Consider this a slight tangent from my ongoing quest to decide which gaming laptop to buy by reviewing a bunch of them. The Razer Blade Stealth is not a gaming laptop, despite coming from a company most known for aggressively ‘gamer’-orientated technology. It’s an ultrabook, which is to say very thin and light, which means no discrete graphics card and a low-power processor. The Macbook Air would be the most obvious point of comparison.
The situation changes when it’s hooked up to a speaker-sized black metal box known officially as the Razer Core. This is an external graphics card enclosure, which, with a single cable connected to a port on its outside edge, enables the Stealth to run a desktop GPU. Too good to be true? As it happens, no.Note – the bulk of this piece covers the Razer Core eGPU, so in order to give the Stealth laptop a fair shake without this piece becoming too unwieldy, that gets its own review, specs breakdown and whatnot on page 2 here.
Razer Core review
Barring some miracle in miniaturisation, desktop PCs are always going to have an edge over portables when it comes to performance, and even more of an advantage when it comes to upgradeability. However, the Core – and with it the wider concept of eGPUs, of which there are other models available – has me convinced that, at some point within the next few years, we’re going to see a significant shift in the gaming PC model.
I don’t want two PCs, one for home and one for the road. It might be luxurious but it’s not terribly practical. I want one PC, with all my stuff on it, that I can use anywhere. I want a laptop that I dock into something that adds a full-fat graphics card, a big external monitor, keyboard and maybe an extra hard drive or two.
The Stealth+Core combo doesn’t quite realise that dream, for reasons I’ll get into shortly, but it comes damned close. Close enough that I believe this dream will become real surprisingly soon.
A Thunderbolt 3 port, yesterday.
The key to this is the multi-purpose port known as Thunderbolt 3. Think of it as a super-fast successor to USB, able to transfer vast amounts of data incredibly quickly, and, in the case of the Stealth, even enough power to recharge the battery at the same time. This one port to rule them all model has lately been popularised by Apple, but we’re only going to see more of it on PC laptops too.
Sure, crazy-fast external hard drive transfer speeds are nice to have, but my key interest in Thunderbolt 3 is that its bandwidth is sufficient to hook up a high-end desktop graphics card. Now, this whole tech – and the Core is only one of a growing number of eGPU boxes – is still shaking out, and I’ve struggled to find definitive answers on just where the ceiling lies.
What can cope with today’s graphics cards may find that the bandwidth demands of, say, a 2019 GPU are just too great. Cables and plugs also introduce potential latency issues that aren’t in play for the more direct PCB connection of a PCI-Express slot. But, yes, in theory right now you could drop, say, a GTX 1080 into an eGPU and be getting at least similar results to what you’d get if the card was inside a desktop PC.
Sadly, I didn’t have a 1080 to hand for testing – the best I had was a Radeon RX 480, a £200ish that, at the time of writing, is pretty much the best bang-for-buck going in terms of playing games at 1080p and high settings. Pertinently, it is also sufficient to get the Witcher 3 running at 4K and 30 frames per second on the Razer Stealth’s spectacularly vibrant 12.5″ touchscreen (a cheaper, non-touch 1440p model is also available).
This is a surreal sight. The Stealth is a tiny, thin, beautiful thing – the very opposite of what we would traditionally consider to be a gaming laptop. Seeing a game looking as good as any current game could possibly look on a machine like this is bonkers. Well, at least until you stop pretending that the plus-size, loudly-whirring obsidian shoebox just to one side of it isn’t there.
The Core is a big bunny, there’s no getting around it. While you might expect something not much bigger than a graphics card, the reality is that it has to contain a dedicated power supply too, and allow sufficient space that the card doesn’t overheat. The entirely ignorant armchair designer in me does feel that the Core could surely be 10 or 20% without smaller and that perhaps its one-big-heatsink style is more about showing off than mere practicality, but I could well be wrong there.
It’s not a monster, and certainly a heckuva lot smaller than having a desktop PC. Push all thoughts of stowing it under your desk and out of sight out of your mind though, as the Thunderbolt 3 is necessarily half a metre short – much longer than that and its bandwidth would halve from 40Gbps to 20Gbps, with potentially enormous framerate consequences. Tech for cables that maintain full speed at greater distances is in development, but right now you’re saddled with having to sit the Core effectively right next to the laptop. Not a great look for your desk, and means you’re sat right next to the GPU and its invariably noisy fan too.
Sweetening the pill a little is that, all via the one Thunderbolt 3 connection to the Stealth, the Core has four USB 3 ports and an ethernet socket on its rear, so it really can work like a dock to transform laptop > desktop. It even passes through power to the Stealth, so you don’t need a second cable coming out of the laptop. With the Core connected to my big monitor too, this was a little bit of Nintendo Switch at PC home – one plug was all it took to flick between ‘modes.’
The software side of things is surprisingly straightforward. Essentially, on first connect you tell the laptop what it wants to do whenever it’s connected to the Core, and everything happens automatically from thereon in – including adapting to whether you have an external monitor connected or not.
Speaking of which, expect diminished performance if you’re using the Core to play games on the laptop’s own screen instead of a secondary one. This is because image data has to be pushed back to the machine along the Thunderbolt connection at effectively the same time as the laptop feeding instructions to the graphics card. Two cars driving in opposite directions along the same narrow road.
In practice, the consequences of this will differ depending on the demands of the game, but in my testing with the Witcher 3, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and Resident Evil 7, I was generally seeing a handicap of about 10 frames per seconds. In most cases I could ameliorate this sufficiently by dropping a few settings – as I say, I managed to get Witcher 3 running at 4K on the laptop’s own screen at 30 FPS with decent settings – but as games grow more demanding and graphics cards more powerful, this may become more of an issue. My point being that the Core, and other enclosures like it, may not be the “I don’t need to upgrade my laptop for years” solution it sometimes promises to be.
Especially on an external monitor, though, I was deeply impressed by how well games ran. The 480 is some distance south of a top-end GPU, but in most cases it’s up to 1080p, high settings and 60 frames, and that was borne out via the Core. What I did find, however, is that the Stealth/Core 480 combo did not run quite as well at my monitor’s native 3440×1440 as did the 480 when fitted inside my desktop PC. This varied from 5 to 20 frames per second depending on game and depending on scene within that game. Not disastrous at all in some cases, but the difference between 60fps and 30fps (if you do Vsync) in others.
This may be down to some Thunderbolt 3 ceiling being hit (I’ve tried and failed to find definitive answers about its eGPU limitations, but look forwards to being put in my place in comments), or it may be because the Stealth has a dual-core, low power CPU in an age when games often benefit from quad core. It’s a seventh generation Intel Core chip (aka Kaby Lake) but it’s by no means the equal of the 7700HQ we saw in the Alienware 15 review last week.
To assess this I was also loaned a Razer Blade, a bigger, heavier 14” machine which I’ll write about in its own review another time, and which contained a faster, quad-core chip. The drop-off lessened and performance was more in line with what I saw on my desktop (which is to say not to expect 60fps at 3440×1440 on this card without dropping quite a few settings), but the difference wasn’t as stark as expected. I say that positively rather than negatively, as more than anything I’m surprised by how well the Stealth’s weeny CPU coped. 4K Witcher 3 and DXMD (albeit 30 fps, which can primarily be blamed on the GPU anyway)!
I’m sure there will be more CPU-limited games for which this is much more problematic, but given the relatively minor effects on my trio of recent mainstream titles, it’s food for thought about how much a CPU upgrade can meaningfully benefit games right now.
I suspect a quad-core Stealth coupled with a Core containing, say, a GTX 1070 would be something of a dream machine. The thin’n’light go-anywhere laptop that transforms into a home gaming machine only a few steps behind what a dedicated desktop could achieve.
Lego Batgirl for scale
The Stealth+Core is but one way to achieve that right now, too. Any laptop with a Thunderbolt 3 port can in theory talk to an eGPU, including the Core, although word is that can sometimes involve a bit of fiddling on anything other than a Razer system. If you’re in the market for a new latop and like to play games, do not even consider buying one without a Thunderbolt 3 port, as you might be cutting yourself off from significant upgrade possibilities later. Even then, you need to be careful and do your research, as some, for example Dell’s latest XPS and Inspiron 15, are nerfed to only run at half-speed.
If you go the tried’n’tested Razer route, money is a huge issue, however – £500 for the Core dock alone, then you’ve got to provide a graphics card and a Thunderbolt 3-equipped laptop. You’re probably not looking at much change from £2000 if you do the whole thing from scratch. Of course, a laptop without an internal discrete GPU is far cheaper than one with, and hopefully we’ll soon see more proliferation of TB3 in cheaper portables.
And if game performance continues to be only mildly affected by CPU capability, as has been the case for many years now, we might be looking at a situation whereby buying a laptop now lasts you for much longer than has historically been the case. You pay through the nose now, but ‘only’ need to buy a new GPU every couple of years instead of redoing the whole kit and kaboodle. (Until Thunderbolt 4 comes along and ruins everything, no doubt).
This future is coming. It won’t be long. It’s not quite here now, but if you’ve got the money to spend you can achieve surprisingly great things that are surprisingly uncomplicated to setup and use.
The Razer Core is available now for $499.99/£499 (thanks for nothing, Brexit), but requires a separate graphics card and either a Razer Blade system or a laptop with a Thunderbolt 3 port. Unit temporarily loaned to us for review by Razer.
On page 2: a dedicated review for the Razer Blade Stealth laptop.