The gaming company Razer, best known for its gaming accessories like super-precise lag-free mice and keyboards, announced a new laptop today, the second generation of its super-powerful 14-inch gaming laptop, the Blade. I sat down with Min Liang Tan, the CEO of Razer, to learn about the upgraded design and amidst Tan's chatting about the phenomenal speed and power of the new Blade, Min also mentioned that his company had spent "hundreds of thousands of dollars" designing the USB ports on the laptop.
USB ports don't typically cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to design. In fact, they don't typically cost a single dollar to design. They need to be of one size, to fit all the gadgets that plug into them, and they've been around long enough that any of a hundred factories in China and Taiwan will churn them out for pennies at most. You buy them, you shove them in your laptop. You certainly don't bother thinking much about them. So what the hell was Min doing?
Razer might not be a familiar name, but the company is a beast in the gaming industry. It started as a manufacturer of high-end gaming accessories, like mice and keyboards with infinitesimally small response times, for the kind of obsessive gamers who can't bear to have the slightest lag in between a mouse click and someone's head being blown off. The company has since branched out into computers, the Blade being probably the most mainstream (others include the Razer Edge, a high-powered gaming tablet that you can attach joysticks to).
The Razer aesthetic is pure gamery. Everything is black and a particular shade of acid green. There's an element of "xtreme" running through the product line; the products are typically named after venomous snakes or spiders. They've released products named "BlackWidow Ultimate Dragon Age II Edition," "DeathAdder," and "Naga Hex." The company has its own in-house font, which it uses for the characters on the keyboard (they light up in bright green, too). It's a blocky font, reminiscent of the continuously flowing text from the movie The Matrix. Their logo, which, Min tells me a few times, has been tattooed on more than 500 Razer fans, is a bright green-and-black three-headed serpent.
Razer is a single-minded operation; it is Min's company. He wants, I think, to be a gamer version of Steve Jobs. He routinely slams other company's products, loves talking about how he's pushing the envelope, and told me that he oversees every tiny little detail on every one of Razer's products. "I've been on a plane at least once a week for years," he told me, jetting back and forth from the company's base in California to its suppliers in Taiwan to its surprisingly large (he says about a third of his total business) customer base in Europe. "I'm hands on on pretty much everything," he says. This is a company doing "a few hundred million dollars a year" in revenue (according to a Razer rep who refused to get more specific than that), and yet the CEO comes out to New York to show me this year's laptop. That doesn't happen with HP or Lenovo or Acer.
That attention to detail isn't just for show; Razer really has accomplished something pretty impressive with the Blade. It's thinner than the MacBook Pro with Retina Display, much more powerful, with a display that's not only 20% more pixel-dense than the Retina but a touch screen as well. Though it's very similar to the MacBook in some of its design cues--its hinges, its trackpad, and its matte finish are all very Apple-y--it's undeniably an exciting machine. But as any Jobsian acolyte knows, it's obsession with detail that makes a piece of technology truly seem special, and for Min, that included the USB ports.
USB is an open standard. There's an industry group that'll certify your ports so that consumers know that USB gadgets will work, and every once in awhile announces new versions (the newest, USB 3.0, is much faster, but the same shape as the old USB). You may have noticed that sometimes USB ports are colored. There's a little piece of plastic inside your rectangular port. That plastic is typically any of a few basic colors. Black is the standard for USB 2.0, though some manufacturers (like Apple) choose white instead. USB 3.0 ports are usually blue. And most rarely, you might find a "sleep-and-charge" USB port, which means a gadget (like a phone) can charge from that port even when the computer is off. Sleep-and-charge ports are usually yellow, and sometimes red.
There are no actual rules for this; the USB industry group suggested those colors as shorthand for the consumer, which can be useful if a machine has, say, both a USB 2.0 and a faster and slightly more expensive USB 3.0 port. That way, if you have a USB 3.0 hard drive, you know which port to use to get the most speed. Theoretically, anyone can use whatever color they want, but manufacturers basically never do, because all the anonymous manufacturing plants in China and Taiwan are set up to make just those colors of USB port. "We realized it was just one of those things that always frustrated us," says Min. "Someone would say 'this is the way it's always been.' Usually we try to challenge that."
To request a custom color would certainly be possible, but would be very expensive, because those plants would have to switch to making only one company's ports, rather than just making a bazillion blue ones and selling them to everyone.
Making a custom-colored USB port is very expensive and it's doubtful anyone would really care, which is why it's all the more crazy that Min and his team spent weeks of time and, says a representative from the company, about $380,000 to make their own.
The Razer Blade's ports are a specific shade of acid green, the same shade as the company's logo and keyboard backlighting. To get the right shade of green in the plastic for the USB ports required a lot of trial and error; this is something nobody's ever made before, so it wasn't as simple as just delivering an order. "We wanted to get the specific acid green that we really liked, which means [this color of plastic] could only be used for our purposes. We're the only people in the world that use that hue," says Min.
It became much more complicated a task than anyone realized, for the simple reason that nobody had bothered to do this before. "We had to send people to the factory to make sure the color mix is perfect, we had to do quality control to make sure the color wouldn't change over time," says Min. He actually sent three of his top engineers out to Taiwan, the location of the factory that was producing the Blade. "They spent Christmas and New Year's at the factory just to get the color just right for us," he says. Then Min himself flew out to the factory to double-check.
"It's pretty much an entire product by itself," says Min. What he means is that Razer treated the USB ports like a product they had to create from scratch: they had to design, perform research and development, make mistakes, consult manufacturers, and create in-house prototypes. That's a lot more effort than, say, what HP does, which is call a company in Taiwan and say "give me a million of the blue ones."
The USB ports in themselves don't make the Blade a great product. They're just USB ports. But they're indicative of a level of care and attention to detail that most major electronics companies just don't bother with. "If you want to get something perfect, it needs constant dedication," says Min. Do you think the CEO of HP has ever said that and meant it?