Maingear Shift Review

Maingear Shift

Maingear Shift

“Maingear’s Shift flips conventional case design on its head with a unique vertical airflow design that enables uncompromising performance.”
  • Unstoppable performance
  • Innovative vertical airflow design
  • Solid, attractive and unique case
  • White-glove packaging, assembly quality and service
  • Reliable despite white-knuckle overclocking
  • Connecting cables up top can be inconvenient

How do you tell a desktop built by an enthusiast from one pieced together at a boutique shop? Typically, if you strip away a handful of case stickers, the answer is: “You can’t.” While big names like Alienware and HP’s Voodoo arm can custom-order parts to spec, many smaller outfits are still left cobbling together gaming PCs with the same basic parts available to the end user. The Shift represents an end to that limitation at Maingear, introducing the first chassis totally unique to the company, which owns the design and even the tooling for it.

And a unique case it is. The aptly named Shift eschews decades of business-as-usual PC design by pinwheeling the motherboard a full 90 degrees. The ports end up on top, cards in the motherboard run vertically, and hot air follows its natural course up and out the top of the case like a chimney, rather than getting forced out the back. The result, Maingear claims, is superior cooling and superior performance. With a starting price a bit over $2,300, it better perform!

Specs

Maingear offers the Shift in an array of configurations for gamers, but the common thread among them all lies in Intel’s venerable Core i7 processor. The stock model will get you the 930 model clocked at 2.8GHz, while top-of-the-line units get the 3.33GHz 980X Extreme Edition. Add Maingear’s Redline overclocking, as we did, and you can open the throttle on Intel’s hottest hardware all the way to an eye-watering 4.35GHz.

Maingear also offers a choice of either AMD or Nvidia GPUs, and was one of the first companies to adopt the flagship GeForce GTX 580 – a brutally fast GPU with a combined 3GB of GDDR5 memory in SLI configuration, and like the CPU, the option for additional overclocking.

All that silicon sucks a lot of wattage, and the Shift can be outfitted with Silverstone power supplies between 750 watts and 1.5 killowatts to provide it. Maingear also offers standard SATA drives up to 2TB and Crucial RealSSD drives up to 256GB, with a whopping six bays to pack them into. Other goodies include Blu-ray writers, Asus Xonar 7.1-channel surround sound cards, and EVGA’s Killer Xeno Pro gaming network card.

Our Shift came decked out with an overclocked 4.35GHz Intel Core i7 980X, 6GB of Kingston HyperX DDR3-1600MHz RAM, dual EVGA GeForce GTX 580 cards, a 128GB Crucial RealSSD drive with Windows 7 installed (which we ran all the games off of), and an additional 1TB drive. Check the specs page for a more detailed rundown.

Case

If Alienware’s grille-studded cases echo classic cars of the 1940’s and iBuypower’s neon-bathed custom rigs call to mind high-revving Japanese tuners, Maingear’s Shift must be an F-150 of the computer world: classic, understated, and freakin’ huge.

Though you can order it in seven exterior colors and six more inside (for a price), our stock black model gave off a menacing Hal 9000 vibe without much hint of its gaming purposes, save for a glowing bank of green LEDs visible through the left-hand side window. Maingear keeps the edges straight, the surfaces clean (brushed aluminum all around) and the doodads to a minimum. The front card reader and ports swing out from a door in the top of the chassis, the drive bays hide behind a magnetic-clasped aluminum door, and the back, which is typically a mess of punched steel, is just a clean aluminum slate.

Where did it all go? The Shift case relocates that clutter to the top, beneath a perforated grille that hides it from view. Since the cables still have to exit somewhere, a cutout a few inches tall in the back consolidates the tangle into one bundle that streams out the back like a ponytail. While it cleans up the look significantly, you’ll also need to remove two Philips screws to get to your cables every time — or leave them off and look at two empty screw holes. The slim gap also forces thick cords, like DVI cables, to bend awkwardly at 90 degrees right at the connector to get out the back. If you choose to hide it under a desk, you’ll also need to pull it out to connect things, rather than simply crawling underneath.

Since the Shift design relocates the power supply to the bottom of the case, the power cable (which was about the thickness of a 240-volt dryer cable for our 1.2kW Zeus) connects separately in a little cavern below.

Two sliding lock levers beneath the top allow the sides to fall away without any screws, revealing the truly unusual design inside the Shift. Two massive fans at the bottom of the case draw in fresh air from vents in the side and push it up past the hard drives, optical drives, motherboard, graphics cards and RAM out the top through both vents in the PCI slots and another top-mounted fan. Though this design defeats the need for system-wide liquid cooling, you don’t get to 4.35GHz on a CPU merely by pushing air around, and Maingear uses its LiquidX 1700 cooling system to keep the Core i7 from breaking out in a sweat. While it’s compact, sealed design makes it incredibly practical, the 14-year-old in all of us yearned for translucent tubes full of radioactive-looking fluid, rather than modest black tubes that could have passed for wire loom.

What didn’t disappoint us was Maingear’s wiring job, which makes NASA’s job in the Apollo capsule look downright sloppy. Every possible trace of wire has been artfully snaked out of view behind the motherboard, and what few could not (like the power connectors for the GeForce boards) ended up zip tied to the case in ruler-straight lines running directly to their respective parts, like solder traces on an invisible board.

The white glove treatment

When you buy a system that has been built by hand to your specs (not to mention dings your credit card for the price of a used car), you expect certain frills. Maingear delivers with packaging and setup materials that match the professional look of the big guys, but the attention to detail of the little guys.

The box, for instance, has detailed instructions for removing it easily using gravity rather than throwing out your back (and this heifer easily could). You’ll also find a bag full of extra cables, and a custom-embossed plastic binder that walks you through every step of connecting it – plus it even has a checklist of assembly steps and benchmarks from the guy who put it together.

Unlike plenty of much larger competitors, Maingear also offers support based right in the United States, and they’ll do you one better – rather than talking to a support technician, you chat with the very guy who built your box (complimenting the wiring job probably wouldn’t hurt to get you in good graces). The manual even directs you to call Maingear for help with very simple operations like upgrading your graphics drivers with the latest from AMD or Nvidia. While enthusiasts might revel in undertaking these things themselves, it’s also the kind of support that can prevent an aneurysm in the rare event something goes wrong, and that would make us put Maingear at the top of the list when buying a PC for an non-tech-savvy buyer who just wants to play.

Software

Maingear promises a “zero bloatware” policy, and that is, without exception, exactly what you’ll find waiting for you on the desktop of the Maingear Shift. No eBay shortcuts, no Norton Antivirus trials, no irritating software managers, just an empty desktop and a tasteful Maingear background. Mainstream consumers might be put off by some missing creature comforts they’ll have to fill in themselves, like Adobe Flash and a PDF reader, but the enthusiast buyers Maingear targets would rather skip installing Adobe’s Flash plugin for IE and just download Chrome, or ditch the bloated copy of Adobe Reader that comes preinstalled on most mainstream PCs for a lightweight reader like Foxit. Which is precisely what we did.

Performance

Beneath the brushed aluminum, LEDs and cables, the real reason for buying a Shift boils down to performance. And as you might expect for a $5,200 machine packed to the gills with bleeding edge, overclocked hardware, our Shift killed it.

There is quite literally no game currently on the market, with any tangle of settings that can present a challenge to this machine.

We decided to forego the usual mid-level games like MotoGP08 and BioShock to jump right to the heart of the matter with Crysis. To be blunt, Crysis raises not even a spectre of a challenge for this machine. After pumping every single setting to “very high,” raising screen resolution to 1080p, and enabling the highest level of anti-aliasing, we weren’t even able to get the frame rate to drop below 50fps in a firefight, much less during more relaxed jungle sightseeing.

Since Crysis has more or less set the standard for graphically demanding video games for the past three years, we could have stopped there, but out of curiosity, we threw in Mafia II. Waste of time. With every setting maxed, the Shift pinned the frame rate to the maximum of 60 without a challenge. The benefits of the SSD did show up, though, in near-instant load times.

It was up to benchmarking to break this beast, and fortunately Futuremark has just released its most demanding benchmarks suite yet: 3DMark11. Again, the Shift cleaned up. Some of the demos produce graphics that are almost impossible to distinguish from the pre-rendered cinematic’s that might normally open a video game. One sequence shows submarines scouring the deep sea with search lights, turning up a rusting submarine scabbed with barnacles’ looks like it could be ripped straight from the Blu-ray disc of the next James Cameron flick. It’s really no exaggeration to say that the Shift can, in effect, accomplish in real time what would have once taken an entire render farm days or weeks in the past.

As for scores, the Shift turned in a P47479 in 3DMark Vantage, and a 21,140 in PCMark Vantage, easily placing it as the fastest system we’ve ever received for review (in comparison, the Alienware Area-51 X58 we tested last year only returned 19,445 3DMarks in 3DMark06). Because Nvidia drivers don’t yet enable SLI in 3DMark11, we’re omitting scores even though it essentially managed to make short work of them with one arm tied behind its back.

For all this bravado, the Shift isn’t terribly quick to boot. Despite the 128GB Crucial RealSSD we had the OS installed on, it took 57 seconds to reach the desktop. The benefits of the SSD do show up afterward, though, when any app you can click on opens almost instantaneously.

Liveability

How does a Core i7 running at 4.35GHz hold up to all this flogging? Remarkably well. In the length of our extensive benchmarking (read: Mafia II sucked us in a little too deep) we never managed to crash it or even snag it with constant alt-tabbing in and out of games to write.

Despite the Shift’s partial reliance on air cooling that leaves it with five fans (including the ones on the GTX 580 cards), it’s remarkably quiet. Large-diameter case fans spinning at relatively low speeds seem to be able to whisk hot air out of the uncrowded chassis without much of a fuss, creating a steady stream of warm air out the top “chimney” under load.

Just remember that while a good case can expel heat efficiently, that hot air has to go somewhere. Officemates remarked that the room was noticeably warmer after we started using the Shift as our primary rig, and after some time behind the wheel in Mafia II, it actually managed to push the temp up to slightly uncomfortable, collar-tugging levels of warmth.

Conclusion

The old adage “you get what you pay for” seems to get thrown around a lot with high-dollar gaming systems, but in many cases, it’s just not true. Sometimes, you just get an expensive pile of parts. Maingear breaks away from that notion not only with the innovative design of its custom-engineered Shift case, but the above-par build quality, service and performance that makes using the Shift a genuinely high-end experience. If you’re looking for a machine that will tear apart top-shelf PC games for years to come, flip through piled-high desktop apps likes sheets of notebook paper, and even keep you toasty warm through those chilly winter months, clear some space on your desk for Maingear’s phenomenal Shift.

Highs:

  • Unstoppable performance
  • Innovative vertical airflow design
  • Solid, attractive and unique case
  • White-glove packaging, assembly quality and service
  • Reliable despite white-knuckle overclocking

Lows:

  • Connecting cables up top can be inconvenient

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