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Review: Razer Blade Stealth ultrabook

This article is the first of a planned two-part project. Part 1 will focus on the Razer Blade Stealth ultrabook and its built-in characteristics, while Part 2 will measure the performance of the Razer Core, the GPU add-on product for the Razer Blade Stealth.

The Razer Blade Stealth is the first ultrabook from a company that’s typically focused on building gaming laptops, but there are precious few signs that the Stealth represents a major new product area for the enthusiast-focused company. It’s significantly less expensive than the New Razer Blade, which currently starts at $1,999, or the Razer Blade Pro, which has a $2,499 base price. In contrast, the Razer Blade Stealth we’ll be reviewing today starts at $999.

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The specs on the Razer Blade Stealth are nothing to sneeze at. Razer sells two versions of the laptop, but they’re more alike than they are different. Both are equipped with a Core i7-6500U, 8GB of RAM, a 12.5-inch display, and Intel HD 520 graphics (and neither version has gaming prowess on its own as a result). The differences are in screen resolution and available storage — there’s a 2560×1440 panel variant that conforms to the sRGB color standard and ships with 128-256GB of storage as well as a 4K panel variant that conforms to the Adobe RGB wider color gamut and offers either 256GB or 512GB of storage. Both versions use the Killer Networking Killer 1535 802.11ac wireless modem and offer Bluetooth 4.1 support.

We’re reviewing the 2560×1440 version of the laptop today, which comes with a 256GB SSD for $1,199. We’re not thrilled with the price you pay to upgrade your storage — while all OEMs gouge on storage and memory upgrades, charging $200 to step from 128GB to 256GB works out to $1.56 per gigabyte of additional storage. It’s been a long time since SSDs were anywhere near that expensive.

The Blade Stealth measures 12.6 x 8.1 x 0.52 inches and weighs in at 2.75 pounds. All versions of the Razer Blade Stealth have the same port configurations: one USB Type-C 3.1 port with Thunderbolt 3 (useful for the Razer Core peripheral), a pair of USB 3 ports, a headset jack, a 2 megapixel webcam, and an HDMI output. Both the 1440p and 4K versions of the laptop are touchscreens, and while I generally prefer a keyboard and mouse, a touchscreen is genuinely useful when working on an airplane or in any confined space.

The Razer Blade Stealth’s all-aluminum chassis has a matte black finish that gives the ultrabook a sleek, understated look. This is somewhat spoiled by the glowing Razer logo on the top of the laptop, but the glow can be disabled if you don’t fancy it. The one downside to the laptop’s finish is that it picks up fingerprints and oils easily. This isn’t a system you want to use without washing your hands first, unless you want to spend a non-trivial amount of time polishing it to get oil off later.

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The bottom of the laptop is well-designed, with two “feet” that run the entire length of the chassis. This helps ensure that the system won’t overheat — and that’s not a trivial consideration given how thin modern laptops have become.

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The Razer Blade Stealth mounts its speakers on the actual keyboard area instead of on the bottom of the system and the sound quality from them is surprisingly good for a design of this type, provided you don’t expect amazing subwoofer-quality bass. PC laptops are infamous for weak trackpads, but again, Razer’s is better than average.

RazerTop

The keyboard is decent, especially for an ultrabook, but it has some of the typical flaws that make typing on ultra-thin systems less than fun. The keyboard is extremely shallow compared with a standard desktop or conventional laptop, though Razer has made the keys a touch stiffer to compensate. Key placement is solid — you won’t find yourself whacking manufacturer-specific keys when you reach for the function keys or escape, though the arrow keys are difficult to use for any significant task. It’s not as nice as some full laptop keyboards we’ve used, but as ultrabooks go, it’s quite decent.

One of the ways Razer differentiates its own products is with Chroma, its interactive lighting engine. The Blade Stealth is the first laptop to offer per-key lighting options, and Chroma is designed to create a variety of visual effects, as detailed below:

Chroma-Effects

Any one of the Razer’s keys can be programmed with one of 16.7 million colors, and the opportunities for customization are extensive. Games can also support Razer Chroma, at least in theory — while the company debuted an SDK just over a year ago, we aren’t aware of any titles that currently support it.

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The per-key backlighting would benefit if the alternate key functions were also lit — since the lighting only covers the primary spot on each key, some of the secondary marks can be more difficult to see. That said, the display kicks out enough light on its own that this shouldn’t really be a problem.

Overall, the Razer Blade Stealth is an impressive and well-polished design. So how’s its overall performance?

We’ve run the Razer through a suite of utility tests to benchmark it against another laptop we’ll be covering soon — the Alienware R13. Both systems use the same CPU (Core i7-6500U), but the Alienware has more memory (16GB as opposed to 8GB) and a GeForce 960M. Since the Razer ultrabook is explicitly not intended as a gaming-first laptop, we’ll examine the gaming capabilities of the Alienware and the overall value proposition between the three laptops in a separate article. For now, we’re going to focus on how the two machines compete in common desktop benchmarks.

PCMark 7 and 8 are two different test suites that we use to run both laptops through a wide range of applications. PCMark 7 is a general test suite that combines audio/video encoding, computational workloads, web browsing, gaming, and storage tests. Since both of these systems use the same Core i7-6500U, we should see broadly similar performance. PCMark 7 is the older of our two test suites, though that’s less important when it comes to desktop workloads — workflow doesn’t change much at this level.

PCMark7

General performance in PCMark 7 is similar, with the Alienware R13 posting a slightly higher score than the Razer. This isn’t unexpected, given that the Razer has a much smaller form factor and tighter thermal constraints and the gap between the systems is only about 3%, or well within a margin of error.

Switching gears, we have PCMark 8. Unlike PCMark 7, PCMark 8 splits workloads into specific categories — Creative, Home, and Work. Here’s how Futuremark describes each:

Creative: The PCMark 8 Creative benchmark includes workloads typical of enthusiasts and professionals who work with media and entertainment content…PCMark 8 Creative includes web browsing, photo editing, video editing, group video chat, media transcoding, and gaming workloads.

Home: The PCMark 8 Home benchmark includes workloads that reflect common tasks for a typical home user… Home includes workloads for web browsing, writing, gaming, photo editing, and video chat.

Work: The PCMark 8 Work benchmark test measures your system’s ability to perform basic office work tasks, such as writing documents, browsing websites, creating spreadsheets and using video chat.

While there’s some overlap between each category, each creates a distinct score. PCMark 8 offers the option to run benchmarks in an OpenCL-accelerated mode or to use a standard, CPU-only mode. We opted for the accelerated option, partly to test how OpenCL support in Intel’s HD 520 GPU would compare against Nvidia’s GTX 960M. While the 960M is vastly more powerful than Intel’s graphics in 3D gaming, 2D workloads don’t tend to scale the same way.

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In the three PCMark 8 tests, the Razer Blade Stealth actually narrowly leads the Alienware R13 in two of our three benchmarks, though the gap is fairly small. Intel’s OpenCL performance is pretty good for desktop applications these days, and the Core i7 6500U is performing well in both systems.

For our storage performance tests, we’re comparing the storage suites from PCMark 7 and PCMark 8. Both benchmarks use real-world application traces to measure performance as opposed to synthetic applications and in theory, Razer’s PCI Express storage should give it an advantage here, but we don’t see that advantage reflected in either test.

PCMark-StoragePCMark 7 and 8 don’t use the same storage performance test, but we suspect the difference between the two isn’t just a matter of which tests were run. Futuremark’s storage score isn’t just a summary of the various individual tests — the company weights the scores to determine an overall performance level. The weighting in PCMark 8 is different from PCMark 7, and that probably accounts for some of the difference we see here.

The other potential variable is the storage solution itself. The Razer Blade Stealth uses a Samsung MZVLV256HCHP chip. You can view its characteristics here, but to make a long story short, the drive’s sequential read performance is rated at 1GB/s while its sequential write performance is listed as just 280MB/s. Random reads are listed at 250K IOPS, while random writes are 74K IOPS. The weak write performance may be what pulls the Razer down in these results, though we’d like to note that we observed no practical difference between the Blade Stealth and the Alienware 13 in our various tests.

Our final test is x264 encoding using version 5.01 of the x264 benchmark. Again, we should see very similar test scores here — both the Alienware and the Razer use the same CPU, and this test is entirely CPU-bound.

Razer-x264-Benchmark

The Alienware 13 and Razer Blade Stealth are neck-and-neck in this test; the Core i7-6500U clearly isn’t throttling to any significant degree in either system. The Razer leads narrowly on the first pass, while Alienware ekes out a small win in the second.

One place where the Razer Blade Stealth  has been knocked somewhat is the battery life, which hasn’t been particularly great compared with other ultrabooks. Since we’re a bit lacking in comparable ultrabooks, we can’t compare strictly against those platforms, but we did compare both platforms in the Creative suite of PCMark 8.

Razer-Battery-Life

Bear in mind that this is the most strenuous of the PCMark 8 suites and that it produces total run times lower than what you’d see in a battery test that focused only on idle or video playback. Overall battery life for Razer is pretty close to a midrange gaming laptop with a GTX 960. The 1440p panel on our Razer display is likely part of the reason why battery life was close to the bulkier Alienware; we’ve long known that ultra high-definition panels had a significant impact on system battery life.

We say “initial verdict” instead of final verdict, because this is only the beginning of our notebook comparisons, and we’re planning to review both the Alienware 13, the Alienware-specific external graphics card solution, and Razer’s external Core graphics dock. Still, the early data here is positive. There’s absolutely no doubt that the Alienware R13 would demolish the Razer in any kind of head-to-head gaming test, but as far as ultrabook workloads are concerned, the Razer holds its own.

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It’s impressive to look at where ultrabooks are now compared with 2012, when Intel first launched the concept. While it’s true that ultrabooks have failed to halt the general decline of the PC market, ultrabooks in 2016 are capable of far more than their 2012 counterparts, with higher resolution displays, better battery life, lower TDPs, and attractive enclosures. Even in 2012, buying an ultrabook often meant sacrificing overall system performance in the name of better battery life. Now, systems like the Razer Blade Stealth are proving that you can match larger laptop general performance without compromising the system at all.

Of course part of the attractiveness of the Razer Blade Stealth is the Razer Core, and we’re not ready to deliver a final verdict on the system until we’ve seen both components in action. But the early ultrabook positioning is solid and well delivered, even if we’d like to see a bit stronger battery life.

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