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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.
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.
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.
|Maingear Pulse 14 (2014)||MSI GE60 Apcahe Pro-003||Razer Blade 14 RZ09-0116 (2014)|
|Display size/resolution||14-inch, 1,920 x 1,080 screen||15.6-inch, 1,920 x 1,080 screen||14-inch, 3,200 x 1,800 screen|
|PC CPU||2.2GHz Intel Core i7 4702MQ||2.4GHz Intel Core i7 4700HQ||2.2GHz Intel Core i7 4702HQ|
|PC Memory||8GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM||8GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM||8GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM|
|Graphics||2GB Nvidia Geforce GTX 850M||4GB Nvidia Geforce GTX 860M||3GB Nvidia Geforce GTX 870M|
|Storage||500GB HD||1TB HD||256GB SSD|
|Networking||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Windows 8.1 (64-bit)||Windows 8.1 (64-bit)||Windows 8.1 (64-bit)|
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).
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.
|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|
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
Windows 8.1 (64-bit); 2.2GHz Intel Core i7 4702HQ; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz, 3GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 870; 256GB SSD