Keyboard and Touchpad
As you might expect on a 17-inch notebook, the eX-L 17 boasts a keyboard that’s plenty wide, with full-sized arrow keys, a number pad, and all the oddities that usually get buried on notebooks, like insert, print screen and even a dedicated asterisk key. It feels solid all around and the Chiclet-style keys deliver a firm feedback, too.
While the touchpad isn’t as big as is it could be — MacBooks still have the size advantage — we liked the smooth matte finish and firm right- and left-click buttons, which come in handy should you actually have to use the touchpad for gaming, in place of a wireless mouse.
Like most laptops in this size range, the eX-L17 uses a glossy panel. Combined with the dark graphics in many games – and the need to pick enemies out of the darkness in an instant – the glare pretty much fries any possibility of gaming outside or near windows. Not a surprise.
The payback for all the glare in the bright light turns out to be one of the most vibrant, rich-looking laptop displays you’ll ever lay eyes on in the dark, with phenomenally dark blacks that ratchet up the atmosphere in games like BioShock. Keep it in the dark like a vampire, and it’s an absolute stunner.
Fortunately, thanks to its 1080p native resolution, built-in Blu-ray drive, and preinstalled copy of CyberLink it’s also a perfect portable cinema – just don’t plan on enjoying it anywhere away from an outlet.
The size of the eX-L17 does let it cough out slightly better sound than your average laptop, but it still carries the tell-tale tininess of all laptop speakers. Fortunately, they stay composed even at full volume, without becoming shrill, making dialogue come across clearly in movies and important sounds from games, like footsteps.
Maingear doesn’t even publish battery life estimates for the eX-L17, which should be some indication how abysmal it really is. Even with an expectation of poor performance we had to laugh at just how poorly the eX-L17 really does away sans its umbilical cord to the wall.
Without flexing its considerable muscle – just taking some notes in Google Docs with Wi-Fi on and brightness to full – we got just over 40 minutes from it. Push down the pedal a bit with Crysis, and you had better be scrambling to that next outlet: We got just about 10 minutes before our game abruptly turned to a black screen.
In short, it’s more like a UPS backup system to keep things from crashing when the cord gets yanked from the wall, than a real option for portability. Anyone looking for a gaming rig should know what they’re getting into, but be aware that this machine won’t even pretend to play business machine away from the wall. That power cord might as well be a chain.
Like all high-power gaming machines, the eX-L17 has to move more than a little air to keep the copper metropolis inside cool and thousands of dollars of silicon from going up in smoke. Three circular grilles on the bottom of the laptop pull cool air in from below, while hot exhaust spills out of two rectangular grilles in the rear. Even at idle, the back vents will warm the knees a bit, and after a bit of Crysis, it’s more like a flamethrower back there. Between that and the possibility of blocking airflow to the bottom vents with your legs, gaming from a desktop is definitely recommended.
Obviously, the fans needed to churn up all this air don’t run in complete silence, but we commend how consistently they run. At idle, they run quietly all the time, and under load, they run hard all the time. We much prefer this potential overkill to fans that insist on spinning up and down all the time, which grates at the nerves more than a constant buzzing sound.
In the true style of most high-end boutique manufacturers, Maingear keeps the software load on the eX-L 17 light, but comfortable. You’ll find only three shortcuts on the desktop, and the few bits of software Maingear has chosen to install on here for you will be welcome. CyberLink PowerDVD, for instance, will let you play Blu-ray movies and DVDs right out of the box, and BisonCam acts as a lightweight application to test out the webcam before you hit Skype.
While the $4,746 price tag on our eX-L 17 might strike even seasoned gamers as a bit steep, Maingear offers different variations with the same brutish video card all the way down to $1,899. For the amount of horsepower you (still) get on tap, that’s reasonable, but still more than comparable systems from other custom builders. AVADirect, for instance, sells a similar base configuration in the same case for $1,641, and the iBuyPower version starts at $1,539. That said, if you’re looking at laying out this much money, cushy Maingear extras like its “Angelic Service” warranty, which puts you on the phone with an actual engineer here in the United States if you run into issues, and a guarantee that your system won’t have any dead pixels, may justify the extra expense. Since systems built to the same specs would share many of the same pros and cons below, gamers looking for a machine of this caliber should compare the extras between vendors to decide which offers the best value for their dollar. Overall, the Maingear eX-L 17 is an excellent machine that dominates the competition.
- Unstoppable gaming power
- Vibrant, 17-inch 1080p display
- Minimal preinstalled clutter
- Loud speakers
- Generous inputs and outputs
- US-based customer support
- Heavy, bulky
- Cheap, irritating rear door
- Glare from glossy screen
- Typical high-performance drone and heat