Ultrabook technology has redefined our expectation of the modern-day laptop. Often extremely thin and very light, and boasting remarkable levels of battery life with the latest Intel Haswell processors, we've reached the point where notebook computers can detach from the mains for a full working day and still have a decent amount of juice remaining at the end of it. There are just two compromises with these machines: relatively modest CPU power and poor graphics capabilities, meaning only limited gaming potential.
Then there's the Razer Blade 14. Imagine a jet-black 14-inch laptop that looks for all the world like a midway point between the larger MacBook Air and the 15-inch MacBook Pro. While not quite as svelte as Apple's ultrabook offerings, it's close enough, and in terms of processing power, there's no competition. What we have here is a 2.2GHz quad-core i7 Haswell - doubling the CPU performance of the standard ultrabook - working in combination with Nvidia's GeForce GTX 765M, a potent GPU that wipes the floor with the both the Intel Iris Pro and GTX 760M found within the larger 15.4-inch Macbook Pros.
There's no skimping on build quality either. Just like the Apple products it seeks to emulate, the Razer Blade oozes quality - there's a high-end finish to the aluminium chassis, a reassuring response from the chiclet keyboard, and a highly responsive trackpad backed up by actual, real buttons - something we've sorely missed after eight months of MacBook Air ownership. Again, similar to the Apple product, the screen lid is also worthy of praise - with even determined pressure on the back offering no sign of any screen distortion. In short, the Blade is a brilliant little product with just two disappointments: lacklustre audio performance from the stereo speakers and a remarkably disappointing 1600x900 screen.
Even with its imperfections, the plus points of the package are difficult to ignore. In essence, the Razer product offers us the chance to have our cake and eat it: ultra portability but with enough processing muscle-power to run any PC game you care to mention - even the heavyweights like Crysis 3 and Battlefield 4. The i7-4702HQ offers up four cores and eight threads, with a max turbo frequency of 3.2GHz (although we had trouble exceeding 2.8GHz), while the GTX 765M features 2GB of GDDR5, along with 768 Kepler CUDA cores.
Wasting no time, we loaded up Battlefield 4, capturing the initial Baku campaign level - a stage that features both tight, narrow corridor-style battling, along with wide expansive open areas and some beautiful set-pieces. Aiming high, we opted for BF4's high quality level - one step down from ultra - and played at both the native screen standard of 1600x900, along with HDMI full HD 1920x1080.
The results are good, if not exactly spectacular. At the unit's native 900p we get frame-rates in the region of 35-50fps - not too bad at all, but a highly variable experience that feels somewhat dissatisfying. Frame-rates obviously move south as we move up to 1080p via HDMI - 10-12fps lower on average, but curiously the experience actually feels better, more consistent, with fewer jarring leaps in the frame-rate.
For this title, we feel that there are two potential sweet spots: 900p on medium settings should get us closer to the game's signature 60fps target, while a 30fps cap could work out nicely with a combination of high and perhaps even select ultra settings. Those hoping for a next-gen console beating gaming ultrabook are likely to be disappointed, but this much power in so small a form factor is still a supreme achievement.
"The experience is variable, but we can play Battlefield 4 at high settings reasonably well on the 14-inch Razer Blade. Wise settings management is key to getting the most out of the GTX 765M GPU."
The GeForce GTX 765M is a curious piece of tech - its nearest desktop equivalent being the GTX 650 Ti, which uses the same Kepler chip. Fitting into an exceptionally tight thermal envelope requires compromises though, losing a decent chunk of performance owing to lower core clock-speeds and slower RAM. Just like its desktop sibling, the capabilities of the hardware are also somewhat limited by a 128-bit memory bus, constraining bandwidth. In practice this means that while the Razer Blade can comfortably run any game, there needs to be a certain amount of realism in the graphics settings you choose - and suffice to say that automatically whacking up everything to max is a recipe for disappointment.
We took this into account as we began our run of benchmarks. Where there were ultra settings, we dropped back to high. When multi-sampling was engaged, we turned it off, opting instead for a post-processing alternative. Similar levels of realism were introduced for games where tessellation heavily impacted performance, and let's just say that Metro 2033's frame-rate-decimating depth-of-field tech - which can cut performance in half - was turned off for the duration.
The aim was to produce performance comparable to our experience with Battlefield 4, starting out with decent 1080p performance in the 30-40fps area, translating into even higher frame-rates - and thus more wiggle room for enhancing quality levels - at the Blade's native 900p resolution. We think we did pretty well here, but clearly further work is needed to get Metro: Last Light behaving nicely within the environment the Razer Blade offers.
Overall, the results are clear: the Razer Blade offers more gaming power than the vast majority of laptops out there utilising discrete GPUs, and the firm deserves kudos for choosing a hardware balance that works very well; there's the feeling that the demands of 1080p gaming are just a little bit too much of a stretch for the GPU, but the native 1600x900 resolution of the 14-inch screen is a good fit for the graphics power on offer.
"The Razer Blade 14 should comfortably run any PC title at the native 1600x900, but ramping quality levels to the max on the most demanding titles is a recipe for disappointment."
|BioShock Infinite, Very High||57.2fps||40.0fps|
|Tomb Raider, High||57.5fps||44.7fps|
|Hitman, High, FXAA||38.6fps||31.0fps|
|Sleeping Dogs, High||45.6fps||34.3fps|
|Metro: Last Light, High||28.9fps||22.1fps|
|Metro 2033 High, AAA, no DOF||51.5fps||39.7fps|
Having satisfied ourselves that the Blade lives up to the promises made of its gaming credentials, we then moved on to other, perhaps more pedestrian matters - for example, whether the unit works as an ultrabook replacement, and to what extent the additional processing power on offer can make a difference.
The good news is that the form factor works. The Blade is clearly larger and heavier than our MacBook Air, but crucially it doesn't feel too bulky for ultra-portability, while the overall size and shape of the machine still offers the same kind of everyday usability as a 13.3-inch laptop without feeling too big and unwieldy in the way that the more prevalent 15.4-inch machines tend to be. However, a key element of the ultrabook proposition is lost - prolonged battery life. The 10 hours or so that can be extracted from the latest 2013 MacBook Air on light workloads is reduced down to around four hours on the Blade.
There's also the question of how much CPU power you need outside of gaming. Ultrabooks tend to operate at very low advertised frequencies, with the MacBook Air quoted at 1.3GHz. However, Intel's turbo technology is remarkably good as long as the cooling solution is there to support it, and often gets within striking distance of the higher-power mobile dual-core processors. That's a lot of processing capability on tap if you actually need it and the quad-core processor within the Blade could almost be considered overkill. However, for more demanding applications, that extra power makes a huge amount of difference.
"It's a beautiful device, let down only by a lacklustre display that is completely at odds with the extreme quality on display almost everywhere else."
At Digital Foundry, we take an ultrabook capable of 1080p60 lossless capture to press trips - we used it for our Dead Rising 3, Kinect Sports Pre-Season and Need for Speed: Rivals coverage. Even the 1.6GHz Sandy Bridge processor on offer in our humble unit can compress 1080p60 footage in real-time, but the Razer Blade's quad proved to be a revelation - we could switch to much more demanding, more computationally expensive compression formats that brought both our ultrabook and MacBook Air to their knees, allowing us to store much more footage on the disk. Based on our experience, those requiring a machine with the raw power of, say, a 15.4-inch MacBook Pro, but who don't want the larger form-factor, should seriously consider the Blade.
Razer Blade 14: the Digital Foundry verdict
This remarkable product trades battery life for raw power - and if you're fine with that, you'll find that the 14-inch Razer Blade is in a class of its own in terms of gaming potential, build quality, portability and the overall user experience. The bad news is that you'll need to pay a lot of money for this machine - the base model with a 128GB SSD costs $1800, while the 256GB version hits a square two grand. For the top-end 512GB machine, slap on an extra $300. That's a massive amount of cash for any laptop and we'd expect perfection with that level of investment. Unfortunately, in this respect, the Blade doesn't quite deliver. The screen really is shockingly poor for the money being asked, easily beaten by the panel integrated into the MacBook Air - which is TN-based, just like the Razer Blade's.
Razer also has an issue with selling its flagship hardware outside of the US, so while it is possible order a Blade and import it into Europe, the price reaches stratospheric levels once shipping and import duties are added to the already considerable cost.
So why cover the Razer Blade in the first place if it's so expensive and out of reach for much of our readership? The truth is, it's a harsh time for the PC and laptop market, where price dominates and where sub-par quality products with depressingly low-resolution screens and throttled performance are rife. Quality competition for Apple's notebook products is out there, but genuine competitors are few and far between, and it's rare to find a company offering anything genuinely new or exciting - especially for gamers. While not perfect, the Razer Blade 14 is a beautiful, exceptional machine that does so much right, it deserves its place in the limelight.