When you ask people if you like to play on a gaming desktop or a gaming laptop, people are divided. Yes, gaming desktop PCs are much more powerful in specs but gaming laptops are not too far behind. Gaming laptops also give you the ability to play anywhere mainly because of their portability. Some people actually do prefer gaming laptops over gaming rigs because of that reason.
Now, since laptops are already more than capable of playing the high-end games, it still lags a bit behind the desktop gaming rigs. You’re probably asking, “is there a way to improve the graphical performance of my laptop?” Actually, there is a way that you can increase the performance of your laptop and that is via an external graphics card.
Below you’ll see our entry list of the external GPUs that we are going to discuss in this article.
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What is an External GPU? In this article, I will talk about everything you need to know about External GPUs and why you might need one for your laptop. I will also state some of the best ones out there if you decide to get one for yourself.
So, what are External GPUs?
Before I recommend some external GPUs to you, let’s talk first what they are. An External GPU is technically a desktop graphics card that is housed in an enclosure or placed on a board with a PCIe slot and then plugged into your gaming laptop via a cable. This idea actually started as a DIY by many people and it had a lot of drawbacks and hiccups. Not a lot of laptops back then were able to accept the external GPU, mainly because of compatibility issues.
Since then, technology has evolved, and we now see external GPUs as a real thing thanks to the introduction of the Thunderbolt 3 connection. This port offers massive speed improvements over its predecessors and that is why using an External GPU nowadays is slowly gaining traction and is now considered as a mainstream solution in boosting a laptop’s gaming performance. You see, while it is true that the computer’s RAM and CPU are essential in gaming, no one can deny that the graphics card or the GPU is the most important. It handles all of the graphical load and if you have a rather old GPU (like 3 years old), you may not be able to play high-end games anymore.
Thankfully, some amazing people have created the External GPU solution to help you play games with your aged laptop, provided that it is compatible. More on this later in the article. There are a lot of configurations for gaming laptops but there had to be some compromises. If you want an ultra portable 13-inch laptop, you are going to have a less powerful GPU. If you are gunning for a 17-inch laptop, it is quite powerful but at the cost of increased weight.
The middle-ground, 15-inch laptops, were touted to be the ones that will bridge the gap between portability and powerful performance but that is not really the case. There were some 15-inch laptops that had powerful GPUs but they are so noisy and they tend to get really hot. The only way for people, at least back then, to harness greater graphical performance is by buying those really big 17-18-inch laptops.
If you want a laptop that is light but you also want to increase your laptop’s prowess, then there is a way. A more efficient way at that. Using an external GPU will increase your gaming laptop’s performance by a lot, though, mileage may vary. Now that you know what external GPU’s are, I am now going to tackle its fundamentals.
External GPU Basics
Now that you know what External GPUs (eGPU) are, I am now going to talk about the basics of how to set it up. There are a few things you need in order for this to work, namely:
2.A Desktop Graphics Card
3.Another Monitor (this is optional)
4.The eGPU enclosure/ eGPU Board
6.Now, it is important to note that mainstream eGPU units already have a built-in power supply and you don’t really need an additional monitor. Some people recommend another monitor, though, as you can play on a bigger and better screen. But, the three main ones you should consider is your laptop, the desktop graphics card, and the particular enclosure/board you’re going to use.
Once you’ve acquired the necessary things that you need, here are the steps to have the external GPU up and running on your laptop:
The first thing you need to do is make sure that your laptop is compatible with the external GPU enclosure or board you’re going to use. An eGPU enclosure such as the new Razer Core, for example, uses the Thunderbolt port of your laptop. If you do not have a Thunderbolt port, obviously, the Razer Core will not work. There are a lot of resources over the internet wherein you can find if your laptop is compatible with eGPUs or not. Make sure to do your research first.
Next, you need to get your desktop graphics card. Before you buy just about any graphics card out there, make sure you know its dimensions first. You also need to factor in the supported graphics card measurements your eGPU enclosure can handle. Newer graphics cards tend to be really long. Take a look at the GTX 1080 AMP! Edition by Zotac, it is just a massive card! If you are going for big graphics cards like the one I just mentioned, make sure that it fits your chosen GPU enclosure.
Before you can even use the eGPU, it needs to have power. For that, you will need a power supply unit. Some eGPU enclosures already come with built-in PSUs which you can just plug in directly to the power source but there are some that rely on a dedicated one. You don’t really need a really huge PSU; at least 350-400 watts should be more than adequate. You can even use a 250-watt power supply considering that most modern GPUs are more power efficient than ever before. If you do not know which brand of PSU you should buy, you can buy either from EVGA, Cooler Master, Corsair, Seasonic, just to name a few.
The next thing you do is the actual setting up process. First, if you’re using an eGPU enclosure, you pull it out from its case to reveal the PCIe slot where you can plug your desktop graphics card in. It will come with screws so just unscrew them first, plug your GPU in, and then securely screw it back again. Next, hook up the necessary power connections to the enclosure or board. If you are using a board (and not an eGPU enclosure), you might need to plug the 24-pin ATX power connector in as well. You also need to plug an additional 8-pin PCIe connector to the board and you will need to plug either a 6-pin or 8-pin power connector on your graphics card (some graphics cards may require both of them or some might even require two 6-pin or two 8-pin power connectors).
Finally, plug its cable connector to your laptop. Now, depending on the eGPU enclosure/board you’re going to use, the cables they use may vary. If you’re going to use the aforementioned Razer Core, you’re going to need a Thunderbolt 3 port as it uses a Thunderbolt 3 connection. Once everything is plugged in, power on the PSU and then turn on your laptop. When everything is setup correctly, it should work!
Note: It is important that you install the latest graphics drivers for your GPU. This will ensure maximum compatibility on the GPU side and you’re also going to be treated with new features, improvements, and bug fixes. If your eGPU is not recognized, a driver update should fix it.
A lot of people ask me why the new eGPU enclosures now use a Thunderbolt connector as opposed to an HDMI connector used in previous eGPUs. Well, the answer is really simple: Thunderbolt 3 offers more advantages. The Thunderbolt 3 port has a maximum throughput of 40 Gbps bandwidth which means that it can deliver the necessary bandwidth from the enclosure to your laptop. Also, Thunderbolt 3 is a newer technology that will be utilized in the coming years and a lot of people actually like it due to the fact that the connector is reversible.
Also, eGPU enclosures are much easier to install as almost everything that you need is already there. The only things missing in the equation are your discrete graphics card and the laptop.
For good measure, visit the eGPU’s manufacturer website and download the drivers for the particular product. There are times that new drivers will be released for these eGPUs which will provide bug fixes as well as improvements and better stability.
Do you really need an eGPU?
External GPUs give a compatible laptop some oomph when it comes to performance but the question is, do you really need one? Well, that depends on what you really want. If you’re going to get a 14-inch laptop or any light and portable laptop, you will definitely increase its performance by using an eGPU. But, do not expect the eGPU to be the best solution as it is still limited in a way.
You see, desktop graphics cards are usually placed in the PCIe x16 slot of the motherboard which gives it a bandwidth of about 128 Gbps. If you are going to use the Thunderbolt 3 connection, you’re only going to be limited to a maximum of 40Gbps, which is not even half of what a PCI x16 slot can give. Despite all of this, there is hope. Technology is ever evolving and since eGPUs are gaining popularity, they are going to be further developed. This means that in the coming years, we might see an eGPU that is more than capable of delivering the right speeds and power to your laptop.
Now, I am talking about the newer eGPU enclosures and boards but it is important to note that it requires a Thunderbolt 3 port. Only laptops that are released late last year and this year (2016) have Thunderbolt 3 ports. Which means that if you have an old laptop, you are going to use the older forms of eGPU technology. Truth be told, there are still other eGPU mechanisms out there that require an HDMI port but because of its heavy bandwidth limitation, the eGPU’s performance might be severely hampered. If, however, you have a relatively new laptop that has the said Thunderbolt port, having new eGPU game boxes can really help you boost your laptop’s gaming performance.
Before buying one of them new game boxes, you need to be aware of its connectors. Alienware is currently making new game boxes (or eGPU enclosures) but they use a proprietary connector which can be a pain to consumers. It is a burden because if you lose the said cable, you cannot replace it readily as you will have to order from the company again. They also tend to be much more expensive than, say, a conventional Thunderbolt 3 cable. So, keep that in mind when you’re considering to get an eGPU.
Now that you know what an eGPU is and its fundamentals, I am now going to recommend some of the best ones out there. Do note that the ones I am going to recommend are eGPU enclosures because I find them more robust and feature-rich compared to the eGPU boards that were prevalent a few years back. Let’s get started with the first recommendation, which is…
Razer used to have its focus on gaming peripherals but they have since ventured into other gaming components as well. Their latest offering is the Razer Core, a nice looking eGPU enclosure that has everything that you need (well, except the GPU). It comes in a matte black finish with prominent air vents on the front. There is a foldable handle that you can pull in order to reveal the inside.
On the left side, you’re going to see the PSU by Enhance and on the right side is the PCIe slot where you can plug your desktop graphics card. It also comes with the necessary power connectors to power the entire thing up.
Installing the graphics card is easy as all you’re going to do is unscrew some things, plug your GPU, screw them back in, plug the power connectors, and you’re done. It also comes with its Thunderbolt 3 connector as well. The only thing that people do not like about the Razer Core is its unusually short cable. The included cable has a length of only 20 inches. When asked about this, representatives from Razer said that the longer the cable is, the bigger the chance of signal degradation. Although this is true, the cable could’ve been a little bit longer. 20 inches is not really long and you might have to keep the Razer Core really close to your laptop.
Noise levels are also acceptable. Even with a powerful graphics card like the GTX 980 Ti, the card is under 42 decibels. It is noticeable but it isn’t annoyingly loud. Thermals are also in check thanks to its design and carefully placed air vents. This one also comes with 4 USB 3.0 ports at the back which you can use for your other peripherals (a Razer peripheral, perhaps?).
As of right now, the Razer Core only extensively supports their Razer gaming laptops but with future driver updates, the Razer Core should work on laptops that have the Thunderbolt 3 port. The Razer Core is expensive as it retails for $499. But, knowing that Razer is a company that is dedicated to offering the best to gamers, this product is going to be a solid eGPU.
Alienware Graphics Amplifier
Alienware is synonymous with amazing gaming laptops. Since they manufacture their very own, they know that there are certain limitations when it comes to ultra-portable gaming laptops (having a 13 or 14-inch form factor). To further enhance any gaming laptop, they, too, have created their own eGPU enclosure in the form of the “Alienware Graphics Amplifier”.
I know, it is not as fancy of a name as that of Razer’s offering but I like that it wants a more straightforward approach. The Alienware Graphics Amplifier has a predominantly black design with some grills on the side of the enclosure that will act as air vents.
Unlike the Razer Core mentioned above, the Alienware Graphics Amplifier has a lid-type design where you pull the top cover off to unveil the PCIe slot. There is also an included 460-watt power supply which should power even the most power hungry graphics cards. It also has all of the connectors that you need to power things up.
For many people, they like the Alienware Graphics Amplifier better than the Razer Core. That is because it has better compatibility with different laptops and it has a much better cooling performance thanks to the included fan and carefully placed side vents. Probably, the only thing that many people dislike about the Alienware Graphics Amplifier is that it uses a proprietary connection to your laptop. Still, the cable that it uses reportedly gives 4GB/s of data, which is not as fast as the PCIe x16 connection (at 16GB/s), but performance is considerable.
The Amplifier also comes with four USB ports at the back of it so you can plug in your peripherals such as a gaming headset, gaming mouse, gaming keyboard, and probably another external storage device. The looks are also quite good since it comes with a black finish with some Alienware aesthetics in some areas. It also comes with some illumination as well so the design is always in check.
Overall, the Alienware Graphics Amplifier is great. It does have some quirks like the proprietary cable, but this is one awesome eGPU enclosure. This product costs $300.
PowerColor Devil Box
If you want an eGPU that has a lot of flexibility and a vast array of laptops it can support, then the PowerColor Devil Box is a promising choice. The thing about this product is that it isn’t tied to any specific laptop manufacturer, meaning, any laptop that has a Thunderbolt 3 port can use this one without any problems.
The PowerColor Devil Box is a bit compact and it has a rather similar form to that of the Razer Core. But, there are some things that will distinguish this one from what Razer has to offer. This eGPU has a steel enclosure with the Devil Power Color logo on the front. On the left side, you’re going to see a mesh that is secured with a couple of screws. This is the side that will act as the exhaust for hot air. On the right side, you will see a steel panel with the PowerColor branding on it. The enclosure is quite sturdy and the aesthetics really warrants its hot moniker.
There are a couple of USB 3.0 ports in this one; three of which are USB 3.0 Type A ports, a single USB 3.0 port on the front, and a single USB Type-C 3.1 connector located at the back. There is also an Ethernet port at the back as well. You can also see the Thunderbolt 3 connection just a bit on top of the aforementioned port. The cool thing about the Devil Box’s Thunderbolt port is that it not only carries the graphics card’s signal; it can also charge the laptop as well. This is pretty nice as you can ditch the charging cable of your laptop for a cleaner desk.
What I like about the Devil Box is that it comes with a 500-watt power supply from Seasonic. I like Seasonic PSUs because they are one of the most reliable PSUs on the market, so you are assured that this is a quality product. The spec sheet says that the Devil Box can support graphics cards that have a maximum TDP of 375 watts. In other words, any graphics card that is not overclocked will be supported by this enclosure.
Setting up is a breeze and because this supports a variety of gaming laptops, you only need to download the drivers from their website and it should be good to go! It also has some LEDs on the inside to further enhance the aesthetic appeal of the enclosure. Seriously, there is no negative comment about this eGPU. Probably, the only thing I will say is that it is a bit on the heavier side. But other than that, this eGPU has a solid build, great aesthetics, and a broader scope of laptops it can support. This eGPU retails for $379.
Graphics Cards Recommendations
Now, that I’ve recommended some eGPU enclosures to you, it is now time for me to include some recommendations for the graphics cards as well. You see, an eGPU does not work by itself; it needs a desktop graphics card to provide that additional power to your laptop. With that being said, what are the best graphics cards that you can put into an eGPU? Well, I would highly suggest you get Nvidia graphics cards. Not that I am biased but the latest Pascal graphics cards provide the best improvement in graphical performance than what AMD has to offer.
If you have the money, get at least a GTX 1060 which is on par with the GTX 970 (which is a Maxwell graphics card) and it even outperforms it in some areas. For a great graphics card, get the GTX 1070 as it priced just right compared to the GTX 1080. Although the 1080 and the GTX Titan XP are the best ones from the green side, I do not recommend them to be used in eGPUs because they are so expensive and their performance can be limited due to the fact that the eGPU enclosure only supports a maximum of 40Gbps bandwidth. If anything, the GTX 1070 is a great card and I consider it to be the ceiling if you’re going the Nvidia route.
If you’re a fan of AMD graphics cards, their newest Polaris GPUs offer a pretty good performance boost without breaking the bank. The RX 480 costs under $300 and its performance is on par with the GTX 1060 and it even outperforms it in some games. Furthermore, the RX 470 is the next one as it is just a minor downgrade to the aforementioned RX 480. If you’re on a tight budget, the RX460 provides an affordable performance boost, though nothing stellar. Of course, you can use the RX Nano and their previous generation cards but the thing about them is that they produce a lot of heat and their TDPs tend to be higher than the newest GPUs from the company. So, if you do want to stick with AMD, just get either the RX 460, 470, or 480.
Other Things to Consider
I know that the eGPU gives an additional graphical boost to your laptop but there are also some other things you need to consider as well. If you want to improve your overall gaming experience on a laptop, your gaming laptop should have a quad-core processor. You see, there are titles that would rely more on the CPU and there are titles that would require the CPU to work just as much as the GPU. If you want to improve the framerates, yes you will need an eGPU, but also put into consideration the processor of the laptop as it, too, can affect its overall performance.
RAM is also another thing to consider. Most triple A titles require a lot of system RAM. In fact, some games like Star Wars: Battlefront would recommend that you have 16GB of RAM (in my tests, it rarely goes beyond 8GB RAM but I am assuming that EA factored in other opened programs as well).
When plugging in your eGPU, make sure to download the necessary drivers to make sure that you won’t run into any problems. If the eGPU you’re using is not recognized, it is wise that you update the display drivers and 90% of the time, it should fix the problem. Also, when plugging your enclosure, it will turn off the GPU that the laptop is using.
There are also some eGPUs that will require a reboot if you decide to unplug the cable. Some laptops will freeze, others will give you a BSOD, while others will just take time before it returns you to the previous application you’ve opened. For safety, shut down your laptop first before unplugging the eGPU.
You might notice that I didn’t include eGPU boards. That is because I find that eGPU boards are too vulnerable and a lot can go wrong. Plus, you will need an external PSU to power the entire thing. I just like the eGPU enclosures because they are easy to setup and they come with everything you need in just one place. Enclosures also provide you with a lot of flexibility. Most, if not all, eGPUs come with USB ports. You can plug a variety of peripherals into them and there are also some that will charge your laptop as well.
Also, even though you can overclock the graphics card, I would highly advise against it. This is because overclocking the GPU will increase its TDP and power draw and it can also produce a lot of heat. If you’re one of those ballsy types and you want to squeeze every bit of performance, then you can do so. But, just make sure that you keep in mind what I just said.
External Graphics Processing Unit or eGPU is a wise addition to your laptop. If you want a portable laptop that is light and you want to increase its graphical power, then the eGPU will get you covered. Yes, they are pricey and you would need to dish out some more money on a desktop graphics card, but think of the positives.
If you buy a desktop graphics card for use in the enclosure, you will find that it will be easier for you to upgrade into a desktop PC at a later time if you so desire. Furthermore, the graphical improvements they bring will surely give that extra kick to your laptop.
eGPU enclosures are sturdy and they provide the best possible avenue to improve your laptop’s performance. As mentioned in the early parts of the article, some manufacturers still cannot make an ultra-portable laptop without compromising its gaming performance. This is their way to somehow improve that performance and they sure deliver (provided that you pack it with the right graphics card).
If you ask me, “do I need an External graphics processing unit for my laptop”? I would definitely say yes, especially if you want to play the latest games at really high settings. They do not come cheap but they give your ailing laptop the extra oomph to tackle the newest games.