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Maingear eX-L 15 Gaming Notebook Review
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Date: Apr 25, 2011
Section:Mobile
Author: Paul Lilly
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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.
Maingear eX-L 15
Specifications & Features
Model

eX-L 15

Display

15.6" (1920x1080)

CPU

Intel Core i7 2720QM (2.2GHz)

Memory

8GB DDR3-1333

Graphics

Nvidia GeForce GTX 485M w/ 2GB GDDR5

Storage

500GB Momentus XT Solid State Hybrid Drive

Optical

8X DVD Burner

Operating System

Windows 7 Home Premium x64

Wireless

Intel 802.11 B/G/N

Webcam

2.0 Megapixel

Wired Internet

10/100/1000 Ethernet

Ports

2xUSB 3.0, 2xUSB 2.0, eSATA, FireWire, HDMI, DVI-I, Media Card Reader

Weight

8.49 lbs with battery

Dimensions

41.5 x 32.0 x 1.89 cm (WxDxH)

Warranty

1 Year

Price

$2,456



HotHardware's Maingear Factory Tour with CEO Wallace Santos

One glance at the spec sheet reveals that this isn't your roommate's Walmart special, not unless they fancy themselves a fragger more interested in DirectX 11 gaming, rather than looking up recipes and firing off emails. We already mentioned the eX-L 15's CPU and GPU foundation, but on top of that, this portable replacement for your gaming desktop features a generous 8GB of fast DDR3-1333 memory, a hybrid hard drive with 32MB of cache and 4GB of solid state SLC NAND flash storage for faster access times and all the connectivity options you could hope for.

On the following pages, we'll review this system as it came configured, though note that you can customize the eX-L 15 based on your own budget and performance requirements.
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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:
  • Handy multi-tip screwdriver with small tips for working on notebooks and other portable electronics
  • Maingear T-shirt
  • Maingear mousepad (cloth)
  • Detailed invoice
  • Original Windows 7 install disc
  • Driver disc
  • Notebook user guide
  • Custom Maingear user manual with lots of tips and warranty info
At the time of this publication, Maingear was also offering a couple of freebie add-ons, including the Shogun 2: Total War! game and a laptop stand. Not included with the system is a carrying bag or gaming mouse, though Maingear offers a handful of the latter to choose from when ordering, ranging in price from $19 (Logitech M110 Optical USB Mouse) to $149 (MadCatz Cyborg R.A.T. 9 Wireless Adjustable Gaming Mouse).


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.
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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.

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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.

Futuremark PCMark Vantage
Simulated Application 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.

Futuremark 3DMark Vantage
Simulated Gaming Performance

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.

Futuremark 3DMark11
Synthetic DirectX Gaming


Futuremark 3DMark11

The latest version of Futuremark's synthetic 3D gaming benchmark, 3DMark11, is specifically bound to Windows Vista and 7-based systems because it uses the advanced visual technologies that are only available with DirectX 11, which isn't available on previous versions of Windows.  3DMark11 isn't simply a port of 3DMark Vantage to DirectX 11, though.  With this latest version of the benchmark, Futuremark has incorporated four new graphics tests, a physics tests, and a new combined test.  We tested the graphics cards here with 3DMark11's Extreme preset option, which uses a resolution of 1920x1080 with 4x anti-aliasing and 16x anisotropic filtering.


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.

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SiSoft Sandra & CineBench
Preliminary Testing with SiSoft SANDRA 2011
Synthetic Benchmarks

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.


Processor Arithmetic


Multi-Media


Memory Bandwidth

Physical Disks

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.

Cinebench R11.5 64bit
Content Creation Performance

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.

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Game Tests & Battery Life

Metro 2033
DirecX11 Gaming Performance


Metro 2033

Metro 2033 is your basic post-apocalyptic first person shooter game with a few rather unconventional twists. Unlike most FPS titles, there is no health meter to measure your level of ailment, but rather you’re left to deal with life, or lack there-of more akin to the real world with blood spatter on your visor and your heart rate and respiration level as indicators. The game is loosely based on a novel by Russian Author Dmitry Glukhovsky. Metro 2003 boasts some of the best 3D visuals on the PC platform currently including a DX11 rendering mode that makes use of advanced depth of field effects and character model tessellation for increased realism. We tested the game engine using the Metro 2033 benchmark tool.

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.

FarCry 2
DirectX Gaming Performance


FarCry 2

Like the original, FarCry 2 is one of the more visually impressive games to be released on the PC to date. Courtesy of the Dunia game engine developed by Ubisoft, FarCry 2's game-play is enhanced by advanced environment physics, destructible terrain, high resolution textures, complex shaders, realistic dynamic lighting, and motion-captured animations. We benchmarked the test systems in this article with the FarCry 2 benchmark tool using one of the built-in demo runs recorded in the "Ranch" map.

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.

 Lost Planet 2
 DX11 Gaming Performance


Lost Planet 2

Lost Planet 2 is a third person shooter developed by Capcom. It is the sequel to Lost Planet: Extreme Condition, and takes place ten years after the events of the first game. The plot begins with Mercenaries fighting against Jungle Pirates, while featuring major boss battles, extreme terrain, and the ability to pilot mechanized armor suits. We tested the game engine using the stand alone benchmark tool.

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.

Battery Life
Power Performance

 

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.
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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.

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.

We test systems as they're sent to us, and sometimes that can work against OEMs and boutique system builders if they don't choose the right combination of parts. That wasn't the case here. Maingear did a heck of a job assembling the eX-L 15, and there's plenty of credit to go around. Maingear deserves kudos, not only for building a screamer, but for the white glove treatment that comes with it. First impressions are everything, and when you unpack your new system to find a hard-case binder with system vitals, a T-shirt, mult-tip screwdriver, original Windows disc, and other items not often included with OEM systems, you can't help but feel like more than a number. Fire it up and you'll be greeted to a desktop without any bloatware, just as if you'd built it yourself. Driving the point home that Maingear might actually care about catering to the customer, the eX-L 15 is backed by lifetime phone support and a 30-day zero dead pixel policy, ensuring you don't get stuck with a dud.

Of course, while Maingear did a heck of a job with the eX-L 15, credit also goes to Intel for its Sandy Bridge platform, and to Nvidia for its crazy fast GeForce 485M GPU. It's a potent combination that helped the eX-L 15 post the highest benchmark scores of any recent notebook we've tested. Also somewhat impressive, however, is the notebook's battery life. Systems typically struggle in our brutal battery benchmark, but the eX-L 15, despite being a high-powered gaming notebook, lasted about 35-40 minutes longer than we expected.

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.

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.

  

  • Blistering fast general and gaming performance
  • Rubberized coating feels sturdy and doesn't attract fingerprints
  • Ports-a-plenty, including two USB 3.0 ports
  • Respectable battery life for this class of machine
  • Zero bloatware and 30-day zero dead pixel policy
  • No ExpressCard slot
  • Pricey


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