In a world filled with superslim ultrabooks and inventive touch-screen convertibles, is there any room left for the classic desktop-replacement laptop? As inelegant as that category name is, it still represents the first choice for the most serious PC gamers and multimedia enthusiasts who want something close to a portable home theater, complete with a high-res screen and booming (for a laptop) sound system.
A handful of companies still seriously compete in this space, from the more mainstream Alienware (nowadays a subdivision of Dell) to boutique PC makers such as Origin and Maingear, which charge premium prices but offer wide-ranging configuration options, expert by-hand assembly, and high-touch service and support.
The Maingear Nomad 17 starts at $1,579, but our tricked-out configuration came in at $2,099, and included an Intel Core i7-3740QM CPU and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 680M GPU. By way of comparison, a nearly identically configured Origin Eon17-S laptop comes out to just about the same price (with one year of warranty coverage for each).
The most obvious difference between those two is physical, although neither boutique vendor gets a particularly high score in that regard. That's because smaller PC makers can't design and manufacture their own custom laptop chassis. Instead, they use off-the-shelf models and add value by selecting the best components and assembling the complete systems by hand (for aesthetics, in this pair of examples, Maingear adds an automotive paint job, while Origin has a sculpted A-panel on the back of the lid).
You end up with a very expensive laptop that doesn't look too much like a premium product. Most desktop-replacement laptops in this category look bulky and dated, and seem to have missed every new development in laptop design from the past few years.
At least Maingear uses a slightly different base to build from. We've seen the same generic Clevo case from several PC makers, and it's inelegant, to put it mildly. Maingear uses a different generic laptop body, this one from MSI, adding a logo-stamped, painted panel to the back of the lid. It's still pretty plain-looking, which is a shame for a $2,000-plus laptop.
In a sea of ultrabooks and hybrids, the Nomad 17 is a good old traditional 17-inch gaming laptop. Decently outfitted, it's a sizable investment, and you might have a twinge of buyer's remorse as soon as Intel or Nvidia releases new parts (a familiar hazard for PC gaming enthusiasts). However, Maingear is one of only a handful of boutique PC companies that really come through on reliability, support, and flexibility.
|Price as reviewed||$2,099 / $1,579|
|Processor||2.7GHz Intel Core i7-3820QM|
|Memory||8GB, 1,600MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||750GB 7,200rpm|
|Graphics||Nvidia GeForce GTX 680M / Intel HD4000|
|Dimensions (WD)||11.4x16.9 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||17.3 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||8.4 pounds / 10.7 pounds|
Design, features, and display
This is not a sexy laptop. Despite the glossy red lid and the brushed-metal accents, it screams mid-'00s. I will say the generic MSI case used for the Nomad 17 is ever so slightly better-looking than the generic Clevo case others use. But really, it's a lost cause either way.
One bright spot is that the Nomad 17's top lid comes with your choice of colors, all done in automotive paint the company says uses "the exact same materials found on supercars around the world from Ferrari, Porsche, and others," at no extra charge.
Hewlett-Packard, as a counterexample, manages to make a decent-looking 17-inch high-end game-friendly laptop, as does Samsung in the Series 7 Gamer (and then there's the Razer Blade). But that's because those are much different companies that can custom-machine their own chassis parts. Neither HP nor Samsung offers anything close to the component selection and customization options of Maingear and other boutique PC companies.
The interior of the Nomad 17 is dominated by a large island-style keyboard, complete with a separate number pad along the right side. The keyboard sits in a slightly recessed portion of the tray, with a pair of speaker grilles above it and a handful of touch-sensitive system controls, including Bluetooth and Wi-Fi on/off switches and a button to activate the backlit keyboard.
The keys are deep and widely spaced, making them good for PC gaming, where many games rely on not only the WASD keys for control, but also the spacebar and left Shift and Ctrl buttons. The large touch pad is a decent size for a desktop-replacement laptop, but it is an older-style pad, with separate left and right mouse buttons, rather than the buttonless clickpad design seen in so many current laptops.
One odd complaint: the touch pad is offset toward the left side of the system, which meant my palm occasionally brushed up against it while playing games, with unintended consequences. I had to hit Fn+F3 to turn off the touch pad while using an external mouse.
The big 17.3-inch display is the real star here. With a native resolution of 1,920x1,080 pixels, it's perfect for high-end gaming and high-definition movie watching. More importantly, the screen has a matte finish -- very rare in a consumer laptop -- which meant it didn't reflect glare from nearby lights. Some people prefer the deeper colors and rich blacks of a glossy screen, but I (and many of my colleagues) prefer matte.
Like many 17-inch laptops, the Nomad 17 has an audio system with a subwoofer in the bottom panel. For really immersive sound, headphones are still your best bet, but I thought the Nomad 17 did a decent job at the pounding explosions and dynamic music of the action games I tried.
|Maingear Nomad 17||Average for category [desktop replacement]|
|Video||VGA, HDMI||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers with subwoofer, surround-sound headphone/microphone jacks||Stereo speakers with subwoofer, headphone/microphone jacks.|
|Data||3 USB 3.0, 2 USB 2.0, SD card reader, eSATA||2 USB 3.0, 2 USB 2.0, SD card reader, eSATA|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
|Optical drive||DVD burner||DVD burner or Blu-ray player|
Connections, performance, and battery life
Big desktop-replacement laptops are typically the only ones to spread ports and connections along both the left and right edges as well as the back panel. In this case, an optical drive and two USB 2.0 ports sit on the right side, three USB 3.0 ports, four audio jacks (for surround-sound hookups), and an SD card reader share space with a massive fan vent on the left side, and the A/C port, Ethernet jack, VGA, HDMI, and eSATA connections are along the back.
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.
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.
Find out more about how we test laptops.
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
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