From almost as soon as you purchase your new notebook, it is generally doomed to a life of obsolescence. Unlike desktop computers, laptops have certain components that can't be upgraded or replaced. On most laptops this includes the motherboard, graphics card, display, and sometimes even the processor. In this review we take a look at an external graphics card solution for notebooks called the DIY ViDock that promises to allow users to add a high performance graphics card to their system.
Test System Specifications:
External Graphics Card:
The DIY ViDock is comprised of two sections plus a power supply. The first is an ExpressCard or mini-PCIe interface card that connects the DIY ViDock to your notebook. Depending on the available ports or slots on your notebook, you might have to pick one or the other. With many notebooks going for thin and compact designs, the ExpressCard slot is sometimes left off newer notebooks. The mini-PCIe alternative has more restrictions, including BIOS whitelist issues, not to mention needing to take apart the laptop to route the wires. The next section is an external 16x PCI-Express slot used to interface with your graphics card.
It is powered by a 90w external power adapter or standard desktop power supply. In our case we went with a spare 330W SeaSonic power supply laying around the office to power the ViDock and ATI Radeon 4890. A third piece we ordered with our kit was a power supply on/off switch, allowing us to turn the desktop power supply on manually for the ViDock.
Setup is very easy... almost too easy. With our Lenovo ThinkPad T410s test rig, we plugged the ATI 4890 graphics card into the external adapter, connected the adapter to the laptop with the ExpressCard interface, and turned everything on. The system booted like normal and once it loaded into Windows, Windows Update started to automatically pull in drivers. From that point on the card showed up as a secondary video device, just like connecting another monitor via VGA or DisplayPort-out. Outside of installing the latest drivers from the ATI website for benchmarks, everything was handled automatically by the system without any problems whatsoever. Another added perk was the external audio device that showed up, adding HDMI-audio out to the notebook which would have helped greatly if we chose to make it into an HTPC. For even the most basic users this upgrade is entirely plug and play over the ExpressCard interface with most systems.
The test rig chosen for this review was previously deemed "ungamable" with a slow Intel GMA HD integrated graphics card. It was fine for most tasks like rendering Aero or decoding HD video, but trying to play a modern game on it at native resolution and high settings would be out of the question. In comes the DIY ViDock, which helped solve this dilemma.
To make sure everything was working as it should we turned to synthetic benchmarks to stretch the legs of the setup. 3DMark06 was reporting over 11,000... not too shabby when you realize the original score on this laptop was less than 2,000. 3DMark Vantage was over 6,000, giving us the indication that this system should easily handle current generation games.
PCMark05 measures overall system performance (higher scores mean better performance):
PCMark Vantage measures overall system performance (higher scores mean better performance):
3DMark06 measures overall graphics performance for gaming (higher scores mean better performance):
3DMark Vantage measures overall graphics performance for gaming (higher scores mean better performance):
Left 4 Dead 2 was the game of choice, tested at 1280x1024 which was the native resolution of the external monitor used in this review. With the detail settings maxed, the framerates were well within playable ranges. Average framerates were just under 60FPS and minimums never going below 30FPS. We couldn't have asked for better results from spare parts laying around the office and an $85 kit.
Even with the significant gains on a system that would have been impossible to game on previously, the DIY ViDock isn't for everyone. As you can see below the setup we had going for this review was beyond bulky and at times borderlined on scary.
The short cable gave little room to balance or secure the video card, leaving it balancing on the mounting bracket and having no support under the PCI Express adapter. The card was also completely exposed to being shorted out by small metal objects if it fell over on the desk. Even simple stuff like metal pens, coins, and screw drivers could cause problems.
Another problem we had was organizing the unused wires from the spare power supply, since this rig only needed power cords for the graphics card and a single Molex connection for the PCI Express adapter. Going with a more expensive power supply with removable cables would have helped, but it would also increase the cost of this upgrade. For a couple hundred bucks extra the loose graphics card problem can be solved by going with the retail kit, which includes an external housing and more polished components. The performance is still the same but one won't get you funny looks with it sitting on your desk.
The main draw to this upgrade-- besides the low price-- is users finally get to add a high performance graphics card to their notebook if it didn't include one already. For the weekend gamer it would still be a good idea to make sure the notebook you purchase can play the games you want to play from the beginning, instead of looking for upgrades later on. This method still has many flaws; hardware is balancing on your desk that is easily knocked over, lots of exposed electronics, a large external power source is needed to power the graphics card, and last but not least an external monitor. On the flip side using spare parts from around the office we made a thin and light ultraportable notebook into a high-end gaming system with a kit that only cost $85.
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* Ratings averaged to produce final score
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