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!
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.
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.