|Introduction and Specifications|
Maingear is a custom PC builder that's been making some noise lately, and for good reason. The competition is intense in this space, with a number of companies (CyberPower, Maingear, Falcon Northwest, Digital Storm, Origin, etc.) elbowing each other in order to grab the hard-earned dollars of those in need of a new machine. Maingear, like the others mentioned here, has done an excellent job staying on the cutting edge, and making sure that their lineup is full of new components just as soon as they hit the market.
Clutch. Today, we're taking a closer look at the smaller of the two, the 13.3" Clutch 13. This machine is competing with numerous other laptops in the ultraportable sector. There are loads and loads of 13" machines available, including the 13" MacBook Air that we took on earlier in the year. In fact, the Clutch 13 has something that we longed for in Apple's 13" ultraportable: a Core i3 processor. Maingear is positioning this machine as both a mobile workhouse and a unit that may catch the eye of bargain hunters.
ultraportable. It has an interesting mix of hardware components, and we think it's a build sheet that many will like. For years, we have wondered why PC makers didn't offer more high-end machines without discrete graphics. It seems that a high-powered CPU, hard drive, etc. is always tied to a discrete GPU -- costly both financially as well as in regard to battery life. The Clutch 13 is just what the doctor ordered: a robust machine, albeit one with integrated Intel graphics. Let's take a closer look at the internal specifications of our review unit in particular:
The base price of the Clutch starts at around $1100, but we received a machine with twice the usual RAM (8GB versus 4GB in the base build) and an SSD rather than an HDD (the 128GB Crucial SSD is a $305 upgrade over the stock 250GB 5400RPM HDD). No doubt, these two upgrades will improve scores dramatically as we push ahead through the benchmarks, particularly in the system level tests. At $1470, our review unit far exceeds the base price of the 13" MacBook Air, which also has 128GB of Flash storage, but only has 4GB of RAM and a slower, older Core 2 Duo CPU. Asking nearly $1500 for a 13.3" ultraportable is a bold move: did Maingear nail the execution? Let's find out in the pages ahead.
|Design and Build Quality|
The 13.3" Clutch 13 doesn't really resemble any other ultraportables that we have seen. While it's generally the same size as most in its class, the actual design is refreshingly different. There's a textured plastic grid on the lid, with a subtle, darkened Maingear logo. The charcoal color is accented with silver edges, and the entire machine is made of a matte material. This is great in our opinion; it cuts down on the fingerprints.
The only place that fingerprints will still cling is on the 13.3" LCD. It's a glossy 1366x768 pixel panel, and while viewing angles are superior to most 13.3" displays that we have seen on similar notebooks, it's no less glossy. Also, there's very little recline here. It will tilt back maybe 20 degrees beyond straight-up, rather than near-flat like some ultraportables. This could be bothersome in certain awkward positions, such as when you're using a machine in a cramped seat and need the extra recline.
The unit is quite lightweight; the 3.3 pounds are evenly distributed, and it feels very sleek. Since there's only a 4-cell battery, there's no extra bulge in the rear. The LCD hinge is stiff, but we like how it holds in place without fail. The underside of the machine is also of interest; Maingear makes most of the major components very accessible with only a screw and a plastic cover between you and a component upgrade.
Maingear has also bucked two very prominent PC trends. First, there's no chiclet keyboard. It's a standard sized edge-to-edge keyboard. We like this style; there's more real estate per key this way. Second, there's just a single sticker on the palm rest. There's a Core i3 sticker, but that's it. Compared to Asus machines, the palm rest looks sleek and clean.
There's a dedicated Wireless On/Off button and power button on each side of the status LEDs above the keyboard. On the left side, there's a 3-in-1 SD card reader, one USB 2.0 port, a VGA output and a Kensington lock slot. On the right side there's audio in/out ports, another USB 2.0 port, an eSATA port, a full-size HDMI output, a Gigabit Ethernet connector and an AC input jack.
No ports are on the front or the rear. Maingear, unlike most companies selling ultraportables, includes their own docking station with this notebook, making it easier to double as a desktop replacement. It's hard to say how many people will actually be interested in such an accessory, but it definitely works well if you're in the market. And considering how few ultraportables are on the market these days that support a proprietary docking station, this is one of the better choices.
We enjoyed using hte Maingear Clutch 13. But remember, this is a $1500 machine -- if it weren't enjoyable at the very least, there would be a serious problem. With a Core i3 processor, 8GB of DDR3 memory and a lightning fast 128GB Crucial SSD, this unit was primed for success. We can definitely say that this felt like one of the snappier ultraportables we have used, on-par with the 13" MacBook Air and even faster when multitasking.
The keyboard is solid, and typing is both smooth and enjoyable. Despite the fact that this is an ultraportable, typing was not a cramped experience. Also, the trackpad was one of the better ones we have used. There's no texture on the pad itself, and we prefer the smooth layout. Also, there's just a single, solid trackpad button. Some of Asus' machines have something akin to this, but they use a slick silver bar that has less grip. This particular button has a nice amount of travel and wasn't uncomfortable to use. All in all, it's a great layout.
The only major complaint with the trackpad is how limited the gesture support is. It doesn't support a full range of multi-touch gestures; if you rub your finger along the right edge, you can scroll up or down a webpage, but two-finger scrolling, pinch-to-zoom and swipe-to-navigate are all missing. That's a real shame; for $1500 we simply expected a more intelligent trackpad.
We can't help but point out just how cool the machine stays, even under heavy workloads. It's one of the cooler ultraportables we have used, and while there are plenty of heat exhaust vents (and thus, noise when you're gaming or watching 1080p media), we'd rather have the vents than deal with the heat. We wish more notebooks were able to stay this cool under pressure, so kudos to Maingear for figuring that out here.
Speaking of noise, it's not a deal-breaker by any means, but it was annoying at times. On the other hand, the machine's fans stay quiet most of the time. We say "most of the time" because the fans definitely kick up when playing a game; that's expected though, and usually it's drowned out by the surprisingly crisp, loud and clear speakers.
Wireless (802.11g/n) reception was fantastic, and there's both Bluetooth 2.1 and a 1.3MP webcam, which aren't always found on ultraportables. Navigating around the desktop was always a breeze, and loading up applications was snappy. Even multi-tasking was smooth as silk, and we never really felt bogged down while using the machine (graphically intense operations notwithstanding). We'll touch more on the graphical limitations as we get to our GPU benchmarks, but in general, the machine was quick enough to handle everything except for gaming and high-bitrate HD media with exceptional ease. Core i3 + 8GB of RAM + an SSD = speedy!
|Futuremark 3DMark 06 & PCMark Vantage|
The Futuremark 3DMark06 CPU benchmark consists of tests that use the CPU to render 3D scenes, rather than the GPU. It runs several threads simultaneously and is designed to utilize multiple processor cores. The CPU score is represented in the graph below, along with the GPU related tests as well.
When looking at the 3D Mark 06 scores, we see the Clutch 13 doing well on the CPU end, but not so well on the GPU end. That's because of the hardware configuration. There's a powerful Core i3 CPU and 8GB of RAM paired with an SSD, all of which help it blow through the CPU and system level benchmarks. But the limited Intel HD graphics lags behind the rivaling machines. If you really care about graphics, the Clutch 13 probably isn't for you. We have to say, for $1500, we expected an Optimus-enabled machine with both an IGP and a discrete GPU.
Maingear Clutch 13 3DMark 06 Score
Next we ran the system through Futuremark’s latest system performance metric PCMark Vantage. This benchmark suite creates a host of different usage scenarios to simulate different types of workloads including High Definition video and movie playback and manipulation, gaming, image editing and manipulation, music compression, communications, and productivity. We like the fact that most of the tests are multi-threaded as well, in order to exploit the additional resources offered by multi-core processors.
On less GPU-intensive benchmarks, you see the performance benefits that we have been talking about. In overall performance, the Clutch 13 surpasses the competition easily. So basically, in every case outside of gaming, this unit outpaces its rivals, but it's important to note that the rivals all cost a good bit less, often several hundred. When you're looking at these numbers and also thinking about value, we think the Clutch 13 should have stronger graphics scores as well. We understand that having an SSD, 8GB of RAM and a great design commands some of that premium, but even a basic Optimus GPU setup would've made a lot of sense here. It's also very important to note here that the SSD really skews these scores. We haven't had an opportunity to review too many SSD-based machines yet, and the fact of the matter is that having an SSD drastically improves the benchmark scores here in every category except for Gaming. You'll notice that in gaming even the 1215N, at nearly half the price compared to the base Clutch 13, contends well.
|SiSoftware Sandra & Multimedia Benchmarks|
We continued our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA 2010, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests (CPU Arithmetic,
CPU Arithmetic Test; Click To Enlarge
CPU Multimedia Test; Click To Enlarge
Memory Bandwidth Test; Click To Enlarge
Physical Disc Test; Click To Enlarge
Our gauntlet of SiSoftware SANDRA tests show nice performance. We tried to pit the machine against similar platforms here, and the Core i3 managed to hold its own, particularly against Core 2 Duo CPUs. It also scorched a couple of standard HDDs, but held steady against similar SSDs. The C300 is definitely a solid SSD, but we still aren't convinced it's worth the $305 that Maingear charges you over the 250GB 5400RPM HDD.
To test multimedia capabilities, we attempt to play back a 720p WMVHD clip, a 720p H.264 clip and a 1080p clip. We've also included a screenshot of the 1080p clip from the Mini 311 (which uses the original NVIDIA Ion GPU) to give you a better idea of CPU utilization from a different type of system.
In our video playback tests, we see that the Clutch 13 is plenty capable of handling high-definition video. Both 720p and 1080p clips were perfectly smooth, even with applications running in the background. If you're only looking for good HD media playback (and don't much care about gaming), this machine is a champ. We'd definitely trust it as a media playback device for HDTVs via HDMI as well. The integrated Intel GPU chipset isn't very powerful, but it handles HD media fine.
Click To Enlarge; 720 H.264 - Maingear Clutch 13
Click To Enlarge; 720p WMVHD - Maingear Clutch 13
Click To Enlarge; 1080p - Maingear Clutch 13
To touch on gaming
And this is the part where the Clutch 13 cowers. We don't expect every ultraportable to handle games with ease, but we have seen $499 netbooks (the Asus Eee PC 1215N comes to mind) handle 3D games with more poise than this. Now, it's acceptable for some machines to not be well suited to games like this, and when a weaker GPU leads to longer battery life, that's oftentimes an acceptable substitute. But as you'll see in the next page, this isn't the case here. The battery life on the Clutch 13 is rather poor. Again, for a $1500 machine, we expected a little more in terms of the GPU.
The $1091 base configuration also has this configuration. Even at ~$1100, we don't think it's too much to ask to have an Optimus setup.
We mentioned earlier that we were quite impressed with how sleek, slender and light the Clutch 13 is. Here's why. Rather than using a 6-cell or 9-cell battery like many 13.3" ultraportables, Maingear includes room for only a 4-cell battery. There's no extended battery option either; if you need more than 2-3 hours on a charge, you'll need to carry around a spare 4-cell battery. Even with screen brightness set to 50%, Wi-Fi / Bluetooth turned off and a power-saving SSD under the hood, we only managed 2.5 hours of life on a full charge. BatteryEater Pro is our go-to testing program, which continually loops a graphic and taxes the CPU the battery runs dry.
There's no other way to say it: Ouch! Most notebooks and ultraportables that cost $1100 or less last longer than the Clutch 13, and part of the reason for buying such a compact machine is because of its presumed mobility. While the design is highly mobile, having to find a power outlet after only 2-3 hours of use isn't ideal. It's hard to say if we would have rather had a thicker, heavier machine with a 6-cell battery, but there's no doubt that we're displeased with only 2-3 hours, regardless.
Click To Enlarge
|Summary and Conclusion|
Performance Summary: In our SiSoftware Sandra tests, the Maingear Clutch 13 performed well. This ultraportable has a 1.2GHz Core i3-330UM processor, a full 8GB of DDR3-1066 RAM and a blazing fast Crucial 128GB C300 SSD. Top notch components like these will undoubtedly help it when it comes to benchmarks, but when it comes to gaming, it's another story. The integrated Intel HD graphics are weak in comparison to Optimus-enabled rivals, and unfortunately, the battery life isn't really boosted in exchange for lower GPU performance. It's powerful enough to play back 1080p multi-media without issue, but that's about it; even older gaming titles showed signs of lag at times.
You know you're looking at something special when you take the Clutch 13 from its box. It has a unique textured lid, an understated interior, a great/smooth trackpad and a sleek, slender design. On the exterior, there's a lot to appreciate. It also has a very spacious, enjoyable keyboard, built-in Bluetooth, eSATA / HDMI ports and a great overall look. But at nearly $1100 for a base unit, we'd expect nothing less.
Click To Enlarge
We were intrigued at first by this unique configuration. It has a powerful CPU (1.2GHz Core i3-330UM), a whopping 8GB of DDR3 memory and a speedy 128GB Crucial C300 SSD, but with integrated Intel HD graphics. We liked the idea at first, assuming this would cost less than rival units with a discrete GPU, and also lengthen battery life. We found that this wasn't exactly the case, however. It handles everything except hardcore gaming with ease, but there's a value problem in our eyes; our $1500 test unit would have been a much better deal if it were Optimus enabled and thus offered better graphics performance.
We will point out that we appreciated that Maingear left the interior mostly clean; just a single Core i3 sticker was on the palm rest. Also, there was no "bloatware" to speak of. That's a real change of pace, as we didn't have to spend any time right off the bat deleting nagging programs. There's an Accelerometer inside that requires a one-time calibration upon opening, but this is used to ensure your data remains safe in case of a drop, so it's a worthwhile setup. The LCD's viewing angles and colors are great, but the limited recline of the LCD hinge really hinders usage on high surface like a countertop or in a cramped seat.
Overall, the Clutch 13 is a solid choice at $1091 for the base model, but at nearly $1500 like our review unit, it's a much harder sell. While it was definitely quick in multi-tasking and most tasks we threw at it, we expected a better GPU setup and a higher-resolution screen for that price. Also, there's just two USB ports, and both are the older USB 2.0 variety. $1500 doesn't even get you an optical drive, and while this bundle does include a docking station, that will have a very limited reach in our estimation. If you place a high value on the docking station, this is a somewhat better deal. If you place a high value on gaming, you'll need to look for a machine with a discrete GPU. But we will say that the performance (outside of gaming) was outstanding, and the machine remained nice and cool throughout our testing.