Min-Liang Tan explains why nothing is more important to Razer than having fun -- even if they lose truckloads of money doing it.
By Tim Colwill on October 15, 2013 at 11:08 am
It’s 2:00 in the afternoon. Sunlight is filtering through the expensive windows of the expensive Wentworth hotel in Sydney, and Razer’s CEO and Chief Gamer Min-Liang Tan is showing me the expensive Razer Blade.
The Blade is their top-of-the-line gaming laptop, launching for the first time in Australia this Friday on October 18. It’s tiny. He slides it across the expensive oak table to me and starts searching through his wallet as he talks.
Min-Liang: This is the Razer Blade. Super-thin. It’s the world’s thinnest gaming laptop at this point in time. It’s thinner than a five-cent coin, which I… I need to figure out where my five-cent coin is again. Ah, that’s fine, I’ll leave it.
GON: Here’s a five cent coin.
Min-Liang: Right. There you go. Look at that.
Min-Liang: Now that would be par for the course with an ultrabook, right? But this has got a full-power CPU, Haswell, quad-core, eight gigs of RAM, GTX765M.
GON: Old gaming laptops were like four times as thick and twice as long and you basically had to put them on a desk, which defeated the purpose of having them, and if you use them on your lap you become sterile, so —
Min-Liang: (laughs) Well we try to avoid making people sterile. Especially here at Razer.
GON: How quickly will I go sterile if I use the Razer Blade?
Min-Liang: (laughing) Well this is the fun part –
GON: Just at a regular rate of human sterility? Like, fifty years from now, or…?
Min-Liang: Well this isn’t the sort of thing I’d normally put on the record, but…
GON: Have you done sterility testing with the Blade?
Min-Liang: (laughs) We have not, actually.
GON: You don’t measure your employees to see if they’re still, uh…
Min-Liang: (laughs) What we’ve done, actually, we’ve taken an entirely different approach to this. From the engineering approach we would have ended up with something about double the thickness. We talked to our thermal engineers and they said the thinnest you can get it is about double the thickness, double what you’re seeing here. If you’re going to get that uniform heat dissipation throughout, keep it nice and cool throughout.
GON: But you slapped them, and you said “Back to the laboratory! Not good enough!”
Min-Liang: Well they said it was impossible. We wanted it better. So we got it down to 21 mm. That’s insanely thin. That’s ultrabook-spec. That was about a year ago. And we said — I looked at it, and we said, “Great. This is about a generation ahead of everyone else.” We were ready to launch an Ivy Bridge version of this last year. But I said “Look. Life is short. We really want to kick it up a notch.” And the thermals guys said “No. It’s impossible. There’s no way you can do it.” And I said what if — and this is where our designers came into it — what if we didn’t look at it from an engineering perspective and we looked at it from a design perspective.
What if, instead of getting the thermals to be uniform throughout, we did this. We bring all the thermals down here. So what happens here (at the hinge end) is that it gets really hot over here — still within safety standards! — but everywhere that you generally touch, the top chassis, the bottom, you can put it on your lap, anything. It’s comfortable. It’s very comfortable. I play games on it all day long. Most people can’t believe it’s got a GTX 765M in it. It runs Battlefield 3 on ultra, all the latest games.
GON: How modular is it? Say my SSD dies, because they do die, we know they do. What happens then?
Min-Liang: We provide three SSD options. To get it as thin as it is we solder the RAM onto the motherboard itself. So you can swap the SSD out, yes.
GON: If I took a hacksaw to the back of it — totally ruining my warranty, let’s just say I didn’t care — could I swap my SSD out? You’re just using a standard SSD right, nothing proprietary? No wacky Apple-style bizarro-screws holding it in?
Min-Liang: Yes. You could. Nothing… well most of it is soldered on. And you know, I’m pretty active on the hacking forums myself, and we’re actually okay with people opening it up — uh, I shouldn’t say that (glances at PR minder) — but uh, we know people open it up. We’re not picky about it.
Our only fear is that people who don’t know what they’re doing will start opening it up. That’s when I’m afraid we will step in and start saying “WARRANTY VOID” and all that kind of stuff. But if the guy is doing what he is supposed to be doing, I mean… we’re PC gamers ourselves.
GON: This is a $3,000 machine (here in Australia, anyway). Can you tell me: who is this really aimed at? Because you know — we both know — that with $3,000, I can buy a pretty sick gaming rig. So who do you think the sort of person is who needs a near top-end, portable gaming machine like this.
Min-Liang: Well I think… for the guys who want to buy a gaming rig, a desktop, they should do that. Right? I mean to me, gamers… it doesn’t need to be mutually exclusive. Every time I see a PC guy bashing a console guy, or a console guy bashing a PC guy, it doesn’t make any sense to me. Just as this has got a really specific use case, it’s really for the guys who travel, who move around a lot, go to college, they need to be mobile and play games at the same time.
Today, well, prior to the Blade, it was always a case of big and thick and heavy, or thin and light and performance-free. So we’ve finally combined both. The way I see it is that this is perfect for the guy who’s got a top-of-the-line gaming rig at home, but wants to take his game with him as he travels, for work, for school, for something like that. This is the perfect product for him.
GON: It is clearly a luxury product though. I mean if you wanted to get into PC gaming, this is not entry level.
Min-Liang: This is probably not entry-level.
GON: Unless you’re really, just, stupidly rich.
Min-Liang: (laughs) Well the way we see it is, you plug in a HDMI screen to this and it runs beautifully. You see the way we design is slightly different. We don’t go out with a price bracket in mind and stuff like that. We tend to in-source everything. We don’t do focus groups or anything like that.
We just sit there and say “Great, now we’ve got almost every resource available to you as a designer. You’ve got some of the top engineering talent, some of the top design talent, what do you want to do? What do you want to have?” That’s the challenge people are faced with when they join Razer.
GON: So they have all these resources and they have to make good on them, rather than being told what to do?
Min-Liang: That’s right. At that point in time we usually start with a single-liner, so “the ultimate gaming laptop”. In this case, for example, the screen. It was a question of “Do we want better viewing angles? Do we want a better, faster, transition panel?” This has got one of the fastest transition panels out there. And it’s great.
We’ve got all the resources available, we… actually this is a story I like to tell. We built a robot to slam this thing shut, over and over, we rented a whole anechoic chamber — that’s one of those quiet ones — put a microphone in there, just to get this sound (snap). That perfect snapping shut sound. Listen (snap).
GON: (laughing) That’s really good.
(Min-Liang opens and closes the Blade few more times, a big grin on his face.)
Min-Liang: We had a robot, you know, just lift the hinge over and over so that we were sure you could do it with a single finger instead of holding onto the bottom, pulling it open, that sort of thing.
(He continues opening and closing the laptop.)
GON: Do you have data on how many times you can open the Blade before the hinge snaps off?
Min-Liang: Yes. It’s over a million times, if I’m not mistaken. We test all of this. We test the flex, even in the middle. Over here. One of the things that really irritates is when you’re typing on a laptop keyboard and it flexes in the middle, right? We’ve gone through all of that over and over and over again. But that’s only possible when you’ve got a team that’s dedicated to just trying to get the perfect product out there. And after we complete it, then we put a price to it.
GON: Alright. So one of the things that PC gamers need to do fairly regularly is completely format their computers. How does that work with this? Is there any impediment to that?
GON: Do you need any special Razer software? I don’t need to download RazerOS or anything?
Min-Liang: No! No, it’s vanilla Windows. In fact one of the things that we really disliked was bloatware. All the useless antivirus, all that kind of stuff. It’s like an F1 car. We got rid of all the superfluous items, stripped it back, tried to get to the very core of performance and portability.
GON: So there’s nothing like any Razer-favouring software behind the scenes, so for example if I plug in a SteelSeries keyboard or something like that, there’s nothing in the background hampering its performance?
Min-Liang: No, no, no. And it should work phenomenally well. We like the open system of PC gaming. That’s why we’re passionate about PC gaming, because it’s open. You can hack away at it. If we could make this more modular, we would, but we wouldn’t be able to get that kind of thinness. And most of the guys, they come to us and they say, “Can’t you make it more modular?” and I say “Go get an Alienware.” They make really great laptops. It’s thicker, but you can change your RAM, stuff like that. I mean, not a lot, you can’t change your CPU. But it’s there.
To us I think every brand has a certain design philosophy. Their philosophy is performance and that’s it. And we like that, we are good friends with them. Our is about performance and portability, being in a super-thin, small form factor.
GON: So how often do you feel that you’ll need to refresh the hardware inside the Blade?
Min-Liang: We refresh it pretty often.
GON: This is the third one, isn’t it?
Min-Liang: (laughs) Yes. It’s a little insane, to be honest, because we hardly recoup any of our dollars in it. But one thing that we ask ourselves all the time is: “What would we want for ourselves? If resources and everything were unlimited?”
GON: And you don’t want a graphics card that’s three years out of date.
Min-Liang: That’s the thing. We are always pushing the limits. We get guys who are like “Wow, this is insane,” so everyone rushes to try and buy a Razer product at launch. It kind of maxes our capacity and stuff like that. The biggest problem that we have at Razer is trying to meet demand. All the time. It’s such a thing that I’ve stopped apologising for it. I just go like “…okay”. (shrugs)
GON: You say you don’t make much money back, so why are you doing it? Just because you can?
Min-Liang: (leaning forward, grinning like a child) Look at it! Look!
(He opens and closes the Blade several times, giggling.)
Min-Liang: (laughing) Look the very fact it exists makes a huge difference. We’re not a public company, right?
GON: You don’t answer to shareholders.
Min-Liang: Well we do answer to… people, but I’m persuasive (laughs).
GON: You just keep opening and closing the Blade in front of them, don’t you?
Min-Liang: Yes! I’m just like “Look at it!” you know? (opens and closes the Blade a few more times) “What do you want?!” I mean look our shareholders, and I’m really happy about it, are really passionate about the things that we do, too. Lot of them are fans of Razer. And their kids are fans of Razer for that matter. And it’s cool. We think it’s more a responsibility than anything else, to make cool product. And it’s an opportunity that not many people have to do stuff like that and, you know, make people happy.
GON: Alright, I’m going to ask you now — do you look at competitors products? Do you go out and buy, for example, a SteelSeries keyboard, and look at it and think “Hrmmmmm, we can do better”?
Min-Liang: We don’t have like, a concerted effort to go and look at what other people are doing. We… the biggest challenge for us is, because we tend to be a couple of generations ahead, is “How do we do better?” For example, we invented the first gaming mouse. We’ve done that. The gaming keyboard, we’re still number one for that. Number one for mice, keyboard, headphones. Our challenge is that as we drive to be number one, we tend to have the first access to all the top sensors, all the top switches, stuff like that. So there’s very little that we can’t get from competitors outside rather than challenge ourselves internally.
Here’s what’s interesting: we have three design centres, San Francisco, where I’m based mostly, Taiwan, and Singapore. Each of these design centres have absolutely no idea what the other design centres are doing (laughs). There are only three people in the company that know the entire roadmap.
GON: Are you one of them?
Min-Liang: I am one of them. Fortunately! (laughs) I know the entire roadmap. Stefan, the lead designer, he knows the entire roadmap as well.
GON: What if all three of you get taken out in a tragic piano accident?
Min-Liang: That becomes a problem. So we make it a point that the three of us don’t fly together. Intentionally.
GON: That’s very impressive dedication.
Min-Liang: Plus I don’t like the two of them.
Min-Liang: (laughs). No, I’m just kidding. The funny thing is that there’s a lot of internal competition because everyone’s been given the same mandate. Do the best possible product. No matter the cost. And it better be cool.
GON: So did one of the teams build this laptop, and another team came up with their laptop, and they said “We’ve got a— oh. Oh.”
Min-Liang: (laughs) We’ve kind of got them split somewhat. We’ve got a user interface team, devices and systems, and software group. Software does things like surround, and voip, and stuff like that. But I think there’s a lot of pride in terms of driving it. The designers will be on a layer above that, kind of making sure the user interface devices look the same as the systems devices, and there’s a huge segue in between. It’s good fun.
GON: Alright well, while you’re in a good mood, here’s a question you probably won’t like.
GON: Why am I paying $900 more in Australia for the Razer Blade Pro?
Min-Liang: Well, I’m not making $900 more. I’m not making a dollar more. That’s my answer.
GON: But are you okay with me going to, say, Amazon, pretending to be an American, and buying it there? To save myself $900?
Min-Liang: I’m absolutely fine with that.
GON: Everyone does that. We do that here all the time We get screwed on pricing.
Min-Liang: Can I — (looks over at PR) — no, you know, I’m absolutely fine with it. I’m fine with it.
GON: You would know the famous case, that it’s actually cheaper to fly to the US, buy Adobe Photoshop and then fly back again, than to just buy it here.
Min-Liang: Is that right?
GON: It’s cheaper to do that. We get screwed over on a lot of things. And this product right here is $900 more here in Australia, and $700 more for the regular Blade.
Min-Liang: Well what I would say is that… we don’t make, as Razer, at least, we go through partners, and the partners set our prices. The local partners over here. We have a standardised global price for our partners and we can’t dictate how they change that here. I wish I could.
GON: But you don’t personally get an extra Rolls Royce every time an Australian buys a product.
Min-Liang: No, no. I wish I did (laughs).
GON: (laughs) Okay. So you have three different teams. Do you have one guy who is just constantly looking at books about snakes and spiders and wildlife and just coming up with names for new products?
GON: I mean when are you going to make a product that’s not named after a snake or whatever? Really.
Min-Liang: (laughing) The Blade!
GON: Oh come on, the Blade? The Razer Blade? That one practically wrote itself. That took you about two seconds.
Min-Liang: (laughing) No! No, do you know… do you have any idea how much resistance I had when I tried to call it the Blade? We had guys saying “No, no you can’t do that, you have to call it the…” and I said “Yes I can, I can do anything I want,” and they said “No you can’t!” but… to be candid, no, it takes ages. Ages to come up with names.
GON: Really? Surely you’ve got a dartboard with like, different spider names on it, and you just fling a dart and “Redback!”
Min-Liang: (laughs) Well there are some cool names that we keep! Yeah. Yeah, we could do a Redback. I’m actually surprised there isn’t one.
GON: If you do a Redback edition it’ll probably sell pretty well.
Min-Liang: Hrmm, hrm.
GON: In fact Australia’s pretty much the home of toxic wildlife.
Min-Liang: (laughing) I know! That’s funny, every time I say I’m going to Australia, people say “Oh, welcome to Australia!” and they list all the horrible things in Australia and I always think it’s somebody trying to troll Australians and I click on the guy’s profile and he’s Australian and I think “WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?”
GON: We love it! We’re all very used to it.
Min-Liang: (laughing) But, uh, but no, we don’t have a dedicated person just for names.
GON: You don’t have somebody you can just call up and say “Give me a name?” and he says “Uh… tarantula?” and you say “YOU’VE DONE IT AGAIN, LARRY!”
Min-Liang: (laughs) No, no, no.
GON: Okay. You’ve been elected to the PC Gaming Alliance board. How’s that working out?
GON: What does that involve on a day-to-day basis? Do you just drop in to forums and yell “Consoles suuuuuuck”?
Min-Liang: (laughs) I’ve got quite a number of guys looking at it. We work really closely with the rest of the guys. We chat with them on that. I don’t know, it’s uh… it’s fun and games. We are in Razer because it’s fun. To be honest if it ever became a little boring or corporate-ish, I’d probably get bored. It’s good fun for us in general. Sometimes work needs to be done, and….
(Min-Liang pauses, a sad look on his face. He sighs heavily.)
… and we do that. We do that, as long as it furthers our gaming interests and stuff like that. But doing cool stuff like that is what we’re, I mean… have you seen our power supply?
GON: This little thing?
Min-Liang: Yes. It’s 150 watts. 150 watts. A normal 150 watt power supply is three times that size.
GON: That’s impressive.
Min-Liang: Yeah. This costs seven times more though.
Min-Liang: But this is one of those things, right. I remember the engineer coming in, and he’d worked on it by himself, and he said “Look! Look at this!” and we were all like “Wow! That’s cool! Let’s put it in!” And we only figured it was seven times the price much later. And he said “Oh, come on, wouldn’t you pay seven times the price?” and we said “Yeah. Yeah, we would.” It’s one of those things we’re very proud of.
GON: (still laughing)
(Min-Liang picks up the small power supply and turns it over in his hands lovingly, cradling it like a child.)
Min-Liang: Yeah. Yeah, I like it.