Three Months with a Razer Blade

March 12, 2017

Last November I ordered I ordered a 14-inch Razer Blade laptop. Now that I’ve had a little time with it I wanted to share some thoughts.

This is not a full review. If you want that there are plenty to choose from. This is some select thoughts for my fellow developers.

January 2019 Update

Two years after writing my original post I have an update.

I just built a new desktop PC and intend to sell my laptop. The Razer Blade was ok. I'm just more of a desktop guy. The laptop spent 95% of its time plugged into a desktop mouse, keyboard, and monitor.

My biggest complaint with the laptop is noise. Light web browsers spins up up the fans. Moderate work causes them to roar like a jet engine. I was regularly jealous of Macbook users. Even if they're overpriced and have crap GPUs

The new 2019 Razer Blade's do fulfill most of my wish list. Thin bezel, larger screen, high refresh rate, full size arrow keys. I'm not sure if it can drive an external g-sync monitor.

For 2020 I hope they smooth out the wrist slicing edges. Sharp edges make great pictures. In practice they cause actual pain.

Developers, Developers, Developers

I’m a game developer. Which means I’m a Windows guy. And that I need a powerful rig to both play and make games.

For years I’ve wanted to replace my desktop with a laptop. I could never pull the trigger. For years laptops have cost twice as much money for half the performance.

MacBook Pro

Game development has kept me firmly rooted in the Windows ecosystem. However I have shipped two iOS apps. The first in 2011 using a pre-unibody MacBook Pro. The second in 2013 using a MacBook Pro Retina.

I know a lot of folks are upset with Apple over the recent refresh. I can’t speak to directly to your complaints. I know there’s a lot of renewed interest in Windows laptops and the Razer Blade in particular. I’ll address that perspective as best I’m able.

Requirements

When searching for a laptop I had several requirements:

This is a surprisingly hard to achieve list. Options include Razer, Asus, Gigabyte Aorus, and MSI. Xotic PC has a phenomenal power search option.

GPUs

I initially wanted an Nvidia 1070 GPU. As the previous generation Razer Blade had a 970m.

The new 1070 is found almost exclusively in 17" latops. Only a select few 15" have it as an option. I switched my target to a 1060. The good news is that the 1060 is fast.

Benchmarks (Laptop)

Here are some benchmarks via notebookcheck.net.

The new 1060 is faster than the old 980m. The 980m was only available in 17-inch 9-pound desktop replacement monstrosities. My 0.7 inch thick Razer Blade has a faster GPU. That’s insane.

Meanwhile the MacBook Pro GPUs are garbage. Absolute trash. My 1060 is 6x faster than a 13-inch’s Intel Iris 550. It’s 3.3x faster than the $2400 15-inch with AMD Radeon Pro 450. And 1.9x faster than the highest end $2900 MacBook Pro with AMD 460.

Brands

I tried an ASUS laptop in a store and hated it. Shockingly cheap and flimsy. Aorus is hard to come by, over priced, and has questionable reviews.

I seriously considered the slightly cheaper MSI GS63VR Stealth Pro. It was close. My final decision came down to Razer being the only laptop that doesn’t throttle under load.

Final Purchase

I bought a 2016 14-inch Razer Blade QHD+ (3800x1200) w/ Nvidia 1060, 512gb SSD, and 16gb ram for $2300 plus tax. It meets every single one of my requirements.

Positives and Negatives

I’m very happy with my purchase so far. I had a fairly stringent set of requirements and my Razer Blade meets them all. It has everything I asked for. Thin, light, fast, big SSD, plenty of RAM, beautiful screen.

I’m going to assume you’ve read some reviews for this laptop already. I’ll try to focus on areas of lingering question or personal interest.

Build Quality

The most common question I get is how does the Razer Blade compare to a MacBook Pro. I think quite favorably.

In terms of pure hardware build it’s very close. The Razer Blade looks and feels great. I love the black finish. It’s elegant in a time full of gaudy gamer designs.

I wish the aluminum chassis were a bit stiffer. It’s mildly susceptible to flex. If you aren’t careful you may find it doesn’t rest perfectly even on a flat desk.

Performance

Performance is great across the board. CPU, GPU, SSD, memory are all fast just like I expect.

My three year old desktop took about 40 minutes to fully build my Unity3d work project. (Mostly compiling shaders). This laptop takes 5.

A 1060 GPU is a little under powered for 3200x1800 gaming. It can’t hit 60fps in intense 3d games at that resolution. However it’s perfect for 1080p gaming on a remote monitor.

Quality Control / Customer Service

This is one major problem with Razer products. If you search online you’ll find no shortage of complaints. Both with manufacturing defects and painful RMA processes.

I actually had to send my laptop in for RMA. Under load my laptop made a crackling sound. I recorded the sound with my phone, e-mailed customer support. They immediately suggested an RMA. They sent me a free box to use with a free two-day shipping label.

They replaced my motherboard and the problem was solved. It took at least two weeks total. A few days to send me a box. A few days to ship. A week to repair. A few days to ship back. It was relatively painless but still frustrating.

If you can I would recommend buying a Razer Blade from a physical retailer such as Best Buy. I’d have much rather spent an afternoon to return a defective laptop in exchange for a brand new one.

Trackpad

Windows laptop trackpads still aren’t as good as Apple’s. It’s a combination of hardware and software.

Two finger scrolling works great. Tapping is fine. It has physical buttons which many developers demand. I wish it had buttons and a clickable surface.

As far as I’m aware this is as good as it gets on Windows. Which is fine. More than good enough. Albeit with room for improvement.

Keyboard

I really like the keyboard. Keys feel great. It’s well centered which leads to good posture. Something I wrote extensively about in a previous post.

I don’t like the half-size up/down arrows. I wish they were full size and shifted down. Some keyboards half full-size arrow keys at the cost of a ⅔ size shift key. No thanks.

Key illumination is great. My only complaint is that the function part of function keys (volume, brightness, etc) isn’t lit. It has fancy RGB lighting

Battery

Battery life is crap. A huge disappointment. I’d say it gets about 3 ½ hours of casual web browser use or video watching. Gaming time is even shorter.

I’m not convinced there isn’t a software bug causing extra battery drain. I have no way to either prove or fix that.

Battery life might be better with the 1080p display.

Fans

Fan noise is a nuisance. At idle they’re soft but audible. At moderate load they’re louder but tolerable.

Under full load they’re outright intrusive. Loud enough that for gaming I’d recommend headphones. It’s the price we pay for a high performance GPU.

Heat

The fans may be loud but they are effective. Even under heavy, persistent load. I’ve had no issues with head leading to unpleasant use.

Display

I wanted a High-DPI display and chose the glossy QHD+ 3200x1800 screen. Many developers may prefer the matte 1920x1080 optoin.

It’s a great looking screen. I’m not an artist and can not attest to color accuracy. Retina displays are great. Text looks great. I got exactly what I wanted.

Unfortunately Windows still sucks at high-DPI. It has a system scale setting that apps can respond to. Many programs still don’t respect it. This is particularly problematic for older games.

External Monitor

Most of the time I hook my laptop up to an external 1080p monitor. I’ve had quite a few issues with this.

Windows does not handle changing font scale well. It recommends a reboot. Having a high-dpi laptop monitor with a low-dpi external monitor causes all kinds of problems. Because of this I typically run with just the external monitor.

Full screen videos on an external monitor don’t work. I have no idea why. Some games get very confused.

I’d be curious to try a 4k laptop display with a 4k external monitor. I suspect it would fix many of these problems.

Razer Synapse

Synapse is Razer’s software for keyboard lighting, macros, fans, etc. It’s bloatware as far as I’m concerned. It even requires a login due to their cloud profile crap.

I changed my key illumination to white and disabled Synapse from startup. #ProblemSolved

Multi-Touch

The QHD+ display supports multi-touch. It’s not super useful on a laptop. I use it more often than I expected. Probably because I’m not very good with a touchpad. It’s moderately faster than a touchpad when clicking a bunch of different buttons. Plus it’s nice for playing Hearthstone.

Optimus

Like many laptops the Razer Blade uses Nvidia Optimus. This switches between integrated and discrete GPUs as needed.

I hate Optimus. It’s super buggy. Less demanding games may have crappy performance due to using the wrong GPU. It takes a driver update to fix this.

I haven’t figured out how to force Chrome to use the Nvidia GPU. This means WebGL tools like ShaderToy run poorly.

I wish there was a way to force the Nvidia GPU on and to force CPU speed to max. That’d let me have what I want when auto-detection fails.

Virtual Reality

Despite working in VR I’ve not yet tried it on this laptop. It’s got more than enough power. I’m pretty sure Optimus introduces quite a bit of latency. Some users will notice that and some won’t.

If VR is a must-have there are specific Optimus-free laptops you should investigate.

Power Brick

The power brick is small and unobtrusive. No complaints.

Extra adapters cost $100 which seems absurd. Not even Apple charges that much.

Thunderbolt

There’s a USB-C Thunderbolt 3.0 port on the side. I was excited for this.

Holy crap Thunderbolt docks are expensive! They average about $300. Most aren’t even shipping. I’d love a dock to make connecting my keyboard, mouse, monitor, and speakers less clunky. Hopefully prices come down.

2017 Refresh

I have a late 2016 Razer Blade. They just refreshed for 2017.

First, they updated the CPU from 6th gen Skylake to 7th gen Kaby Lake. This should result in a slight speed boost.

Second, they updated the high-DPI display from 3200x1800 QHD+ to 4k UHD. The 1060 GPU is already a little slow for 3k. It’s definitely too slow for 4k. It will play nicely with 1080p content. Windows might even work better due to more natural 2x scaling.

Third, they improved cooling and reduced fan noise. At idle fans may turn off entirely.

Requested Features

Here’s what I’d like to see for the next major refresh:

Dell XPS 15

That’s the Dell XPS 15 with infinity edge display. It’s a 15.6 inch screen in an enclosure only 12 millimeters wider than the 14-inch Razer Blade. That’s an absolute no brainer if you ask me. Just put the webcam at the top so grandma doesn’t have to look up my nose.

Razer Blade Pro

The 17-inch Razer Blade Pro is as impressive as it is expensive. Pricing starts at $3700.

Razer Blade Pro

It’s a technical marvel. A full Nvidia Geforce GTX 1080 GPU in a laptop only 0.88 inches thick. Drool worthy.

Sadly I don’t think I could ever use one. At 7.8 pounds heavy and 17 inches wide it’s neither thin nor light. The non-centered keyboard is an ergonomic nightmare. It’s not for me.

But it might be for you. Read some reviews and decide for yourself.

Conclusion

Three months in and I have no regrets. If I could do it all over again I would. I’ve completely replaced my desktop PC with a laptop capable of both development and gaming.

I’m inclined to blame most of my problems on Windows rather than Razer.