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Oh, Clevo, Why Do You Pain Me So?

When I first caught a glimpse of the upcoming Clevo notebooks earlier this year, I erroneously thought that they might have finally figured out how to do a proper chassis, keyboard, and touchpad. Sadly, while they did add brushed aluminum plates on the cover and palm rest along with zoned backlighting for the keyboard, in most areas Clevo continues to prove that they have no desire to build a premium quality chassis. If I could reach out through the Internet and slap someone, I would, because while Clevo has clearly made some changes since their Sandy Bridge models they’re still not where they need to be. Let’s start with the photos.

I’ll forgive the plastic chassis somewhat, as anyone lugging around a 10+ pound notebook (including the nearly two-pound power brick) should be smart enough to handle it with some care. Even so, the brushed aluminum surfaces are like putting lipstick on a pig: you can dress up the cheap injection molded plastic all you want, but it’s still an injection molded plastic chassis. Other high-end laptops are using magnesium alloy frames to provide a rigid body with the shell composed of other materials (the Lenovo T and W series laptops are a prime example of this), while the truly high-end/expensive laptops are going with machined aluminum (e.g. MacBook Pro, Dell’s new XPS line, Razer's Blade). Clevo apparently doesn’t want to invest in such designs, likely because they don’t sell enough units to make it practical—we’d be looking at a starting price probably $500 higher were Clevo to make the jump to such a chassis—so instead Clevo goes for somewhat mediocre materials while providing higher performance hardware than the competition.

Ultimately, the P170EM is really a transportable notebook rather than something you’d want to take on business trips or the like, and it can also serve as a mobile workstation should you be so inclined. It won't blow you away with its looks, but the basic design works reasonably well. The cooling subsystem for instance is quite good at dealing with the heat the CPU and GPU can crank out under full load, with no throttling apparent even under sustained stress testing. Not surprisingly, the notebook does get moderately loud under such a load, as the large fans and chassis are good for airflow but not for quiet computing. For power users, however, that’s better than the rampant throttling we experienced with the Dell XPS 15 and to a lesser extent the Samsung Chronos 7.

While the overall design isn’t going to win any awards, my real complaints with the P170EM (and the P150EM, as it shares many of the same issues) continue to be with their keyboard and touchpad. These are very subjective elements, so take the following as my opinion if that helps. Certainly you can still use both, but I've handled many laptops over the years and I know what I like and what feels comfortable. If you're looking for a gaming notebook, you're probably more worried about the GPU (and you should be), but I still need to cover what it's like for me to use this notebook as a daily driver.

I’ll start with the touchpad for a change of pace, as I’ve harped on Clevo’s keyboards plenty of times in the past. Simply not, the touchpad is up to standards for 2012. It works, but the lack of a clearly defined edge is undesirable, as you’ll often move your finger past the touchpad boundary without realizing it. Both the touchpad and the palm rest have a brushed aluminum finish, with slightly more texture on the touchpad but not enough to be easily noticed, and the z-height of the touchpad is the same as the palm rest as well. It becomes very easy to move your finger(s) past the gap (which looks like a great place for grime to collect, incidentally) and not notice other than the mouse cursor stops moving.

The touchpad uses Synaptics hardware, which is usually the best in my experience, but there are a variety of material, thickness, electrical interface, and functionality options available even within the Synaptics family. One thing I noticed for example is that there is no “coasting” when using a scrolling gesture; that’s not necessarily bad, but it is different from most other touchpads I’ve used of late. The two-finger scroll also happens to be very fast by default, jumping over 1cm at a time on the display in Chrome even when set to the slowest scrolling. The net result is less than ideal, though in general I can use the touchpad without wanting to tear my hair out. The hardware incidentally is listed as v7.2, with 15.1.14 drivers; I’m not sure whether the hardware is current or not, but again I’ve had better touchpad experiences. It's not the end of the world for a gaming notebook, though, since everyone I know that plays games (on a notebook or desktop) still uses an external mouse.

If the touchpad is less than stellar, the keyboard is a much worse contender. Let’s start with the good: it has backlighting, and if you go for multi-colored backlighting it offers that as well. Alienware’s AlienFX backlighting is still superior in my view as it has four zones with the 10-key as its own separate zone, where the Clevo backlighting consists of three zones (lights), but that's a minor point. The in-between areas fade between colors if you don’t use the same color for adjacent zones, which can be a somewhat cool effect (same as AlienFX), and you get the ability to select from seven different colors (as well as off). You can also turn the keyboard backlight intensity up/down using Fn-key combos with the number keypad. Clevo has also updated the 10-key so that is has a proper layout (no more moving the plus, minus, etc. keys to a non-standard location). That's about all the good I have to say concerning the keyboard, unfortunately.

The problem is that while the layout is generally fixed on the number keypad (the zero key is still slightly smaller and overlaps the right cursor arrow key), other layout issues remain, including some new ones. For example, despite having ample space, there are no dedicated Home/End keys—they overlap as Fn-key combos with the PgUp/PgDn keys—and yet we have dedicated Pause, Scroll Lock, Insert, and Print Screen keys. Who still uses Pause or Scroll Lock? Clevo also doesn’t provide a dedicated context key (Shift+F10 still works, naturally), but they provide you with two backslash keys; the extra backslash is just to the right of the space bar (where Alt should be). To the right of the second backslash is the Windows “flag” key; every other keyboard I’ve used in the past eight or so years has the Windows key in between the left Alt and the Fn key (or Ctrl key on some laptops), so relocating it to the right of the spacebar is definitely an irritation for me.

I've heard that they moved the Windows key is so gamers that use the left Control key don't accidentally hit it, but there are utilities to disable the Windows key. You can also remap some of the other keys (e.g. via a utility like SharpKeys), so you could make the bottom backslash into a context key. Unfortunately, that doesn't get around the labels, and there are still too few keys to the left of the spacebar to get Ctrl, Alt, Fn, and the Windows key (and as far as I can tell it’s not possible to remap the Fn key).

I could overlook the above issues if the typing experience was good, but it’s simply not. Typing on the new Clevo keyboards is not at all pleasant, with very shallow key travel (especially considering the size of the chassis) and keys that feel flat and unresponsive extremely loose and mushy. [Update: I guess loose and mushy isn't really correct; they just feel wrong to me when I type, but I think it's mostly the lack of key travel. The experience is similar to the first Ultrabooks and is very fatiguing to type on.] Anyone that reads my laptop reviews knows that I’m a bit of a keyboard snob—hey, I write for a living, okay?—but even so I have to call Clevo out on taking a clear step backwards in terms of keyboard feel. I’m sure some people somewhere will like it, but after typing just one page of this review on the P170EM I was forced to throw in the towel and move to something more comfortable/precise. Just about every other laptop has moved to chiclet keys, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that’s the best style of laptop keyboard right now, most are clearly better than Clevo’s new design.

I actually didn’t mind the tactile feel of the previous generation Clevo keyboards (e.g. P150/P151HM, P170/P171HM); it was the layout and in particular the 10-key that drew my ire. Instead of simply creating a backlit chiclet keyboard and fixing the layout to create something similar to what we’ve seen on so many other laptops, Clevo ended up making keys that have a small beveled area around the sides that look like a throwback to something I used to see four or five years ago (Dell's Studio XPS 16 and a few Gateway laptops had keys like this, for instance). Typing feels at least as bad as the old Acer floating island keys in my book; I’m not sure I could really say anything more damning than that. Overall, the keyboard is a big miss; it feels bad on a notebook that’s anything but. That Clevo also continues to use the same keyboard on their 15.6” and 17.3” designs is also annoying, since it means they don’t make full use of the expanded chassis size on the larger notebooks.

Outside of the keyboard and touchpad, things are better in most areas though still not perfect. The hinges look and feel less robust than I would like, as hinges are one of those areas that gets worn out even on laptops that are handled carefully if they’re not made well. I can't really say if they'll hold up for years or not, but I do prefer 17" notebooks to have beefy hinges (something like the ThinkPad hinges would be great). Time will tell whether they're better than they look or not. Another (generally minor) complaint is with the port layouts; I understand the need to put some ports on the back, but I want HDMI on the side as it’s the most likely to get used, and I know at least one person that managed to break their AC connection when the back of the laptop got pressed against something. Some people will undoubtedly disagree, so take this for what it's worth: my opinion.

Getting back to the materials, there’s glossy plastic on the LCD bezel, with some other glossy plastic accents just to cheapen the overall look. That’s a shame, because most whitebook vendors like AVADirect offer several different LCDs with the P170EM—we actually requested two different displays for testing, one glossy and one matte, both with 90% gamut ratings. (The matte 90% gamut is no longer showing up on the AVADirect configurator, and technically it didn't reach 90% gamut in testing; still, we hope it returns as it’s a great display overall.) The colors on the high-gamut displays are about as good as you can get from a TN panel, and our only complaint is that the maximum brightness is somewhat weak at only 270-285 nits. Finally, the speakers are decent if not exceptional, with a small subwoofer in the bottom to help improve bass response and THX TruStudio Pro software to help tweak how the audio sounds. I’ve heard better laptop speakers, but I’ve also heard far worse and I could at least be content with the P170EM solution.

One thing that is convenient with Clevo’s designs is that you can easily access and upgrade most components. There are three panels on the bottom of the P170EM chassis, two smaller ones for the 2.5” drive bays and optical drive bay, with a large panel providing access to the bottom SO-DIMM slots, CPU, and GPU. Clevo also tends to be one of the first to adopt new mobile GPUs, and if you’re willing to pay the price you can potentially upgrade from a previous generation GPU to a new model (e.g. next year’s HD 8970M and GTX 780M). Of course, you’d probably need a new BIOS to support such updates and that’s not something Clevo generally supplies, and I wouldn’t buy a notebook with a plan to upgrade to a new GPU unless the manufacturer specifically promises that capability, even though it should be possible (within the same TDP, naturally).

Wrapping up the subjective evaluation, let me clarify a few points. I've hammered on the keyboard simply because that's something that matters to me, and this particular keyboard really doesn't work for my typing style. It's not that I can't type reasonably fast on it, but rather that it becomes very uncomfortable after a relatively short amount of time. If all you want to do is play games on a notebook, it's far less of a concern, so keep your intended use in mind. The Clevo P170EM is a decent notebook, and it's arguably the fastest gaming notebook around (more or less tied with Alienware and MSI). If that's what you're after and you don't care for niceties like an improved design aesthetic, that's fine. What I struggle with is the fact that Clevo updated the design from their last generation but ended up providing things I could live without (multi-colored keyboard backlighting and aluminum palm rests) while failing to address other areas (the typing experience and the glossy LCD bezel). I want to be better, and so consider this subjective evaluation from that perspective as opposed to it being a complete dismissal of the P170EM.

When it comes to gaming notebooks, there really aren't that many viable options. Alienware, Clevo (and the various resellers), MSI, ASUS, and Samsung are about it, and ASUS and Samsung don't go for top-tier GPU performance. If you can live with a GTX 670M/675M, ASUS and Samsung are options, but if you want a GTX 680M (or HD 7970M) you only have Alienware, Clevo, and MSI. Of those three, I personally find Alienware to be the best blend of aesthetics and performance, and I would take their keyboard over the other two. MSI and Clevo are more of a toss up, with a better keyboard on MSI but more customization options on Clevo. I also know people that absolutely hate the look of the M17x (and others that hate Clevo and MSI just as much), so in the end you'll have to decide which is best for you.

Part I: AVADirect Clevo P170EM Gaming Notebook with Radeon HD 7970M Setting the Stage: Performance Expectations
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  • This_Account - Tuesday, October 02, 2012 - link

    Hi, great article. It is a shame about the dual-link DVI though for sure.

    Quick question for you, does the USB 2.0 charge with the lid closed?

    Cheers
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, October 02, 2012 - link

    I assume you mean with the laptop in sleep mode? As far as I can tell, there is no USB charging mode, so no it will not. Reply
  • hulawafu77 - Wednesday, October 03, 2012 - link

    No. But on the right side, there are 3 USB 3.0. The first one is charging. It has a battery charge indicator on it to let you know. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 03, 2012 - link

    It's actually the left side with three USB 3.0 ports, and the front port does not have a charging symbol; rather, it has a USB symbol along with eSATA -- it's a combo port. Reply
  • MThorne74 - Wednesday, October 03, 2012 - link

    ... of laptop GPU performance. As pointed out, this thing has a user-upgradable GPU in it which allows you to swap out the graphics board much like you would on a desktop system. All you'd need is the 7970m and a 680m and whatever else you desire to compare. GPU focused performance comparisons would be much more precise then. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 03, 2012 - link

    We've got the same laptop with 680M; I'm just running the tests still and did this one first. Reply
  • hulawafu77 - Wednesday, October 03, 2012 - link

    P150EM

    This may be a shock to Anandtech, but many like myself appreciate the design of the Clevo. Metal = Weight. These machines already weigh plenty, so I personally and many others like me agree, Clevo choosing plastic is good. The plastic does not feel cheap to me and it is thick and robust. There is no flex on it. As for hinges, not sure what else you want. The hinges on mine are covered by the thickest plastic I've seen on any laptop. Nothing thin about it. There is no flex around the hinges on my machine. I don't know why this article exaggerates the build quality, reading this, most will think it's cheap feel. And it's far from that.

    Next: Comparisons are idiotic. This is a gaming machine. This is not a professional workstation, though you can modify to be, but really without a proper professional IPS display, better off getting a Dell/HP/Lenovo. So why bother comparing to those, those machines are military grade certified. As for Apple, those machines are made to look pretty on your coffee table. Clevo aren't make table decorations like Apple is. They aren't selling to moms and women or men who worry more about how thin and pretty their machine is than the hardware it comes with. 650M is not by any stretch impressive. Most gaming machines are plastic. Few have some metal, but very little, sparing on just small details to give it some panache. The laptop that took the mobile gaming industry by surprise was the G73JH, and that was all plastic. But that told manufactures, gamers want understated, black matte cases. And Clevo delivers. Even the latest iterations from MSI have calmed down their appearance significantly since the G73's release.

    I love matte look, I don't want shiny metal. I prefer the rubberized surface, but I could deal with a brushed metal. These notebooks can be configured to have no logos, branding at all, which is awesome. I am not a billboard for Clevo, Apple, Dell, Lenovo.

    Cost: These notebooks are really expensive. People who buy Clevo, buy it for the cost/performance. If you want a sci-fi look, get a Alienware. You want bling, get a MSI. If you want a stealth toy look, get a Asus. You want a Apple clone cause secretly you are envious of Macheads, get a Razer Blade. There are plenty of choices. I'd rather Clevo keep costs low on the case and pack it with hardware, options.

    I've been typing on this machine for a long time and think the keyboard just takes adjusting to. This keyboard you do need to press more in the center or bottom, if you press on the edges or top, chance of missing keys. But since I'm used to it, I have no issues with the keyboard and can type as precisely and quickly as I could with my old IBM Thinkpad.

    Some of your complaints with the keyboard are because you from the perspective of a writer. That's a problem, because this is not a machine designed for writers, it's a gaming machine. Take for example your ire with Windows key. Clevo did that on purpose. They enlarge the CTRL button which is used very often by gamers, whether its CS:GO or SC2. The removed the Windows because gamers complained of hitting unintentionally and sometimes causing to switch to desktop out of the game. I don't use End/Home often, even when using Word Processor or InDesign. I don't think that's a concern for most gamers.

    Going forward you may want to write more in context of gaming and perspective of gamers when it comes to Clevo. I'd bet if you were to budget conscious gamers what they were most concerned about, metal casing and eye catching design would be near the bottom of the list. As long as the machine was well built, robust, and sturdy, they will be satisfied. And the Clevo does that.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 03, 2012 - link

    I disagree with most of your assessment of the build quality. ASUS has similar build quality and they charge quite a bit less (though they lack the top-end GPU options as well). Alienware has a combination of metal alloys (magnesium alloy possibly?) with plastic and the rubberized coating. Magnesium alloys are very lightweight, which is why they're used in higher end notebooks -- they're rigid, better than plastic, and about the same weight.

    The hinges aren't necessarily worse than other consumer laptops, but take a look at the ThinkPad hinges; they're not substantially more expensive to make, but I can tell you from experience that they last forever. I've used ThinkPads that are over seven years old where the hinges still hold up. The plastic covers are just that: covers. Look under them and you'll find a mediocre hinge. For the cost, I want it to have a hinge that I don't think is going to fail in a few years (or at least become very loose).

    The keyboard still sucks, no matter how you want to mince words and try to say it's for gaming. The Windows key can be remapped/disabled easily enough if you want, and Clevo also has resellers that say this is a "mobile workstation" -- not that I really go for that classification, given the build materials and overall quality. Sure, the keyboard works, and yes I'm a writer, which is why I point that out in the text.

    The fact is, a keyboard like the one on the Samsung Series 7 is better in just about every way. If Clevo took the same layout and had a look and feel similar to the Series 7, I wouldn't complain much, but it seriously feels like crap to me. If you don't care about keyboard quality, fine, but it's pathetic that a machine this expensive has such a lousy keyboard. MSI's keyboard has the same layout but feels worlds better. And it's funny you try to slag off my complaints about the lack of dedicated Home and End keys... but how often do you use Insert, Pause, or Scroll Lock? Literally, it's about a ten second fix from a design perspective (and yes, I know you can remap keys, but then the labels are wrong so it's better done by the manufacturer).

    The Clevo is not a bad machine by any stretch; it's just not at the same level as some other gaming notebooks. If I were in the market, I'd wait for one of Dell's frequent sales and buy an Alienware M17x. It's just better in pretty much every way, with better support from the manufacturer as well. Clevo's support (particularly in the form of BIOS updates) is terrible -- they don't trust users to flash a BIOS, so they don't provide them. And yet, they have battery life that's just as bad as if they didn't bother with Enduro/Optimus. It's a half-baked attempt, no matter how you slice it.

    The primary reason to buy a Clevo is because it's less expensive and more customizable than an Alienware, and it has fast hardware. I understand that's enough for most people, and hopefully after reading this review they'll be able to decide that for themselves.

    To say that my comparisons are "idiotic" because I mention Samsung as a slower alternative with a higher build quality, or ASUS, MSI, and Alienware... well, you're entitled to your opinion, but considering you already purchased a Clevo I'd have to say your opinion is more than a little biased. I'm writing from the perspective of someone that has used and tested dozens of laptops just in the last year; I try to put all my reviews into that context and let readers know where a particular notebook ranks. The Clevo is one of the fastest (if not the fastest) gaming notebooks around. For the performance, the pricing is pretty reasonable (but not great). For the pricing the build quality and overall design is about on the level of a midrange consumer notebook, only with a thicker chassis and bigger fans. And the keyboard is still one of the worst I've used. Some people like Acer's old floating island keys too; the general consensus however is that they were terrible.
    Reply
  • hulawafu77 - Wednesday, October 03, 2012 - link

    Not really biased at all. My previous machine was a Asus G73JH and I like my Clevo more in every way, from the design, cooling, hardware, LCD, and even the keyboard.

    I think you should spend more time in the Clevo/Sager forum where people actually buy and discuss them. Your perspective on these machines and your preferences are pretty off base. I don't think you understand the market that Clevo is going for.

    As for price, Sager beats MSI and Asus handidly. The base price for my machine with a GTX 675M is $1300. Asus can't beat that even with a GTX 670M, inferior hardware. Plus Asus is not upgradeable and can't even access the GPU easily.

    As for Alienware's sales? Please, they can't come close to the price of Sager still. Unlike Allienware, you don't have to barter with a sales rep and Sager's discounts are 24/7 all year round. What discounts did I get with my Sager? $80 off+3% cash discount and free shipping on top of a price that already beat anything offered by MSI/Asus/Alienware for the hardware I specified.

    As for comparisons I think I spelled it out pretty clear how idiotic they were. You were comparing to Dell and Lenovo. For one they build workstations that are military grade certified. And the XPS 15 is not a high end gaming machine, that is a boutique machine competing with other Mac clones. And the Samsung Series 7 is not in the same category with Clevo and Alienware. The only two companies that make sense to compare is Alienware and MSI. When it comes to dependability and having your machine last, no problems. These things are built like tanks, there are users who bought X7200 with HD5870s and now upgrading them to 7970s. That's damn good quality of build to me. 30% of laptops don't even last 3 years and for many expect their Clevo to last 5.

    As for service on a Clevo? Unmatched, no one can beat Clevo. If you go with a Clevo builder Mythlogic, you won't get a more technical proficient, better interaction and service by ANY company. Mythlogic has repeatedly reach out to Clevo owners who weren't even their customers. All it takes is a few minutes to post on a forum and they are ready to help. Sager, yeah I had an issue, and it was free 3 day shipping both ways and laptop fixed in 2 days and returned, I had it back in 1.5 weeks. Give me a break about service. As for BIOS, yeah that's laughable. If you actually spent time on a Clevo/Sager forum you'd see every laptop has had countless BIOS updates. I've only owned this machine for about 4-5 months and I've already updated the BIOS 3 times. No BIOS updates? Who are you kidding. And if I bork the BIOS update? Clevo doesn't care, you get that fixed, no questions asked. That sure doesn't like they don't trust us. Far from it, to the point they will repair your notebook without question if you borked it with a BIOS update.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 03, 2012 - link

    Where do I "compare" this with the XPS 15? I say there are laptops like XPS 15 and MacBook that do unibody aluminum, that it costs more, and that's it. You're trying to make comparisons that aren't really there, which just shows your bias all the more. And talking to people in the Sager/Clevo forums is again asking for biased feedback; sure, it's important to please those users, but the market for laptops is huge and Clevo targets a very small niche. All I've done is spelled out exactly how this design fails to cater to other desires, and you apparently can't accept that and resort to calling me "idiotic".

    Sure, the base price for your machine is $1300; the base price for an M17x R4 is $1500. That's a 15% difference in price, with better build quality and materials in my book, so yes it's close to the Sager pricing. When Dell runs a 10% off sale on it, it would be basically a wash in terms of pricing. Meanwhile the base price of the MSI from iBUYPOWER is $1371 (5% more), and I'd have no problem suggesting you spend $70 more to get the MSI chassis in place of the Clevo if you want a better keyboard. The ASUS also starts at $1400 (8% more), but with specs on many components that are higher than the base Sager. Clearly, you and I have very different views on what it means to "beat a price handily".

    Sager or one of the other vendors may end up costing less most of the time, especially with upgrades, but spending 20% more on a high-end notebook isn't out of the realm of possibility. Plus if we're looking at features and extras, Alienware has the option in the BIOS to switch off Enduro/Optimus. That requires extra hardware on the motherboard, which costs money, and there are a lot of Clevo owners with 7970M that wish they had that feature right now.

    Are BIOS updates available for Clevo notebooks? Yes. Are they supported by Clevo if they go wrong and you need to get it repaired? Sure, if it's under warranty. Do they provide them on their site to the general public? NO. So you have to go through unofficial channels to get a BIOS update, which may or may not work. Or if you want to prove me wrong, give me a link to the official places where these countless BIOS updates are available.

    Hint: a thread on Notebookreview forums with modded BIOSes does not qualify: http://forum.notebookreview.com/sager-clevo/416916... -- just read the disclaimer: "Before reading this thread, please know that this thread should not exist in the first place. While the option to email your Clevo reseller and ask for the latest BIOS is considered now the official policy of obtaining the latest BIOS, it should be noted that Clevo is the only major notebook manufacturer that has such a policy. My opinion alongside that of other users which have posted in this thread is that a reputable notebook manufacturer like Clevo should make BIOS updates publically available." Yup, my comments about Clevo's lack of BIOS updates is laughable, just like your blindness.

    I'm sorry if my review offended you and your decision to buy a Clevo. That wasn't the purpose, and I still don't think it's a bad system. It's just not great and it's not something I can recommend to people without some caveats. I spelled out my caveats quite clearly, listed things I feel could be improved, and all you've done is said, in essence, that you disagree with the areas I dislike. You can do so (and you already have with your wallet), but I think there are a lot of considerations to make before buying any $1500+ gaming notebook. Then again, I still do my gaming on desktops 95% of the time.
    Reply

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