It’s no secret that upgradeable notebook graphics are a bit of an oxymoron. Despite the fact Nvidia’s MXM modular graphics card technology has been available to notebook designers for over a decade, few have fully adopted the standard. The lack of a universal solution for upgrading notebook graphics has left notebook owners at a significant economic disadvantage relative to desktop PC owners.
In the gaming world, and other graphics-intensive usages, the graphics card is usually the primary performance-limiting factor. Extending the life cycle of a gaming desktop or a professional 3D rendering workstation can be as simple as swapping in a new graphics card. On the notebook side of the equation, even if its processor, memory, and storage are up to the task (and they usually will be for many years after the fact) the lack of a powerful-enough graphics card means your old laptop is now obsolete. It can make the purchase of a gaming notebook or a mobile workstation a hard sell if you’re interested in a longer-term investment.
Although not a new idea, using an external graphics solution has only recently caught on in the mainstream. These solutions allow you to plug in an external enclosure to your notebook, and enjoy the power of a desktop graphics card. The original DIY solutions, as we’ll discuss in the next section, weren’t all that elegant, but they paved the way for the elegant plug-and-play solutions now being produced by mainstream notebook makers. Let’s take a look.
The Humble Beginnings of eGPUs
The market for external graphics cards (eGPUs) started in the DIY world. We house a dedicated discussion forum for external graphics solutions. The primary reference thread in that forum has been going since 2009, and has racked up over five million reads since then, with nearly 12,000 replies by forum members.
The original DIY eGPU solutions were hit and miss in terms of compatibility – they worked with some notebooks, and didn’t work with others. The original eGPUs connected to the notebook by ways of an ExpressCard or other externally accessible mini PCI-e slot; in the last two years, USB 3.0, Thunderbolt, and USB Type-C based connections have surfaced. Companies such as Magma also now produce enclosures which neatly house the external graphics card and have a built-in power supply. The original DIY eGPU solutions weren’t as simple; picture a desktop power supply connected to a desktop graphics card, which is then connected via special adapter to the notebook by way of an ExpressCard or other connection. On top of the latter, you then faced possible driver issues in getting the notebook to properly recognize and utilize the graphics card. And finally, those original solutions required the use of an external display.
Fortunately, Thunderbolt 3 and USB Type-C have greatly simplified the mechanics of eGPUs. These ports are becoming increasingly common on notebooks, and by the looks of where the technology is going, it’s possible that almost any notebook with those ports will be able to use an eGPU. The new solutions also allow the use of the notebook’s internal display, as opposed to only outputting to an external display like earlier eGPU solutions. Naturally, you can still connect an external display to your eGPU-equipped notebook if you desire.
Now let’s take a look at three examples of name-brand eGPU solutions.
Alienware Graphics Amplifier
Alienware’s solution is largely regarded as the first “mainstream” eGPU solution. We tested it in early 2015 with the company’s bread-and-butter Alienware 15 gaming notebook, and experienced performance gains in excess of 60 percent over the notebook’s not-insignificant internal graphics, thanks to the power of the desktop graphics card inside the device. The Graphics Amplifier uses a proprietary port to connect to the notebook, making it incompatible with non-Alienware notebooks that lack the proprietary connection. Roughly the size of a shoebox, the Graphics Amplifier houses a 460W power supply, and accepts any double-wide desktop graphics card. Our only complaint is that a restart of Windows is required to switch over. The Graphics Amplifier’s original street price was $299.99 for the unit itself on top of the price of the notebook, and then you’d have to factor in the cost of the desktop graphics card of your choosing.
Largely known for their gaming peripherals, Razer only started producing computer hardware within the last several years, including notebooks. At CES 2016, we were amazed when Razer demonstrated its first external graphics solution, Core. Unlike the just-discussed Alienware Graphics Amplifier, the Razer Core uses an industry-standard Thunderbolt 3 connection. The aluminum housing itself can accommodate up to a double-wide desktop graphics card in the same fashion as Alienware’s solution. The Core isn’t yet available for purchase as of when we’re writing this, but according to Razer, it should be possible to use the Core with other notebooks aside from the company’s own. That means just about any notebook with a Thunderbolt 3 port and a supported Intel chipset can use the Core. As an added bonus, restarting Windows isn’t required to switch to the external graphics. Pricing hasn’t been announced.
MSI’s external graphics solution is called the GamingDock. We previewed the original version of the MSI GamingDock at CES 2015. It worked only with the company’s GS30 gaming notebook via a proprietary connection, making it similar in that respect to the Alienware Graphics Amplifier. Inside, the GamingDock could house any full-power desktop graphics card. The only issue with the device is its practicality; it’s essentially a large box, and the notebook must dock on top of it. That makes it next to impossible to use the docked notebook without using an external monitor and keyboard.
At CES 2016, MSI revealed a revamped model called the GamingDock Mini. This time, the dock is for the company’s 14-inch GS40 gaming notebook. It still has room to house a desktop-class graphics card, but is much slimmer than the original GamingDock. Like the original, however, it has a built-in power supply. Restarting Windows is required to switch between the notebook’s onboard graphics and the dock, unlike Razer’s solution. The GamingDock Mini is expected to ship later this year for $169, which is the price for the dock by itself – don’t forget to factor in the cost of a graphics card, and of course, the MSI notebook to go with the whole setup.
A short while back, we detailed the plight of notebook owners looking to upgrade their graphics. Despite the fact Nvidia’s modular MXM graphics card format has been around for over a decade, the graphics upgradeability of notebooks hasn’t improved all that much – you’ll still be hard-pressed to find a notebook that has upgradeable graphics. Few notebook makers have fully embraced the standard.
External graphics solutions are here to save the day, however. We’ve seen DIY solutions on the market for years, though some assembly was required – and that’s putting it lightly. The original solutions were little more than a desktop graphics card connected to a power supply, and then awkwardly connected to the notebook via an external PCIe port. When they worked, however, the performance gains were tremendous.
Over the last two years, notebook makers have caught on and started producing branded external graphics solutions. Alienware was first out of the gate with its Graphics Amplifier, followed by MSI with its GamingDock. Both of these solutions had proprietary connections, which restricted them to being used only with the company’s own notebooks.
At CES 2016, Razer demonstrated what could be the first universal solution for external graphics, the Core. The use of an industry-standard Thunderbolt 3 connection means it could theoretically be used with any notebook that has that port. That theory hasn’t been tested, but we have a feeling the lights are about to turn green. We may finally have a true plug-and-play external graphics solution for notebooks.