Maingear Pulse review: Maingear Pulse

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CNET Editors' Rating

3 stars Good
  • Overall: 6.9
  • Design: 6.0
  • Features: 7.0
  • Performance: 7.0
  • Service and support: 8.0
Review Date:
Updated on:

The Good Low-power components keep energy consumption to a minimum; unique ultracompact design; compelling default configuration.

The Bad Competing power-efficient PC from HP available for less; slower performance than more affordable traditional gaming PCs; case layout and low wattage power supply limit upgrade path despite PCI Express slot.

The Bottom Line We hate to criticize PCs that strive to balance performance and power efficiency, because the goal is noble. But despite its visual charm, Maingear's Pulse requires too many speed compromises to entice PC gamers, and too few benefits over a competing system from HP. Its base configuration may have some appeal as a digital entertainment system, but this higher-end Pulse needs the core technology to catch up to its aspirations.

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PC gamers demand speed, a pursuit that--at least with current technology--runs directly counter to the idea of saving energy. HP's Firebird struck a reasonable balance between the two earlier in the year, and had we reviewed Maingear's new Pulse six months ago, it would have given the Firebird stiff competition as an efficient gaming system. By today's standard, both the Pulse and the Firebird suffer from a more challenging value proposition. Our $1,300 Pulse review unit offers marginally better efficiency than the Firebird 803, as well as a minor performance uptick for roughly $800 less. It might appeal to you if you truly prioritize power-efficiency. For the majority of PC gamers, on the other hand, the Pulse's power savings won't offset the fact that you can find a much faster standard gaming PC for a lower price.

The Pulse is made possible by a micro-ITX motherboard design from Zotac. The motherboard supports a standard PCI Express graphics card and Intel processors up to the Core 2 Quad, but its tiny dimensions mean that you can cram it into a very small case. Measuring 11.25 inches high by 7.5 inches wide by 8.25 inches deep, we'd say the Pulse qualifies.

In addition to supporting to supporting Core 2 Quad chips, the Zotac motherboard also uses Nvidia's Ion chipset, essentially a single Nvidia GeForce 9300M integrated graphics chip. Nvidia initially aimed the Ion at Netbook and all-in-one PC makers to give their budget-oriented systems some extra 3D and video zip. You can actually buy a Pulse for $799 with only the integrated chip. Such a configuration, perhaps paired with the Pulse's Blu-ray drive option for an additional $140, could make a reasonably well-equipped digital media box, especially with its built-in HDMI video output. Thanks to the discrete 3D card, our review unit bypasses the HDMI port, so you'll need an adapter to connect it to most HDTVs.

Legacy power comparison (in watts)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Load  
Idle  
HP Firebird 803
155 
84 
Maingear Pulse
143 
85 

By adding a discrete 3D card to our review system, Maingear has also eliminated any power efficiency benefit it might have gained from the Ion chipset (presuming there's a benefit to be had), instead aiming more directly at PC gaming. Which is not to say that Maingear has ignored power savings altogether. Both the Nvidia Geforce 9800 GT Eco graphics card and the low wattage Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550s CPU are designed for efficiency, as is the 80-Plus certified 300-watt power supply. You'll find the complete power testing results at the end of this review, but we found that the Pulse consumes roughly half as much power as a comparably priced standard gaming desktop from Asus. More commendably, on our older power tests, the Pulse also edged the Firebird on power savings, at least under load.

  Maingear Pulse HP Firebird 803
Price $1,300 $2,100
CPU 2.83GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550s 2.83GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550
Motherboard chipset Nvidia Ion Nvidia Nforce 760i SLI
Memory 4GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM 4GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM
Graphics 1GB Nvidia GeForce 9800 GT Eco (2) 512MB Nvidia GeForce 9800S
Hard drives 320GB, 7,200rpm Western Digital Scorpio (2) 320GB 5,400rpm Hitachi
Optical drive dual-layer DVD burner Blu-ray drive
Networking Gigabit Ethernet; 802.11b/g Gigabit Ethernet; 802.11b/g
Operating system Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit) Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit)

Looking more closely at the Pulse next to the Firebird we reviewed, it's clear that Maingear built our Pulse review unit specifically with the Firebird in its sights. The Firebird offers more features--from its two hard drives to the Maingear's single storage unit, two graphics chips, and also a Blu-ray drive--but, at the time of the Firebird 803's launch, it also would have cost you roughly $800 more. Throw in the Pulse's faster all-around performance and it might seem as if the Pulse gets the nod. Unfortunately for Maingear, it's not that simple.

For one thing, the Firebird 803 is no longer available for sale. You can, as of this July 21, 2009, at least, still find a pared-down Firebird 802 for $999 in stock at Best Buy. The primary differences in the Firebird 802 are a slightly slower CPU, only 500GB of hard drive storage, and a downgrade to a standard dual-layer DVD drive. If the $1,300 Pulse offers a compelling alternative to the apparently dead $2,100 Firebird 803, the $999 Firebird 802 makes a persuasive argument of its own.

We can take a diplomatic approach and declare no clear winner in the very narrow niche of power-efficient gaming PCs, but we can't say the same for the Pulse among the field of gaming PCs at-large. A year ago this configuration might have been competitive. However, with falling prices, not to mention gaming component seller Asus jumping into the desktop fray, if you cast efficiency aside, you'll find relatively affordable tower PCs that offer surprising performance for the dollar.

Adobe Photoshop CS3 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Maingear Pulse
128 
Dell XPS 625
140 

Multimedia multitasking tests
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Maingear Pulse
462 
Dell XPS 625
476 

CineBench tests
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Rendering Multiple CPUs  
Rendering Single CPU  
Shuttle XPC H7 5800
17,055 
4,265 
Asus Essentio CG5290-BP007
16,229 
4,066 
Maingear Pulse
12,529 
3,512 
HP Firebird 803
12,521 
3,461 
Dell XPS 625
12,449 
3,387 

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Where to Buy

Maingear Pulse

Part Number: CNETMaingearPulse

MSRP: $1,300.00

See manufacturer website for availability.