Does PC gaming need to be saved? It's a question so arrogant it upset gamers for weeks after gaming peripheral manufacturer Razer posed it.
After seeing this morning's reveal of their new creation, the Razer "Blade" gaming laptop, I think I'm ready to go one better: I think Razer may not just save PC gaming—I think they may save Windows laptops entirely.
But Razer's got a big scrap ahead of them. The Blade doesn't go up against other gaming PCs—it's going toe to toe with the world's best hardware manufacturer. They're going to fight Apple.
You can build a perfectly decent gaming PC for less than a grand. The new Razer Blade costs $2,800. (I'll get to the price in a bit. It's a big deal—and something Razer is going to have to bring down.)
But here's something that PC gamers don't want to hear (and I say this as an owner of a shit-hot gaming tower of my own): PC gaming hardware is approaching a dead end.
PCs aren't going to die, but they are fast on their way to a niche industry. And it's not smartphones and iPads that are killing them—it's the lack of systemic innovation in the PC hardware space itself.
Look, it's not the ‘90s anymore. There aren't dozens of companies making PC hardware anymore, especially the sort that gamers need with real graphics horsepower. There are three: Intel, Nvidia, and AMD.
And really, if you want to get right down to it, there's just Intel. They're the only company with the capital, resources, and engineering prowess to move forward in the industry. (Nvidia may get there if their mobile Tegra platform finds customers in smartphones and tablets; they could use the revenue.)
But for years, Intel has been operating as a company fearful of accusations of monopoly, even though they largely have had no real threatening competition. But oops, here comes Apple using lovely mobile hardware that is fast approaching Good Enough status for even "real" computing in their mobile hardware.
Guess what? In another generation or two, those iPhone chips are going to be fast enough to power a decent laptop. It won't be long before the MacBook Air and the iPad meet in the middle, not just in interface, but in hardware.
So where does that leave the PC hardware world? HP just bailed on PC hardware. Dell's a rounding error for mid-sized corporate bulk computers. Apple's moving through the consumer space like crazy, becoming the laptop of choice for not just students and creatives, but everyone but PC gamers.
What PC gaming needs are platforms. I know many of you gamers out there don't want to see it—the varied choice and the ability to customize your hardware is part of why you love PC gaming. (And Android phones, I'm sure.) But it's holding back one of the things that made PC gaming so wonderful for years: raw power.
Why do Xbox games running on six-year-old hardware look nearly as good as a modern PC games? Don't quibble with me about resolution, texture quality, etc. You'd be missing the forest for the trees. Console games look close enough to PC games, despite PC gaming hardware being ten times as computationally powerful.
Don't believe me? Ask id Software's John Carmack, who just a few weeks ago noted that one of his hopes for PC hardware was more standardization within the platforms, so that the sort of low-level programming that really lets games and other software access the full power being held back by two decades worth of operating system compatibility layers, drivers, and all the cruft that's accreted around PC hardware in a valiant but ultimately retrograde attempt to allow companies of various size to play in the game.
You can't put a Ford engine in a Toyota. (Well, not easily.) Why should you be able to put an AMD video card in an Intel computer? Choice, you say. Fine. But if my choice is holding back the potential of my hardware, I'd rather take the losing companies out behind the barn and shoot them.
It's time to buck and realize that the Apple model of hardware isn't just one way to do it—it's the way hardware has to go to move forward. There will still be competition, but the competition is between platforms, not within the platforms itself.
The Razer Blade is the first credible competitor to Apple from the PC hardware world in five years. Don't get me wrong—I'm not sure that Razer even knows what they have on their hands or if they're committed enough to the product line to see it through. But I'm sure Intel knows; the dedicated an entire engineering team to the project with Razer, after all.
Here's what the Razer Blade is doing right:
It has a real brand.
Thanks to a race-to-the-bottom sales strategy, there aren't any real quality brands in PC laptops anymore. The big players went for volume at the expense of quality. The boutique firms made powerful but awkward uber-machines that appealed to some, but were still burdened by me-too hardware, obscure brands, and far too much choice. (Yes, that's a bad thing for the mass market.)
Razer, on the other hand, has a single product: the Blade. It has its specs. There is one model and if you want it, you buy it. They'll likely come out with a new Blade next year that has the latest hardware. Sound like any company you know?
It's a compromise machine in the best way.
It's a fast machine, with powerful hardware. But not too powerful. (There's a reason its screen is only 1080p, a relatively low resolution for PC gaming these days—mobile hardware can push that just fine.) At five pounds, it's light for such a big screen.
It's really not compromised at all—it's purpose built. It's built for gaming. That's wonderful.
It actually has an innovative hardware solution.
That fancy multi-touch trackpad screen off to the right of the keyboard? That's the sort of stuff that makes consumers perk up and take notice. It's the kind of thing that people who have never heard of Razer before will notice in a coffee shop and ask, "What is that? Who makes that? How much does that cost?"
That a multi-touch screen is right in Apple's wheelhouse is just icing on the cake. Take that, MacBooks!
It has the potential to turn into its own platform.
The Razer Blade will always be a Windows + Intel project. There aren't going to be games or other software that runs only on Razer Blades, at least not for the foreseeable future.
But by consolidating into a single product line, Razer opens up the opportunity for game makers to create custom builds that more readily access the power of the hardware inside, just as the unified, standardized hardware of consoles allow programmers to continue to squeeze performance out of chips that would be laughed at if they were inside of modern gaming PCs.
Support and updates will be easier.
One set of hardware, one set of drivers, one less thing to have to wonder about when you're trying to run games. I love PC hardware's power and potential—I don't love screwing around with drivers and such to get things running. If you do, more power to you (and yes, it's better than it used to be), but that's not what normal, mass market folks want. It's just not. If Razer's support for the Blade is as good as it should be, they should be able to operate a platform that has the It Just Works nature that Apple's Macs tend to have. (Most of the time!)
The price is painful.
As of today, there are two laptops worth getting excited over, that set themselves apart from the pack via design and performance: the MacBook Air and the Razer Blade.
The MacBook Air is a low-powered, beautiful designed and perfectly built subnotebook; the Razer Blade is a monster gaming rig with a touchscreen interface unlike anything else out there.
I can walk into a store today and buy that MacBook Air for a grand. To get a Razer Blade, I have to spend almost three times that much.
They appeal to very different markets, granted. A fully kitted out MacBook Pro 17 will get you up to or over three grand, as well. But the Razer Blade has the mass market potential that most PC laptops don't have.
$2,800 is fine for now. But let's hope that next year's model gets down closer to $2,000—and $1,500 would be even better.
It's tough, even with Intel in the mix. Nobody has a supply chain like Apple. Nobody can get the cutting-edge hardware as inexpensively as Apple.
Except, perhaps, for Intel. Hell, I wouldn't be surprised to see Intel buy Razer outright in a couple of years if this really takes off. There's no need to worry about monopoly any longer. There's no reason to worry about pissing off vendors like HP and Dell. (Where else are they going to go? Apple? AMD?)
The death of PC hardware might be the rebirth of PC gaming. Don't get me wrong—PC gaming is doing alright. I'm not a doomsayer. But I'm tired of the enthusiast market holding back the innovation in the space. It's just like what happened to cars over the last 15 years. They became more difficult to work for the shade tree mechanic, sure, but they also became faster, more fuel efficient, and cheaper.
I want that for PC gaming. And if they play their cards right, Razer might actually be the company to do it. I'm just as shocked as you are.