Last year, the unthinkable happened. I was in Taipei for Computex. I'd just walked into a group press conference ready to take notes and transcribe. I opened up my Macbook Air and ... half the screen was blank. In between interviews, my screen died.
So like many people, I waited most of 2016 hoping Apple would announce a serviceable replacement for the Macbook Air. But they never did. So over the last month, I've been using Razer's similarly-priced answer: the latest Razer Blade Stealth laptop.
What Is It?
Unlike the gaming focused, and vastly more expensive Blade Pro, the Blade Stealth is an ultrabook targeted at students, creative professionals and other industries in the market for a "productivity" device. Starting from $1499.95 for the 128GB model with 16GB DDR4 RAM and a 12.5" 1440p display, the Blade Stealth ranges up to $3000 for the model with a 4K screen and 1TB of storage. You're venturing into Blade Pro territory there, however, so it's really a laptop aimed at those considering a Macbook Air or a Surface Pro.
The pitch is that you're paying about the same amount for the Razer Blade Stealth, but you're getting much more modern hardware. The baseline model comes with Intel's latest Kaby Lake processor, the i7-7500U CPU (2.7GHz/3.5GHz) with the integrated HD Graphics 620. There's 2 USB 3.0 ports on the laptop and a Thunderbolt-3 USB-C port, which doubles as the laptop's charging port.
Extra benefits include Bluetooth 4.1 support, touch screens on all models, built-in webcam, speakers, a HDMI 2.0a port, a 3.5mm microphone/headphone combo jack, a 64-bit install of Windows 10 and wireless functionality. All models come with a IGZO panel for the screen, although only the 4K Blade Stealth screens will support 100% Adobe RGB (the baseline models are only rated at 70% Adobe RGB, which photographers and editors might want to consider).
The whole unit weighs 1.29kg and is 1.31cm x 32.1cm x 20.6cm, which is delightfully small. It's not the smallest ultrabook you can find, particularly given what was shown at CES this year, but it travels easily enough. The 12.5" screen is also just the right size that you can pull the Blade Stealth out on the train or bus and continue working without having to worry too much about the seat in front of you, although it's a fraction too large for those hoping to do a bit of red-eye typing in cattle class. Razer's also bundled in support for their Chroma lighting software so you can get a funky rave going on your keyboard, although more on that later.
What's It Good At?
Intel's integrated graphics have come a long way. While the HD 620 is no match for some of last year's beefiest titles, like DOOM or Battlefield 1, you can get around 30fps in Overwatch if you play at 720p and turn the resolution scale down a bit. Other games, like Civilization 5 and Stardew Valley, are perfectly playable. And if you dabble in a bit of Dota 2 or League of Legends, you'll be able to get through a match without screaming at the monitor.
The gaming power is really just a bonus, though. The Blade Stealth is all about productivity first, with a bit of gaming on the end. And it's a great laptop for typing on, once you become accustomed to the reduced profile of the keys. It's not a mechanical keyboard, but it's comfortable enough after long typing sessions.
The Razer Synapse software is more than just lighting profiles though. It's disabled by default, but you can enable Synapse to track how many keys you've pressed, the average keystroke distance, how many macros you use, and it maintains stats for individual games as well. It'll track your mouse movement in game too, which is probably more helpful for the Blade laptops with discrete GPUs than it is the Blade Stealth.
And the core aspect of any laptop, especially one with the Macbook Air in its sights, is the quality of the trackpad. It's not as good as Apple's creation - few are - but it's accurate enough, especially after you bump up the default sensitivity by a couple of notches. It's not quite as clever when it comes to detecting your palms, which results in some "Where's Waldo's Mouse Cursor" moments.
But as far as a Windows-powered trackpad goes, it's serviceable enough. And the 45W supplied USB-C charger is also reasonably small, which is a hugely helpful considering you'll never want to leave home without it. Oh and while some might argue that laptops are all about the hardware, the Blade Stealth is a real stylish piece of hardware. People don't often buy laptops for the look, but the Blade Stealth is pleasing on the eye, especially when the keyboard and back logo have that soft, green glow. (Or whatever other colour you prefer.)
What's It Not Good At?
Kaby Lake might be the epitome of Intel's 14nm processors, but if you were hoping for the glory days of 12, 13, 14 hours battery life you're gonna have a bad time. With the Chroma lighting going, the in-built network manager for the Killer wireless card and the automatically enabled Dolby Digital Plus software, the Blade Stealth chews up battery fast. Playing a game or watching a video will drain your battery in a couple of hours. When typing, editing photos and doing my regular day job, the standard battery life was around six hours.
The USB-C port can also be used to power Razer's separate graphics dock, the Razer Core. Problem is, the Razer Core isn't available in Australia. And even when it is, you're still paying hundreds of dollars for a basically a dock that houses a GPU, which you have to either purchase or have automatically lying around. (And most people don't have spare GPUs chilling in their closet.)
As much as Razer wants to pitch the Blade Stealth as a gaming device, the HD 620 isn't really that practical as an all-round gaming laptop. Games released in the last couple of years will generally hit around the 30fps mark, which isn't the sort of performance you'd want for twitch shooters or games relying on fast reaction times (like a F1 2016). If you stick to indie titles, and older AAA games (think around 2013-2014), you'll be perfectly fine.
I praised the trackpad earlier, but something it's not great at is palm recognition. It's all too easy to end up clicking on something accidentally because your hand has brushed over the trackpad mid-sentence. I'd also avoid using the touchscreen if you don't like fingerprints; the glossy surface means you'll be easily reminded of just how greasy your fingers are.
Should You Buy It?
Before the turn of the year, I strongly considered buying my own Razer Blade Stealth. I wasn't going to pay the several hundred dollars to have the panel on my Macbook Air replaced. I loved that laptop to bits, but Apple hardware costs enough as is the first time around.
So I started seriously considering the Razer for two reasons: the Kaby Lake CPU with an integrated GPU, which would be enough for older games like Dungeon of the Endless or Risk of Rain, and the fact that it came in at around the same price point. Getting an i7-7500U with 16GB of RAM for $1500 is a solid deal when you consider the current Dell XPS 13 costs just under $1900, and only has the i5-7200U and 8GB of RAM.
The Blade Stealth will also have a faster processor than the XPS 13 2-in-1 model when that becomes available in Australia. The higher end model does outperform the Blade Stealth slightly, as Gizmodo found, but it'll cost you $1614 for a 128GB model with 8GB of RAM. The same version with a 256GB SSD will set you back $1699, and the starting price for an XPS 13 with an i7-7500U is $1954.
The extra money isn't really worth it, for me. Not having to deal with the XPS 13's chunky proprietary charger is a plus as well; the Blade Stealth's USB-C charger is relatively small, and it'll only become more versatile in the years to come. It does mean that you can't charge the Blade Stealth and use the USB-C port at the same time, but that issue never cropped up once in my testing.
The sticking point for most people will be the battery life. Both the XPS 13 and the Macbook are vastly superior, and it's something you'll need to factor in if you're a regular traveller. But that can be managed by thinking ahead, and you can eek extra juice out of the machine once all the Chroma lighting is disabled.
Razer's laptops have always been a joy to use, even if they weren't quite perfect. But the Blade Stealth now has one other notch under its belt: it's reasonably priced, considering the hardware inside and the cost of its competitors. I won't say it's the ultimate ultrabook for gamers who need to work first and play second. But it's satisfying to use, travels well and is neatly designed. That's a good package for $1500, and it's a good looking package at that.