There was a time when Razer was best known for its gaming mice. Then it added high-end keyboards, then headsets, tablets, laptops, now wearables and perhaps, one day, a toaster designed to burn the company’s iconic three-headed snake into a piece of bread.
While the toaster, a gag idea that the Razer CEO promises to make real if it gets enough support, may not quite fit into the rest of the company’s lineup, it is a prime example of what makes Razer different from all of those other computer gaming peripheral brands: Razer doesn’t make products for gamers as much as it markets a lifestyle that is appealing to people who play games.
As gaming and what it means to be a gamer continue to expand, Razer is riding that wave of success to a larger audience.
"Razer was started by a group of PC gamers who wanted a better gaming mouse and has long used the slogan 'For gamers. By Gamers,'" said EEDAR analyst Patrick Walker in an email interview. "There are a lot of similarities between the grass roots Razer founding story and that of many surf companies. The rise of eSports and PC gaming has given the company a bigger platform on which to celebrate gaming culture. This approach has led to a deep association between Razer, gaming, and quality products.
"I actually think the trick will be holding on to this ethos that has served the company so well as investment and partnerships enable the company to successful develop more mainstream technology products, like PCs and smartwatches."
Razer CEO Min-Liang Tan says that Razer sees all of its products as part of the "gamer’s lifestyle."
"But we don’t come out and say we’re going to build lifestyle products; we just focus on what we want for ourselves," he said. "Gamers have become one of the biggest cultures in the world. It’s like surf culture. It’s anyone who enjoys having fun, who uses digital entertainment to engage themselves."
The latest example of Razer’s approach is its watch.
The Nabu Watch isn’t exactly a smartwatch; instead, it’s a sort of hybrid.
The chunky design looks like something created by Casio for hiking and sports. Four buttons arranged around the outer edge of the watch allow owners to slip through timers, a stopwatch, world time and alarms, all shown on the watch’s face. A second, smaller rectangular screen, located beneath the main screen, is used to display fitness information and notifications from an Android phone or iPhone. Owners cycle through the smaller screen’s information with an inset button located beneath that screen.
The watch has two batteries to power the two screens. The main watch screen uses a standard battery with a life of about a year. The notification screen uses a rechargeable battery that seems to last about a week.
The result is a not-too-smart watch with an impressive battery life, just enough information to be better than a standard watch, and a rugged design that stands out for the right reasons.
"We intentionally called it, not a smartwatch," Tan said.
He said Razer came up with the idea after engineers in the company went through the "trials and tribulations" of owning a smartwatch:
"Charging every other day or day," he said. "They’re useless when not charged and it irked the hell out of us."
The team decided to make a watch that offered easy to access notifications that were quick to pop up, and which had a battery life that lasted as long as possible. And by giving their watch two batteries, it meant that an owner would always be able to at least tell the time.
When the watch was announced, I wasn’t impressed.
It looked like the sort of half-step that as a longtime smartwatch owner and aficionado, I just wouldn’t appreciate. So I was surprised to find that once I had one on my wrist, I was reluctant at times to switch back to my smartwatch of choice.
The winning factors for me were the ability to shower and swim with the watch on; the quick, streamlined notification system; and that impossibly long battery life. I often went a week without worrying about the battery. Knowing that even if the notification battery died, I’d still have a functional watch, also helped to reduce even further any worries I had about charging.
The biggest selling point, though, was the look of the thing.
The Nabu Watch is big, but well put together. It features the sort of design that looks purposeful. However, it’s not to encase a tiny touch computer, but rather to match an outdoor lifestyle. That such a rugged watch is meant to be designed by gamers, for gamers, could almost be ironic to the nongaming crowd. Which is another reason I sort of like it. While the watch does include a minimal version of Razer’s three-headed snake logo and the company’s neon green and black colors, those not familiar with the brand wouldn’t likely recognize it as a bit of gaming culture.
The subtle callout to Razer and the focused attention on being smart, but not too smart a watch results in a device that is quickly becoming one of my favorites to wear.
Tan says I’m not the only one who likes the watch. While he wouldn’t talk numbers, he did say that the watch and Razer’s two fitness bands are becoming a big new category for the company.
"There are a lot of passionate fans around the Nabu," he said. "They are products that identifies you as a fan of games or Razer."
Performance and aesthetics
It turns out that wearables aren’t the only non-gaming thing that Razer sells a lot of.
"We are probably the only tech company out there that sells millions of dollars of apparel," Tan said.
The company started with t-shirts, but now sells hoodies and winter jackets, and even has different lines of clothing based on the season.
"They’ve been something that identifies you as a gamer," he said.
EEDAR’s Walker believes that while Razer’s clothing and wearables line does help market Razer, it’s still not contributing significantly to the bottom line.
"If the company takes a path towards becoming a more mainstream brand and esports continues its rapid growth this may change and lifestyle items may become a significant revenue driver for the company," he said. "It will be interesting to see how Razer navigates extending its brand into technology items that are tangentially related to gaming. The potential downside is becoming known as a mainstream brand and losing your reputation for quality, much like many surfboard and skateboard companies are now thought of as clothing brands rather than producers of top-class boards."
And Razer stands to lose a lot if that were to happen.
A 2015 study of PC gaming peripherals by EEDAR showed that most PC gamers associate Razer with quality and innovation, Walker said. That study, released last fall, included a survey of 2,000 active PC gamers in North America on their peripheral ownership and brand affinity.
"Razer has done an excellent job of positioning themselves as a gaming-focused brand since their founding," Walker said. "Historically, this has led to a strong reputation with PC gaming community and large market share in the competitive gaming peripherals market, but also a relatively niche market position in the overall PC peripheral market."
In recent years, Razer’s growth has been explosive, fueled by eSports and PC gaming. Last year, the company had a valuation of $1 billion.
"Razer also has a reputation for being an innovative company"
"EEDAR data suggests that Razer has the second-highest market share in gaming keyboard and gaming mice in NA after Logitech (among gaming-specific peripheral owners)," Walker said. "Compared to the other market leader Logitech, Razer has the reputation as the top quality peripherals while Logitech products are considered good-quality, cost-effective products. Razer also has a reputation for being an innovative company and has a history of releasing a broad range of gaming computing products, from gaming tablets to micro-consoles."
While many of Razer’s more inventive products have historically been loss leaders, it seems like that could be changing with the Nabu Watch and Razer’s latest ultrabook laptop, the Blade Stealth. Both, Walker said, are getting rave reviews and have the potential to spark even greater growth for Razer.
Both were also unveiled at CES.
Best of CES
Razer has a long history of showing off inventive and experimental ideas at the annual tech show in Las Vegas. While that’s not unusual for CES, Razer’s products often take home awards, but don’t always go to market. Instead, Razer seems to use CES as both a way to test the waters for new ideas and to garner a lot of international attention for the company and the other products it makes.
The occasional vaporware announcement doesn’t seem to hurt the company, though.
"I believe that Razer mitigates this by also making many announcements that do turn into product launches," Walker said. "The positive brand affinity consumers have towards Razer and the association with innovation suggests the overall experimental nature of the company has a positive impact.
For six years in a row, Razer products have grabbed Best of CES awards. Previous winners include the modular computer Project Christine, the Android-based Razor Forge TV, the Razer Edge tablet, PC gaming tablet Project Fiona and microcomputer the Razer Switchblade.
While not all of those products made it to market, they did all help shape products that did. The Switchblade’s multitouch LCD panel, for instance, found its way onto some of Razer’s laptops. Project Christine hasn’t become a reality, but Tan says the modular computer’s graphics interface was used to create the biggest innovation in the company’s new Blade Stealth laptop.
The Blade Stealth features a 12.5-inch, 4K touch display, Intel Core i7 processor, 512 GB SSD storage, and 8 GB of memory, all packed into a .52-inch-thick laptop that weighs 2.75 pounds.
But what really will set the laptop apart is the yet-to-be-released Razer Core, a "graphics amp" that docks just about any graphics card into a self-contained, cooled and powered bay which can then connect to the laptop through a plug-and-play Thunderbolt 3 connection with 40 Gbps transfer speeds.
Tan said the company had been playing around with graphics amps for sometime, but it wasn’t until engineers prototyped Project Christine that the company figured out a stable, user-friendly system it could sell.
The Razer Blade Stealth is the most awarded product in the company’s history and at least the laptop part of it is already on sale. Tan says he is committed to shipping the add-on core, which doesn’t include a graphics card, in the first half of the year, "but it will probably be much sooner."
While the Blade Stealth seems directly in line with the more traditional products expected from a gaming hardware company, Tan sees the device more aligned with Razer’s desire to expand who plays games and how they play them.
"Is Razer looking to go mainstream? What we want to do is bring the mainstream to gaming," Tan said.
The Razer toaster may become the company’s most out-there product yet. But it too came about thanks to Razer’s approach to design and gaming.
The company has a lot of engineers and those engineers have a lot of latitude in terms of what they work on, Tan said.
One day one of those engineers designed a Razer toaster.
"This came about because the engineer was making a toaster for himself," Tan said. "Because we work on the premise that our engineers have the latitude to design anything they would use for themselves. As long as it’s something a gamer would enjoy, we wouldn’t kill the idea."
It’s the same approach that got Razer into the laptop business; essentially Tan wanted a gaming laptop and couldn’t find one he liked so the company brought in people to make their own.
While Tan declined to share images of the prototype, he assured me it exists and said that if the fanpage that has popped up for the toaster gets 1 million likes, he’ll put it into production. A fact that he seemed to almost immediately regret telling me.
According to previous online comments by Tan, the prototype allowed owners to burn different iconic gaming symbols into bread, like the Razer logo.
There are other strange ideas that Razer is already selling, like the Razer Blade Stealth notebook. The notebook is designed to look exactly like the laptop, but instead of being filled with electronics, it’s filled with paper for sketching. It sells for a hair less than $10 and illustrates, as if it needs to be illustrated, that Razer doesn’t take itself too seriously.
I asked Tan that as the company continues to expand to new areas from winter clothing to the line of bicycling clothes only sold to employees, to laptops and peripherals to, maybe one day, a toaster, does he worry about Razer losing its sense of purpose?
"I don’t think we worry about dilution," he said. "We are very focused on what the gamers want; it’s not about money.
"Other companies look at it from the cynical view of profits. If it’s something we can do better, we don’t worry about diluting our brand."
Walker sees the expansion as an important opportunity for the company.
"I think Razer is at a very interesting crossroads as a company," he said. "They have done a fantastic job nurturing a great reputation in a niche market. Now the growth of that niche market has put them in a position to expand their product offerings. It remains to be seen how they will navigate this opportunity and whether it will end up being positive for the company and its brand in the long term."