I love concept technology. It's untapped future potential that people are exploring and showing us the exciting heretofore unimagined possibilities. Also, shiny, shiny renders. What I love even more is when exciting concept technology makes it beyond renders to actual working prototypes to poke and prod and play with, so Razer's new little bit of tech has me very excited. It's called "Switchblade" and it combines the best of netbooks, PMPs, and the Optimus Maximus keyboard into a sleek little package for PC gaming on the go.
I don't want to get my hopes up too high, but the fact that this thing was on display at this year's CES is promising, and there's a lot of neat ideas being put together in one package: portability, processing power, capacitive touch screen (like on your iphone), a keyboard that visually changes its layout. Mmmmm, shiny. This would be ideal for a lot of gamers, though definitely of the type that rests somewhere between hardcore and casual. Hardcore will have built or bought a high-end beast of a machine and casual won't get the full benefit as this device is a substantial step up from a netbook, but the average gamer would be well-served, I think. I know it would meet most of my needs perfectly.
There are some caveats to consider that could make this device a must-have or a do-not-want. First is what the life expectancy would be. I don't mean before hardware failure, I mean before obsolescence. PC games advance very quickly in terms of graphics, which is partly why PC gaming is no longer a major draw for me. It's too much money and effort to stay on top of the latest drivers and cards to ensure that the newest title will actually function properly or to its fullest potential instead of at bare-bones functionality. So how well will this little beast be able to keep up? Graphical advancements aren't going to slow down, so all the work is going to be on Razer's end to either make the machine reasonably upgradable or cheap enough to warrant buying a new one every few years without feeling cheated.
Which segues into my next caveat: price. With the fancypants tech on display, this device will not be cheap. I anticipate it will be at least $1000, maybe $800 if they find a way to subsidize the price or offer less powerful models to keep it competitive in the netbook market. But a capacitive touch screen combined with that keyboard will be pricey. Plus, 3G models are being discussed, so that'll add at least another $50 to the price tag, and hard drive space wasn't mentioned at all which can be a major factor in cost. On top of that, Razer views themselves as a high-end precision gaming brand, so add in the brand name tax and you've got a bill that's stacking up. This doesn't mean the device will cost more than an iMac (or it least it won't if they have good business sense), but the wrong price point can kill a device's potential. Isn't that right, Sony?
The screen's gonna be a smudge-magnet, but since the Switchblade is a PC using software designed for your standard keyboard and mouse combo I don't forsee the touchscreen getting heavy use the way an iPad does. Except, possibly, for RTS games. With the proper configuration, I could see tapping replacing clicking altogether and a skilled player's APM (actions per minute) going through the roof.
Lastly, there's reconfigurability for that delicious keyboard. WoW has clearly been taken into account, and no doubt other big name titles will have been as well. The video touts that the machine will be able to create layouts on its own for games that don't have explicit predesigned configurations, but computers are known to do things wrong when left to their own devices, probably because they don't have souls. There's no doubt in my mind that users will be able to reconfigure custom layouts, so the concern is how user-friendly this process will be. Remember the target audience for whom this device is likely to be the most appealing: how many of them do you think will want to dig into the guts of a complex bit of software just to get the keyboard to look and work right when all games by default have QWERTY mappings? Botch this part and you've killed the appeal of the keyboard.
The product seems to still be early enough in its development to avoid these problems, and Ed Fries, industry veteran and founder of Microsoft Games Studios, has been brought on board to assist with development. Hopefully this means Razer will be releasing an awesome little game machine in the near future, and I for one will be keeping my eye out for it.
And Razer, if y'all wanna send me a
free review unit when it's released, I promise to review PC games on it. Just so ya know.