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Maingear Pulse review: Maingear Pulse

Maingear Pulse

Rich Brown
Rich Brown Former Senior Editorial Director - Home and Wellness
Rich was the editorial lead for CNET's Home and Wellness sections, based in Louisville, Kentucky. Before moving to Louisville in 2013, Rich ran CNET's desktop computer review section for 10 years in New York City. He has worked as a tech journalist since 1994, covering everything from 3D printing to Z-Wave smart locks.
Expertise Smart home, Windows PCs, cooking (sometimes), woodworking tools (getting there...)
8 min read

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.


Maingear Pulse

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.

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)
HP Firebird 803
Maingear Pulse

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

Multimedia multitasking tests
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Maingear Pulse

CineBench tests
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Rendering Multiple CPUs  
Rendering Single CPU  
Shuttle XPC H7 5800
Maingear Pulse
HP Firebird 803
Dell XPS 625

Crysis (in frames per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,600x1,200 (high, 4x aa)  
1,280x1,024 (medium, 4x aa)  
Dell XPS 625
Maingear Pulse
HP Firebird 803

FarCry 2 (in frames per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,920x1,200 (DirectX 10, 4x aa, very high)  
1,440x900 (DirectX 10, 4x aa, very high)  
HP Firebird 803
Maingear Pulse
Dell XPS 625

In fairness, the Maingear Pulse actually held its own on the iTunes test. But with no consideration for power efficiency, the $1,200 Asus Essentio system proves too much for the little Maingear, blowing past it on every other test. Our Far Cry 2 test is particularly illustrative. To its credit, the Pulse actually outpaces the SLI-based Firebird 803 on 1,440x900-pixel resolution test, and we would submit that you're more likely to play games on a sub-$2,000 PC at lower resolutions, giving the 1,440x900-pixel test added weight. Our expectations fall out of alignment with the Asus delivering unflagging Far Cry 2 performance even at 1,920x1,200 pixels.

We gave the Firebird 803 an Editors' Choice award when we reviewed it in February in part because its performance was competitive among all systems in its price range--even though it lacked upgradeability. With the Pulse losing so handily to the less expensive Asus desktop, the Pulse's power efficiency is small consolation next to such a broad performance gap. The Pulse will perform most common tasks and let you play most 3D games without too much trouble, but if you're concerned with performance, you can find a much faster traditional desktop for less.

If you are willing to sacrifice performance for the sake of lower energy consumption, you might still be interested in the Pulse as it relates to the Firebird. In particular, the Pulse has an ostensible graphics card upgrade path thanks to the PCI Express graphics card slot on its motherboard. The Firebird's laptop cards aren't technically hardwired to the motherboard, but they present a daunting upgrade challenge. Given the specialized nature of the Pulse, however, we're not sure if its free card slot gives it that much of an advantage.

To keep power consumption down, Maingear uses an efficient 300-watt power supply in the Pulse. It also has a single slot, reduced-clock 3D card that requires no connection to the power supply. You can remove the card and replace it, but we're just not sure with what. The low wattage power supply already limits your card upgrade options, and we know of no 3D card faster than the GeForce 9800 GT Eco that will fit in the Pulse's 8-inch, single-slot design. With only two RAM slots, and room for only one hard drive, practically speaking the Pulse actually offers fewer upgrade options than the Firebird, which could at least accommodate a second hard drive. Maingear may be achieving some not readily apparent thermal benefit from situating the Pulse on its end, but we can't help thinking that its upgrade options might be improved with a more traditional toaster-style small form factor layout.

Juice box
Maingear Pulse Average watts per hour
Off 1.37
Sleep 3.67
Idle 79.21
Load 141.23
Raw (annual kWh) 340.08948
Energy Star compliant Yes
Annual energy cost $38.60

Annual power consumption cost
Maingear Pulse

We'll admit there's a certain irony in criticizing a power-efficient PC because it won't let you install a faster graphics card. At least with current technology, a vendor needs to carefully curate the parts that go into a desktop if it has efficiency in mind, especially if it also wants that PC to compete as a gaming box. Without the Firebird on-hand (we sent the old one back to HP), we can't compare it with the Pulse on our new power tests. Therefore, we reran our older, less polished power test and the Maingear fared better than the Firebird. On our updated tests, we can at least say that the Pulse requires less power than competing gaming PCs, but remember that the Maingear is also not as fast as the Asus or the much more expensive Shuttle, so its power savings, while commendable, shouldn't be a surprise.

As a boutique PC vendor, Maingear prides itself on its customer support. We can't verify any of its claims, but we have little reason to doubt stories we've heard about Maingear executives hand-delivering replacement parts on occasion. We've heard similar stories about Voodoo PC. On paper, Maingear provides a 14-month warranty by default, and reasonable, if not 24-7, toll-free phone support hours, ranging from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. Pacific time on weekdays and from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays. Its Web site also has a lot of handy support features such as a remote desktop connect utility, a knowledge base, as well as an active user forum.

Find out more about how we test desktop systems.

System configurations:
Asus Essentio CG5290-BP007
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 64-bit; 2.8GHz Intel Core i7 920 (overclocked); 9GB 1,066 DDR3 SDRAM; 896MB GeForce GTX 260 (216 core); 1TB 7,200rpm Hitachi hard drive.

Dell XPS 625
Windows Vista Home Premium 64-bit; 3.0GHz AMD Phenom II X4 940 Black Edition; 6GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 512MB ATI Radeon HD 4850 graphics card; 500GB 7,200rpm Western Digital hard drive.

HP Firebird 803
Windows Vista Home Premium


Maingear Pulse

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 7Performance 7Support 8
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