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Maingear EX-L 15 review: Maingear EX-L 15

The Maingear EX-L15 stands out from most of the Ivy Bridge systems we've seen to date, in that it's a midsize 15-inch laptop rather than a 17-inch desktop replacement.

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Dan Ackerman
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Dan Ackerman

Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming

Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a semi-regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times

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7 min read

If you're interested in one of Intel's new Ivy Bridge CPUs, for now the options are limited to a handful of relatively high-end gaming and multimedia machines. That's because only the quad-core Core i7 versions of the new processors are available now, although that should change by early June, when mainstream dual-core parts will flood the market and quickly become the new standard.

Maingear eX-L 15
8.0

Maingear EX-L 15

The Good

The <b>Maingear EX-L 15</b> is a hugely powerful, and hugely customizable, 15-inch laptop with the latest Intel and Nvidia parts.

The Bad

The painfully generic off-the-shelf body will irritate anyone spending $2,000 or more on what should look like a premium product.

The Bottom Line

With desktop-replacement power in a midsize package, the 15-inch Maingear EX-L 15 is a niche product, but one that largely delivers.

The Maingear EX-L15 differs from most of the Ivy Bridge systems we've seen to date in that it's a midsize 15-inch laptop, rather than a 17-inch desktop replacement. But, unlike the 14-inch Lenovo IdeaPad Y480, this system has nearly all the features you'd expect from a high-end desktop replacement -- a very high-end GPU, and a full 1080p display -- just in a slightly smaller and lighter package.

At $2,349 for our review configuration (versus $1,079 for the Lenovo), this is just as expensive as an Alienware or Origin laptop, but at least has comparable components. I'm less excited about the generic laptop body -- it's a shell from a company named Clevo, used as a base model by several PC brands (and the same brand Origin uses). For these prices, it's not the most high-end look around.

That said, Maingear has a well-deserved reputation for building high-end, highly customized gaming machines, and this model delivers impressive performance in a portable package.

Price as reviewed / Starting price $2,349 / $1,499
Processor 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-3820QM
Memory 8GB, 1,333MHz DDR3
Hard drive 750GB 7,200rpm / 32GB SSD
Chipset Intel HM77
Graphics Nvidia GeForce GTX 675M / Intel HD 4000
Operating system Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)
Dimensions (WD) 14.8x10.1 inches
Height 1.4 inches - 1.7 inches
Screen size (diagonal) 15.6 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 7.2 pounds / 9.4 pounds
Category Midsize

Like Origin and other boutique PC makers, Maingear uses slightly customized off-the-shelf laptop bodies, while giving its desktop systems a more distinctive look. The Clevo body here is matte black slab, with a slightly tapered lid. The back panel on the lid is custom, with a subtle Maingear logo etched into it, and there's a second logo printed over the speaker grille, which sits just above the keyboard.

It's not an unattractive body, but it's as generic as possible, and it's a look that's several years out of date. With the current trend toward thinner designs made from premium materials, this certainly doesn't look like a $2,000-plus laptop. It does, however, aesthetically beat the also-outdated current Alienware look of a big plastic box with light-up grilles and dorm-room-chic sensibility.

The keyboard features closely packed flat-topped keys, a look rarely seen anymore -- most new laptops have widely spaced island-style keys. The keyboard is shifted to the left to make room for a number pad. It's a layout found on most 15-inch laptops, but in this particular case, I found it a little too far off-center, and it made for error-prone typing.

Another complaint: the front lip of the chassis has a very sharp edge, which can be uncomfortable if you rest your palms against it. On the plus side, the keyboard is backlit, which is very helpful for late-night gaming sessions.

The touch pad is built right into the wrist rest. It's slightly depressed, but lacks any special coating or surface, and it's small for a 15-inch premium laptop. You could argue that this isn't a problem because any serious gaming laptop would require the use of a separate mouse, but still, it's yet another non-premium feature. Maingear is at the mercy of Clevo (or wherever else the company could source laptop bodies from) in this area.

The 15.6-inch display is a system highlight, with a native resolution of 1,920x1,080 pixels. That's what high-end gamers want, and it's also perfect for Blu-ray or other HD video sources. The display is clear and bright, even with its (very welcome) matte coating. A higher-quality 95 percent NTSC color gamut option is also available for $99, similar to the IPS displays found on some high-end laptops meant for photo and video work.

The branded Onkyo speakers, which include a subwoofer, were louder and deeper than you find on most 15-inch laptops to be sure, but you'll never get really thumping sound without bigger speakers to push more air.

Maingear EX-L 15 Average for category [midsize]
Video DVI, HDMI, DisplayPort VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone/S/PDIF/line-in jacks Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data 2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 3.0/eSATA, 1 UDB 2.0, SD card reader, mini-FireWire 2 USB 2.0, 2 USB 3.0, SD card reader, eSATA
Networking Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband
Optical drive Blu-ray player/DVD burner DVD burner

Kudos to Maingear for making sure this system is packed with ports and connections. There are three video outputs, DVI, HDMI, and DisplayPort (oddly no VGA), and four optical in/out jacks in total. Even more specialized connections such as Mini FireWire and eSATA are included. A very impressive package overall in this area.

This configuration clocks in at $2,349, and includes GPU and CPU upgrades from the $1,499 base model. The base gets you a second-gen Core i5-2520M CPU and an Nvidia GeForce GT 670M GPU. Neither is shabby, but it would make sense to go with a third-gen Intel Core i-series CPU at least. Hard-drive options are numerous, and include standard platter drives, solid-state drives (SSDs), and hybrid drives that combine both (our review model had a 750GB hard drive with a hybrid 32GB SSD cache). The most expensive storage option -- a whopping 600GB SSD -- adds $1,288 to the base price.

With the high-end hardware in this review unit, it made quick work of our benchmarks, swapping the lead position with another high-end Ivy Bridge laptop, the Origin EON17-S. This is pretty much as fast and powerful as laptops get right now. As the next set of third-gen Intel CPUs that get released will be the slower, mainstream dual-core versions, you shouldn't look for these numbers to be trumped anytime soon.

The Nvidia GeForce GT 675M is one of Nvidia's new flagship Mobile GPUs. In our Street Fighter IV test, at full 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution, the game ran at an impressive 162.4 frames per second, beating the new Asus G75VW, but falling well behind the Origin EON17-S (which overclocks its parts). In the very tough Metro 2033 test, at the same resolution, the Maingear ran at 19.3fps. In the brand-new Diablo III, at full 1080p with most graphics setting set to high, the game's onscreen framerate count usually hovered around 100fps.

My only complaint was that this kind of gaming power seems wasted on a smaller 15-inch display. To fully enjoy Diablo III, I connected the HDMI output to a 24-inch monitor, and added a keyboard and mouse.

Juice box
Maingear EX-L 15 Avg watts/hour
Off (60%) 0.77
Sleep (10%) 1.66
Idle (25%) 26.97
Load (05%) 81.95
Raw kWh number 100.46
Annual power consumption cost $11.40

Annual power consumption cost

Looking for long battery life from a quad-core laptop with high-end graphics is a lost cause. That said, for a 15-inch model, rather than a 17-inch, there is a certain expectation that the system will be able to function away from an outlet for a reasonable amount of time. In this case, the Maingear EX-L 15 ran for 2 hours and 42 minutes in our video-playback battery drain test. That's better than the bigger Origin and Asus Ivy Bridge laptops, but Lenovo shows that you can have Ivy Bridge and decent battery life, as the IdeaPad Y480 ran for 3 hours and 51 minutes.

One of the reasons for choosing a boutique PC maker is the personalized service and support. The EX-L comes with a one-year parts-and-lifetime-labor warranty, and phone support runs from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. PT Monday through Friday, and from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. PT on Saturdays. 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.

The Maingear EX-L 15 offers no-compromise desktop-replacement performance, and the very latest parts, in a slightly more portable package. Generic Clevo bodies (and their not-quite-premium keyboards and touch pads) are a turnoff at these prices, but the option to configure nearly every component makes up for a lot.

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)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Native resolution, 2X AA, V Sync off  

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

Find out more about how we test laptops.

System configurations:

Maingear EX-L 15
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-3820QM; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 675M + 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 750GB Seagate 7,200rpm

Lenovo IdeaPad Y480
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-3610QM; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 1GB Nvidia GeForce GT 640M LE / 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 750GB Western Digital 5,400rpm

Asus G75VW
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-3610QM; 12GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 2GB NVIDIA GeForce GTX 660M; 750GB Seagate 7,200rpm (x2)

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 #1: 1TB SAMSUNG 5400rpm + HDD #2/3: 240GB Corsair Force SSD (x2) RAID 0

Sony Vaio VPC-F236FM
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.2GHz Intel Core i7-2670QM; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 1GB Nvidia GeForce GT 540M + 64MB Intel HD 3000; 640GB Toshiba 7,200rpm

Maingear eX-L 15
8.0

Maingear EX-L 15

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 9Performance 9Battery 7Support 7
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