Over the past decade Razer has achieved magnificent things. After beginning life as a maker of boutique gaming mice, recent years have seen it grow in ambition, expanding out to a variety of peripherals and solidifying its place as a trusted manufacturer of high end PC gaming gear.
There are a lot of Razer products that we love, and Razer’s design ethos has been echoed in many other brands of peripherals. But we really wish that it hadn’t decided to get into the PC business itself, no matter how much R&D funding it has been able to obtain.
Last year at CES Razer launched the Switchblade concept. This nifty little clamshell handheld promised a new way forward for PC gaming, with innovative controls designed to match the form factor. Unfortunately the project was co-developed with Intel using Atom, which has the worst gaming performance of any x86 product line in the market. Curiously ever since that unveiling the only press releases we have seen about the Switchblade have been focused on the MMO market in mainland China.
Then, in the lead up to the PAX Prime gaming expo held during August 2011 Razer teased a new product via its pcgamingisnotdead.com website. This turned out to be the Razer Blade, an ultra slim and sexy gaming laptop with an innovative new keyboard design. But despite its gorgeous looks it bore a projected pricetag that pushed it out of the reach of mere mortals, just at the point where we were first hearing about the impending Ultrabook products and their promise to bring thin and light laptops to a mass market pricepoint.
Now we have Project Fiona, a PC gaming tablet teased last week and unveiled at CES. Based on Intel’s upcoming Ivy Bridge CPU this is a fully fledged Windows 8 tablet with two dedicated gaming controllers jutting out of each side. It looks an interesting and innovative take on the inherent issues with tablet gaming but yet again it shows just why Razer should stick to making peripherals.
Fiona takes everything good about the tablet form factor and throws it out the window. The convenience of having a sleek and slim tablet becomes useless when it is flanked by large integrated control sticks. This is a design that you couldn’t easily slide into your bag, that would require the kind of elbow space you just can’t get on a crowded train or bus, and that looks like a complete pain in the butt to use just as a tablet.
Not only does it look like a bad tablet, but it is also a bad gaming PC. We aren’t too concerned about the reliance on integrated graphics – one thing Intel has done with Sandy Bridge has been to raise gaming graphics to be the acceptable minimum that they always should have been. Ivy Bridge will continue this, and the first reports are that games are looking decent enough when running on the processor. The control sticks don’t offer anywhere near the freedom of a keyboard, which is especially important for highly PC-centric MMOs and RTS titles. Games like World of Warcraft or Star Wars: The Old Republic simply have too many buttons for it to work well, and anything reliant on typing based communication will downright suck.
But even more than this is something that Atomic’s editor, David Hollingworth, brought up. When playing a multiplayer-focused PC game on the tablet you’ll be fighting against people with the pixel perfect control combo of keyboard and mouse. Anyone who has tried taking on such gamers with a controller will know that it is a fast track to a very un-enjoyable gaming experience.
We really do wonder why Razer just doesn’t make it a peripheral. Imagine the controller arms seen on Fiona mounted a case designed for a Windows tablet, connecting via Bluetooth and packing its own battery. That way you’d be able to use your tablet for tablety things then strap on the outriggers when you want to game. It means you aren’t lugging that extra weight and bulk around when you want to use the tablet as a lightweight content consumption device but still be able to enjoy more natural controls when you want to game.
Despite the move towards convergent devices in recent years, we are finding more and more that we are ending up buying specialist gadgets for specialist niches. I already have a smartphone, ereader, laptop and desktop PC – why should I have to buy one tablet for convenience and another for gaming? It’s probably a moot point anyways – this is the third concept product shown in a year by Razer and we are yet to see any of them emerge in finished form.