Razer, the company that built its reputation on gaming mice and keyboards, is now doing what Acer, Dell, and Microsoft seemingly won't: building topflight laptops and tablets with hefty price tags. This year the upstart company introduced both the thinnest gaming laptop and the most powerful Windows 8 tablet we've ever seen--at a time when PC sales are struggling, and cheap tablets are predicted to outship laptops 2-to-1 in 2014.
We visited the Razer design office in San Francisco to see how they do it. The company maintains three design offices--the other two are in Taipei and Singapore--but the San Francisco office focuses primarily on designing systems rather than keyboards or headsets.
Starting a systems-design shop from scratch
Hardwood floors, arched ceilings, and a gaudy chandelier in the foyer hint at the Razer office's origins as part of an old department store. In its current life as a research and design facility, the bright space holds open workstations, shelves of reference material, and a homebrew testing lab filled with custom-built machinery.
Razer's testing lab is what John Wilson, vice president of systems at Razer San Francisco, seems most proud of. It's one of the last stops on a device's trip to market, says Wilson, and it's the most grueling: Razer engineers crush, bend, and burn everything far past the point of reasonable return.
"We test beyond the limits of how we expect [a product] to be used, beyond the limits of what we expect to see in even the hardest benchmarking run," says Wilson. "We try to learn as much as we can about points of failure in a system under extreme conditions before we show it to the world."
That testing makes a difference, because the most surprising thing about Razer PCs isn't their performance or their price--Razer's target audience has always consisted of gaming enthusiasts with deep pockets--but their build quality. The Razer PCs I've tested feel durable and solid, a sharp departure from early Razer products such as the original Mamba gaming mouse, which felt a little cheap and flimsy.
Build quality helps to set Razer systems apart from the hulking desktop replacements that clog the mobile-gaming-system market. The latest Razer Blade laptop is two-thirds of an inch thick, but its matte-black aluminum body remains perfectly rigid no matter how hard I try to crush, bend, or bash it out of shape. That strength and durability wouldn't be possible without the dirty work of Wilson and his engineers.
"Have you ever melted a system?" I ask, as we examine the custom-built oven that Razer uses to test heat resistance. "Maybe," says Wilson.
I can't tell whether he's kidding.
Building a better mouse map
Of course, a product like the Razer Blade comes a long way before it ever reaches the testing lab. First it has to be conceived, when someone in the company comes up with an idea for a cool new product and convinces coworkers that the concept is good enough to justify the time and expense of building a prototype. Razer CEO Min Liang Tan claims that the Razer hierarchy is relatively flat: All an employee has to do is grab a few people and come up with a design. If the idea looks as good in real life as it does on paper, Razer's senior staff approves the design, picks a code name--whoever came up with the idea gets to name the project--and assigns a team to build it into a real product.
Next, the team creates a handful of prototypes that represent different potential approaches to the design. We saw several for the Edge Gamepad Controller, a $249 accessory with all the buttons and sticks of a contemporary gamepad on a controller that snaps onto the back of the Razer Edge tablet. Each prototype had a significantly different layout.
The designers play around with these prototypes, throw them in their bags to see how it feels to carry one around all day, and even send samples to pro gamers for evaluation. If none of the prototypes are perfect, Tan claims, Razer retools the design and starts over again with a fresh round of prototypes. "Prototyping and tooling is the longest part of our design process, whereas for most people it's the shortest part of the process," says Tan.
The testing lab comes in near the end of the prototyping process. The engineers build working models and test them with ovens, scales, and homemade vises to determine how hot a prototype gets, how easily it bends, and how much force is required to get the keyboard to register your keystroke. As components are vetted, they're incorporated into a final prototype, which Tan and the team must approve.
That approval process can get emotional. Although we didn't witness any disagreements during our time at Razer, we heard about them. "I've had shouting matches about whether a product should be destroyed," says Tan. "I've literally thrown things around the room. They've broken, they've smashed. The design process can get pretty brutal."
As the engineers who work there are fond of saying, you aren't a real Razer designer until you've killed a final prototype. Shutting down a project like that means telling everyone who worked on it that it's just not good enough to put on the market, no matter how much time staffers spent on the design.
"People saw that we were quickest to market with the first Haswell-powered gaming laptop," says Tan. "What they didn't see were the three Blade prototypes that were cancelled before they ever made it to market."
Tan freely admits that Razer designers aren't great at meeting deadlines. He prefers to spin it as a company culture that prioritizes excellence over timeliness, with a mentality of "it'll be ready when it's ready."
If true, that commitment to high-quality hardware above all else seems a little reckless, at least from a business perspective. But then, so does Razer's decision to start building computers during what could be the largest, longest sales decline in the history of the PC industry.
Avoiding the race to the bottom
Of course, the biggest casualties in the PC-market downturn are monolithic vendors such as Acer, HP, and Toshiba, PC purveyors whose products span the price spectrum. In contrast, every piece of Razer hardware sports a premium price tag, and that could be the key difference that allows a company built "by gamers, for gamers" to survive and even flourish in the PC arena.
"To get into the systems space from scratch is a serious multiyear investment," says Wilson. He claims that the high price of Razer computers is due in part to the company's status as a new player in the PC-hardware market.
Without the track record or guaranteed sell-through rate of an HP or an Apple, Razer has to work harder to build relationships with multinational manufacturers. Wilson claims that Razer doesn't have the clout to haggle with manufacturers to reduce the price of materials--yet. "The manufacturers are starting to see that our products do well in the market, and they're starting to turn around," Wilson says.
Success may lead to more-affordable Razer products in the long run. Wilson is quick to point out that the price of the original Razer Blade laptop dropped $300 in six months, as the company negotiated for better manufacturing deals based on high demand for the Blade. But the devices will never be cheap. Tan steadfastly refuses to enter the low end of the PC market, claiming that chasing bargain hunters in a race to the bottom against bigger PC vendors would limit Razer's ability to let engineers focus on building great hardware. It's an old line, but a good one: We need more exciting products in the PC market, and Razer seems well equipped to build them.