For the last two years and more for mobile computing I’ve been limping along using Windows 10 in a Virtual Box VM on my 2013 MacBook Pro. Since the Mac only has 8Gb RAM both OSes have ended up starved of resources at times and turned both desktop experiences a little sour.
Trying to do any meaningful development on that virtual machine, such as running virtualised emulators, is painful at best and impossible at worst. I need a laptop, a fairly beefy one at that, running Windows 10 on bare-metal (not in a virtual machine).
Since I’m about to start a major new project and it’s Black Friday, I decided to check out some laptops in more detail and watch some prices. I should say here that all things considered the MacBook Pro is clearly a very well built machine. My early 2013 model looks brand new and still works like it did when I bought it which is impressive. I just don’t get on with OSX, at all.
I’d much rather have Linux installed to be honest but I need OSX for compiling software for Apple devices. That’s the sole reason I have any Apple hardware in my life. As I’ve said before I don’t get Apples long-term game, they appear to be annoying their core OSX audience.
My shortlist included;
- Dell XPS 15 (9570)
- ASUS ZenBook Pro
- Razer Blade 15
- Lenovo P1 & X1
- Microsoft Surface 2
As you can see these are all high end laptops. I need a minimum of 16Gb RAM, 512Gb SSD and a 15 inch screen. Just those criteria alone push you up the laptop performance/price scale. But this is my daily driver and I drive … a lot. The price of entry, even in just the machines listed above, varies by an eye-watering £1000. Most people scoff at spending just half that variation on a machine.
After all the “Umming …” and “Ahhhhing …” it really came down to the XPS and the Razer. The ZenBook Pro just seemed a little gimmicky and I don’t like the industrial design of any ASUS laptops. Which is a shame as I swear by high-end ASUS components in my desktop builds.
The PC laptop industry needs to up it’s game 10-fold on design. Cheap doesn’t have to equal crap & utterly thoughtless design. Lenovos were just too damn expensive once adequately specified but really are killer machines. Same can be said for the Surface 2, prohibitively expensive. To get the Razer specs in the SB2 I’d have to find and justify an additional £1000 for zero net gain. That just isn’t doable or sane.
Runner Up – XPS
My last programming job came with an XPS 15 9570. So I have a good 3 months hands on experience with it. It’s a really great machine. I was punishing it with day job work and it soldiered on stoically. The feel of all the materials is really very good and the metal elements are really well machined. The performance running many instances of Visual Studio 2017 was exemplary. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.
I know I would have been happy buying the XPS 15. The problem is Dell, you just cannot complete with the Razer Blade 15 on industrial design. In fact I think I even prefer the industrial design over Apple. Which really is saying something as i have the utmot respect for Apple design, less so for how they do business and pricing however. The Razer Blade 15 is, at least in my opinion, probably the best Windows laptop design I’ve ever seen. Followed really closely by Huawei MateBook X and Mi Notebook Air and maybe that thing from Porsche.
There were a few issues with the XPS I had that included some odd power management issues and so on (these are commented on in the press enough already) that will no doubt be solved in a BIOS update. So probably not worth considering really.
I would say here that any laptop running an i9 should be scrapped from your shopping list. In all my research there isn’t a single laptop that can keep on top of the thermals. Hell, my maxed our Be Quiet Dark Base Pro 900 encased, Kraken water cooled machine has trouble keeping my 7900X cool. All i9s run hot.
The Razer Blade 15 Purchase
Anyway, I ordered the Razer Blade 15 two days ago. There was a deal on I couldn’t ignore. It bought the price of the Razer Blade 15 down into my justifiable budget, making it even cheaper than it’s only real rival – the XPS 15. It’s due to arrive next week so thought I’d start an ownership story before it arrives.
I bought the 1080p / GTX 1060 / 144Khz / 16Gb / 512Gb version. I game a bit but this is going to be my workhorse laptop so that is less important. The 1060 runs cooler (less noise from fans and potential long-term heat related aging) but is also significantly more powerful than the offerings from any other machines in my shortlist, including the 1050TI in the XPS. I’m sure Dell chose that GPU considering some XPSs will have an i9 in.
Considering significantly more Windows software makes use of the GPU these days this is actually a consideration for even productivity focused machines.
I do some video editing and I do a lot of photography but these are all secondary pursuits as well. The 4K version of this machine looks great for creators but I couldn’t justify the premium for a nice to have and I won’t make sufficient use of the touch screen to justify the extra cost either.
As I’ve been reading around the web the issues of Razer QA and customer services never seem far away. Reading all these negative reports absolutely gave me cause for concern. Rethinking my decision numerous times before finally placing my order.
I have also been hearing and reading that, even in the just the last few months, Razer Inc have been addressing this. So are Razer in a transition period where to scale up to the next level their support needs to improve also? QA is tough but hopefully this is on the up as well.
Irrespective of this I am going to take out a third party extended warranty from MendIT. Any purchase this expensive and this key to day-to-day business requires some kind of cover like this anyway so this should be a moot point.
Time will tell I guess. A Razer Blade 15 is currently winging it’s way to me. I’m very excited. So … I await the nice delivery
The Keyboard Layout Issue
From all accounts so far it seems the Razor Blade 15 has a bit of an odd keyboard layout. Specifically the placement of the shift key and the up arrow key. Now I know this might annoy some people but if I can deal with switching between the Mac and Windows without issue, this is just as minor. You can also remap keys using the Razor included software anyway so I think this is going to turn into a moot point.
Besides I always use an external keyboard with laptops anyway, there isn’t a laptop keyboard that I’m happy with on any machine. They’re all crap. With every new laptop key or switch design its exclusively an exercise in damage limitation, not innovation. Talking of innovation Apple’s blinded pursuit of absolute “thinness” has all but destroyed any chance of decent keyboard on their devices despite their marketing claims.
I have a Ducky Shine 3 TKL that I pop into my laptop bag for hardcore typing duties and the Razer Blade 15 will also be graced with the Ducky’s presence. If you don’t know Ducky’s keyboards you should check them out, they are fantastic.
Another issue I’ve been reading about concerns the battery life. Considering what the Razor Blade 15 is capable of it should be no surprise that the battery life isn’t the greatest. But there are many things that can be done to extend this. For me, as long as the CPU, GPU and SSD are able to work at their prime I can happily dial-back anything else during productivity tasks to get a decent life span.
I don’t need everything running at full tilt constantly.
I just added a new profile to my main desktop (i9-7900X machine) that isn’t over-clocked for the same reasons (oh, and my electricity bill).
This was actually one of the main purchase decisions. The Razor Blade 15 has such an awesome collection of ports built in. The only dongle I’ve had to purchase is a Gigabit ethernet. Granted that decision is a bit odd for a gaming laptop (LAN parties) but I think that actually gives a nod to Razer keeping an eye on the fact that this arguably isn’t just a gaming machine.
For instance, there isn’t a chance in hell that I’d pick a gaming laptop from any other manufacturer. Walking into a business meeting with some garishly coloured door wedge just isn’t going to happen.
Yes the Razer Blade 15 has the Razer logo but a £20 DBrand skin can take care of that to make an already amazing design look even better.
SD Card Reader
I do find it funny that so many people seem to lose their shit over this “missing feature”. Frankly I couldn’t give a toss about it. I use professional Canon camera gear (5DII / 7D) and these make exclusive use of Compact Flash anyway. The new bodies have SD slots but even these have CF slots and increasingly use WiFi for transfers anyway. And even given a nightmare scenario you can connect the camera directly to the machine to transfer things anyway.
So, today (November 27th) the Razer Blade 15 arrived. First impressions are that this is every bit the laptop I expected it to be. Wow. This really is a stunning piece of kit. I’ts easily on a par with my 2013 MacBook Pro. The packaging is nice and the laptop is well protected.
Setting up was a breeze, but of Windows jigger pokery and I was in.
The screen is absolutely stunning. Not the brightest but that’s totally fine for me. The matt finish is good and no dead pixels, bonus. he faster refresh time is excellent and a really nice touch. I’m just installing the free CoD Black Ops 4 to have a little test gaming session to see the screen in all it’s glory.
The keyboard feels really nice. I prefer it to the MacBook Pro keyboard by orders of magnitude, chiefly for the more familiar layout. The misplaced arrow key isn’t an issue at all. But the lack of lighting on the subkey characters the $ % £ ” characters is a little more annoying that I thought it would be. But I’m more or less touch-type these days anyway so no real sweat there either. Though this would be an ideal improvement for Razor to make for the next iteration.
The Chroma lighting is nothing short of amazing. It’s really very bright and the key caps are well made, meaning there is practically no bleed (unlike my Ducky Shine 6) and well defined characters on the buttons. Top marks.
The Synapse software is really nice to use. It’s also probably the most intuitive lighting control software I’ve used. The Ducky Shine control software is actually pretty bad in comparison, I still find it slightly confusing and awkward to use. The Gigabyte Aura software on my desktop is marginally better than Ducky’s and Corsair’s software software is better again. But Chroma wins, hands down. I’ve also got NZXT’s CAM installed to control my Kraken X62 which is also pretty good.
I particularly love the way Chroma handles associating lightling profiles with the active applications. I have a few profiles setup now targeting my most used applications like Visual Studio. Having keyboard shortcuts subtly highlighted is really very nice. I love the way the lighting modes morph between apps. Nice touch Razer.
Can’t really comment here yet as I’ve relaly not put it through it’s paces. Will check this out and report later.
When just using it for browsing whilst I’ve been installing my software this thing has been silent. Utterly silent, not a peep. I can just about hear my desktop next to me but there is nothing coming from the laptop at all. Although when it’s charging the increased heat production in the chassis does kick the fans in sporadically but I can live with that.
So, all in all, my first impressions are really very favourable. This is an extremely premium Windows PC experience. The best I’ve had from any laptop ever.
One Week In
So, still only glowing things to report. This machine is utterly fantastic. I’ve gotten a few different Chroma profiles setup so I have my most used applications with their own keyboard configs for highlighting shortcuts and so on.
I’ve had a chance to try a couple of games on the machine. Frankly I find it hard to believe what I’m seeing on the screen. A laptop capable of running games they way it does doesn’t quite compute in my head. Running The Witcher 3 on Ultra is just buttery smooth. Incredible.
Like I said the only dongle I’ve had to purchase was to provide ethernet hardwire networking. I purchsed a really nice little aluminium Type-C converter made by QacQoc – this thing here
This little dongle work brilliantly and also really matches the Razer Blade 15 in design and aesthetics. Yeah, yeah I know but when you have a laptop this good looking you should maintain that with the peripherals you use it imho.
It’s not the cheapest ethernet coverter at £20 but this entire endeavour isn’t about being the cheapest, it’s about having a workable power-user centric mobile computing platform so …
The only real issue I’ve had to solve has been realated to temperatures. I had fully expected this issue. This also plays into some of my pre-purchase thinking. I didn’t buy this machine to play games on, at all. But given that is one of the designers core target markets it’s designed to cope with high temps so a lifetime of low temps should be a walk in the park = longevity. I hope at least 🙂
Anyway, when testing game performance, I was running HWMonitor to get a view on what was happening. As expected I was seeing high temps. Temps on the GPU were hanging around 70-74C which I can live with on that component. However, the CPU temps where hanging around 94-95C which whilst that won’t damage the chip in the short-term, it’s way too high. Running the machine for extended periods with the CPU at those temperatures will shorten the life of the machine, no questions.
That is butting right up against temperatures that can effect the reliability of chips operation. The 8750H has a T-Juntion of 100C. What that mean, roughly speaking, is that Intel won’t guarantee that the chip with function predictably at that temperature. Basically, that means chips running at those temps just won’t work properly. They’ll be wonky.
This in turn increases the temperature of all the other components, adding to their potential premature aging too. Not good. Fortunately, there is a simple solution. Undervolting. I don’t want to go into too much detail on how to do this as there are better sources for this info, such as this fantastic article.
So by running a tool called ThrottleStop and using it to set-up some profiles I’ve gotten the temps down to 80C when gaming with zero impact on the raw processing power and performance. A 15C reduction is significant and will almost certainly have a positive impact on the machine longevity.
To think some companies are trying to sqeeze Core i9 chips into thin and light laptops, to my mind, is a bit ridiculous.
Update Two Weeks In
One thing I’ve completely forgotten to mention is that this laptop arrived with ZERO BLOATWARE. This is a point to really appreciated. A clean slate OS from new. How refreshing is that? ‘Mazeballs!
Other than that comment there isn’t anything to mention. Laptop is still fabulous and getting a lot of respect from me.