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Pulse Eon Lead

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Maingear Pulse 11 and Origin EON11-S review

Can these 11.6-inch gaming notebooks keep up with the big kids?

PC gamers looking for a platform that will travel with them have plenty of options — recent nods go to the Samsung Gamer 7 and the Alienware M17x — but one can hardly call laptops that start at over nine pounds “portable.” Let’s take a look at something a bit smaller, from two well known boutique PC vendors: the 3.7 pound, 11.6-inch Maingear Pulse 11 and Origin EON11-S.

You’ve probably noticed they’re identical. The machines are rebadged variants of the Clevo W110ER; Clevo is a Taiwanese manufacturer that has made its fortunes selling generic notebooks to better-known boutique vendors. The internal hardware is also near identical: both laptops offer a 35W quad-core Intel Ivy Bridge processor, a 28-nanometer Nvidia GeForce GT 650M GPU, 8GB of RAM and a 120GB solid state drive. The Maingear Pulse 11 will set you back $1,375, while the Origin EON11-S (which included an optional external Blu-ray burner) costs $1,600 as configured — drop the optical drive to tighten the price gap. Can Intel and Nvidia’s power-sipping parts keep these tiny tykes in the same league as their larger siblings? Read on to find out.


Hardware / design

Hardware / design

Don't call it a netbook

The 11.6-inch Maingear Pulse 11 and Origin EON11-S represent a decidedly different class of gaming notebook. Their focus on portability stands at odds with the category’s traditional modus operandi, which typically involves stuffing heavy, power-hungry components into plastic battle tanks. We’ve seen machines this small before — the recently retired Alienware M11x, for example — but gaming notebooks this small are still a rare breed.

As both machines are variants of the same Clevo model, there isn’t much variation between them. They’re plain, chunky machines that aren’t so much ugly as unassuming. When shut, the only telltale sign that there’s some serious horsepower lurking under the hood is the large copper vent that dominates the left side of the chassis. The palm rest, lid and touchpad are covered in a rubbery material that’s satisfyingly grippy, and the entire ensemble is very easy to tote around. At 3.7 pounds they aren’t exactly light, and rather husky at an inch and a half thick, but you can easily carry both before approaching the heft of machines with larger displays. The battery forms a slight bump on the underside of the chassis, popping it up at a very slight incline. It’s not enough of an angle to make a difference while typing, but it can serve as a comfortable faux-handle to wrap your fingers around while you’re carrying it; a pair of latches keep the battery locked into place.

Behemoths like the Samsung Gamer 7 and MSI GT70 work some metal into their frames, improving their sturdiness while adding to their overall weight — a negligible drawback when you’re already over seven pounds. I can’t say I fretted about doing any lasting harm to the Pulse 11 and EON11- S, but there’s quite a bit of flex in the lid, and the entire base seems to sink when you apply pressure to it.

Port selection may prove limited for some, though this isn’t really surprising given the size. On the right you’ll find a USB 2.0 port, Kensington lock slot, and a spot for the power adapter. On the left, there’s a pair of USB 3.0 ports, microphone and headphone jacks, Gigabit Ethernet, an HDMI port, and a VGA socket. The SD card slot sits on the front lip. You’re losing one USB port right off the bat if you decide to toss a mouse into the mix (you’ll want to), which leaves you with a pair of USB ports. Larger gaming machines have the real estate to offer DisplayPort sockets, more USB ports, and optical audio outputs — if your use case involves plugging a lot of peripherals or displays in, you’ll want to keep this in mind.

As expected, the only differences between the two variants revolve around branding — Maingear etched their company name into a band on the lid of their machine, while a simple "Pulse 11" is etched into the wrist rest. Origin’s company logo (a simple "O") is stenciled onto the lid, with the word Origin appearing on the bezel just below the screen. It is worth noting that Origin offers a few different options for the lid, including an option to upload your favorite color should their options not suffice. Both companies included comprehensive manuals and a complimentary t-shirt. Origin’s price-as-configured is a bit higher, but it included an external Blu-Ray burner and a $30 premium for the comically large wooden crate the notebook arrived in.

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Display / speakers

Display / speakers

Plenty of room in your bag for headphones
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While I usually bemoan displays with a 1366 x 768 resolution, it feels just right on the 11-inch screen. Alas, the actual quality leaves much to be desired. Finding the perfect viewing angle is a trial here: stray too far to the left or right, and (even in a moderately lit room) reflections take over. Vertical angles are also problematic — while slipping from an erect posture to a leisurely slouch, deep reds faded to pinks and ultimately purples. Switching to a matte display would amend some of the difficulties, but you’re ultimately still left attempting to keep track of a game’s frenetic pace on a tiny screen — it’s doable, but not the most satisfying experience. That said, the screen is bright enough for my gaming sessions, and if you’re looking at it head-on and don’t fidget excessively everything is rather adequate.

The speakers are a mixed bag. They’re surprisingly loud, filling a room with ease and remaining distortion-free no matter how far I cranked the volume. But the audio is also a bit tinny without the slightest hint of bass — expected, given the speakers’ diminutive size. The speakers are located underneath the chassis, sitting on either side of the battery — the laptop’s slight incline keeps the speakers from being muffled. The machine’s (relatively) lightweight body encourages toting it about, but keeping the laptop on a firm surface diffuses the sound and creates a convincing illusion of depth. You’ll want to keep a nice headset nearby for gaming sessions but I was pleasantly surprised by how well the speakers held up as I streamed music casually. The THX Tru Studio Pro software lets you tweak the audio a tad, but its sound won’t really shine unless you’re wearing a headset.

Keyboard / touchpad

Keyboard / touchpad

Sometimes bigger is better
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The grippy texture that makes the machine so easy to tote is decidedly less useful on the touchpad. Pinching, panning, and even scrolling web pages becomes a chore, with the mouse cursor occasionally stuttering haphazardly across the screen. Apply some extra pressure and the touchpad picks up gestures a little more reliably, but it’s far from a satisfactory experience. I generally expect to reach for a mouse before long with every gaming laptop I get my hands on, but the functionality here is especially frustrating.

Things don’t get much better with the keyboard, though there’s a limit to what you can expect in such a small space. I may be cursed with oversized paws, but I can’t imagine anyone being especially comfortable on these diminutive keyboards. The bulk of the chiclet keys are a millimeter or two smaller than those on a full-sized keyboard, while others — like the question mark and arrow keys — are woefully narrow. I found the dissonance a bit jarring as my fingers worked their way around the tray, but it’s an expected facet on a chassis this small. The keys offer a satisfying amount of travel with every press, and while they feel a bit mushy everything is ultimately bearable. That’s hardly a glowing recommendation for what’s arguably the most important part of the a gaming notebook, but it ultimately gets the job done. The keyboard isn’t backlit, which is a shame — the gaudy light shows served up by the Alienware M17x aren’t mandatory, but given their small size I would have appreciated being able to see the keys in the dark.

Performance / software

Performance / software

At first blush, I was all but ready to write these rebranded Clevo machines off as a loss: modest displays and keyboards, abysmal touchpads and a small chassis doesn’t exactly inspire much confidence in the performance department. Both machines are equipped with a 35W, quad-core 2.1GHz Core i7-3612QM and a 28-nanometer GeForce GT 650M GPU. Those powerful, energy efficient parts are a crucial part of this puzzle, enabling machines this small to pack a considerable amount of power. Results on our synthetic benchmark tests are amicable, besting considerably larger machines like the Lenovo IdeaPad Y480 and coming within spitting distance of the cream of the gaming crop.

PCMarkVantage 3DMarkVantage 3DMark11
Maingear Pulse 11 18,453 P8,906 P2,324
Origin EON11-S 17,972 P8,890 P2,422
Samsung Series 7 Gamer 10,956 P15,088 P3,509
Alienware M17x-R4 14,518 P21,876 P6,220
MSI GT70 14,766 P12,421 P2,994
Lenovo IdeaPad Y480 9,175 P5,650 P1,259

Performance was helped along by 120GB solid state drives: a Corsair Force GT in Origin’s EON, and an Intel SSD 330 series in Maingear’s Pulse. I measured sequential read and write performance with the AS-SSD benchmark: the Origin machine served up 500 MB / sec read and 128 MB / sec write speeds, while Maingear’s offering delivered 470 MB /sec read and 125 MB / sec write speeds. Both machines booted up in about twenty seconds, and woke from sleep in about three.

So how do these lilliputian machines hold up on games? Rather well, actually: 39 frames per second on Battlefield 3 at High settings, on the native 1366 x 768 pixel resolution. In The Witcher 2, the machines earned an average of 24 frames per second on the Ultra setting at their native resolution. Getting to a smooth 30 frames per second was a simple matter of dialing back to the high setting, and disabling some of the more hardware intensive shadow and lighting effects. Just Cause 2 is decidedly less demanding: the machines earned just over 50 frames per second.

Punching well above their weight

You can certainly expect better performance from larger, more capable machines like the Alienware M17x or the Samsung Gamer 7, both of which will also offer superior audio and larger displays with higher resolutions. But results like these coming out of an 11-inch shell is nothing short of tantalizing, particularly for anyone who’s looking for an understated LAN party machine. As an added bonus, the GeForce GT 650M will continue to perform even while unplugged, though it does take a toll on battery life.

The standard configuration starts at $999, but is limited to 4GB of RAM and slower processors — a paltry dual-core Pentium CPU from Origin, and a Core i5-3320M from Maingear. As for software: well, there isn’t any. Maingear adds desktop shortcuts to OpenOffice and Microsoft Security Essentials, and Origin includes Cyberlink PowerDVD 12 to make use of the Blu-ray burner, but both machines are blissfully pristine.

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Battery, heat, noise

Battery, heat and noise

Pack your charger
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The 5600mAh capacity battery eked out a paltry three hours and nine minutes of battery life on The Verge Battery Test. Our test cycles through 100 web pages with the screen brightness set to 65 percent. My own use consisted of web browsing, lots of writing, and a bit of music streaming by way of Spotify. The machines lasted for about three and half hours on this regimen — par for the course with gaming notebooks, but disappointing on machines that simply beg to be toted about. If you actually try to get some gaming done while untethered, prepare to make your trip a short one — I got just over an hour of quality time with Battlefield 3 before the machines caved in.

Heat and noise levels follow suite with the rest of the category. Hot air is expelled out the chassis by way of the massive vent on the left side of the machine. This much is expected: gaming machines tend to run hot, and all of the heat from the CPU and Nvidia GPU has to go somewhere on a machine this compact. The laptops don’t get warm enough to cause much more than a little discomfort, but I’m a lefty, which leaves my mousing hand right in the way of the blast. Fan noise is also a bit onerous; it never drowned out a game’s audio, but the dull whirring is always present and can sour the mood once a game’s audio dies down.


The Origin EON-11 S and Maingear Pulse 11 excel in the most important way a gaming notebook needs to, spitting out ample performance that’s comparable to much larger machines. But I’m still torn — you will be getting a lot of power that scales well with the pricing on competing gaming notebooks, but I personally can’t wrap my head (and hands) around the small keyboard and display.

Still, the idea of a PC gaming notebook that’s actually portable is compelling, and I’m certain that many will be able to look past the flaws endemic to the small chassis and see the LAN-party potential that lies therein. As for which machine to choose — the hardware is identical, so it’s down to picking a vendor. If you walk through the configuration options on the Origin and Maingear websites you’ll note that the pricing is within spitting distance too. Origin’s wares cost a little bit more, but it does offer a distinct lid (and color options, if you’ve got cash to spare). And while Origin and Maingear are popular, trusted brands, there are plenty of other vendors to choose from. Your best bet? Scour a few customer service reviews (or ask your friends!) to see how companies do months and years after you’ve surrendered your hard earned ducats.

The Origin EON-11 S and Maingear Pulse 11 excel in the most important way a gaming notebook needs to, spitting out ample performance that’s comparable to much larger machines. But I’m still torn — you will be getting a lot of power that scales well with the pricing on competing gaming notebooks, but I personally can’t wrap my head (and hands) around the small keyboard and display.

Still, the idea of a PC gaming notebook that’s actually portable is compelling, and I’m certain that many will be able to look past the flaws endemic to the small chassis and see the LAN-party potential that lies therein. As for which machine to choose — the hardware is identical, so it’s down to picking a vendor. If you walk through the configuration options on the Origin and Maingear websites you’ll note that the pricing is within spitting distance too. Origin’s wares cost a little bit more, but it does offer a distinct lid (and color options, if you’ve got cash to spare). And while Origin and Maingear are popular, trusted brands, there are plenty of other vendors to choose from. Your best bet? Scour a few customer service reviews (or ask your friends!) to see how companies do months and years after you’ve surrendered your hard earned ducats.

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