Maingear Nomad 17 review: Built-to-order gaming power, for a price

Putting ports on the rear of the system can help keep cords out of the way, especially if this laptop is semipermanently stationed on a desk, but it can also make those connections hard to reach.

The ports and connections are fixed on this off-the-shelf chassis, but nearly everything else in the system is customizable. The Nomad 17 starts at $1,579, with an Intel Core i7-3520M CPU and an Nvidia GeForce 675M GPU -- which is not too shabby at all. Our $2,000-plus review configuration benefited from incremental upgrades to the CPU, GPU, hard drive, and RAM, and you could easily add another $500 or more to the price by adding a 256GB solid-state drive (SSD) or a Blu-ray drive.

Once you get to the upper ranges of currently available laptop processors and graphics cards, you're essentially horse-trading between application and game performance. Some people prefer to spend their money on CPU upgrades, others on GPU -- at the end of the day, it'll make very little difference in your overall user experience once you're in the $2,000-and-up club. In our benchmark tests, the system performed excellently, especially in our multitasking test.

The well-stocked Origin Eon17-S we tested a few months ago scored higher on our too-easy Street Fighter IV test, but fell behind (20.3 frames per second versus 39 frames per second) the Nomad 17's more recent build in a challenging 1,920x1,080-pixel Metro 2033 test. The Nomad 17 ran Just Cause 2, at full 1080p resolution, at 59.8fps; and after loading up the most recent high-end PC game in my library, Medal of Honor Warfighter, I can report anecdotally that it was smooth, even at full resolution with graphics options set to high.

With all that power, you'd expect battery life to be on the short side. To my surprise, the Nomad 17 ran our video playback battery drain test for an impressive 4 hours and 17 minutes. To be fair, most laptops that use Nvidia graphics can turn the GPU off automatically when playing video or performing other less intensive tasks, so trying to play a game without the laptop being plugged in to the wall is going to seriously impact battery life.

Maingear is known (along with Origin and a handful of other boutique PC builders) for hands-on service. In this case, you get a default one-year parts-and-lifetime-labor warranty, which includes on-site service at the company's discretion. A 30-day "no dead pixel" guarantee is an extra $85, but for a $2,000 laptop really should be included. A three-year extension of the warranty is a hefty $259; if you have to mail in your system, return shipping is only covered for the first 30 days.

Conclusion
The most serious of hard-core PC gamers have a handful of options to choose from. Many build their own desktop systems, or have them built to order by a boutique PC maker. Laptops offer fewer customization options, and generally only one stock body per product line, but are portable and self-contained. Maingear is among the most trusted in this category, and the Nomad 17, while not the most modern-looking laptop around, punches like a heavyweight.

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Street Fighter IV (in fps; native resolution, 2X AA, V Sync off)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Load test (average watts)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Find out more about how we test laptops.

System configurations:

Maingear Nomad 17
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/SP1; 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-3820QM; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 680M; 750GB Western Digital 7,200rpm

Razer Blade
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.2GHz Intel Core i7-3632QM; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 660M / 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 500GB Hitachi 7,200rpm

Origin EON17-S (Ivy Bridge - Intel Core i7-3920XM)
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.9GHz Intel Core i7-3920XM; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 675M / 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; HDD No. 1: 1TB Samsung 5,400rpm + HDD No. 2/3: 240GB Corsair Force SSD (x2) RAID 0

Samsung Series 7 Gamer (NP700G7C-S01US)
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-3610QM; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 675M; 750GB Hitachi 7,200rpm

Dell Inspiron 17R SE - 2051BK (7720)
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-3610QM; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GT 650M / 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 1TB Western Digital 5,400rpm

Digital Storm X17
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-3610QM; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 2GB AMD Radeon HD 7970M / 2GB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 750GB Seagate 7,200rpm

What you'll pay

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    Maingear Nomad 17

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