When I see the term 'gaming laptop', the first word that comes to mind is 'performance'. And when I hear of a gaming laptop with a price tag of nearly $US2,800, I imagine a system that can readily outperform any less expensive machine.
That's just the way I've traditionally evaluated a gaming system — I am paying for performance. Judging by the initial reaction to Razer's modestly-spec'ed Blade laptop, I'm not alone. While many members of the PC gaming crowd were intrigued by the Blade's unique design, more still pointed and laughed, wondering why anyone would spend so much money when a similarly-powered system could be had for half the price.
It's a valid question with a simple answer: Razer isn't selling power.
Ah. Then what the hell are we spending $US2800 on?
I have to admit I was among the Blade naysayers even as I unpacked the review system. After the initially-promised pre-Christmas launch came and went, I wasn't even sure the system would make it out the door. And once it made it from Razer's door to mine, I was willing to believe, despite the tech specs staring me in the face, that this ultra-expensive system was an under-performing waste of cash that could barely run Star Wars: The Old Republic.
The Razer Blade Price: US$2799.99 Product Specifications: • 2.8GHz Intel Core i7 2640M Processor • 8GB 1333MHz DDR3 Memory • 17.3-inch LED Backlit Display (1920x1080) • NVIDIA GeForce® GT 555M with NVIDIA Optimus Technology • 2GB Dedicated GDDR5 Video Memory • Built-in HD Webcam • Integrated 60Wh Battery • 250GB SSD • Wireless Network 802.11 b/g/n Compatible • Battery: 6 hours idle, 2 1/2 if playing "hardcore" game. • 16.81" (Width) x 10.9" (Depth) x 0.88" (Height); 6.97lbs (Weight)
A call from a Razer representative set my system settings straight, and since then I've been enjoying modestly impressive performance. It wasn't on the same level as the Origin EON17-S I reviewed last year, but then Origin is a company that is selling performance. Besides, the $US3000 Origin costs more.
The last-minute swapping of the originally spec'ed 320GB 7200rpm SATA hard drive with a 250GB solid state drive (without increasing the system cost) means games load much faster than they do on my plain old SATA desktop hard drive — which will soon be replaced with an SSD. If you've yet to make the switch, do it. It's lovely.
So the Blade's performance is pretty good. Nothing to write home about, but certainly able to run any current PC game you throw at it on at mid to high graphics settings. It's just not $US2,800 worth of performance.
If it isn't power that justifies the price tag, it must be something the Blade has that other gaming laptops don't. What's so different about Razer's machine?
There are plenty of gaming laptops in the same price range that readily outperform the Blade, and they all have one thing in common: They are huge. We're talking two inches thick, upwards of 4.5kg. These aren't machines you bring with you for a quick trip to Starbucks. These monsters sit on your desk and loom at you menacingly. Maybe you'll take them on a trip with you, but they'll stay in the hotel room the whole time, scowling at the housekeeping staff.
The Blade is a gaming laptop that's meant to be toted about. Weighing in at under 3kg it's only slightly heavier than a 17-inch Macbook Pro (starting at $US2499, add $US500 for a 250GB SSD), and at only .88 inches tall it's slightly thinner. The unit carries its meagre weight well; a single one-handed heft is enough to set it apart from any other 17 inch gaming laptop I've owned or tested.
As I tested the system with Star Wars: The Old Republic I found myself carrying it about my apartment, taking it with me from room to room. I even fought Jawas on the toilet, and aside from some heat issues (from the laptop, not the toilet) it was a rather comfortable way to play. I could have used a better battery life, with only 40 minutes of hardcore game time with performance maxxed before it sputtered and died, but that inconvenience is offset by the system's ridiculously small power brick — more of a power candy bar.
You set up a traditional gaming laptop. The Razer Blade you open and play.
Inspired by a combat knife, the Blade is as sleek and sexy as a gaming laptop can get. With a built-in battery and no optical media drive the matte black surface of the outer shell is interrupted only by a set of ports on the left side, a thin pair of heat vents on the underside, and Razer's squid-like green logo resting between a set of slight ridges on top.
It's the sort of design that the Apple faithful gladly pay extra for. I can't help but imagine sales would be through the roof if they replaced that squid logo with a piece of fruit with a bite in it.
The Switchblade UI
The Blade's most unnecessary extravagance, the Switchblade UI is remnant of the Razer Switchblade, a seven-inch portable PC gaming concept Razer showed off at CES 2011. It essentially replaces the standard laptop track pad with a four inch LCD touchscreen with two rows of fully customisable buttons on top. Each button features a tiny screen that can be loaded with any tiny image you wish, from the icon for a particular skill in your favourite game to a tiny Kotaku K that when pressed launches my favourite gaming website (they paid me to say that — I guess they pay me to say everything).
The four inch screen can be used to watch YouTube videos, browse the web, read Twitter, or any number of things you can do just as well on the brilliant 17 inch 1920 by 1080 screen sitting right in front of you. It can also, in certain situations, display game statistics and such; if it catches on I could see it being used for so much more.
It's a nifty little addition, but not a particularly huge selling point, especially since its placement has the tendency to make right-handed laptop users quite irate. Considering a similarly Switchblade-equipped Star Wars: The Old Republic gaming keyboard from Razer runs $US250, I'd say it likely ups the price of the Blade as well.
And that's what Razer is asking you to spend $US2800 on: A gaming laptop with moderately good performance, stellar design, an intriguing but ultimately unnecessary gimmick, and more portability than any other portable PC game machine.
Oddly enough, those positives represent the biggest challenge for Razer and their deadly new gaming laptop. They're coming into a performance-dominated market and asking consumers used to paying for power to think about portable PC gaming in a completely different way — and then pay for it.