X

Maingear Pulse 14 (2014) review: A better screen and new GPU for the midsize Maingear Pulse 14

This 14-inch laptop skips frills to give you gaming power on a reasonable budget.

ackermandan-square
Dan Ackerman
ackermandan-square

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

See full bio
6 min read

CNET editors pick the products and services we write about. When you buy through our links, we may get a commission.

Midsize gaming laptops are in the midst of something of a renaissance, with the very impressive 14-inch Razer Blade leading the charge, combining a slim, high-powered laptop with a better-than-HD touchscreen display. But that model is also very expensive, hitting $2,000 or more.

maingear-pulse-14-product-photos01.jpg
7.9

Maingear Pulse 14 (2014)

The Good

The latest version of the Maingear Pulse 14 adds a newer graphics card and higher-res screen than last year's model. It includes plenty of ports and is portable enough to go on the road occasionally.

The Bad

Other, more expensive, gaming laptops beat this one in terms of design. The keyboard, touchpad, and body are generic, and the screen lacks touch input.

The Bottom Line

You could spend an additional $1,000 and get a superslim 14-inch gaming laptop that would be the envy of your friends, but the Maingear Pulse 14 is just portable enough and has decent specs for the price.

The last 14-inch Maingear gaming laptop we looked at (back in 2013) had some good things going for it, but was also kneecapped by a lower-resolution display. If Razer can hit 3,200x1,800, anyone spending more than $1,000 on a gaming laptop should expect at least the standard 1,920x1,080.

Fortunately, the new 2014 version of the Maingear Pulse 14 makes the leap to a full 1080p screen, while also adding an updated Nvidia GPU but keeping the price reasonable. This is a fairly customizable 14-inch gaming laptop that starts at $1,199. Our review sample includes an Intel Core i7 CPU, Nvidia GeForce GTX 850M GPU, and a 500GB HDD for a total of $1,399.

maingear-pulse-14-product-photos02.jpg
Sarah Tew/CNET

By way of comparison, MSI makes a very nice 15-inch gaming laptop, the GE60, with similar parts and a video card one notch further up the scale, for about the same price. But the difference in portability between a 14-inch and 15-inch model is more significant than you might think.

This Pulse 14 still suffers from an annoying flaw. Like nearly every gaming laptop from a smaller boutique PC maker, the Pulse 14 is built on top of a generic off-the-shelf third-party laptop body. These outer shells, typically from MSI or Compal, feel very dated, and you end up with high-end parts inside a mostly plastic chassis, hampered by a clacky keyboard, a small touchpad, and a lack of multimedia controls.

But with the new, better display, I can now say the 2014 version of the Pulse 14 is a very workable alternative to fancier models from Razer and others if you place gaming performance above physical design. It can output to bigger displays at home, and it's not too gigantic to lug around for some on-the-go gaming a few times per week.

PC Geek Box

Maingear Pulse 14 (2014)MSI GE60 Apcahe Pro-003Razer Blade 14 RZ09-0116 (2014)
Price $1,399 $1,349 $2,399
Display size/resolution 14-inch, 1,920 x 1,080 screen15.6-inch, 1,920 x 1,080 screen14-inch, 3,200 x 1,800 screen
PC CPU 2.2GHz Intel Core i7 4702MQ2.4GHz Intel Core i7 4700HQ2.2GHz Intel Core i7 4702HQ
PC Memory 8GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM8GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM8GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM
Graphics 2GB Nvidia Geforce GTX 850M 4GB Nvidia Geforce GTX 860M 3GB Nvidia Geforce GTX 870M
Storage 500GB HD 1TB HD256GB SSD
Optical drive NoneDVD/RWNone
Networking Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system Windows 8.1 (64-bit)Windows 8.1 (64-bit)Windows 8.1 (64-bit)

Design and features

While the Pulse 14 starts with the same generic laptop body found in systems from MSI, AVA Direct, and other boutique PC makers, Maingear at least puts some extra customization work into it. The company offers a series of slick-looking automotive paint finishes on the outer lid. Our Pulse 14 came in basic glossy black, but any of several available colors will set you back $99 (we've seen these finishes on other Maingear systems, and they look great).

maingear-pulse-14-product-photos06.jpg
Sarah Tew/CNET

The keyboard and touchpad -- identical to last year's Pulse 14 -- are still areas where the generic body is a letdown. The keyboard has clacky, island-style keys, and some keys, such as the Enter and right Shift keys, are on the small side, as is the space bar.

The small touchpad has a matte surface, but instead of a large clickpad-style body or separate left and right mouse buttons, it has a single rocker bar underneath -- a style that feels even more dated today than it did last year. The key here is that, even though this is a gaming laptop, few people can afford to have a dedicated gaming PC and a separate system for everyday work and websurfing, so your basic interface tools need to work well for a variety of tasks, even if you're going to be using an external mouse for games.

The biggest change in the new version of the Pulse 14 versus the model we looked at last year is in the 14-inch display. Where previously you had a disappointingly low-res 1,600x900 screen, the Pulse has been updated to include a full HD 1,920x1,080 one. Sure, some laptops go even higher now, all the way up to 4K resolution, but 1080p is the sweet spot for gaming right now, allowing the current generation of graphics cards to run most games at high settings and resolutions that match living-room game consoles.

While it's still not a touchscreen, the matte finish is good for cutting down glare, and you can always output to a larger or higher-resolution external display if the 14-inch screen is too small for long-form gaming.

Ports and connections

Maingear Pulse 14
Video HDMI and VGA
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data 2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, SD card reader
Networking Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Optical drive None

Connections, performance, and battery

While many midsize or smaller laptops have a distinctly minimalist vibe to them these days, gamers may need a more expansive set of ports and connections. An Ethernet jack, for example, is handy for quickly downloading large game files. Here you get that, plus both HDMI and VGA outputs and separate audio input and output jacks, all of which are welcome on a gaming system.

The component combination in our review configuration, a 2.2GHz Intel Core i7-4702QM CPU and Nvidia's GeForce GTX 850M, is more than you should ever need for mainstream tasks, including websurfing, office work, and even photo or video editing. The Pulse 14 measured up reasonably well against other recent gaming laptops in application performance, although most of those other systems scored slightly better, offering more RAM, faster SSD storage, and even slightly faster processors. The catch there is that some of those choices have bigger 17-inch displays, or are a good deal more expensive, or both.

maingear-pulse-14-product-photos04.jpg
Sarah Tew/CNET

The GeForce 850M graphics are from Nvidia's latest generation of GPUs, but not at the top end of that range. Of course, with a smaller body, cooling and power consumption issues mean a less powerful card is often a better fit. Plus, on a 14-inch screen, you can get away with dialing back the detail settings a bit, although our tests are run at very high settings.

BioShock Infinite ran at 48.0 frames per second at 1,920x1,080, while the Razer Blade 14 (with an Nvidia 870M GPU) churned out a frame rate of 66.0 on the same test. The 15-inch MSI GE60 (with an Nvidia 860M card) ran the challenging Metro Last Light test at 14.7 frames per second, which was just a bit better than the 13.3 frames from the Pulse 14. In anecdotal use, other PC games, including Skyrim and Titanfall, ran satisfactorily as well.

Most gaming laptops, even smaller 14-inch models, don't have a reputation for long battery life. The Pulse 14 ran for 4:37 in our video-playback battery drain test, which is about 90 minutes less than last year's version. The higher native screen resolution may be to blame here. And in anecdotal game test, the system ran for about 86 minutes.

Conclusion

Maingear fixed the single thing I most disliked about the previous Pulse 14 model we reviewed, giving it a full HD display. While it's still not going to wow anyone with its design, construction, or extra features, this is a very capable gaming laptop on the smaller side of the spectrum.

If you have $2,000 or more to spend on something similar, by all means get the very impressive Razer Blade. But if you have between $1,200 to $1,400 at most, the Pulse 14 works for current games and can be a full-time productivity laptop that you won't love, but you also won't hate.

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test

MSI GE60 Apcahe Pro-003 229Maingear Pulse 14 (2014) 229Razer Blade 14 RZ09-0116 (2014) 189Asus G750JZ-XS72 185
Note: In seconds, shorter bars indicate better performance

Apple iTunes encoding test

MSI GE60 Apcahe Pro-003 97Razer Blade 14 RZ09-0116 (2014) 97Maingear Pulse 14 (2014) 96Asus G750JZ-XS72 93
Note: In seconds, shorter bars indicate better performance

Multimedia multitasking (iTunes and Handbrake)

Maingear Pulse 14 (2014) 188Razer Blade 14 RZ09-0116 (2014) 185MSI GE60 Apcahe Pro-003 179Asus G750JZ-XS72 170
Note: In seconds, shorter bars indicate better performance

Bioshock: Infinite (1,920 x 1,080)

Maingear Pulse 14 (2014) 48MSI GE60 Apcahe Pro-003 52.83Razer Blade 14 RZ09-0116 (2014) 66Asus G750JZ-XS72 81.67
Note: In frames per second; longer bars indicate faster performance

Metro: Last Light 1,920 x 1,080

Maingear Pulse 14 (2014) 13.33MSI GE60 Apcahe Pro-003 14.67Razer Blade 14 RZ09-0116 (2014) 15.33Asus G750JZ-XS72 30.67
Note: In frames per second; longer bars indicate faster performance

Video playback battery drain test

MSI GE60 Apcahe Pro-003 249Razer Blade 14 RZ09-0116 (2014) 267Asus G750JZ-XS72 317Razer Blade 14 (2013) 466
Note: In minutes, longer bars indicate better performance

System configurations

Maingear Pulse 14 (2014)

Windows 8.1 (64-bit); 2.2GHz Intel Core i7 4702MQ; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 850M; 500GB 5,400rpm Seagate hard drive

MSI GE60 Apcahe Pro-003

Windows 8.1 (64-bit); 2.4GHz Intel Core i7 4700HQ; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 860M; 1TB 7200rpm HGST hard drive

Asus G750JZ-XS72

Windows 8.1 (64-bit); 2.4GHz Intel Core i7 4700HQ; 32GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 4GB Nvidia Geforce GTX 880M;(2) 256GB SSD RAID 0 1TB 7200rpm HGST hard drive

Razer Blade 14 RZ09-0116 (2014)

Windows 8.1 (64-bit); 2.2GHz Intel Core i7 4702HQ; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz, 3GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 870; 256GB SSD

maingear-pulse-14-product-photos01.jpg
7.9

Maingear Pulse 14 (2014)

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Performance 8Battery 7