After several weeks of anticipation, I finally received my Maingear EX-L 15 gaming laptop. Since there is very little user information about this product online, I thought I would show pictures of a full unboxing and give my first impressions after using the laptop for a while.
Here's the HUGE box that arrived at my house:
Upon opening, I realized it was mostly full of crumpled up brown paper.
I started pulling out that paper and came to a small plastic case. Inside this case I found documents relating to the laptop, and a Maingear tee-shirt and mousepad. The mousepad smelled horribly bad - some kind of chemical plastic smell. The bad smell would come off on my hands from touching it, too. I threw the mousepad away.
Here's all the brown paper used to stuff the box. A lot of paper waste! I recycled it all (after my cat played in it for a few days). The brown paper was perforated, or I might have rolled it up and saved it for wrapping packages.
This is the box that the laptop itself was packaged in. Oddly generic. No Maingear branding. "Enjoy with me?" Okay!
This box was very lightly taped shut with office-grade scotch tape, which definitely lent a "hand packed" feel.
Good, solid styrofoam packaging inside. The box had a top carrying handle and a tab for reclosing. I'll actually keep this box just in case I ever need to ship the laptop again. It is almost definitely sufficient to the task, and has enough room for the AC adapter and cord as well.
Okay! Finally got the laptop out of all the boxing. It was however covered in plastic....
...and several kinds of tape...
And some clingy plastic guards (I assume to protect the case during the hand-build and burn-in periods).
I was a little worried about getting all the tape off without leaving behind gluey residue. It did all come off clean, but I recommend you keep a sharp knife nearby to help cut some of it.
The case plastic itself has a grainy, semi-metallic finish. It feels smooth to the touch and looks nice.
However, in handling it I managed to leave scratch marks on the finish almost right away:
But guess what? One wipe of my palm and the scratch marks disappeared completely. I guess it was actually my fingernails turning to dust on the surface, not the surface itself getting damaged.
The AC adapter on this machine is a BEAST. It's much bigger than any laptop brick I've ever seen, and heavy. It almost resembles an actual brick. On the plus side, the cord is quite long on both sides. The whole thing is maybe 12' long, which has been handy. On the minus side, it requires a 3-prong outlet. My old house doesn't have those in every room, nor do some of the cafes where I sometimes work.
Most of the laptops I've owned incorporate some kind of cable wind-up into the brick itself. Nothing of that kind here, but they did throw in a velcro wrap on the thin end of the cable that plugs into the laptop. Nothing for the thick end that plugs into the wall.
Here's where I ran into a real problem. For over 5 minutes, I could not figure out how to turn the damn thing on. Below, you can see the power button, back-lighted in blue. But when the machine is shut down and this light is off, this little piece of plastic just blends right into the case. I am embarrassed to admit it, but I almost had to break open the manual to find the ON button.
The keyboard itself is my biggest complaint about this laptop. I am still struggling to get used to it. It's the "chiclet" style of keyboard which Apple has been using for the last few years. Some don't like this style but I do. However, this particular chiclet keyboard has two big flaws.
First, the amount of space in between keys. Look at the picture above. See how much clearance there is between the keys? Each key should be a little larger, with less space in between. I find that even though in total it's a full size keyboard layout, I am constantly mistyping because of the added precision necessary to hit these smaller keys.
Second is the layout. Below you see an image of the arrow-T. I really hate where they put this. After a few weeks, I've realized that my biggest problem is the placement of the right-side shift key. I just expect it to be immediately under the Enter key. It is, partly. But there's also the "up" arrow key taking up half that position. This throws me off constantly. I am probably going to sit down and totally remap the right side of this keyboard - shift the number pad up, shift the arrow-T to the right, and have TWO right-hand shift keys. I just can't seem to get used to this, and I have zero patience for a poor keyboard. Fortunately I bought this machine to be a desktop replacement first, and a mobile laptop second. So most of the time I'll be able to plug in a better keyboard.
Below is a closeup photo of the mousepad and fingerprint scanner. I pretty much hate these as well. The touchpad itself is okay, nice and large with a good touch surface. However Maingear provided no scrolling ability whatsoever built into this touchpad. It's like having a mouse with no scroll wheel. Fortunately, I was able to find and install a free Synaptics driver that now gives me two-finger gesture scrolling. Whew! I was really considering returning the laptop over this issue. Almost every laptop I've used in the last 5 years, whether Mac or PC, has had a way to scroll built into the touchpad. This is an aboslute must-have in my opinion.
The buttons are pretty hateful too. They're small. They're firm and require a lot of pressure to click. And notice the little dip down from the top of the case to the surface of the buttons. The buttons are actually nested down in this dip, so you really have to jam the tip of your finger or thumb straight in there to click them. Trying to rest the side of your thumb across the buttons doesn't work well. The way these feel is a little hard to express in words. But when I look at my Thinkpad, the buttons are 1) higher than the case surface 2) larger 3) right at the front edge of the case 4) soft-click to touch.
On to the fingerprint scanner. See how low-down it is, sunk down in a gully? I have no idea why this is, but it makes it really hard to use. It's not enough to just press your finger directly onto it. You need to swipe your entire fingerprint over the scanner in a vertical direction in order for it to work. Jamming the entire pad of your finger of thumb down into this gully and then swiping across it is quite awkward. I have to lean over in my chair, raise one elbow, and carefully cram my finger in there to operate this thing. And even then it generally takes two or three tries. I was kind of excited by this feature (after all, it lets you log into your computer without typing a password) but in practice the feature just isn't well-executed.
Bottom-line: perhaps Maingear knows about performance hardware, but they definitely don't know anything about human interface controls and ergonomics. This laptop's keyboard, mouse and biometric scanner are 100% amateur-hour.
Onward! Let's turn it on. I was a little surprised, on first boot, to see the computer going through a couple of Windows 7 setup tasks like this one, below. I thought that Maingear did all this for you as part of the 'extensive testing and burn-in' process. But anyway, it only took a minute.
Maingear promises "absolutely zero bloatware" and they definitely delivered on this promise. Check out how bare this systray is, below. Actually I realized that some of the "bloatware" manufacturer's put in can be somewhat useful. Like software for configuring scroll options on the touchpad. Or battery-saving options customized for this particular laptop. With the EX-L 15, you get exactly what Windows 7 gives you - nothing custom. So far, I don't even know how to use the built-in webcam that came with the computer. I guess a program for using it, or a control panel for configuring it would be "bloatware."
That's it for the unboxing! I'll leave a few additional comments about the machine at the end.
The screen is very large and very sharp. There were no dead pixels on it, which is something Maingear guarantees. Grade: A
The built-in speakers are quite nice, and loud for a laptop. Sometimes me and the wife just sit in bed and place this laptop down between our feet. It is plenty loud for watching a movie or TV show that way. Grade: A
Battery life is not that great. Out of the box, without messing with the power manager settings too much, I'm getting about an hour maximum. I didn't expect too much from an i7 laptop with GTX-460M graphics, but you would think that a larger laptop case would allow for a larger battery. The battery on this laptop seems no larger than the ones I've had on 14 and 13 inchers. They definitely should have gotten rid of the optical drive and given it more battery instead. It's called Steam, people! Grade: C
Airflow is in through the bottom and out the rear of the case. The case has thick rubber feet which give the laptop some clearance when set on a hard tabletop, enabling airflow in through the bottom of the case. However, if you set the laptop down on a soft surface covered in cloth, like a sofa or bed, watch out. You will completely obstruct the case bottom intakes and halt airflow. Unfortunately, the bottom intake grates are positioned in such a way that, when the laptop is placed on your LAP, they become blocked. These intakes are about 3/4 of the way toward the back of the case, and an inch or two in from the edge. If they were closer to the middle or closer to the edges, this wouldn't be a problem. It also appears that there are no supplementary intake grates on the sides or front of the case. Nor does the latop take in air through the keyboard or top surface. So the way you position and hold the laptop is critical to proper airflow and performance.
Constant fan noise accompanies the usage of this laptop. When playing a game, the fans are shrieking on high 100% of the time and the laptop puts out a lot of heat. But even during very mild usage like web browsing, the fan turns itself on and off every 20 seconds. I almost wish it would just STAY ON at a low setting. Instead, it is constantly distracting me with the 'hrrrrrrrRRR!' wind-up from off to low fan. And then the fan will turn off again for a few minutes. And then it will come back on for a few minutes. 'hrrrRRRR!" It sounds like an old door creaking open in another part of the house. Grade: C
Speed and performance are super duper. I'm not a big benchmarker but when I have time I will run some. All I know is that the machine is quite snappy and runs games well. I have noticed that performance ratchets down when running on battery power. Civilization V is pretty jerky when I try to play on battery power. But it's butter-smooth when the power cable is plugged in, even at maximum graphics settings. Grade: A
Build quality is medium to good. The screen hinge is very sturdy and smooth. The edges of the case are firm and seem durable. Occasionally you can feel the plastic flexing when you pick it up, but it's a big laptop and you really should just use two hands at all times. There is one place on the bottom where a thin ventilation screen covers an intake fan. If you pick up the laptop on this side and grip it the wrong way, you will actually flex this screen until it touches the fan blades. You don't want to hear the sound that makes coming out your laptop, ever. Grade: B
There are no dedicated hardware controls like volume up/down buttons. Everything from turning wifi on/off, to muting, to hibernating the laptop all happen through software, triggered by the F-keys on the keyboard. As I said above, there is no native scrolling ability in the touchpad, and even the power button leaves something to be desired. The general impression is of a very generic laptop with no physical controls built into the very spartan case. I won't say that this comes across as cheap. There is some elegance to it. But I would love to have a real hardware mute button. Having to press Fn + F3 to mute the laptop just sucks. It also doesn't always actuate immediately. As a software control slaved to the keyboard driver, it can take a second to actuate. I won't repeat all my above comments about the keyboard itself, or the biometric scanner. Grade: D
Overall Grade: B-
Pros: Strong performance, good screen and speakers. Decent build quality and no bloatware.
Cons: Bad keyboard and mediocre touchpad, no hardware controls, loud and ill-placed fans, weak battery life.
Edited by Naim Andy Hilal - 5/5/11 at 10:13am