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Razer Blade Stealth + Razer Core review: the external laptop graphics card dream

Teeny laptop hooked up to a giant grpahics card

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 3440x1440 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 3440x1440 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.


Razer Blade Stealth review

I was busy wibbling about the Core and Thunderbolt 3 in the main page of this piece, but I wanted to give the Razer Blade Stealth its own moment in the spotlight, as it's a lovely thing in its own right. Seeing as it's not actually a gaming PC unless you buy the £500 Core too, I'll keep it briefer, however.

Specs first:

CPU: 7th Gen Intel Core i7-7500U; dual core, hyperthreaded, 2.7GHz base speed / 3.5GHz turbo
GPU: Intel HD Graphics 620
RAM: 16GB DDR3 1866MHz (non-upgradeable)
Screen: 12.5" 16:9, choice of QHD non-touch (2560 x 1440) 70% Adobe RGB or 4K touch (3840 x 2160) 100% Adobe RGB
Storage: PCIe M.2 SSD, 128GB-1TB depending on config
IO: 1x Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C), 2x USB 3.0 port x2, HDMI 2.0a, Wireless AC, Bluetooth 4.1
Dimensions: 0.52” / 13.1 mm (Height) x 12.6” / 321 mm (Width) x 8.1” / 206 mm (Depth)
Weight: 2.84 lbs. / 1.29 kg

To hold this thing is to love it, as uncomfortably melodramatic as it sounds. Though thinner and lighter laptops are available, you're not going to quibble with the bulk of this wee thing, and the black-painted all-metal construction means the sense of heft and quality is more satisfying anyway.

A deeply unfortunate fly in this desirable ointment is the prominent use of Razer's ever-hideous green snakes logo on the laptop's lid. This strikes me as equivalent to working out every day for a year, buying a $1000 tuxedo and then pairing it with a Garfield tie. It's a shame they can't just write 'Razer' in a restrained font on the lid instead. If I owned one of these, I'd be looking for a big sticker to hide my shame in coffee shops. The neon green tabs inside the USB ports are a touch unfortunate too, though less glaring.

Another rampantly crazy aspect of the Stealth is that the backlit keyboard (programmable into various colours and animations, including per key if you so wish) does not backlight the brightness, volume, etc. alt-functions of the F keys and secondary functions on the numbers (yer @s, "s and whatnot). So if you're using this in a dark room - watching a film in bed, for instance - you'll need a torch if you need to pause, turn the sound down or have just have your retinas seared off by a maxed-out backlight. I'll note that Razer's more powerful Blade laptop, which I'll write about separately later, has the same problem, so I guess the company needs to rethink its keyboards on a broader scale.

Both systems have one other minor bugbear, which is a bright white, flashing LED on the front edge when they're in sleep mode, so you'll either need to turn them off completely or hide them under a coat if you keep them in the same room you sleep in.

Back onto the good stuff. Though that's not a terribly beefy CPU, it's very rarely given me any gip. Once in a while the system choked for a short while if I was trying to do too many things at once, and as I mentioned in the last page, the chip may or may not have been responsible for a drop-off in frame rates when using it with a Razer Core eGPU dock. A natural trade off for the slim size, and I'm not complaining.

The model I was loaned is the 4K touchscreen version, and I'm going to be all melodramatic again and say that it's the best laptop screen I've ever had the pleasure to gawp at. 4K's nice and all, but on a screen that small the gains of UHD over 1080p are fairly minimal, though text is subtly crisper. It's not the resolution so much as it is the colour that delighted me.

I've currently got five other laptops in the house, a combination of other review kit and the geriatric systems owned by myself and my partner, and even the ones I never had any screen-based complaints about look wretchedly dull and washed-out compared to the vibrancy of this one. I spent a long, long time just running through the meadows in The Witcher 3 (when hooked up to the Core eGPU), astounded by the living colour of the fauna and flora. Going back to my normal PC has been difficult.

I'm a big fan of touchscreen on laptops too, so am glad to see it here. Touch is also offered on the cheaper, less colourful (70% Adobe RGB vs the 4K's 100%) 2560 x 1440 QHD model. No non-touch version is available in the EU, which is a bit of a shame for those who don't need it - in the US, a touchless QHD model is available, for $100 cheaper.

Though the colour is spectacular here, the monstrous pixel count of a 4K screen takes a heavy toll on battery life, and if I were buying a laptop myself I'd probably avoid it for that reason - but touch might change that. Though it might sound pointless on paper, once you've owned a touch laptop, you can't go back, I assure you.

Speaking of which, battery life is OK but not brilliant here, generally giving me between two and four hours of sustained use depending on intensity of tasks and screen brightness. I'm told the QHD model has more stamina, but again you'll lose out on both wonder and convenience - but it does cost several hundred quid less. Even QHD is fairly pointless at this size - it's a damn shame there isn't a cheaper still 1080p option, which would also help the battery life further.

The Stealth is silent during light usage, which is much appreciated, but two fans on its bottom spin up for the likes of video and games. They're not too bad but can have a slight whine to them. Again, perfectly acceptable given the slim size, though. Speakers are decent for the size too.

It's a very likeable laptop indeed, though personally just a little too small for my tastes. That might change were there not quite so much empty bezel around the screen and it thus was more of a 13" device than a 12". On the other hand, when coupled with the Core, plugging this tiny thing into the shoebox and so transforming it into effectively a desktop is a delightful setup, though again the £2000+ cost places it beyond the reach of most of us.

Can't recommend it as a gaming machine in its own right, of course, but perhaps later iterations might be able to squeeze something like a GTX 1050 in there, which would make all the difference. If you're in the market for an ultrabook you should definitely consider this one, although the price is high. £999 for the QHD/128GB isn't too outrageous for a premium machine, but realistically you're going to want a bigger hard drive than that, and jumping up to just 256GB adds an entirely unreasonable £250 onto the price.

Me, though I like it a lot, I probably wouldn't buy this, which is partly because my needs are a bit different but mostly because I feel as though this will be a significantly better machine a couple of generations hence. My checklist for a next-gen model, in fact:

Quad-core chip
13", near-bezel-free screen
Touchscreen, 100% Adobe RGB 1080p screen option
Low-end discrete GPU for basic gaming
Backlight on alt-function keys
Fair SSD pricing
A less embarrassing logo on the lid

If it did that, I might well be thinking about making this laptop I buy whenever I came to the end of all these reviews - particularly because the Core eGPU could turn it into gaming brute whenever I'm back at my desk. Again, I don't think that future is far away, and is to some extent achievable now. It's interesting times for the venerable gaming PC, I do believe.

The Razer Blade Stealth is available now, for $900/£999-$2000/£1,949 (take back control ahahahahahahahahah), depending on spec. Unit temporarily loaned to us for review by Razer.

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