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Slinging Razer's sleek Blade won't break your back, might wound your wallet

The Razer Blade is back for 2016, and it brings with it competitive gaming gear in the form of an Intel Core i7-6700HQ, 16GB of RAM, and an Nvidia GTX 970M with 6GB of VRAM – double the graphical memory of last year’s model. Paired up with a 3,200 x 1,800 multi-touch display, the Razer Blade has enviable specs and a thin body, while the price has come down to a more palatable $2,000.

And that’s despite the small touches that have found their way onto Razer’s mainstream gaming laptop, like per-key RGB backlighting, a PCIe solid state drive, and a slight drop in weight over last year. But the Razer Blade ran into issues with heat in the past, thanks to its .7-inch thin design. It’s also been held back by subpar display quality.

Is this year’s Razer able to rectify those issues? Or is it just a faster version of last year’s model?

Gone are the days of bulky gaming laptops that don’t fit in even the largest of backpack sleeves. The Razer Blade is a sleek machine that clearly takes inspiration from Apple’s striking MacBook line. Considering how many compliments the Blade racked up during testing, that’s not a bad strategy.

At first touch, the matte black finish on the laptop feels great. But it attracts smudges and fingerprints. Luckily, whatever material coats the exterior also causes those blemishes to fade with a few minutes.

Underneath that outer shell is an aluminum body that isn’t too heavy, and keeps everything feeling sturdy. We never thought twice before throwing the laptop into a backpack. The edges are solid, with no panel gaps or awkward construction. The Blade keeps things simple, and it pays off.

The Razer Blade has a useful number of ports without including anything unnecessary. On the left side, a small power port resides near the back, with a gap between it and the pair of USB 3.0 ports, and a 3.5mm in/out.

Around the right side, there’s another USB 3.0 port, HDMI, and the cherry on top, a Thunderbolt 3 port.

It turns out that’s a near-perfect set of ports to include with a gaming laptop. It keeps the size down, and when you finally set up camp to game, you’ll have extra ports to charge your phone, hook up an external mouse and hard drive, and even connect to an external monitor.

Of course, Razer started as a peripheral manufacturer, and the Blade meets the high expectations we have for Razer’s input quality.

The keyboard is a chiclet and membrane affair, with the media and brightness controls sharing function keys, along with Print Screen. The bottom left and right corners both have a full set of Ctrl, Alt, and Function keys, a nice touch for easy shortcuts with one hand on either side.

Unlike a lot of membrane keyboards, the keys on the Blade have a distinct tactile response when pressed. The feedback goes a long way when it comes to gaming, and there’s enough resistance to let you comfortably rest your fingers on the keys without accidentally pressing them. The arrow keys have been customized for gaming as well, with half-height up and down keys that allow you to bounce back and forth faster. It’s a change that takes a little bit of time to adjust to, but pays off when you do.

New for 2016, Razer has upgraded the standard green backlighting to Chroma, Razer’s RGB LED backlighting system. It allows customization of LED color and brightness per-key, and the effect is pretty astounding on a laptop of this size. The lights shine brilliantly from underneath each symbol, the cost of which is a little bit of bleed around the edges.

Last year’s Blade used a special keyboard font that some users weren’t so fond of. For the Stealth, and the new 2016 Blade, the symbols are a much more standard typeface, resulting in a more professional look.

Chroma’s app integration and compatibility has grown tremendously over the last year or so, and it’s really starting to show. When we booted up the Overwatch beta on the Blade, the Chroma profile automatically loaded up, highlighting commonly used keys in the game’s signature blue and orange color palette.

Related: The best gaming mouse for every kind of PC gamer

The trackpad has a wide touch surface and two small, separate left and right mouse buttons. You’ll find yourself slapping the bottom of the touchpad itself for a while trying to hit those buttons, but once you find them, they’re consistently a joy to use.

Not content with the 1080p display that’s become the standard for gaming laptops, the Razer Blade includes a 3,000 x 1,800 touchscreen. The resolution bump is definitely noticeable, even if it isn’t a full 4K screen. But look past the extra pixels and you’ll find other shortcomings.

It reaches 266 lux at maximum brightness, which isn’t terrible, but still falls behind the Asus Zenbook Pro UX501’s 275 lux, and both are a longshot from the Asus G752’s 331. In practice it doesn’t matter all that much, as the screen is bright and clear, even in well-lit rooms.

The display can cover 95 percent sRGB gamut, and 71 percent of the AdobeRGB gamut — smack in the middle of the competition. That’s plenty for most gaming and movie watching, and only the most hardcore graphic designers won’t find it sufficient.

Black levels have improved from last year, down to .09 with the brightness all the way down. That’s a rating that’s just slightly better than the UX501, but not as strong as the almost-zero G752. Black levels make a big difference in gaming immersion, and the Blade scores a respectable rating without quite reaching the ideal flat zero.

Its 370:1 maximum contrast is at the low end of the spectrum, but right in line the UX501. Color accuracy is a low point, sitting at around four, where lower is better and anything under one is ideal. It’s not a particularly strong point for either Asus, but even at 2.5 the UX501 is significantly closer to perfect color reproduction.

All of these issues don’t impact the gaming performance as much as you might think. Part of the reason for that is that blacks are still deep, although some bright colors in games like Heroes of the Storm look slightly off from when played on a properly tuned screen. Brightness also wasn’t an issue during testing, and the screen is easily readable even in a brightly lit office.

The speakers on the Blade benefit tremendously from their placement. Instead of under the screen or the front edge or around back, the speakers on the Blade flank the keyboard, running the height of the keys facing directly upward. They sound good too, clean and crisp at most volume levels. Over around 70 percent system volume, and there’s a noticeable crackle in the background.

Skylake has quickly taken over as the CPU of choice in laptops and desktops alike, so it’s not surprise that an Intel Core i7-6700HQ is the beating heart of every new Razer Blade. The chip boasts four cores with a 2.6GHz base clock, and a 3.5GHz Turbo Boost, with Hyper-Threading thrown in for good measure. It’s paired up with 16GB of 2133MHz DDR4, and a GTX 970M with 6GB of VRAM.

The other three systems in these graphs are actually equipped with the same Intel Core i7-6700HQ and 16GB of RAM. The streamlined Blade claims a victory in every benchmark, including a particularly strong score in our Handbrake 4K video conversion test. It’s the fastest version of the chip we’ve laid hands on, but it’s a gaming machine, so graphical power matters too.

This time around, Razer has upgraded the Blade’s SSD from eSATA to PCIe, a move that a lot of high-end laptop manufacturers have made in the last year. It generally makes a big difference, often doubling or tripling the drive’s read speed, mainly as a result of the improved connection specification.

And we see that exact trend here, with last year’s Blade filling in the bottom spot on our graph. The new drive’s speed more than doubles that of the 2015 model, although it still can’t quite keep up with the fastest NVMe drives, like the one found in the UX501.

The first graphical test for the Blade is a synthetic one — 3DMark. While the system still sports the same GTX 970M from last year, it’s now packing an impressive 6GB of VRAM, not too shabby of an upgrade considering the system is also cheaper.

The G752 and Razer trade some blows here, and it’s tough to say which system comes out on top. On one hand, the G752 sneaks by the Razer in Fire Strike, which is a much more demanding test. On the other hand, the Blade takes a stronger lead in Sky Diver, a test made specifically for mobile GPUs.

Either way, both systems perform remarkably well for laptops, falling in the same range as desktop systems powered by the GTX 960. The UX501 falls a bit further behind, thanks to its GTX 960M, but still posts a score several times higher than most integrated graphics chips.

But tests in a lab only mean so much, and what’s far more important is actual gaming power.

While the Razer Blade includes a 3,200 x 1,800 display, we’ll start with our results in 1080p. Since most of our other review systems, in particular the two competitors, were tested at 1080p, it’s the only way we can accurately compare performance results.

Razer’s advantage in the CPU category slips away when the GPU gets involved. The G752 and Blade once again trade blows depending on the game, but the Blade takes home more losses than it does victories.

That is a notable result. The G752 was reviewed with the GTX 970M, the same GPU in the Blade, but the latter has double the video memory. Razer is touting the added memory as an upgrade, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference in real-world game performance.

Still, it blows past the 960M-powered UX501 in every game except Heroes of the Storm, one of the least consistent games in our test suite. It also comes within an inch of claiming the 60 frame per second title on Fallout 4 with ultra settings, and it wouldn’t take much tweaking to get there.

The Blade ships with a 3,200 x 1,800 IGZO panel, which is a decent step up from 1440p in terms of clarity, but also in the demands it places on a system. We don’t have other systems at the same resolution to compare to, but we can at least get an idea of gaming at native resolution.

Unfortunately, the Blade is unable to keep up with the demands of QHD+ resolution, at least at ultra settings. Fallout 4 settles at about 28 frames per second at ultra, and Battlefield 4 isn’t far off at 32. Heroes of the Storm, on the other hand, runs just fine, averaging 72 frames per second with the settings turned up.

Those aren’t the fastest numbers around, but they’re still respectable, and some graphical tweaking can definitely bring those titles up and over 60 frames per second. There are also 1,920 x 1,080 and 2,560 x 1,440 options too, for those who prefer function over form.

Physically, the Razer Blade is incredibly portable. At just.7 inches thick, it doesn’t have the same bulk and heft of most gaming laptops. In fact, its size is closer to most small consumer laptops we review. It also weighs just 4.47 pounds, so it doesn’t weigh down a backpack, and feels comfortable carried around under your arm.

The Razer’s thin construction matches its battery life which, while not in the same range as less performance-focused laptops, is still impressive for the category. In our macro-based Web browsing loop, the Blade lasted just over four hours, which is still about two hours short of the UX501.

In the PeaceKeeper browser test, the Blade stayed alive for just under three hours before succumbing to exhaustion. Again, that doesn’t match the UX501’s almost seven hour run, but clobbers the G752, which doesn’t break two hours despite its massive size.

There’s a cost to the Blade’s slim chassis and speedy performance though, and that’s heat. To give Razer credit, the situation has improved over last year’s model. The parts of the system that your hands rest on, the palmrest and left side of the keyboard, stay close to the 80 degree Fahrenheit ambient temperature.

The hottest spot on the laptop is the underside, where it reaches 120 degrees Fahrenheit right between the two fan intakes. That’s a bit hotter than other gaming systems – both the Predator and G752 stay under 100 degrees, but the UX501 reached 105 degrees, so it’s not hard to see why the thin Blade might get a bit hotter.

Similarly, Razer mentioned improved fan design and optimization in the Blade. It still gets about as loud as it previous models, around 53 decibels after five minutes of the Furmark graphical stress test. It’s a little on the noisy side, especially compared to other gaming laptops, but it’s no louder than smaller gaming desktops.

Razer offers a one-year warranty on the Razer Blade, which is standard for laptops at almost any price point.

The Razer Blade is impressive, packing high-end hardware into such a slick chassis, but it comes at a cost. The 2016 Blade starts at $2,000 for the version with a 256GB PCIe SSD. The highest-end Asus UX501 costs just $1,700, and you get a 512GB SSD, 4K touchscreen, and 960M. The $1,900 Asus G752 packs in G-Sync, the same 970M with 6GB of VRAM, and a 1TB hard drive on top of the 256GB SSD. The comparable Acer Predator 15 packs in the same specs as the G752 for just $1,500.

Still, the Blade is a very capable gaming laptop at 1080p, and keeps up with other systems even as the resolution grows. It makes up for the slight premium by being the slimmest gaming laptop around. It also boasts better battery life than overweight systems like the G752, which also have a louder, more garish aesthetic.

If you don’t have the room in your bag for one of those larger systems, the Blade is a really solid choice. It doesn’t compromise on performance to slim down, and an occasionally hot lap is the only real issue with the otherwise excellent system. Gamers aren’t always focused on slimming their systems, but the newest Blade might make them care.

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