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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  • hulawafu77 - Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - link

    You are so ignorant of the Sager/Clevo forum, it's rather sad. The BIOS that are posted are not modded, they are the official, vanilla Clevo BIOS. Clevo does no sell direct like HP, Alienware, Dell, etc do. The tech support is provided by the builders, and the BIOS also. The modded BIOS are actually the ones from the OEM, like Sager who ask Clevo for specific changes, like a FN+1 for full fan speed. Emailing Sager sure doesn't take very long to do. So yes, your comments about the lack of BIOS is laughable.

    As for perspective, yeah it is idiotic. You are writing from the perspective of someone who doesn't find Clevo appealing. Your review should be for people who interested in buying a Clevo, not reading your ridiculously biased, opinionated diatribe about Clevo's design. Just stick to what it is. Dimensions, weight, cooling, temps, performance whatever. People who are told about Clevo know what they are getting into. It's not a secret that a Clevo isn't designed for the shallow, fashion obsessed person who must fit in with the hipster crowd. For Clevo owners, a laptop isn't an accessory to our appearance and isn't a expression of vain needs. It's a machine, a gaming machine or for some a work tool. It doesn't need to be pretty.

    You said it yourself, Clevo markets to a small niche. Yup, you would be right on that. So your review should be for that small niche that is interested in buying a machine that caters to that small niche.
  • hulawafu77 - Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - link

    Also for support, and updates, the way Clevo does it, may be unusual, but it sure works awesome. When the 7970M was found to be unable to work with the HM series, because they do not support switchable, Sager stepped in quick and within a month, Clevo sellers were selling Clevo 7970M with modded vBIOS so would work in a HM.

    I've mentioned Mythlogic before, they are full AMI Aptio servicer, and can even unlock Raid 5 for those who request it. Can you get that from Alienware? Can you get that from MSI? Nope, nope and nope.
  • xtrophy - Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - link

    Just wanted to put out there that I have owned a plethora of laptops. Of all the ones I have owned the Clevo feels the most solid of them all.

    I owned an M11x R2 and an M14xR1, both of them had serious hinge issues and both had creaks and issues with build quality.

    I had a second gen MBP and, while light, the over heating was too much of a problem. I was given the laptop by a friend after they upgraded to a desktop. After using it I have decided I would have never spent that much on a Mac.

    I prefer the solid feel of the Clevos. Their build quality far out reaches everything I have touched and, as I have stated before, That is not a small number. I've owned my own repair business in the past (I have since moved on to bigger and better things).

    I can make no comment on the Razer Blade, but I would (just like in the case with Macs) not pay that much money for dated hardware. Sure it has all the gimmicks, but to me there is no way those gimmicks are worth it in the long run.

    And don't get started on Alienware. I made that mistake. Twice. Want to know the sad part? I have to send the M11x in AGAIN to replace the hinges AGAIN because since I have given it to my fiancee, they have begun to crack and pop. Their "build quality" consists of "expensive materials" and a blender to put it all together.
  • transphasic - Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - link

    Jarred, I would like your honest opinion, appraisal, prognosis, and projection based on your experience and what you have seen so far regarding the "newest" comparison between the 680m and the 7970m AFTER the new AMD driver patches for the 7970m are released by the end of the year.
    In your professional estimation and based on what you seen thus far, will the 7970m be on par and and roughly equal to the 680m once the updated drivers are released for it?
    I ask this, because like a lot of other people here (and other forums as well) who own the 7970m were told big things about gaming performance ON PAPER that never translated into real-world results in the games we played due to under-utilization/Enduro problems, and so we are still seriously thinking of swapping out our cards for the much better 680m.
    If you were in this same position as we are, would you still swap out GPU's for the 680m even after the AMD patches are in place regardless of the big initial price difference or later upgrade swap-out cost (which would run about $700-$800 dollars according to what Sager told me)?

    Call me a "Doubting Thomas" here, but I am still very dubious and skeptical at this point of whether or not our 7970m GPU's will ever be on par in gaming or battery life with the 680m at any point regardless of what patch/update AMD puts out in the next 6 months.

    Your thoughts?
  • hulawafu77 - Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - link

    He already showed on the benchmarks he ran on many games, it's not far behind the Alienware. So with a few more iterations and fixes, hopefully be on par. He also said this isn't the finished hotfix that will be released, it wasn't even packaged properly and had issues installing it.

    As for 680M. C'mon be serious. The 680M costs $900 if you were to buy it separately, and it is about $300 more than 7970M from any Clevo reseller. You can hope, but why forego your brain and common sense? The difference between 7970M on my Clevo and a 680M equipped in many games, is not that far apart right now. Again, you're trying to have paid $50 for a cake but wanting it to be the $150 cake. Can't do both.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - link

    If AMD does everything right, by the end of the year the HD 7970M should be roughly the same level as the GTX 680M -- faster in a few titles, slower in others. My recommendation (and I made it at the bottom of the 7970M conclusion) is that for a $2000 notebook, the better drivers and performance of the GTX 680M make it the better choice: 15% more money ($2300), 15% better performance, and drivers that work today.

    But if you already have the 7970M, would I try to buy the upgraded 680M? Unless you can return the 7970M for $600 and only pay the $300 difference, no I wouldn't. Maybe if you can return the whole notebook and get it with 680M that would work? Also, by the end of the year (or early next year), we'll probably be seeing another generation of high-end mobile GPUs. By the time AMD has 7970M fully fixed in terms of drivers, it will be their "last year's best AMD option". Anyway, wait for the Hotfix, test it in the games you want to play, and then decide if it's good enough or not.

    Also, testing several games on the P170EM with Optimus GTX 680M, the GTX 680M also has "underutilization" problems. Now, they may be to a lesser degree than the 7970M, and so far it's mostly at our Medium and High detail testing (e.g. not at Ultra). I'll be discussing this in part 2 of the P170EM review. It's possible that the root issue is simply the copying of frames, particularly at higher frame rates (lower settings). Whether you're at max detail or minimum detail, copying a 1920x1080 frame over the PCIe bus will use the same amount of bandwidth. I wouldn't think it's much of a problem (especially at PCIe 3.0 speeds), but it's still overhead. A 5-10% drop in some cases might be the cost of Optimus/Enduro.
  • hulawafu77 - Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - link

    I think this should also be put in perspective. Dell, Samsung and others make LOTS of laptops for the battery conscience and very good at it. Clevo in their current lineup, I don't see any thin and light. Even their slimmed down have GTX 660M, more powerful than the best Apple can offer. And even their 11" machine has a 650M. I agree, the battery life on Clevo pales compared to Alienware, but I think it should be stated differently. This is what you get from a company that doesn't make ANY thin and light notebooks made primarily for on the go battery efficiency.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - link

    Alienware proves that you can still get reasonable battery life without being "thin and light" -- at least if you want to. Clevo is also the company that for years fought off the trend of Optimus and only started supporting it with Sandy Bridge. I know people that hate the idea of Optimus, and I think there's still a place for discrete-only systems. Alienware covers both with their BIOS option to disable the iGPU, and Clevo could have done the same. Anyway, battery life is just one item on my list of things Clevo hasn't done as well as they could.
  • hulawafu77 - Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - link

    FYI Alienware are unlikely to do that in the future. MS, Nvidia, Intel and AMD all have concluded muxless switchable graphics is the best method and will be the standard.

    Alienware is designed for the mainstream crowd who are more interested in being able to brag about a brand name than being able to customize their laptop and paying a premium for it. And you forget, Clevo is the pioneer when it comes to laptop gaming. They were the first company to use MXM, the first to have SLI and CFX laptops. They are the industry leader, and standard setter for mobile gaming. Much of the cooling design, dual fan design and customization and upgradability is pioneered by Clevo. And this is what they are good at.

    Also I highly doubt that someone who buys a 17" Alienware will be using it for 4+ hours at a time on the battery. You can't game on it on battery still, so why bother using a 17" monster for 4+ hours browsing on Chrome? Sure it's just on aspect of your review, but you sure hammered it in, Clevo are inept at battery life. I think for many Clevo owners, we're just happy we even have battery life.
  • hulawafu77 - Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - link

    I think this review was great. I just believe the audience for a Clevo is not the same as perspective this review was written from. The people who buy Clevo are not the same crowd who are looking for a brand name notebook so they can proudly show off their billboard fashion sense. It's not the crowd that is going to be focused on the aesthetics or even how amazing the keyboard is. I find the keyboard to be lacking also, but it's exaggerated. It's functional and it works. I've used the keyboard for work for months now and I haven't had issues with it, whether I'm working on the database, data entry or working on marketing material.

    I think your preference in notebooks shows clearly. Obviously the Samsung Series 7 is your cup of tea. I'm quite the opposite, I don't want a silver notebook, I want a beast matte finished, uninteresting notebook. I don't want attention or stares. I don't want to advertise that I have a $2000 laptop to the world. Alienware, MSI, Asus with their eye catching design, scream, I'm expensive, I'm worth a pretty penny, steal me, touch me. No one wants to look at my laptop or touch it, they don't care, and that's just dandy with me.

    Also I differ on your opinion on the display ports. I like em in the back and appreciate that. When I connect a display to my machine, I don't have the display to the right or left of me, it's behind my laptop. So for me, personally, it makes perfect sense. This way I don't have a cable jutting out from the side and jerked backwards. Just me I guess, but makes a whole lot of sense to me.

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