Every boutique computer company offers its god-tower, a massively powerful computer on the cutting edge in personal computing performance. Origin has its Genesis, Falcon Northwest has the Mach V and Maingear has the Shift. The towers come with complex liquid cooling configurations, Intel Extreme Edition processors and up to four video cards. They’re awesome.
They are also predictable. The small group of people who can afford such monoliths expect fancy cooling solutions and big cases, and this restricts design. The boutiques express creativity not in the high-end rigs but in smaller, less powerful machines such as the Falcon Northwest Tiki we reviewed last week and the Maingear F131 we’re reviewing here.
The F131 is Maingear’s alternative to a conventional mid-tower PC. Maingear offers one of those, too, if you’re interested, the Vybe. But the F131 is unconventional. It’s sleek, cool, even unique. And surprisingly powerful.
Our review unit arrived with an Intel Core i7-3770K processor and an EVGA GTX 690M 4GB video card. Also included are a 60GB Corsair solid–state drive and 8GB of Corsair RAM. This PC has the specifications to compete with larger systems.
The downside to striving to create a product with awesome design and performance is the potential for failure. A fine line exists between functionality and aesthetics, both of which must be balanced by price. Has Maingear managed to walk this tightrope?
Maingear’s F131 would fit well in a science fiction film. The unit is significantly taller than it is wide or long, which invites comparisons to the room-filling supercomputers of old. But a sleek exterior, rounded corners, and an almost complete lack of blemishes such as vents or ports modernizes the look. Most of the fans and the connectivity options are located at either the bottom or top of the case. Only the slot-loading CD drive and a Maingear logo adorn the enclosure’s front.
We generally like what Maingear has done – the F131 looks like an advanced supercomputer housing a hostile artificial intelligence. We’re less enthusiastic about the case’s build quality. Although the case’s flat metal sides feel thick, they are paired with plastics that seem cheap. Part of the problem is the tacky gloss plastic coat. Here’s a tip from the laptop market – glossy plastic is a no-no.
Even worse, when you touch these portions of the case, the plastic flexes and moves with moderate pressure. That’s what plastic does. But it’s also the reason why plastic rarely feels luxurious.
Crazy motherboard arrangements are a fad among case designers now. Moving the traditional ATX or Micro-ATX motherboard to different positions makes achieving different designs possible. The F131’s case goes with the popular bottoms-up approach – the motherboard is rotated so that the ports face the top instead of the rear.
This creates a problem, however. Having the ports on the top of a case looks terrible and leaves the ports open to damage from falling objects. This means the case needs a cover. And that’s fine, except now the cover is in the way of your ports, so you have to take off the cover and put it back on whenever you want to connect or disconnect a new device.Annoying? You bet. We’ve levied similar complaints against a number of boutique computers over the past year, but companies don’t appear to have received the message. All we can do is say it again: This design is inconvenient and unattractive.
As with most desktop systems, the F131’s ports are numerous. You’ll find four USB 2.0 ports, four USB 3.0 ports, eSATA, three DVI-out ports (on the video card), six sound connections and SPDIF out. Two additional USB ports outside the case’s cover provide easy access.
Inside The Can
Opening the Maingear F131 was difficult at first because the company forgot to send us the proper instructions (instead they sent us instructions for the old F131, which used a different case).
We figured out the procedure after a few minutes, however, and were impressed. A tug upward lifts each side panel, and pulling outward removes the frontpanel. The F131 has good access to its system from three sides.
The hard drives, which are wedged along the case’s right flank, are the easiest components to access. You may not even need to, however, because the F131 includes a hot-swappable 3.5” hard–drive slot at the top of the case.
Working inside the main cavity is more challenging. You have room to move, but the system’s many cooling fans get in the way. Most annoying is a fan tilted at a 45-degree angle that blows air over the processor. The fan makes the RAM difficult to access and eliminates one angle from which you would be able to grab the video card while removing it or installing a new one.
You’ll also have difficulty replacing the power supply and optical drive, both of which are secured by screws and metal brackets at the bottom of the case. Fortunately, these components rarely need to be removed or replaced.
Despite these difficulties, the layout produces results. The F131 has room for two video cards or for a single video card of any length. It also has ample room for a cooling solution–a slim liquid cooler and its radiator. The same can’t be said for all small gaming computers.
Maingear ships the F131 with no pre-installed bloatware. No security suites, no useless utilities, nothing. This may be a breath of fresh air for folks who typically buy from Dell or HP, but it’s typical among the boutique manufacturers. The lack of software ensures maximum performance.
The F131 certainly is equipped to compete with larger systems. Its overclocked Core i7-3770K, the same processor often found in the Maingear Shift and the GTX 690, features two GPUs on a single card, perhaps the quickest single video card on the market.
This means good things for performance. In SiSoft Sandra’s Processor Arithmetic Test, the F131 reached a combined score of 139.36 GOPS, which is about 15 higher than the Falcon Northwest Tiki, although 40 lower than the last Maingear Shift we reviewed. The 7-Zip returned a score of 28,395, which once again places the F131 slightly above the Tiki.
PCMark 7 returned an overall score of 6,038, which is 27 better than the Tiki but more than 600 lower than the Maingear Shift. That makes the F131 the second quickest system we’ve ever tested with that benchmark (if only by a hair).
The 3D performance is where the F131 shines. In 3DMark 06, it scored 35,571, while 3DMark 11 provided a score of 16,888. Both of these are, once again, the second-best results we’ve ever received. Only the tri-SLI Maingear Shift scored better.
These synthetic results translate to real-world performance. The F131 enjoyed a frame rate above 100 frames per second in every game at maximum detail and 1080p resolution. Most notable of these was Diablo 3, which ran so quickly that we saw triple-tearing with V-Sync off. In other words, the F131 was spitting out frames so quickly that three separate images had to compete for the same screen space. This is why V-Sync is an absolute necessity for fast gaming machines, making the adaptive V-Sync feature of the GTX 690 a nice addition.
Cooling And Heat
Keeping a fast computer cool is hard, and it becomes even more difficult when you pack the computer in a small case. To solve this problem, Maingear has packed the F131 with a plethora of fans. Counting those found in components (such as the video card) the F131 has seven fans.
Noise is the predictable result. At full load, this small system creates a big racket. The system’s layout worsens the problem. Airflow exhausts from the top, which means noise also exhausts from the top, giving the sound a direct path to your ear.
And this is with the optional SilenX fans included, which indicates the system would be even louder without them. We’re unsure we’d want to live with a system that produces so much noise.
At least the noise serves a purpose. The system exhaust never feels excessively hot, and internal temperatures were reasonable during our benchmarks.
Maingear’s F131 is an impressive machine from several perspectives. It looks great, its performance is excellent, and the interior layout is good for a system of this size.
The only question remaining is value. Our review unit rings up at $3,277 on Maingear’s website. This includes a $249 charge for the Fusion Blue paint. Remove that and you’re down to $3,028. To our surprise, a Maingear Shift configured with similar components rings up at $3,732. That’s a serious difference.
What about the competition? The Origin Chronos, which you can buy with the same case and almost identical components, is $3,094. A three-year warranty comes standard with the F131 SuperStock but is an optional charge on the Chronos. Falcon Northwest doesn’t offer the GTX 690 in the Tiki or the Talon, so a comparison is unavailable.
We think the F131 is a good deal. Its gaming performance nearly matches that of the last Shift we reviewed, and that system was priced at $6,400! Our only serious reservation about the F131 is the substantial noise it generates.
If Maingear could find a way to quiet the system and fix the annoying layout, the company would have the perfect system. As it stands, the F131 is an incredible performer and a great value that is brought down a couple notches by some minor, yet noticeable, flaws.
- Attractive and unique exterior
- Reasonably useful interior layout
- Excellent performance
- Amazing bang-for-the-buck
- Exterior plastics could be better
- Most ports are a pain to access
- Loud fan noise sounds at load