Update: This post has been corrected to indicate the proper graphics chip in the Pulse's default $799 configuration.
We don't apologize for liking HP's Firebird gaming PC a bit more than other review sites. If you can accept that it lacks a graphics upgrade path, HP's small, power-efficient desktop is both an attractive and capable gamer aimed at general consumers. But what if you could buy a small PC with a similar eye on efficiency, that also allowed you to add a full-size 3D card? If that sounds appealing, you may want to check out Maingear's new Pulse, which goes on sale later Thursday.
Maingear built the Pulse around Nvidia's Ion integrated graphics chip platform. We've seen other Ion-based systems, most notably paired with Intel's Atom CPU in a few Netbooks, and also matched with Intel's Core 2 Duo in Apple's latest Mac Mini. But the Pulse is the first Ion-based PC to offer a full graphics card upgrade path, by way of a full-size 16x PCI Express 2.0 slot. That gives the Pulse an advantage over the Firebird, which had an essentially fixed pair of Nvidia laptop chips.
The Pulse chassis measures roughly 11 inches high, with an 8x8-inch footprint. That makes it about 2 inches wider than the Firebird (to accommodate the full-size 3D card), but 11 inches shorter, and almost 10 inches less deep. For comparison, the Mac Mini has a 6x6 footprint, but it's only 2 inches high.
The basic Pulse starts at $799, which gets you only an embedded GeForce 9300 graphics chip, along with a fast 2.93GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E7500 CPU, HDMI and eSATA outputs, 802.11b/g wireless, and a 300-watt power supply. True to its roots, Maingear will offer all kinds of upgrade options for the Pulse, including special low-power quad-core Intel CPUs and a variety of low-power "Eco"-model Nvidia cards, up to a 1GB GeForce 9800 GT. That card will let you play pretty much any PC game on the market right now, with speed and decent image quality.
It's tempting to slap the Firebird-killer tag on the Pulse, but HP seems to have reduced the Firebird's retail profile, which makes it easier for the Pulse to broaden its appeal.
The higher-end Firebird 803 model that we reviewed is no longer available, and all that remains is a $999 Firebird 802. HP says that model will remain available through standard retail channels, but we can't help but wonder for how long. When Windows 7 systems come out in the fall, for example, we'll be surprised if HP issues a new Firebird with an updated operating system.
In any case, Maingear claims that the Pulse has better power efficiency than the $999 Firebird, but according to what Maingear has told us about its pricing, in order to configure the Pulse to outperform that sub-$1,000 HP, you'd have to spend about $1,250. The $999 Firebird may be priced to move, but it's also a fixed configuration. The Pulse offers configurability, and Maingear has a reputation for keeping its hardware options current. That means the Pulse's price-performance outlook could very likely improve as new hardware hits the market.
Short of a Firebird update from HP, or a similar desktop from another vendor, the Maingear Pulse may become your only up-to-date option for a small, power-efficient, midrange gaming PC. We think HP was on to something when it introduced the concept last year, and while we're glad Maingear picked up and seemingly improved the torch, we'd love to see other vendors help keep this innovative category alive.