Friday, March 29, 2013

The Razer Edge: On the edge of something special, but not quite there

Razer Edge Pro
With Microsoft and Canonical attempting to bring their full operating systems to tablets with Windows 8 and Ubuntu Touch, and with tablets inevitably growing stronger with every new hardware release, it would seem the space is already due for significant innovation. One of the main activities a portable device is good for is gaming, but even though the phone and tablet gaming arena has many wonderful experiences, the majority of them are what they are — phone and tablet games — and don’t offer what a dedicated console or gaming PC can offer. Gaming hardware manufacturer Razer is looking to change that, and have tossed the Razer Edge, a gaming tablet, into the ring. Can a tablet offer the full gaming PC experience on the go?
The short answer? Kind of, but only if you play PC games that were specifically designed with a console-style gamepad in mind, which severely limits what you can actually play. After having spent a decent chunk of time with the Edge, and putting it through the ultimate portability test — a commute clocking in at a little over two hours — I can assure you that the short answer simply isn’t enough.
The idea of the Edge is, for lack of a better word, awesome. Smartphones and tablets have some great games, as do Nintendo and Sony portables, but they just don’t offer the same experience as a full console or PC game. You can have a lot of fun playing Spaceteam or Knights of Pen & Paper on your phone, but you can’t have that blockbuster, multi-million dollar BioShock Infiniteor Starcraft II experience. The Edge aims to give you that, and for a fleeting, specific moment, delivers.


First, the hardware. There are two versions of the Edge, the standard and Pro. I got my hands on a Pro, which sports a dual-core 1.9GHz Core i7, 8GB of RAM, and an Nvidia 640M LE graphics card with 2GB of memory. Not bad for a tablet.
You can choose between a 128GB SSD or a 256GB SSD; I used out the latter, which raises the base price from $1299 to $1449. As someone who built a gaming PC with a 128GB SSD due to budget then immediately had to add another 256GB SSD after installing a few MMOs and other games, I can tell you that a 128GB SSD is not enough storage space for PC gaming. BioShock Infinite and Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm are about 15GB to 20GB each.
The drawback of the fancy hardware, aside from price, is that the tablet alone weighs a little over two pounds. The tablet doesn’t have too many ports — one for the proprietary charger (which is also the docking port), a single USB 3.0 port, and a headphone jack.
Edge dock

The Razer Edge’s docking station

The docking station will run you $99, and contains a power connector, three USB 2.0 ports, an HDMI port, a headphone jack, and a microphone jack. The bottom of the dock has a padding that keeps the thing secure on a surface and generates enough traction that it’s almost impossible to slide the dock around without knocking the tablet over. So, you know your Edge is relatively safe. The station holds the tablet at a slight angle, but the angle is similar to the Surface, which means if you’re a little too tall, you’ll wish the angle was farther back. I’m 5-foot-11, and sitting at my work desk, I find I have to hunch down a bit in order to see the screen.
The draw of this dock is that it allows you to attach a keyboard and mouse, and use the Edge as a standard gaming PC, alebit with a small, 10.1-inch tablet screen. However, you can use the HDMI port on the dock to connect to a larger display, and have what is essentially a standard gaming PC, but running off a tablet instead of a traditional desktop.

Edge again


The Edge’s main attraction, the gamepad controller, is unfortunately sold separately, and for $249 at that. Without the gamepad attachment, the Edge is simply a tablet with decent gaming specs that you can only really use for PC gaming if you plug it into a monitor or TV, and connect a keyboard, mouse, or controller. With this attachment, though, you can take the Edge on the go, and conceivably play any game that has gamepad support.
The gamepad mobile dock has two cylindrical controller grips on either side of the tablet — imagine two Move wands or Wiimotes. The left grip contains a PlayStation-style d-pad, a concave analog stick (that can be pressed in for an extra button), two left shoulder buttons, and a left trigger. The right grip contains your standard diamond of A, B, X, and Y buttons, as well as the two shoulder buttons, trigger, and analog stick that the left grip has. The left grip contains what is essentially a back button, while the right grip contains what is essentially a forward button, though how they map to a game is up to the game’s control scheme.
The controller has a vibration function, as well as a slot for an optional battery, which runs $69. With that extra battery, though, the Edge’s three-and-a-half hour battery life extends around an extra four hours — longer than a 3DS with 3D turned on.
Unfortunately, the Edge doesn’t employ some kind of feature that magically translates gamepad or touchscreen controls into a PC game’s standard control scheme, and that’s where the Edge — and really, the whole idea of the Edge — falls short.
Razer Edge controller dock

Playing games on the Edge

Even though the Edge sports competent hardware, and includes a Razer software launcher that scrapes your Steam and Origin games and tells you which ones support a gamepad, the problem is that the majority of PC games simply aren’t designed for controller or touchscreen use. I spent time with a handful of software on the Edge to make sure that notion held true, and it unfortunately did. I tested both versions of Steam (standard and Big Picture mode) with BioShock Infinite, and FTL: Faster Than Light. I figured BioShock, aside from being the newest big-budget PC game, would work well because not only does it have full controller support, but the first-person shooter genre — especially BioShock – doesn’t require too much controller input. FTL, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have controller support, but anyone that has played FTL is fully aware that it could easily work on a  touchscreen.
Steam is a chore to use with the touchscreen, and doesn’t respond to the controller. Big Picture mode solves this, so once you’re accustomed to the layout, using Steam is effortless. The Razer launcher goes one step further and makes it so you rarely have to even bother with Steam.
BioShock started up and ran just fine. Sadly, the highest resolution available on the tablet is 1366×768, and I found the game was too choppy for my taste running on Ultra. When I turned the graphic quality down to Very High, everything ran much more smoothly. Controlling the game wasn’t an issue — you’re essentially playing an FPS on a console. I prefer mouse-and-keyboard for games in which I am required to aim, but BioShock isn’t as frenetic as other FPS titles.
As for FTL, it simply didn’t work. The game doesn’t have controller support, so that was expected. However, FTL makes a perfect candidate for touchscreen play. I was able to click on options from the main menu, but after that, the game simply didn’t recognize any other input. Just to make sure I don’t have cold, dead fingers, I had other people try it out, and they experienced the same issue. Bummer.
And this is why the Edge fails to deliver what it sets out to do. Since the Edge can’t translate its gamepad controls to universal PC game input, then the individual games themselves need to support the control schemes the Edge offers. While gamepad support isn’t uncommon in the PC gaming world, it only spans across a genre or two. You won’t be playing a traditional RTS on the Edge, nor will you be playing any kind of genre that requires a lot of input, like most MMOs. You also won’t be playing any game in general that doesn’t have controller or touchscreen support, such as a large portion of indie games. You can connect it to a TV, or dock it to a keyboard and mouse and play whatever you want just fine, but then you might as well just have a more powerful gaming PC that costs less money than the Edge, which costs over $1800 with all the accessories.
Gym bag

Portability and conclusions

With the gamepad attached, the already-heavy Edge becomes downright obnoxious. The tablet weighs over two pounds. The gamepad also weighs over two pounds. Together, you’re now lugging around a four pound, extra-wide tablet. Sure, four pounds isn’t that heavy, and in a gym setting it’s a comically small amount of weight, but lugging around a gym bag or backpack that is now four pounds heaver is not a treat. Supporting the weight while playing it isn’t a problem, as you not only have the two controller grips, but you naturally rest the tablet on your stomach or lap.
Currently, my commute involves walking over thirty minutes to a train, riding that train for a little over an hour, then another walk that’s around 15 to 20 minutes. My gym bag is normally barely noticeable during this commute. However, with the Edge awkwardly (the gamepad is quite long, around 15 inches from end-to-end) shoved into it, my back and shoulder became sore. Obviously, the weight won’t be a problem if your commute (or wherever you’re going) involves a safe place to set the Edge down, like your own car. So, it’s about as portable as a non-ultrabook laptop, except its length and shape make it noticeably unwieldy.
Overall, the Edge isn’t there. If every PC game you wanted to play supported touchscreen or gamepad controls, and if you could wipe the memory of how precise mouse-control is from your brain, and if you never needed to type things, then the Edge would be a great way to have a full PC gaming experience on-the-go. Considering you can plug the thing into a TV and attach a keyboard and mouse, the Edge does provide the experience of being able to literally take your gaming PC with you, which makes it on the cusp of something special. Unfortunately, due to the limited support for controls,  you’ll be taking your gaming PC with you but be unable to play most of the things you want to play. Unless, that is, you exclusively play popular FPSes and don’t mind having to aim with analog sticks.

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