Intel’s latest Kaby Lake processors and Nvidia’s new Pascal graphics means that we’ve seen scores of laptop updates in recent months. The Early 2017 Razer Blade ($1,899.99), a Kaby Lake-based version of the late 2016 Blade is one such laptop. Our test configuration includes the same display, storage, and graphics hardware as the Editors’ Choice Blade we reviewed last December, with modestly improved performance and a longer-lasting battery. The upgrades aren’t monumental (but neither is the price increase of $100), and given that the Blade was already our top pick for gamers who value both portability and performance, this model is an easy pick as our Editors’ Choice for ultraportable gaming laptops.
Petite, Packed With Power
Since this version of the Blade is a mere component upgrade on the previous model, the laptop is physically unchanged on the outside. It weighs 4.16 pounds 0.7 by 13.6 by 9.3 inches (HWD), exactly the same as the Skylake model. The Alienware 13 measures 0.87 by 13 by 10.6 inches and weighs 5.43 pounds, thicker and heavier despite having a smaller screen than the Blade. The MSI GT62VR Dominator Pro-005 is a 15-inch laptop that offers more power for around the same price, but the form factor isn’t nearly as sleek at 1.56 by 15.36 by 10.47 inches and 6.45 pounds.
If you like the build and want something even more portable, the 11-inch Razer Blade Stealth is a non-gaming ultraportable with the same design that weighs just 2.91 pounds. On the other end of the spectrum, the premium Razer Blade Pro is a more powerful 17-inch, 7.72-pound version of the Blade with high-end features.
The excellent-feeling keyboard and smooth touchpad are maintained here, and connectivity options are untouched. That means two USB 3.0 ports, and a headphone jack on the left, while the right panel holds another USB 3.0 port (all the USB ports are green to match the lid logo), an HDMI port, and a USB-C port with Thunderbolt 3. For wireless connections you get Killer-branded 802.11ac as well as Bluetooth 4.1, and the laptop covered by a one-year warranty.
Since the design is identical, you can read more details and impressions of the keyboard, key lighting, touchpad, and overall build in our review of the Late 2016 Blade.
The $1,899.99 starting price for the refreshed Blade gets you 256GB of solid-state storage and a Full HD display (the configuration I’m reviewing here). You can ramp up to a 512GB SSD for $2,099.99, or max out at 1TB for $2,499.99, both with the same 1080p screen. 4K screen options with 512GB ($2,399.99) or 1TB ($2,799.99) have been announced, but are not yet available.
Though speedy SSD storage, the 256GB capacity in our unit isn’t a lot for gaming, and the drive will fill up pretty quickly. Only 225GB is useable from the start after accounting for the operating system and other essential software, so it will only fit a few modern games alongside other media and files given contemporary install sizes. Jumping up to 512GB is appealing, but it’s an extra $200, so you’ll have to make a personal judgment call on whether it’s worth it for you. The Alienware 13 can also be configured with 512GB for $2,099.99, so the Blade isn’t abnormal in this regard—SSD storage is just expensive.
As for the 14-inch display, its high picture quality is as strong as on the previous model thanks to In-Plane Switching technology and vibrant colors. The 1080p resolution is a good match for the graphics hardware, since the GTX 1060 inside is solid, but not a high-end card, so going beyond HD will result in frame rate drops. 1080p is the sweet spot for these components, as you’ll be able to keep most games at maximum settings at HD. The Alienware 13 opts for a QHD (2,560-by-1,440 resolution) touch display on a smaller 13.3-inch screen, but since it also uses a GTX 1060, you’ll see more dropped frames at high settings. If you don’t truly need the portability of the Blade (much of its high price can be attributed to its slim build), the excellent, though large, 17-inch HP Omen 17 packs a GTX 1070, a 4K screen, and lot more storage for $1,799.
If you choose to wait for the 4K Blade, know that you can only opt for GTX 1060 graphics. Of course, you be able to view native 4K content, so that’s not to say the additional screen resolution will be useless, but don’t expect to play games at 4K. The 1060 is capable of smooth VR gaming, however, so you hook up your favorite VR headset without worry.
Slim, Style, Speed
The processor jump is the main attraction here, from a 2.6GHz Intel Core i7-6700HQ in last year’s Blade to a 2.8GHz i7-7700HQ. The 16GB of memory remains the same. Due to Intel’s relatively new rollout structure of incremental improvements between bigger CPU shifts, the move from Skylake to the newest Kaby Lake generation isn’t as pronounced as that between some past iterations, but there are modest improvements in benchmark scores nonetheless.
The Blade’s PCMark 8 Work Conventional score, which measures general productivity, eked up a few hundred points over the Late 2016 Blade, and put more distance between it and the Alienware 13. The same can be said of the multimedia tests: You can see the new hardware shaves time off the Photoshop and Handbrake tests, and moderately improve the CineBench score.
3D and gaming performance are obviously the big points of interest, and the GTX 1060 performs admirably. The Early 2017 Blade comfortably reached over 60 frames per second (fps) on the Heaven and Valley benchmark test at Ultra settings in HD, an improvement on the Skylake edition which stayed in the low to mid 50fps range on average. As mentioned, the QHD resolution caused the Alienware 13 struggle a bit more on the tests despite also using a GTX 1060—it averaged 39fps on Heaven and 45fps on Valley at the same settings. If you want an option that might not be as flashy or quite as powerful, but still portable and reliable, the Lenovo Legion Y520 is a solid contender with entry-level pricing.
In testing, the fans revved up loudly at times, and they were really revving under heavy strain, enough to be a bit distracting. I noticed that in Power Saving mode the fans were limited from whirring at top speeds, but there were corresponding frame rate drops, so that’s probably not a worthwhile compromise for most people. The Blade also gets quite hot during gaming sessions, but it’s nothing out of the ordinary for a system under load.
Battery results on our rundown test notably improve on the newest Blade, jumping to 10 hours and 36 minutes from the Late 2016 Blade’s 7:23 time. The first Blade released in 2016 lasted for 5:04 on the same test, demonstrating how Razer has continually improved battery life in a relatively short span of time. The Alienware 13 lasted just 4:56 (the QHD resolution again playing a part), the Legion Y520 for 5:45, and the Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming (our Editors’ Choice budget gaming laptop) for 11:01.
The Best Blade
The Early 2017 Razer Blade is a modest upgrade with a more powerful processor, faster performance, and measurably improved battery life in the same compact, high-quality design. It’s not worth upgrading if you already own a Late 2016 Blade, but if you’re on an older version or less a powerful non-Razer system, this is the Blade to buy. It easily replaces its predecessor as our top gaming ultraportable.