|Introduction & Specification|
Many enthusiasts generally prefer to roll their own rigs, but when it comes to notebooks, the notion of building a system from scratch becomes less practical and appealing. Things tend to get expensive, your build options aren't as robust as they are with desktops, and working in tight quarters will test your patience. That's where system builders come in, and you have three primary types to choose from: large OEMs like Dell and HP, smaller integrators and resellers that specialize in bang-for-buck setups, and custom gaming boutiques like Maingear, that prefer to push the pedal to the metal in order to differentiate.
We recently had a chance to meet with Maingear in person and tour the company's build facility (video below), and one thing was immediately apparent: these guys are enthusiasts just like us. So, when Maingear offered to send us what they claim is the fastest 15-inch notebook on the planet, we rounded up our gauntlet of benchmarks and told them to "bring it on."Maingear sent us their revamped eX-L 15. This particular model was actually reintroduced back in late January of this year, but like every other OEM, was caught off guard by a early flaw in Intel's 6-series chipset. Now sporting a revised board with errata-free silicon, the upgraded eX-L 15 arrived at our doorstep equipped with an Intel Sandy Bridge processor and the fastest mobile graphics chip Nvidia currently offers, the GeForce GTX 485M. Let's see if MainGear can make good their claims of the fastest 15-inch notebook we've ever tested.
|Accessories & First Boot|
Let's be frank, at nearly $2,500 for a 15-inch laptop, the eX-L 15 will have penny-pinching gamers running the opposite direction. But it's worth mentioning that buying a system from Maingear is an entirely different experience than ordering from budget-minded system builder. In addition to high-end parts, Maingear offers the "white glove treatment," starting with a hard case binder. You also get lifetime phone support and a 30-day zero dead pixel guarantee for the machine's display.
Pop open the binder and you'll find more than just the usual assortment of paperwork. Here's what was in ours:
One thing that even boutique system builders have trouble avoiding is the temptation to shovel bloatware on their systems. Third-party software vendors pay big bucks to have their programs pre-installed on OEM systems, which can help keep prices down, but at the expense of performance, at least until you go through and remove all the rubbish. Maingear, however, advertises a 'Zero Bloatware' policy, saying:
"Large, multi-national computer manufacturers have commoditized the PC market by subsidizing their products with the installation of intrusive, third-party software. They are paid to do this. This software bogs down your system and prevents it from running at its highest potential. It also has the tendency to make your system unstable or may conflict with software you wish to install. All MAINGEAR systems eschews these tactics as we believe that YOU are the customer, not a third-party software provider. We build purebred PCs designed for performance and reliability, not billboards and advertisements."
Maingear didn't just talk the talk, they walked the walk by delivering a system completely devoid of performance hampering trialware and other garbage that power users don't care about.
|Overall Design & Layout|
Apparently, someone on Maingear's design team paid attention in sex-ed class, because the sleek and sexy eX-L 15 brings lots of rubber protection to the party. Glossy finishes are all the rage, or at least they were in 2010, but this is the second high-end gaming notebook in a row we've reviewed to sport a rubberized coating inside and out. The upshot is you don't have to worry about fingerprints, and the rubber designs feel very sturdy. Our only complaint is that when it does get dirty, the added friction makes it tougher to clean than glossy and/or carbon fiber lids.
Maingear's understated logo adorns the rubber-coated lid, and that's it. Lacking any flashing LEDs or other pieces of bling, the somewhat conservative appearance means you can lug this thing around to the office, board room, or any other environment where a glowing logo might not be appropriate.
Flipping it around the back gives you a better view of the cooling setup. Two sizable vents whisk hot air out and away from the system. There is a noticeable 'whir' during heavy loads, though it's not noticeable above the sounds of your game, music, video, or anything else you might have piping through the system's speakers.
In between the vents you'll find a combo USB 2.0/eSATA port, HDMI-out port, DVI-I port, and power connector.
Maingear's eX-L 15 sports a full-sized plank with media controls and other options integrated into the Function keys. As is becoming the standard, Maingear went with chiclet style keys. It's fairly quiet and comfortable, and lest anyone forget that this is a gaming notebook, the WSAD keys come marked with arrows. There's also a numpad squished on the right, but curiously missing is a backlight option. Given that gamers are the target audience, a backlit keyboard can come in handy when you find yourself fragging in the wee hours of the morning long after the sun as set.
The rubberized coating we mentioned above extends over the wrist wrest and trackpad, and feels as comfortable as the cool side of a pillow. In between the two mouse buttons is a fingerprint reader, a nice security feature if you're paranoid about your roommate firing up your notebook when you're not around, only to discover flirtatious emails from his girlfriend. That sort of thing has a tendency to end friendships real fast but Maingear has your back on this one.
If you can think of a port, there's a good chance you'll find it on the eX-L 15. As we mentioned, the back holds a combo USB 2.0/eSATA port, HDMI-out port, and DVI-I port, but we've only scratched the surface. On the left side is a Gigabit Ethernet port, two SuperSpeed USB 3.0 ports (hooray!), a USB 2.0 port, IEEE 1394a FireWire jack, and a multi-purpose media card reader.
Head over to the opposite side and you'll discover Kinsington Lock, headphone jack, microphone jack, line-in jack, S/PDIF output jack, yet another USB (2.0) port, and the optical drive, which in this case is an 8X DVD burner (Blu-ray drive is optional). What you won't find is an ExpressCard slot, which isn't a huge deal considering how many ports are already provided, but an observed omission nonetheless.
|PCMark & 3DMark Tests|
To start things off, we fired up Futuremark's system performance benchmark, PCMark Vantage. This synthetic benchmark suite simulates a range of real-world scenarios and workloads, stressing various system subsets in the process. Everything you'd want to do with your PC -- watching HD movies, music compression, image editing, gaming, and so forth -- is represented here, and most of the tests are multi-threaded, making this a good indicator of all-around performance.
Maingear's eX-L 15 notebook jumps out to an early and convincing lead, even when compared with other recently launched Sandy Bridge laptops. Next to the Asus G73SW and MSI GT680R, both of which are nearly identically spec'd, the eX-L 15 pulls way ahead and shows the advantage of a faster processor and top-end GPU and in some instances, its hybrid hard drive, though the Asus G73SW sports hybrid drives as well.
Next we switched gears to Futuremark's 3DMark Vantage benchmark, which focuses squarely on gaming performance. Some of the technologies in 3DMark Vantage are only available with DirectX 10, making this a better barometer of modern gaming prowess than the the older 3Mark06 benchmark. And unlike previous versions, 3DMark Vantage puts a bit more emphasis on the CPU rather than focusing almost entirely on the GPU(s).
Here again Maingear's rig flexes its gaming muscle, but what's really surprising is the margin of victory. The eX-L 15 posted a score nearly twice as fast as systems equipped with an Nvidia GeForce 460M or ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5870. Keep in mind that the eX-L 15 is sporting a single GPU, albeit a mighty fast one in the GeForce 485M.
Given how new 3DMark 11 is, we're still building a repository of benchmarks based on the Extreme preset option, but so far, the eX-L 15 holds the record for the highest score.
With another convincing victory in 3DMark 11's Performance preset, the eX-L 15 completes its clean sweep of Futuremark benchmarks, besting all other recently reviewed systems, including a pair sporting Sandy Bridge hardware inside.
|SiSoft Sandra & CineBench|
We continued our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA 2011, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests (CPU Arithmetic, Memory Bandwidth, Physical Disks). All of the scores reported below were taken with the processor running at its default clock speeds of 2.2GHz with 8GB of DDR3-1333 RAM running in dual-channel mode.
SiSoft Sandra didn't reveal any surprising; the eX-L 15 posted strong scores in all categories, though obviously the lack of an SSD holds the system back in the Physical Disks benchmark. That said, the Seagate Momentus XT Solid State Hybrid drive that Maingear includes is faster than a typical hard drive, the result of 32MB of cache and 4GB of SLC NAND flash memory.
Maxon's Cinebench R11.5 benchmark is based on Maxon's Cinema 4D software used for 3D content creation chores and tests both the CPU and GPU in separate benchmark runs. On the CPU side, Cinebench renders a photorealistic 3D scene by tapping into up to 64 processing threads (CPU) to process more than 300,000 total polygons, while the GPU benchmark measures graphics performance by manipulating nearly 1 million polygons and huge amounts of textures.
The eX-L 15 continues to rock and roll with a relatively strong showing in the Maxon's brutal CineBench benchmark. Workstations and other systems built for professional tasks (like CAD work) tend to score better in CineBench, but as far as consumer rigs goes, Maingear's system did rather well.
|Game Tests & Battery Life|
Picking up where we last left off, Maingear's eX-L 15 stayed ahead of the pack with a gutsy showing in Metro 2033, a benchmark that has no qualms steamrolling over well equipped systems.
Unlike Metro 2033, the somewhat dated Far Cry 2 benchmark isn't as hard on systems, and it was no match for the combination of an Intel quad-core Core i7 2720QM and Nvidia GeForce 485M found in the eX-L 15.
With a top score in our Lost Planet 2 benchmark, the eX-L 15 not only walks away with our performance crown, it runs with it, having bested recently reviewed systems in every one of our performance evaluations.
We didn't necessarily expect the eX-L 15 to win every one of our performance benchmarks, but when it did, we weren't exactly surprised, either. After all, Maingear packed some serious hardware inside, including the fastest mobile GPU around. But while the performance didn't necessarily shock us, battery life with the system was actually slightly better than expected.
BatteryEater Pro tends to measure worst case scenarios, in that it doesn't really take into consideration power saving features, instead loading up the system until it dies out. Most high-end gaming systems fizzle out around the one-hour mark, but the eX-L 15 kept chugging along for 106 minutes. We ran the benchmark several times to rule out user error but the eX-L 15 consistently stayed up and longer than we expected. Further, if you're not exercising the GPU continually (though a light load) like our Battery Eater Pro test did, you'd likely see much better battery life for general purpose uses like web browsing and email.
|Performance Summary & Conclusion|
Performance Summary: Maingear advertises the eX-L 15 as "the world's most powerful 15.6-inch gaming notebook," and if you're going to talk to the talk, you better be able to walk the walk. Well folks, the eX-L 15 walked the walk, it ran the race, and it sped through our gauntlet of benchmarks like a sports car running from the cops.We're also pleased with all the connectivity options of the eX-L 15. Minus a DisplayPort, just about every port you can think of is included here, even a pair of SuperSpeed USB 3.0 ports. But you'll also find eSATA, HDMI, FireWire, DVI-I, and a few more. So what's not to like about the eX-L 15? The obvious one is price. At nearly $2,500 (as equipped), you're paying a premium for a 15-inch laptop, albeit one aimed at gamers. The lack of a backlight and ExpressCard slot are noticeable omissions too.
The eX-L 15 didn't lose a single performance benchmark when pitted against recently reviewed systems, even those built around the same Sandy Bridge platform. Equipped with a Intel Core i7 2720QM processor and Nvidia GeForce 485M, the eX-L 15 lived up to Maingear's lofty claim, at least within the stable of the system's we've recently reviewed. Though the claim of world's most powerful 15-inch notebook is probably a bit overzealous, we'd definitely venture that the eX-L 15 is one of the fastest you can find on the market currently.
Few complaints aside, Maingear's eX-L 15 lives up to the hype. This is a 15-inch gaming notebook to be reckoned with. It's not cheap, but then again, high-end products never are. At least with the eX-L 15, you get what you pay for.