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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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  • Tijgert - Sunday, October 14, 2012 - link

    I'm on the virge of deciding what to buy and am on the edge of my seat to read part two of the 680m/7970m face-off in the P170EM...

    Any sign of that yet?
    Reply

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