2014 Razer Blade Pro review: Only slightly better than last-year's model
At a Glance
Razer’s 2014 Blade Pro seems to be caught between two hardware generations. While its less-professional cousin, the 14-inch Blade, benefits from an enormous bump in graphics horsepower and display resolution this year, the 17-inch Blade Pro looks much the same as it did in 2013.
Razer abided by the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” axiom here, and I can’t fault them: The Blade Pro was a beautiful, sleek, and capable machine in 2013, and all that remains true in its present incarnation.
The Blade Pro ships with an Nvidia GeForce GTX 860M that’s slightly faster than last year’s 765M, but not spectacularly so. Nvidia has crammed some new game-related features into the 800M series though: Battery Boost and ShadowPlay.
Battery Boost allows the computer to dynamically adjust the power draw of the GPU to keep games at a steady 30 frames per second (or higher/lower, depending on your own preferences). ShadowPlay leans into the YouTube, share-everything obsession of modern players by automatically capturing footage in the background without a performance hit.
Also under the hood: an Intel i7-4700HQ processor (the same as last year), 16GB of DDR3/1600 memory (twice as much as last year), and a 128-, 256-, or 512GB solid-state drive (our review unit was outfitted with a 256GB SSD). There aren’t any other options for more capacious onboard storage, so digital hoarders beware. Three USB 3.0 ports are on the left side of the machine, along with HDMI, a combo headphone/microphone port, and a gigabit ethernet port. If you prefer to go wireless, the Blade Pro sports an 802.11ac Wi-Fi adapter and Bluetooth 4.0.
In lay terms
So what does all that mean for practical, day-to-day use? Perfectly acceptable performance that won’t take your breath away, but that stacks up fine against the competition on most counts. Razer’s machine earned a Laptop WorldBench 9 score of 106, which put it just slightly ahead of our reference machine: A Dell XPS 15 with an Intel Core i7-4702HQ and an Nvidia GeForce GT 750M video processor. But as you can see in the chart below, it lagged behind both the 2014 edition of the Alienware 17 ($2968) and the Digital Storm Krypton ($2251).
The Blade Pro’s gaming performance won’t blow your mind, either, but it does exceed the 60 frames-per-second threshold that most gamers expect from a gaming rig. The Blade Pro delivered BioShock Infinite at 70.4 frames per second, with resolution set to 1920x1080 pixels and image quality at medium. But BioShock has been around for a while, so there isn't a lot of headroom to accommodate future AAA titles that will demand more resources. The Alienware 17 and Krypton both run Nvidia’s top-shelf GeForce GTX 880M, and each of those machines can play BioShock at more than 120fps.
The Blade Pro’s battery hung on for a respectable 3 hours and 18 minutes in our punishing battery-drain test. That’s 20 minutes longer than the Alienware 17, which uses Intel’s newer Core i7-4910Q CPU (Razer picked Intel’s Core i7-4702HQ), but six minutes short of the Krypton (Digital Storm uses an Intel Core i7-4700HQ). All the major gaming laptop manufacturers have hit the same battery wall—20 minutes of battery life won’t have a big impact on anyone’s buying decision.
So the Blade Pro’s performance is at the high end laptop scale, but it’s far from the top of the heap.
Powerful gaming laptops are no longer uncommon. A few manufacturers, Alienware among them, once dominated this market, but now there are many, many players in this space. But in their quest for power, many of these companies seem to have forgotten the reason for buying a laptop in the first place: Road trips!
Take the Alienware 17. That beast weighs more than nine pounds. Add its power supply and you’re schlepping 11.5 pounds. That’s enough to put a strain on the strongest of computer bags, not to mention your shoulder. The Krypton is slightly lighter than the Alienware, but it ends up weighing about the same as that machine when you take its power brick into account.
The Blade Pro weighs in at just 6.6 pounds, and its power supply adds just one more). And where its two competitors are both nearly two inches thick, Razer’s machine is a svelte 0.88 inches). Those measurements put the Razer Pro in the same class as Apple’s MacBook Pro line, with similar attention paid to aesthetics. The Blade Pro’s black aluminum case, however, shows every single fingerprint. I left a bevy of them just putting the computer in my bag.
Like most laptops, the Blade Pro’s keyboard uses modified scissor switches, although Razer designed these in-house. The keyboard is not too bad to type on, though the keys have very little travel. The Blade Pro also features N-key rollover, an essential, and now fairly standard feature for gaming keyboards that enables you to hold down as many keys as you want without overloading the computer with input data. The keyboard is also fully backlit, although your only color choice is Razer’s eye-searing brand of green.
And then there’s SwitchBlade.
The SwitchBlade is the feature that sets the Blade Pro apart from the smaller, lighter Blade. It’s essentially a low-resolution, touchscreen display embedded to the right of the keyboard, supplemented by 10 LCD buttons. The screen can display just about anything, and you use Razer’s software to map context-sensitive commands to the 10 buttons above it. You can play a game on the primary display, for instance, and watch a YouTube video, browse Twitter, or chat with your Twitch viewers using the smaller display.
It’s a very cool concept, but the compromises Razer had to make to build a device that’s both a touchpad and a display culminate in an underwhelming experience. The resolution—800x480 pixels—is a far cry from the density we see in modern smartphones. Images look disappointingly fuzzy. And unlike a genuine touchscreen, you can’t use the display as a trackpad while SwitchBlade is active (you can use it to control apps displayed on the trackpad, but not the apps displayed on the primary LCD). You must plug in a mouse if you want to take advantage of the SwitchBlade’s dual-screen potential.
Actually, I’d recommend using mouse anyway. The secondary display exhibits considerably more friction than a normal trackpad. It’s usable, but it’s not exactly pleasant. Your fingers drag across the surface, making it difficult to navigate around the screen with any speed or precision. SwitchBlade isn’t a bad concept, but it’s not as revolutionary as it appears when someone sees it over your shoulder. I’m not convinced compromising trackpad usability for to gain a second display is a worthwhile tradeoff.
Is it for you?
The Blade Pro is a moderately powerful machine designed for the average user, versus the hardcore crowd. While I love a laptop that can run games on the highest settings without a stutter, “normal” gaming laptops are portable in name only. The Blade Pro isn’t as fast as those machines, but it’s a whole lot easier on my back when I need to hit the road. It’s fast enough, and it’s beautiful: Strangers will compliment your choice in hardware, as opposed to staring with pity at the horrific monstrosity you’ve somehow dragged into your lap. Here’s hoping Razer gives the 2015 the full makeover it deserves.