With its new Shift gaming desktop, Maingear joins the ranks of Alienware, Falcon Northwest, and Velocity Micro in providing its customers a distinctive-looking case you can’t get anywhere else. And despite a misstep with the build and a questionable processor choice (both of which should be easily remedied), we found this $4,725 system on par with those from its high-end competition in quality and value. If you value performance, a commitment to customer service, and the thrill that comes with owning a distinctive case, you’ll find the Shift lives up to Maingear’s ambition to offer an elite gaming PC.
Maingear’s imposing Shift projects a quiet, monolithic power, thanks to its size, clean lines, and all-black exterior. Most unique is that the back panel has only a power cable input. Where you expect to find the video, audio, and other ports you see nothing but smooth, brushed black aluminum. That’s because Maingear has taken the unique step of rotating the Shift’s motherboard 90-degrees, aiming the inputs at the top of case. A removable grill on the top serves as both a port cover and a cable control device, and when you take it off you’re faced with the familiar array of inputs and outputs for the Shift’s motherboard and video cards.
The benefit of this unique layout is that, according to Maingear, it works with the tendency of hot air to rise, improving thermal dissipation from the graphics card and CPU. With no reasonable way to measure the flow of hot air from the Shift vs. one of its competitors, we have only Maingear’s word that rotating the motherboard imparts a significant cooling benefit. Whether it has a large or small impact on thermal management, Maingear’s unique design doesn’t seem to do any harm, and by putting the inputs on the top of the system Maingear has made it easier to connect your various peripherals if you keep your PC on the floor.
Crack open the Maingear Shift and you’ll see an interior that’s as tidy as we could hope for. All of the cables and water-cooling tubes are bound and routed neatly around the inside of the case, and adding more memory or expansion cards is easy. Whether or not the case layout improves cooling, the tidy cabling does its part by creating virtually no obstructions to the airflow.
Our one complaint with the Shift’s design has to do with the hard drives. Maingear employed the familiar tray-based hard-drive setup, where each drive slides into the system on a sled with the drive ports facing towards the motherboard. Ideally, each drive bay should have a set of anchored power and data cables behind it, which lets you slide each drive in and out of the system easily. HP’s Blackbird and Firebird systems, as well as Apple’s Mac Pro use such a design, sometimes termed a “passive backplane.”
Maingear uses a passive backplane on the Shift, but only on the occupied storage hard-drive bay (the SSD uses traditional free-floating cables because of its small size). The empty bays have no preanchored cables to receive a hard drive post-purchase. To add a hard drive yourself, you’d need to take off both side panels, plug in an (included) SATA data cable, route it around the back, and then find a power cable by either undoing the bound cables behind the motherboard, or plugging in a new power cable module and routing that plug around back as well.
We imagine Maingear would put in backplane hardware for as many hard drives as you order from it directly. You might also ask Maingear to install the anchored cables in any free bays in anticipation of future drive additions. But unless those cables are in place, all of the convenience of (and added cost involved with) a passive hard-drive cage goes to waste if adding a hard drive yourself is such a hassle.
We’ve reviewed relatively few high-end gaming PCs this year, so direct comparisons to the Shift from our data pool is a bit of a challenge. Digital Storm’s 950Si from July is the last high-end tower we reviewed, and although we list the price of that system as it was when reviewed, that number is likely lower now. The Maingear’s solid-state hard drive and its pair of 1GB Radeon HD 5870 graphics cards, in particular, bump its price above the Digital Storm, which is expected, but that’s not to say the Shift is out of whack with what most other vendors will give you for the same cost. Starting price for the Shift is $2,599 for the most basic hardware.
We configured similar PCs from Digital Storm, Falcon Northwest, and Alienware and found the prices matched Maingear’s closely. Velocity Micro and AVADirect offered slightly better prices, but we weren’t able to match the exact specs from those vendors with those in our Shift review build. Velocity Micro, for example, offers no overclocking in its high-end Raptor Z90, which is one of the Maingear’s clear advantages. We’re also glad to report that the Shift’s overclocked Core i7 960 CPU was stable 3.86GHz, up from its 3.2GHz stock clock speed.
Despite the Maingear’s overclocked CPU, you might ask whether it’s worth paying for the Core i7 960. We’ve seen PCs with the less expensive Core i7 920 chip achieve similar overclocked settings. AVADirect achieved 3.88GHz with a Core i7 in the system that ties the Shift on our iTunes and Photoshop tests, for example. The Shift wins our Cinebench and multitasking tests, but we have a hunch that’s due to the Shift’s solid-state hard drive, and not to the CPU.
The odds a vendor will hit 3.8GHz or higher in a Core i7 960 are greater than with a less tolerant Core i7 920 chip, so ordering the lower-end version involves a bit of a gamble. Even if you hit only 3.79GHz with a Core i7 920, as in the Digital Storm system, you’d still get great performance. Maingear charges about $420 less for the Shift with a Core i7 920. If it doesn’t hit 3.86GHz, it will likely come close enough to make the savings worthwhile.
If we question the wisdom of paying for the more expensive CPU, the pair of Radeon HD 5970 cards in the Shift is clearly worth it for serious PC gamers, especially if you have a 24-inch or larger LCD. Our high-end Crysis test is the most telling. Even though the AVADirect system beats it on the lower-end Crysis test, the Maingear is still smooth, and when you dial the resolution higher the Maingear holds steady while the AVADirect drops off noticeably. The Shift also leads the pack on both high-end Far Cry 2 tests. Every major desktop vendor offers the Radeon HD 5870 in multiple configurations, so these cards aren’t unique to Maingear. But with this build, Maingear shows off a PC that will handle any game on the market at very high resolutions.
If the game performance above isn’t fast enough for you, you can theoretically add a third graphics card, as well as a graphics card dedicated to physics processing via the Shift’s pair of open 8x/16x PCI Express slots (they’ll operate at 8x throughput with the pair of cards currently installed running at 16x). We say “theoretically” because the 1,000-watt power supply in our review system might buckle under that kind of strain. Maingear offers a 1,200 watt PSU for an additional $240, and you can add a third Radeon HD 5870 from Maingear for an extra $499.
The Radeon 5000-series cards, in particular, are notable for supporting DirectX 11 and being capable of playing supporting games across three monitors at their full extended resolution. They also happen to be the fastest single-chip cards on the market right now. Each card comes with DVI, HDMI, and full-sized DisplayPort outputs, so while we wouldn’t argue for the Shift as a living room PC, it will support pretty much any modern display or HDTV.
You also get an appropriately broad array of other inputs on Shift’s EVGA X58 motherboard: eSATA and FireWire ports accommodate fast external data transfers; audio outputs include a set of 7.1 analog ports and both optical and coaxial S/PDIF jacks; USB 2.0 ports run eight deep on the back, and you get an additional pair of them on the media card reader that pops up from the top of the case near the front.
Comparing power consumption among high-end gaming PCs is something of a joke, but writing the numbers out at least puts things in perspective. We estimate that it will run you about $123 a year to power the Shift. That’s assuming you turn it off every day. Leave it in sleep mode regularly, and the annual bill jumps to $223, or just under $20 a month. To Maingear’s credit, the Shift actually costs less to operate than the slower Digital Storm system. Relatively speaking, and assuming you turn it off more often that you leave it in Sleep mode, the Shift is actually fairly power efficient, at least for a performance desktop.
Maingear’s default service plan gets you lifetime parts, labor, and phone coverage, and two years of what it calls “Angelic” service. Maingear’s Web site details a collection of promises that come with Angelic service, although there’s really nothing here we haven’t seen from other boutique vendors. Some of the promises are more like courtesies than services, like promising that it won’t oversell you (a vendor shouldn’t do that regardless). But the discretionary on-site visit from a third-party service provider could come in handy. Taking a page from Falcon Northwest, Maingear has also started offering free two-way repair shipping, although only for the first 30 days of ownership, as opposed to a year from Falcon. Even if Maingear’s service offerings aren’t unique, they still surpass those from the vast majority of other vendors out there.