INTERVIEW: Chris Morley - MAINGEAR shifts the PC platform
11/2/2009 by: Theo Valich
The world of premium boutique PCs is quite an exciting one. There are quite a lot of players on the market, with a lot of companies trying to secure its piece of the pie. The allure of boutique PC vendors is very strong with large corporations, so we weren't surprised when Dell snatched Alienware, followed by HP acquisition of Voodoo PC. Acer also had its sights on a lot of acquisitions, but the Taiwanese giant settled with the acquisition of Gateway/eMachines. We heard bombastic promises of changing the corporation inside, and annihilating the competition, pronouncing that boutique PC vendors are dead. But we didn't see that AMG effect on Mercedes Benz cars, M effect on BMW cars… both Alienware and VoodooPC got swallowed by the corporate mentality. For instance, gorgeous MacBook Air-killing HP Envy 133 turned into a pathetic rip-MacBook Unibody rip-off... and the examples move on.
Today, MAINGEAR is relaunching itself as a company that decided to stay independent through murky waters of PC industry and hopes to become the standard bearer in the world of high end computing. Their main foe is no other than Apple - in a run up to this launch, we spoke with Wallace Santos [CEO] and Chris Morley [CTO] about the future of the company and the line-up at hand. For this first article about the company we are presenting an in-depth interview Chris Morley, who joined MAINGEAR Computers following his stints on BOXX Technologies, Velocity Micro and even HardOCP, where he wrote innovative reviews of complete system buying experience.
BSN*: Chris, could you tell us what do you exactly do at MAINGEAR Computers and for how long you've been inside the computing business?
Chris: I am Chief Technology Officer of the company, my duty is to help design, position and market our entire product line. Besides that, I also help in shaping up day to day operations… have my hands in a little bit of everything, but my primary focus is designing and positioning our products from sales and support perspective.
BSN*: MAINGEAR Computers... what would you tell about your company to the user that didn't hear about it in the past?
Chris: What we say is that we are the premier provider of high performance custom computers for North America. We are located in Union, NJ which is about half an hour drive from New York City.
Time to SHIFT
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BSN*: According to the documents we received earlier today, MAINGEAR is unveiling its new line-up of computers. What can you tell us about this line-up?
Chris: Actually, we are re-launching the whole company, now centered around SHIFT, which is our new flagship system we are dubbing "the personal supercomputer." It is an exclusive design, it is not an off-the-shelf design. We spend over a year designing this system getting it ready for mass production... we have a new website, new company logo...we have refined some of our messaging, especially centered around customer service because to us, customer service is a keystone of our business. It's been a foundation for our success and it is going to be a key to our future growth.
BSN*: What was the vision behind SHIFT?
Chris: SHIFT is a trendkill for us. What that means is that we took a look at the market out there and you look at what Alienware is doing with their new systems, you look at ASUS with their gaming systems and… you've got something designed by aliens, you've got something that looks like the head of Voltron. If you take a look at what Alienware just released with retina-searing LEDs… it is all user configurable and you can change all the colors but you know what? I just bought my daughter a Lite-Brite, why would I want one sitting on my desktop and why would I design a computer that looked like it? Our customers... they're not kids. They are people that are discerning buyers who are looking for performance and style. What we have designed with the SHIFT is going against the status quo, against the mentality that says that you have to make these powerful machines look more extreme, and put a lot of bling.
No bling... for the users who know they have a powerful computer and don't need to show it to everyone
MAINGEAR is going exactly for the opposite direction. We have refined lines, subdued esthetics - no bright lights. There are two LEDs - one is for power on and hard drive activity - but they are stealth a bit so that there is no direct line of sight for LEDs. Basically, you see the reflection. As you can see, it is all black. Mat black access, black acrylic, very clean lines. This is what sets it apart from all of the other "gaming PC's" on the market. Because you know what - we are not just building a gaming PC, we are building the everyday supercomputer. The focus is on GPGPU Computing and fusion of that with mainstream, with Windows 7, with CUDA and all the stuff that CUDA has brought to us. For instance, vReveal from MotionDSP is fantastic, CyberLink software, Badaboom - these are just examples of real world titles that people are using and they're relying on GPGPU. But you need to create a good thermal design to cool down these powerful GPUs. We can put anything in SHIFT, we can keep it cool - we can keep it quiet.
It is also recognition of the fact that GPU is playing larger and larger role as the days go by. You know, GPUs are no longer just for gaming. We always like to say that a well-built gaming system will be good for just about anything. And we have seen this trend because more and more customers are coming to us saying "I am not a gamer but…" That is usually followed with "I want a better performance," "I want better reliability" "I want better support" and with our pedigree as a gaming company, we already have that in place. With the resurgence of PC with the Windows 7… with people starting to get that they don't want to pay for systems that come with pre-installed bloatware, crapware, underware on under-specced and underwhelmed computers. The consumers are awakening up and we are putting us out there by drawing a line in the sand and you are going to get a completely different experience with us.
BSN*: You are targeting the whole segment... let me rephrase. You want to redefine PC compared to standard definition of PC supported by Apple..?
Chris: The PC world, the Windows world - needs an Apple. They need it. They need a standard bearer. They need somebody who can put out intelligent designs, who can stand on their own two feet without having to load up lots of bloatware, crapware and all the unnecessary 3rd party software that other vendors put on the system to subsidize for the price of the machines. They need somebody who can talk intelligently about the PC architecture and the ecosystem… how PC makes an everyday impact on somebody's life. And most importantly, the PC world doesn't have somebody who can stand there and support the product - because no matter how good product you have, if it doesn't work - it doesn't matter. Basically, we are going to pick this flag up and say: "look, Apple - we want our customers back" [laugh]. We are building a better system, we have a better operating system and we have a support structure and most importantly, we have better hardware.
That key messaging, that applies to everything and everybody. That applies to Apple, applies to HP, applies to Dell, to Alienware - our messaging applies to any company out there that is doing what we are build with the SHIFT, with our award-winning F131, which is our classic desktop… our X-Cube, which is a fully-featured SFF [Small Form Factor] PC. Our X-Cube is a little bit bigger than a shoebox and it fits all the latest hardware, long video cards, multiple video cards, quad-core processors… and then Access HD, our media center.
We have a whole wide range of products for "anybody who needs anything" and "everybody that needs everything" type of customers. A desktop PC or a Media Center PC and we think we have some of the best offerings in the business, we know we've got one of most customer-centric support infrastructure in the industry… when you call MAINGEAR, you are never going to get an agent that works on commission.
In fact, you never talk to anyone who hasn't built a PC for us... those are the employees that are going to give you the best advice to buy and more importantly, what NOT to buy. I can't tell you how many times we have saved people money. We had numerous customers that came to us and said they want 3Way SLI and they've got the money for a 3-Way SLI or a 3-Way Crossfire. But they've got a 22" monitor. So we talked to our customers and told them that they wanted overkill - that we can save them several hundred dollars. If you're not planning on getting a larger monitor, for instance, if they have 3D Vision glasses and are limited to that 22-23" display they have - there is no reason to be spending that kind of money. On other side, you have call centers with people who just take in orders… how would they know how to do that, how to properly advise a customer. Unless this is what they do every day, what they love doing, if they didn't lay their hands on the systems they are recommending.
BSN*: In a nutshell, your goal is to provide a level of service in the PC world that would match the level of service that is normal in other industries, such as car industry and premium vendors there - for instance, AMG for Mercedes Benz, M Division for BMW.
Chris: Exactly. You have companies that manufacture off-the-shelf, Point A-to-Point B companies and you have premium vendors. At the end of the day, both Ferrari and Kia Rio have four wheels, but the feeling and the price is different. But why would PC industry consists only of vendors that nickel and dime their customers? If you have a product that looks like something that came out of Pininfarina design studio, it should operate in the same way and if you encounter a problem, it needs to be addressed accordingly.
BSN*: What design concepts have you implemented in designing of the SHIFT?
The SHIFT is not made to diminish the hardware side. Obviously, we had to build it around something. We have built it by focusing on vertical, natural path of airflow, moving fans, the esthetics and clean lines... but you are right. SHIFT is not just the product. I think that the new website, the new messaging, the new approach shows us that we are becoming a solutions company… a PC solutions company. If you are a multi-national, Tier One orphan, and have fallen through the cracks, if you are a disaffected PC user, a Windows XP holdout, or you casually switched to the Mac because you got frustrated with the PC and saw those Mac Commercials… it is those users that are sick and tired of messages sent out… you cannot just throw the product out and honk "hey, buy this". You have to give people a story, a narrative. You have to talk about the whole experience because people are not just buying the hardware. There are plenty of companies out there that provide just the hardware. They're quick turnaround discounters. But if you want premium pre and post-sales experience and the best customer support to go with that hardware, that's when you come to us.
SHIFT P55 and X58
BSN*: Coming to the lineup itself, how are you positioning SHIFT, how many units are there in the product offering?
Chris: Currently, there are two different SKUs [Stock Keeping Unit] and they're both centered on Intel CPUs and Intel chipsets. Both SKUs are relying on Core i7 processors, with the SHIFT P55 being based on Core i7-800 series, and SHIFT X58 relying on i7-900 series. We decided not to include Core i5-750 into the line-up. The price difference between Core i5-750 and i7-860 is not that great and in the grand scheme of things we felt that the i7-860 is more embodied with what the SHIFT is. When you open a Task Manager and see eight threads… there are eight threads on P55 and eight threads on X58 system.
The SHIFT P55 inside: The Power of 3 includes Lynnfield CPU, P55 chipset and nVidia graphics as a baseline option
We wanted to make sure… we just didn't want to let the P55 consumer have inferior experience. The SHIFT P55 features nVidia's The Power of 3 which is just the mainstream way of telling the customers that multiple nVidia cards plus a third card for dedicated PhysX, CUDA, OpenCL processing - is going to deliver you a great experience. We are also going to be offering ATI Eyefinity technology and what can you do with the latest Radeon 5000 series. Multiple monitors, DirectX 11 - again, we are focusing on the GPU and we are going to talk to our customers and offer them the best graphics technology can offer to date. Our customers will ultimately decide which way they want to go.
BSN*: If I understand correctly, both of the systems are hardware vendor-agnostic. You are going to ask the user which of the two paths he should take and you are supporting all of those technologies?
Chris: Exactly. It is not our job to shove a specific vendor or a technology to the consumer. There are customers out there that have very strong believes about different products and different companies. It is all about making the customer happy. We want to and we will give our opinions when asked, we will also help guide somebody if we feel like they may or may not know about what product can do. But if somebody says "this is absolutely what I want" - it is not a system vendor call to make. Our systems are agnostic and we will talk about all the great features that partners are bringing to the table. We want to educate the customer in a proper manner and let them make the choice. It is up to us to achieve top system performance regardless of the technology selected by the customer. It is all about price, performance, features and what the customer is going to be happy with.
On top of that, once we get past the difficult GPU decision, it's all about multiple SSDs or mechanical hard drives, it is your choice. We offer the best hardware there is out there, Intel's X25 solid state drives, Western Digital Black Edition drives… you can put up to 12 SSDs in this system, physically - we offer less than that on our on-line configurator but the customer can request additional storage. Our case features six actively cooled 3.5" drive bays, so you can put either two 2.5" SSDs or a single 3.5" mechanical drive. There are no thermal issues with this level of integration. You can put your choice of DVD burners, Blu-ray readers or burners - you can select the two of each.
We are also going to buck the trend when it comes to audio. We tell our customers right now - majority of people out there do not need a dedicated audio card. There is no reason to buy Creative X-Fi right now. Really, there isn't. We are getting away from that. The way Windows Vista and 7 changed the fundamental hardware level hardware operates and the problems that ensued with things such as Alchemy, and some of headaches users had going from XP to Vista or to Windows 7. We feel that intrinsic value of audio hardware solutions have gone away. The only way we are going to offer an audio hardware upgrade is - Audio fidelity. We will tell our customers to upgrade their audio subsystem if the customers are discerning audiophiles and they need the best, cleanest audio signal coming out of SHIFT because they already have the best audio equipment out there. What we are going to do is offer Auzentech with OPAMP upgrade. That is what we feel that will offer that tangible audio upgrade that a customer could buy. We thought about offering add-in audio cards and it is not about how many hardware voices is there, because that doesn't matter anymore. What matters is audio fidelity and we are offering just that. We ask our users what audio hardware they have. If the answer is something like a 2.1 speaker set, then why waste hundred or more dollars on buying audio hardware that he or she won't utilize.
The issue is the same with graphics cards - it all depends on what are you connecting your system to. The installed base you have dictates the hardware you need.
BSN*: What about the X58 platform? It is obviously the high end model…
Chris: With the whole range of Sockets Intel is currently offering, with the Socket LGA-1156 and LGA-1366, SHIFT X58 is for those users who need that extra kick in processing power, every ounce of performance. This is the best of the best.
With the integrated water-cooling system we are able to clock the Extreme Editions to 4.0 GHz clock. This is the platform you are able to get 3-Way SLI or 3-Way CrossfireX with true PCI Express Gen2 x16. That is our most powerful graphics platform. That is what X58 is meant for.
BSN*: You mentioned water-cooling on the SHIFT X58 system. Are all systems equipped with water-cooling solutions?
Chris: Yes. Each and every system is equipped with water-cooling setup. Our goal was not just performance, but silent running as well.
BSN*: Every technology has its price. What is the pricing for the launch models and what do you expect what kind of ASP you target?
Chris: The starting price for SHIFT P55 is $2199, while the starting price point for X58 is $2599. We are sure those prices compete well within traditional PC space. This proves its point when you start to configure up, where we actually become price competitive. Being price competitive wasn't our goal, we don't design to a price point - we design to a performance level. When you compare our systems with for instance, Apple Mac Pro - we think that we actually deliver better value, dollar for dollar.
BSN*: Technically, you also beat Mac Pro on hardware capabilities. We use Mac Pros in the studio and to far as my knowledge go, there is no way to configure more than four hard drives in a Mac Pro. You claim six to twelve?
Chris: Look at their baseline graphics. Their $150 dollar card is a GeForce GT 120. That is what, a 16 stream processors part?
BSN*: Nope, that is a rebrand of a rebrand of a rebrand… but lastly it was known as GeForce 9500GT.
Chris: In any case, they want $150 for each and every GT 120 they put in there? If you put four GT120s, you spent 600 dollars on what?
BSN*: Ok, point taken - Apple charges $150 for a $35 card in the PC world. But now that you start comparing, can you tell us what MAINGEAR offers as a $150 GPU part?
Chris: Our baseline graphics card on SHIFT P55 is nVidia GeForce GTS 250. That is a 128 shader card and the price for that card is $155. It is a significant increase of performance from Apple, but we don't stop between $150 baseline card and a 300 dollar upgrade. When you add $70, you get GeForce GTX 260-216. 216 shaders for $200 is still less than a single dollar per shader core. If you want DirectX 11, for $77 we are going to replace the GTS 250 with ATI Radeon HD 5770 with 1GB GDDR5 memory.
Going to X58 system, our default configuration starts with ATI Radeon HD 5770 1GB because we believe that should be the baseline performance for an X58 machine. You aren't going to see us bundling a five hundred dollar CPU with $50 graphics card and claiming the system has performance. If you pay $158.00 upgrade we'll get you HD 5850 1GB, a card that we truly believe is the excellent choice for 3D performance. We still offer full range of nVidia graphics cards from the GTX 260-216 and up. Naturally, both P55 and X58 can be configured with multiple GPUs.
BSN*: Two questions for the end. First off, what is the expected ship date for these systems and secondly, what about the warranty?
Chris: I'll answer the warranty question first. Every SHIFT system comes with a two year warranty we called Angelic service. We feel that Angelic service is exactly our chance to shine. When the chips are down, when the system isn't working - it doesn't matter how good the system was, how expensive of cheap the system was - it is all about how good the company is will the company stand by its products. We make a promise to our customers and that starts with pre-sales. You are never going to speak with anybody who works on commission. I know I have talked about this, but let me repeat - you are only going to speak with people who have built systems, with our current workers, technicians, engineers… support personnel. You'll never get better advice than the one you can get from these employees. For the first 30 days of ownership, we will pay two-way shipping for all of our systems in case there is a problem. Another promise we made is that you are never going to have to pay for telephone support or labor for lifetime of the system.
There are premium companies that charge you for that after 90 days. At our discretion, we'll engage a third party service provider to provide on-site repairs at no additional cost. Sometimes it just makes sense to send somebody on-site. There are cases where you have heavily overclocked and customized systems and make no sense to send the 3rd party provider out here. In those rare cases, we are going to bring the system back in and have a person who made the system or an engineer of equal knowledge service the system. Also, during the warranty of the system - we are never going to replace the component with something of lesser performance. It will always be similar level of performance with what you bought.
Two years down the line, it is hard to find that exact component - sometimes it is very hard to find a specific graphics card two years later - we are going to replace that part with actual generation product of equal or even better performance. At our customer's request, we invested in creating a remote hardware diagnostic technology called Virtual On-site technology. We can take control of customers' computer - again, at their request only - these sessions can be recorded either for customer reference or for our future analysis if anything goes wrong with the system again, for auditing purposes, for training purposes and most importantly, for privacy insurance. This Angelic support, Angelic service is a perfect blend of pre and post-sales experience… it is what makes the whole customer experience we are wrapping the SHIFT in.
Coming to the SHIFT shipping agenda, we are accepting orders as of today, November 2, 2009. We are going to begin ship the first SHIFT's either the first week or the second week of December. We have targeted the launch date so that customers who pre-order the systems would be able to receive the systems by Christmas.
BSN*: Chris, thank you for the interview and good luck in this endeavor.
Chris: Thanks Theo, it was always a pleasure talking with you.
MAINGEAR launched their new lineup today and Chris is bursting with enthusiasm for the new product line. In a way, guys are really right - a single chassis with subdued design. They have worked on the design with Silverstone for over a year now, and you could see the mainstream parts coming to market in the form of Raven RV01 and RV02 cases. Unlike Raven series, this part features special fans, customized Asetek liquid cooling… all in all, a potent combination for silent performance. The guys are looking into supporting liquid cooling on graphics cards as well, but the question is as always: is it worth it in such a case - given that the temperature load on the cards is much, much less than normal.
The big challenge will be how to enter the big world of workstations - if MAINGEAR is to challenge Apple, they will have to offer Xeon workstations and offer dual-Socket liquid cooling inside the existing case. From the looks of it, the goal is not to offer SHIFT as a $999 machine and honestly, we don't see why. Quality never came cheap and the whole focus of PC world on continuous cost reduction brought us into current dead end. Also, challenging Apple without peripherals such as MAINGEAR keyboard, MAINGEAR mouse and MAINGEAR displays is a tough cookie. The company currently uses peripherals made by Razer, but the company will need to dig in and get customized designs as well.
We do approve to see the innovation on the market - now you know that a premium PC would cost you $1999 if MAINGEAR installed crapware loved by Tier Ones, but instead of loading your system with trial versions of software that is known not to work - they offered you a optimized operative system that just awaits your applications.
The big question is - can this approach yield positive financial results? If the company succeeds, others will have no choice but to wake up and smell the coffee. Everything now lies on customers.
MAINGEAR, MAINGEAR Computers, Chris Morley, Apple, Dell, Alienware, HP, VoodooPC, AMG, M, Envy 133, Envy 13, SHIFT, SHIFT P55, SHIFT X58, Wallace Santos, BOXX Technologies, Velocity Micro, HardOCP, Union, New Jersey, the personal supercomputer, personal supercomputer, supercomputer, trendkill, Lite-Brite, LED, GPGPU, GPU Computing, CUDA, vReveal, MotionDSP, Badaboom, SLI, Crossfire, CrossfireX, ATI, nVidia, Intel, Core i7, i7, Windows, Vista, Windows 7, Win7, W7, Microsoft, Asetek, liquid cooling, water-cooling, bloatware, crapware, The Power of 3, PhysX, P55, X58
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