AVADirect Clevo P170EM Part 2: GTX 680M Grudge Matchby Jarred Walton on October 15, 2012 6:50 PM EST
Subjective Evaluation: Mea Culpa?
Apparently my comments on the P170EM’s build quality, keyboard, touchpad, etc. really rubbed some folks the wrong way. Just to clarify things this time around, many of those areas are completely subjective. I can certainly live with using the P170EM, though there are aspects that would really irritate me when doing certain kinds of work. I also think my overall displeasure with AMD's Radeon HD 7970M (driver issues, Enduro concerns, etc.) may have colored my overall tone. So let me take a second stab at providing a subjective evaluation of the P170EM before we hit the benchmarks.
First off, we have build quality. I prefer notebooks that feel more durable, but often that means adding weight and/or cost to an already expensive notebook. Clevo’s use of a plastic chassis feels cheap in my book, but the problem is, short of spending a lot of extra money I don’t see a good way to fix this aspect of the chassis. Injection molded plastic is inexpensive and generally works well enough, and moving up to a magnesium alloy frame/exterior could easily add several hundred dollars or more to the total price, all without improving performance. Alienware’s M17x chassis uses a magnesium alloy frame, and for a similar configuration you’re looking at $2644 compared to $2249—that’s 17.5% more for a change in materials and aesthetics, and potentially worse cooling performance (i.e. the thinner Alienware chassis likely doesn’t allow as much airflow as the P170EM).
I’m still a sucker for Alienware’s soft touch finish, but there are other elements that I’d just as soon bypass, like the edge to edge glossy LCD. As a viable alternative, I’m also working on a review of Eurocom’s Racer 2.0 (Clevo P150EM chassis), which comes with a similar soft touch coating. You lose the option for installing two 2.5” drives (three if you use the optical bay caddy), but a decent mSATA SSD for the OS/apps with a 750GB or 1TB hard drive for mass storage ends up being a great blend of storage and performance. I can’t personally comment on how well the P150EM handles the heat from the GTX 680M/HD 7970M, but overall it appears to do about as well when running a last-gen GTX 675M (nee GTX 580M).
What about the keyboard and touchpad? This is a far more subjective element than most other areas, but I have to stand by what I’ve said regarding the keyboard. What’s more, the touchpad is quite prone to errant activation while typing—I ended up disabling the touchpad via the Fn+F1 shortcut whenever I was typing, and I set the touchpad to turn off when using an external mouse. The touchpad edges just aren't clearly defined, and the overall action isn't as good as what I've seen with other notebooks. As for the typing itself, it’s still very uncomfortable for me to use when hammering out 1000+ word articles. Most people probably don’t do that sort of thing very often unless they’re writers or college students, but you know your typical behavior better than I do.
My problem with the keyboard is that there’s a distinct lack of key travel, and the result just ends up feeling “off” to me. I can type at roughly the same speed as on other full size laptop keyboards (don’t get me started on the pains of a cramped 11.6” keyboard, please), but given just about any other option I’d be all too happy to take it. I’ve also tried the same keyboard on the P150EM and found the experience to be just as off putting, though at least there you don’t feel like there’s two inches of wasted space on the right and left sides of the keyboard. Thankfully, the number keypad is fully functional this time around and I don’t need to look down to figure out where the plus/minus/divide/multiply keys are hiding. It's also interesting to note that one of the P170EM vendors, Mythlogic, offers a $100 upgrade to a chiclet keyboard on their Nyx 1712—that option has been there since before my review, and I think it speaks volumes about the potential for the current keyboard to disappoint, and if you're serious about buying the P170EM but want a better typing experience that might be the best solution.
The keyboard layout issues that I have are again rather subjective, particularly in regards to the placement of the Windows key and the lack of a Context key. Several readers commented that gamers in particular find those keys to be irritating, and I can at least understand that sentiment. The first time I used a keyboard with the new “Windows” keys (back around the time of Windows 95), I was really annoyed and had many instances of inadvertently switching out of a game to the Start Menu—and for the record, I also thought the mouse wheel was idiotic when I first saw it, but now I can't live without one. Back then, switching from games to the desktop would frequently cause the game to crash, making it a double-whammy. Of course, we’ve long since had utilities that allow users to disable those keys, and since the dawn of Windows XP most games have become far more capable of task switching—plus some titles even disable the Windows key(s) automatically to avoid problems. Today, I have acclimated to having a Windows key to the left of the spacebar, and I rarely if ever accidentally hit it while gaming. What’s more, when I use a laptop outside of games, I have found the Windows key to be quite useful, especially with some of the latest shortcuts in Windows 7. I play plenty of games still, but I do far more typing and mundane work so that ends up taking priority. Moving the location to the right of the spacebar ends up being even more annoying to me than an occasional errant Start Menu activation; YMMV.
The other layout issues are less excusable. I use Print Screen regularly to capture images, but even then it’s something I do maybe 20 times per week, so when I have to use an Fn-key combination it doesn’t bother me too much. Scroll Lock, Pause/Break, and Insert on the other hand are keys that I almost never use. Even typing a short email, I’m likely to use the Home or End keys at least once or twice, and for longer missives I’ll probably use them 10 times or more in a matter of minutes. Even browsing around web pages or in Windows Explorer, I routinely use Home/End. They’re at least as important to me as any of the function keys, so moving them to Fn-key combinations (that overlap with the PgUp/PgDn keys) is silly. I did try remapping the Insert and Pause keys to Home/End, and that helped; I also remapped the second backslash key to the Context key. These remapping are something that will take a while to get used to since the key labels are incorrect, but unlike the keyboard feel there’s at least something I can try to improve the situation.
Overall, for typing I just can’t find a good way to recommend a keyboard like this over other options (e.g. the Samsung Series 7 has a much more comfortable keyboard in my opinion), but then this isn’t really a notebook designed primarily for office work. For gaming the layout and feel of the keyboard is far less critical. Unless you’re playing MMOs and have a habit of getting involved in lengthy text-based conversations, the keyboard is perfectly adequate during games. And again, keyboard feel is such a subjective area that I fully expect some people to prefer this keyboard to something like the Samsung 7 or a Lenovo ThinkPad. Really, you just need to ask yourself: do I care about what a keyboard feels like, or am I fine with just about anything? Most people fall into one of those camps, and if you’re in the latter you can forget about my keyboard qualms and just look at the performance and other elements. For those in the former category, I’d suggest trying to find a P170EM that you can use in person just to see what you think; gaming notebook or otherwise, if I were getting ready to spend $1000 or more on a laptop, I’d want to be happy with the typing experience and I’d be willing to pay extra for that privilege.
Incidentally, this whole page was typed, yet again, on the Clevo keyboard—this time on the Eurocom Racer 2.0, as the two AVADirect notebooks are busy with battery life testing. I actually found the experience to be a bit less irritating than the first go, perhaps because I’ve adapted to the feel a bit more. Or maybe the smaller chassis just somehow works a bit better for me when it comes to typing? My wrists and fingers are definitely tired however, and hammering out several more pages of text on this keyboard isn’t something I’m looking forward to, but it’s all in the name of evaluating a notebook. Also, I can say for certain that the touchpad on the P150EM chassis works much better for me than on the P170EM; I haven’t changed the default settings and yet I haven’t had a single errant touchpad activation. I think it’s because the P150EM has the touchpad slightly recessed into the palm rest, but whatever the case I definitely prefer the P150EM to the P170EM when it comes to typing and the touchpad.
Countering all of the above, however, performance on the P170EM is excellent, and it doesn't seem prone to overheating at all. In fact, during testing the fans typically never got above the penultimate speed, so there's still cooling headroom. We only managed to trigger the maximum fan speed by putting the notebook on a carpet floor and the covering both exhausts for about five minutes of stress testing—on most notebooks, it's usually under 30 seconds before the fan speeds max out under such testing.
Subjectively, then, the short summary is that I love the performance aspect of the Clevo notebooks. The build quality and aesthetics aren’t great, but given the already high cost I’m not sure I’d be willing to spend more on such areas—and many Clevo customers are likely to agree. The keyboard is still a big miss for me personally, and I’m sure plenty of other people will dislike it, but it’s not the end of the world and there's always the Mythlogic option (even if $100 for a keyboard swap feels a bit extreme). Also of note is that the touchpad isn’t quite as bad on the P150EM; I actually have no real complaints with it on the smaller chassis—plus, I always use an external mouse if I’m actually playing games. The speakers are also good if not exceptional, and you get four audio jacks. Finally, the matte LCDs offered on most Clevo notebooks are definitely something I like and would be willing to pay extra to get. Thankfully, we’re seeing other vendors start to shift away from glossy displays (e.g. the Samsung Series 7, MSI GT70, and many ASUS laptops are now matte), but if you want a high quality matte display, Clevo offers some very compelling options.
Is that enough for me to change my tune regarding the P170EM? Not really, but that’s mostly because the above is what I had hoped to convey with the original review. Some readers apparently felt like I hated the P170EM with a passion, but it’s more frustration that Clevo continues to miss the mark on something as simple (in my book) as a keyboard. Obviously people that are in the market for a MacBook Pro Retina are going to laugh at the idea of something as “uncouth” as the P170EM, but they’re not the target market—not by a long shot!
The P170EM can readily fill the role of a mobile workstation, desktop replacement, and/or gaming notebook, and a less than stellar keyboard and build quality shouldn’t matter too much for many users looking for that sort of hardware. Plug in an external mouse and keyboard, hook up a high-end desktop LCD, and the DTR aspect is great; then you can unplug and take it with you when needed. For gamers, the conversation pretty much begins and ends with the GPU, and Clevo has you covered there with both the HD 7970M and GTX 680M as options. Mobile workstation users might prefer something built to higher standards (e.g. HP EliteBook, Dell Precision, or Lenovo ThinkPad W Series), especially if they’re spending the money on something like a K5000M—which, incidentally, isn’t yet available for the P150EM/P170EM—so that’s one usage model that I still seriously question (and I shudder at the prospect of doing something like coding with this keyboard), but it really depends on what sort of work you’re doing and how you feel about the various items listed above. If all you want is gaming performance, then by all means get a P150EM/P170EM and you should be very happy, because short of SLI/CrossFire notebooks it just doesn’t get any faster than this right now.