The notion of “gaming laptops” has been a quixotic — and expensive — one for at least a decade. But computer manufacturers remain convinced that mobile PC gaming is a viable market, as the extreme price tags gaming PCs command are a proven path to higher sales margins.
Razer, a company known primarily for making gaming-specific mice and keyboards, released its first Blade laptop — in fact, its first computer — in early 2012. The conceit: Pack massive graphics capabilities into a slim, Mac-like chassis, and do something completely unexpected and innovative by relocating the touchpad from the palmrest to the right side of the machine, where a numeric keypad would normally go.
The original Blade received mixed reviews, and the company wasted no time in hustling out an update. The original model is actually still being sold (originally $2,800, it’s now $2,300), but Razer is clearly hoping you will jump for this update, which confusingly has the same name as the original model, for “just” $2,500.
The goal with this hasty update is two-fold: Update performance for the third- generation Intel Core era, and answer the criticism of the first-generation Blade with some tweaks to the machine’s finer points.
Let’s start with the upgrades. Razer has given both the CPU and graphics subsystems quite a jolt. The processor has moved from a dual-core i7 to a quad-core model, the 2.2GHz Core i7-3632QM (which was officially unveiled only this past weekend). Graphics move up to Nvidia’s GTX 660M card, about as high-end as it gets on a mobile platform. The machine retains its 8GB of RAM, but the SSD has been jettisoned for a larger hybrid drive with 500GB of hard drive space, backed up with 64GB of solid-state storage.
Performance is clearly tuned for gaming, and while general benchmarks are short of record-breaking, gaming scores were at the top of our charts across the board. (For what it’s worth, Razer says its tests show 50 to 100 percent better framerates versus the original Blade on most titles.) I didn’t find any game that wasn’t playable on higher-end settings — and remember, this is all packed into a machine that weighs 6.7 pounds and measures 27mm thick (with the feet).
Other changes to the Blade design are less noticeable. In fact, putting the original and revamped Blade side by side, you’d be hard-pressed to pick out which was which. The 17.3-inch screen is big (1920 x 1080 pixels) and bright, the keyboard backlit (a touch brighter than before, but still Kryptonite green), and the touchpad still mounted atop the secondary “Switchblade” LCD, topped with 10 customizable buttons.
So what’s new in the Blade? All USB ports are 3.0 (of which there are three), the hinge has been recalibrated to allow for one-handed opening, the feet have been lengthened for stability, and the speakers have been upgraded. Additional ports include only an Ethernet jack and an HDMI output.
What’s missing? There’s still no easy way to turn the wireless radio on or off, the up/down arrow keys are hopelessly tiny, and I experienced some bizarre bugs, like Synapse crashing on boot and the battery gauge pegging itself at zero during the first day of testing. The touchpad buttons are still way too small, and the keyboard keys remain bizarrely contoured outward like little bubbles, not in, so touch typing remains difficult and slippery.
While the Blade remains a quirky and wholly unique computing — and gaming — computer, I’m hard-pressed to name a more enjoyable gaming laptop. Using the touchpad instead of a mouse for WASD games isn’t easy, but it’s doable in a pinch — and external mice are still cheap. And hey, Razer would probably love to sell you one of those, too.