coming from it at idle now. It still has the capacity to be a noisy machine when gaming or rendering video, but it rarely gets as loud as it once did, and playing something like Dead Cells barely registers.

The one downside I haven't been able to mitigate in any way is heat. While it never gets dangerously hot, I basically use the Blade exclusively at a desk because of how warm it makes my lap. Maybe in the winter it'll be a nice feature, but right now my apartment is 85 degrees and it makes me want to die.

MacOS or Windows?

I'm using the Blade a lot now, but I still haven't managed to ditch the old MacBook Pro entirely. I wrote the majority of this article on my couch with my MacBook on my lap, partly because of the heat thing and partly because I still feel a little more comfortable working in macOS.

On a regular workday -- I'm writing this on a Sunday -- I tend to sit at my desk with two laptops in front of me. I'll write and edit articles, chatter away at colleagues and generally browse the internet on my MacBook, while heavy tasks -- Creative Suite, mostly -- are designated to the Blade. When I'm not at my desk, it's a mix. Razer's machine has slightly stronger WiFi range than the Mac, so I take that out with me when I'm working on my balcony. On the other hand, because the Pro is so much cooler, it's my go-to couch computer. It's a pretty ridiculous setup, I know, but for now I'm stuck between two computers, not entirely happy with either.

The one thing I am 100 percent satisfied with is the Blade's gaming performance. I haven't really been a "PC gamer" since the mid-2000s, but now I guess I have to label myself one. Outside of ... being outside (where the Switch and 3DS are my go-to machines), it's only platform-exclusive games like Persona 5 for PS4 that I play on consoles now.

While there are very few games that are playable at the Blade's native 1800p resolution, I can basically run everything on "high" settings at 1080p. The keyboard is comfortable enough at a desk that I need only plug in a mouse to get playing, and when I'm playing a game better suited to a pad, I tend to neatly stow the Blade behind my TV. An unexpected side effect of welcoming a gaming PC into my home is that I canceled my plans to buy an Xbox One -- Microsoft has essentially pledged to treat Windows and Xbox as equals when it comes to exclusive game releases, so there's really no need.

I've heard that switching OSes can be a slow process. An old colleague of mine took about three years to unlearn Apple and finally switch back to Windows, gradually replacing MacBooks with Ultrabooks and iMacs with Surface Studios. I might get there too, but I'm wavering slightly. Since I picked up the Blade, Apple has promised pro-level Macs, and Nvidia has started supporting macOS. Maybe the next MacBook refresh will come with a more "Pro" Pro. If I'm not fully acclimated to Windows by then, it'll be a difficult proposition to refuse. But until that happens, I am very happy to be giving the Blade a shot. And at least, whatever happens, I have a gaming system that'll last me half a decade.

"IRL" is a recurring column in which the Engadget staff run down what they're buying, using, playing and streaming.

Engadget is the original home for technology news and reviews. Since our founding in 2004, we've grown from an exhaustive source for consumer tech news to a global multimedia organization covering the intersection of technology, gaming and entertainment. Today, Engadget hosts the archives and expertise of early digital publishing players like Joystiq, TUAW and gdgt, and produces the Internet's most compelling videos, reviews, features and breaking news about the people, products and ideas shaping our world. After 13 years in the game, we're leveraging our history to bring the future into focus.


From around the web

ear iconeye icontext filevr