External graphics processing units (eGPUs) sound great. You can get desktop-quality graphics on a laptop, which means you only need one computer for portability and high-level gaming.
But do they stand up against internal GPUs? Is it worth dropping a few hundred bucks on a dock? How much performance can you really expect? Unfortunately, expectations and realities may differ with external GPUs.
But they can still be very useful. Let’s take a look.
1. How Do External GPUs Work?
In most cases, you’ll see an external GPU hooked up to a dock. A GPU dock has a PCIe port for the graphics card, and usually either a Thunderbolt or USB-C cord to connect to a computer. Using a dock is as simple as installing the card, installing some drivers, rebooting, and maybe setting up some software. (As with any workaround, whether it’s really that easy varies.)
Once you have it set up, your computer routes graphics requests to the external GPU instead of the one supplied with the computer. This will get you better graphics performance, as laptops generally don’t have much graphical processing power. (You can use this setup for a desktop, too, but it’s much more common for laptops.)
By using the bigger, more powerful card, you get better graphical performance. Maybe even enough to play some graphically intense games. Sounds great, right?
2. External Performance Doesn’t Stack Up
Unfortunately, using an external GPU doesn’t give you the same performance as it would if you had the same card mounted internally. How much performance do you lose? 10-15 percent! That’s not huge, especially with the immense power of the some of the high-end graphics cards you can buy today.
But it’s still worth knowing about. If you’re hoping to play the newest games on the highest settings, an external setup isn’t going to do it for you.
That’s not to say that an external graphics card won’t improve the performance of your laptop. It definitely will. But the gains might not be quite as much as you expect.
Why not? Mostly because laptops just aren’t set up to handle that much power. A PCIe port can transfer a lot of data very quickly, and even the newest Thunderbolt or USB-C port isn’t going to be able to transfer the same amount of data. The difference might not be huge, but it will make a difference.
Laptop CPUs aren’t designed to handle powerful external GPUs, either. Again, it’s not a dealbreaker, but you might notice the effects. Especially if you have an slower or older CPU.
3. GPU Docks Are Expensive
For being basically a small piece of motherboard with a PCIe port and a connector cord, you can pay a surprising amount for GPU docks. You’re looking at a couple hundred bucks or more. And that’s on top of the price of a graphics card (and your laptop, of course).
Some docks are also only compatible with certain brands of laptops, which means you won’t be able to transfer them if you get a new one. That could further add to the cost. Though it’s worth noting that many laptops that aren’t certified to work with specific GPU docks will, in fact, work. But it might take some tinkering and it’s possible there will be (more) performance costs.
4. Research Is Important
External GPU boxes come with a wide variety of compatibilities and features. The OWC Mercury Helios 3, for example, will only take cards up to 7.75″. The Akitio Node takes “half-length” cards. The Alienware Graphics Amplifier doesn’t have any USB or Thunderbolt ports, it uses a proprietary connector. The HP Accelerator Omen has a SATA port for connecting HDDs or solid-state drives.
And every one of them has specific compatibility requirements that you may or may not need to be aware of. As previously mentioned, the Alienware Graphics Amplifier will only work with Alienware laptops. The Razer Core only works with Razer devices. The ASUS XG Station 2 is very unclear about which non-ASUS products it will work with.
In short, if you want an external GPU, you need to spend some time researching to make sure it’s going to work. Fortunately, there are a lot of people out there interested in external GPUs, so many of the combinations have been tested.
If you’re not sure where to start, check out /r/eGPU. It’s an active subreddit with a lot of people who might be able to help.
5. You Will Get Better Graphics Performance
Despite these drawbacks, eGPUs do work. You’ll get better graphics performance out of your laptop, and you’ll be able to play games or run apps that wouldn’t have worked before. There are plenty of benchmarks out there showing that eGPUs provide a huge boost in graphics power, especially in MacBooks.
It’s just difficult to say exactly how much of a boost you’ll get, or whether it’ll be easy to get the whole setup up and running. But if your laptop can’t run games, and you want it to, this is a viable solution.
6. eGPUs Will Probably Only Get Better
The Thunderbolt/USB bandwidth issue is going to be difficult to overcome anytime soon. But hardware and software will likely continue to improve in this area, and you’ll be able to benefit.
Many people are interested in eGPUs, and hardware manufacturers want to get their cards into more people’s hands. So there’s plenty of incentive for them to keep improving this technology.
Will they become more widely compatible? Smaller and more portable? Easier to get set up? There’s no way to know. But it’s a good bet that all of those things are likely. Unfortunately, it’s unknown whether those benefits will trickle down to owners of current-generation devices or if you’ll need to upgrade when they happen.
7. There are Some Good Options
If, after reading all of the above, you still want to grab an eGPU, you have some solid options. Here are three that you should consider.
ASUS ROG XG Station 2
ASUS’s latest entry into this market has pretty much everything you need. It works with both NVIDIA and AMD cards. It has four USB 3.0 connectors, a USB Type B connector, and Thunderbolt 3. It even has an ethernet port so you can get plugged-in speeds while gaming.
It also comes packed with a great power supply, dual-wide capability for cards with big coolers, and some very cool lighting effects. Unfortunately, it’ll also cost you the equivalent of a high-end Chromebook.
PowerColor Devil Box
If you want to save some money, the Devil Box is a solid choice. It doesn’t provide as many features as the XG Station, but it does give you Thunderbolt 3 connectivity, ethernet, and SATA ports.
PowerColor only lists the Razer Blade Stealth and Intel NUC as compatible, but users of other systems have used this box to good effect.
3. Akitio Node
At the more affordable end of widely compatible eGPUs, the Node is sure to be a popular option. Thunderbolt 3, full-length and double-width capacity, and extra power pins will let you run high-end graphics cards at close to full power.
It doesn’t provide quite as much power some of the other options out there, but it will be plenty for most applications.
Will You Be Buying an External GPU?
All of this information should give you a good idea of what you’re getting if you want to invest in an external GPU. In the end, putting that couple hundred bucks toward building your own gaming PC might be a better investment. (You might be surprised how affordable building your own PC can be.)
But if that’s not reasonable, or you really need a laptop, it could be a good way to go.
Have you used an eGPU? How was the experience? After reading these pros and cons, will you be buying one? Share your thoughts in the comments below!