The Best Ways to Connect an External Graphics Card to Your Laptop

Computers Laptops, especially gaming laptops, are a study in compromises. The smaller machines are lighter and easier to transport, but the larger and heavier cases offer the dedicated graphics cards needed for high-end gaming. An external graphics card lets you have your cake (no lie) and eat it too.

What is an eGPU?

An external GPU (or eGPU for short) is a box dedicated PCIe slot that combines an open PCIe slot, a desktop-style power supply, and a full-size graphics card that plugs into your laptop. When you do, you have desktop gaming power and connectivity without sacrificing those slim modern laptop designs.

Things like this have been tried before, but recently there’s been an increase in these products. High data and video bandwidth on single-cable connections like USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt 3 have finally enabled the kind of lightning-fast connections needed to offload GPU processing to external hardware, while still relying on the internal motherboard of a laptop for standard computing. An added bonus: Many external GPUs come with additional USB ports, Ethernet, and more, which means it’s easy to plug and play with a ton of additional hardware, like multiple monitors or gaming keyboards and mice.

At the moment, the de facto standard for this high-bandwidth operation is Thunderbolt 3. With a 40 Gbps connection that can handle video, audio, data, and an Internet connection simultaneously, plus up to 100 watts of power in compatible hardware, it’s a single cable that can truly do it all. And since it uses the standardized USB-C port (the one found on the new Macbook, later revisions of the XPS 13, and more and more laptops every day), it’s becoming more adaptable from a pure hardware perspective.

That said, the software is another problem. Right now, most external GPU systems rely on quite complex and specific drivers, allowing laptops to shift the load from their integrated graphics chip to the dedicated NVIDIA or AMD graphics card. This is complex stuff, so universal solutions are rare, and companies like Dell and Razer only support external graphics on specific laptop models. Some more general options, as well as older standards like USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt 2, offer more options but lower graphics performance.

The best eGPU options on the market right now

<p Update: The eGPU landscape has changed since we originally published this article in 2017. Here are our picks for the best eGPUs in 2020.

Unfortunately, external GPUs are still Being an emerging segment and several years after the first models were introduced, they are still scarce on the ground. Here are the current options from major PC manufacturers.

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Razer Core

Price: $500Connection: Thunderbolt 3Compatibility: Razer Blade and Blade Stealth

This is probably the best-known external graphics setup, if only for Razer’s sheer presence in the desktop gaming accessory space. The Razer Core is a little black box that manages to remain attractive, thanks to a powerful 500-watt power supply for the biggest and baddest graphics cards, integrated USB 3.0 connections for external drives and accessories, and dedicated Ethernet for a fast online connection. connections It has room for the largest AMD and NVIDIA GPUs on the market, supporting dual-slot cards up to 12.2 inches (310mm) long. It’s also the sleekest option on this list, with support for Razer’s open Chroma RGB lighting API.

But at $500, without the graphics card itself, it’s one of the most expensive around. Razer says it doesn’t limit the functionality of the Thunderbolt 3 graphics connection to its own machines, but the only laptops certified to work with Core are the Razer’s Blade and Blade Stealth, which are more expensive and offer fewer customization options than many competitors. Testing the Core with more generic systems has had mixed results, so buying it without a companion Razer laptop is something of a dice game.

Alienware Graphics Amplifier

<p Price: $200Connection: ProprietaryCompatibility: Alienware 13, 15, 17

Dell Alienware’s gaming sub-brand is on board with the eGPU revolution, and as you might suspect, its offering is one of the cheapest on the market. What the graphics amp lacks in style, it makes up for with its $200 price tag (without the GPU and laptop, of course). It’s also the only eGPU option from a major brand to use the older USB 3.0 standard, which unfortunately means that support for AMD XConnect, AMD’s semi-proprietary set of drivers for easily driving eGPUs, is out.You have a variety of compatible laptop options, from the relatively small Alienware 13 to the monstrous Alienware 17… which probably won’t need an external GPU for most games.

But that lower price comes with some sacrifices. The amp is limited to graphics cards that are 10.5 inches long, making some of the more bombastic NVIDIA and AMD models incompatible. While the graphics amp has four USB 3.0 ports for expansion, there’s no Ethernet port, which means you’ve got an extra cable to connect to your laptop if you want the fastest gaming connection. It’s also a real shame that Dell only supports Alienware laptops, instead of including their more utilitarian XPS line, which would be a fantastic combination.

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PowerColor Devil Box

Price: $450Connection: Thunderbolt 3Compatibility: Any PC with Thunderbolt eGFX

PowerColor is a manufacturer of GPUs and accessories, it’s not a dedicated systems vendor like Razer or Dell. Appropriately, the sinister Devil Box is supposedly compatible with any Windows PC that can use a Thunderbolt 3 port with external graphics, plus any AMD or NVIDIA graphics card (including ones not made by PowerColor). The box supports all of the Razer Core bells and whistles, including full-size GPUs, an Ethernet connection, and up to 375 watts of power for the graphics card. It even has an internal SATA III slot to slide in a 2.5″ hard drive or SSD for backup or external storage, a nice touch.

The Devil Box is a bit pricey at $450, but the potential for multiple – The system compatibility is probably worth the extra money for anyone planning to maintain it through multiple GPU and laptop upgrades. The “hobo stamp” and “DIABLO” marking might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but hey, you can always throw it under your desk.

MSI Gaming Dock

Price: Included only with the MSI Shadow GS30Connection: ProprietaryCompatibility: MSI Shadow GS30/32

The MSI The Gaming Dock, available only in an expensive bundle with the company’s gaming brand’s Shadow GS30 laptop, is the least versatile option on this list. That said, it’s not really aimed at the same market: the Gaming Dock is a companion device, packing in extras like a 2.1 speaker setup, microphone and headphone ports, a full-size 3.5″ SATA slot, and branding. Killer. network card It is designed to sit just below the laptop like an elaborate stand, as the proprietary connector plugs directly into the bottom of the laptop. The slightly newer Gaming Dock Mini is sleeker and more angular, but it omits the speakers and adds vents for passive cooling.

The Gaming Dock is really only an option if you’re absolutely sure you want to the Shadow GS30 in particular… and since neither it nor the Dock has been significantly updated in quite some time, that’s probably not a great idea unless you find it at a deep discount.

Upcoming Designs

All of the above is available now, but if you’re willing to wait, there are a few more eGPU solutions on the horizon, including:

  • ASUS ROG XG Station 2: XG Station 2 is the only eGPU tool so far to be explicitly compatible with a Windows tablet: the new premium line ASUS Transformer Book. (It’s like a Surface Pro, only in Taiwanese.) It’s also compatible with one of the more powerful versions of Intel’s tiny NUC computer, though plugging it into a small desktop seems to defeat the point of a plug-and-play system. . The only big disappointment here is that ASUS is taking its time bringing the ROG XG Station 2 to market: nearly two months after the announcement, there’s no indication of a release date or price.
  • Gigabyte GP -T3GFx: Like the Devil Box before it, Gigabyte’s alphabet soup of an eGPU enclosure is designed with maximum compatibility in mind. It can handle the largest graphics cards and should work with a Thunderbolt 3 eGFX compatible system, though this vertical design omits extras like USB ports and SATA slots. Unfortunately, we haven’t even seen a skin for the product in progress since Gigabyte showed it off last summer, although it’s officially yet to come.
  • The Wolfe: This Kickstarter project is an eGPU designed with Mac users in mind. In addition to the absolutely necessary aluminum casing, it’s sealed with an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050 or 1060 inside, and trying to swap the card will void your warranty. The advantage is that it is smaller and more portable than other eGPU products.Wolfe’s production team still claims the product will make its way to their website, but after a canceled Kickstarter campaign due to Thunderbolt licensing issues, the future looks bleak.
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Other they may be on the way in the distant future, but here’s what we know right now.

The DIY option: Build your own eGPU

None of the above tickle your fancy? It is possible to create your own eGPU with a combination of the correct cables, a PCIe port mounted on a custom portion of the motherboard, and a separate desktop power supply. The bad news is that it’s still largely uncharted territory, backed by an enthusiastic but small community of modders and a handful of parts vendors. Thunderbolt 2 PCIe enclosures offer an all-in-one solution, but graphics bandwidth is lower than previous products and driver support can be questionable. Most mainstream PCIe adapters require a custom case or setup in the open, and often there’s no way to know that it will work with a specific laptop except to build it, install drivers, and plug it in. At the moment, retail eGPUs are probably a safer bet, albeit more expensive: you can always return them if they don’t work.

Image credit: Yun Huang Yong/Flickr

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