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 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. An external GPU dock has a PCIe port for the graphics card and usually either a Thunderbolt or USB-C cable to connect to your computer.
Using a dock is as a simple as installing the card, installing the drivers, rebooting, and installing any custom software. (Of course, your experience will vary depending on your hardware.)
Once you have it set up, your computer routes graphics requests to the external GPU instead of the default one supplied with your computer. In theory, this process will get you better graphics performance as, by and large, laptops don’t have much graphical processing power. (Bear in mind that you can use an external GPU for your desktop, but they are 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 GPU mounted internally. How much performance do you lose, then? Estimates put the loss at around 10 to 15 percent. That isn’t a big deal, especially considering the monstrous capacity of the latest high-end graphics cards you can buy today.
However, the loss is something worth knowing about. If you’re hoping to play the latest AAA titles on ultra-high settings, an external laptop GPU setup might not do it for you. That’s not to say the external GPU won’t improve the graphical performance of your laptop; it definitely will. But the gains might not be as game-changing as you think.
Why not? Mostly because laptops just aren’t set up to handle that much power. And if they are, there’s a strong chance the laptop has an integrated GPU already, negating the need for an external GPU. Furthermore, while a PCIe port can transfer a lot of data very quickly, even the latest Thunderbolt and USB-C ports cannot match that data rate.
Your laptop CPU probably wasn’t designed to handle a powerful external GPU, either. Again, it’s not a deal-breaker, but you might notice the effects. This is especially true for older and slower CPUs.
3. External GPU Docks Are Expensive
Though an external GPU dock is basically just a small piece of motherboard with a PCIe port and a connector cord, you can end up shelling out a surprising amount. You’re looking at a couple hundred bucks or more. And that’s on top of the already expensive GPU to go in the dock. (Not forgetting the existing cost of 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’s another cost to consider. On the flipside, many laptops that aren’t officially certified to work with a specific external GPU dock will, in fact, work just fine. You might have to do a little bit of tinkering to get them working.
4. Research Is Important
External GPU docks have a wide variety of compatibilities and features. For example:
- The OWC Mercury Helios 3 will only take cards up to 75″.
- The Akitio Node takes “half-length” cards.
- Alienware’s Graphics Amplifier doesn’t have any USB or Thunderbolt ports; it uses a proprietary connector instead.
- The HP Accelerator Omen has a SATA port for connecting an additional HDD or SSD.
In addition, each of the listed external GPUs comes with specific compatibility requirements that you may or may not need to consider. As previously mentioned, the Alienware Graphics Amplifier has a proprietary connector and will only work with Alienware laptops. The Razer Core external GPU dock only works with Thunderbolt 3. The ASUS ROG XG Station 2 is 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 huge number of people interested in external GPUs, and they’ve already tested many combinations.
If you’re not sure where to start, check out Reddit’s /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 the drawbacks, external graphics cards do work. You will get better graphics performance out of your laptop and they’ll enable you to play games or run apps that wouldn’t have worked before. (Which upgrades improve your PC performance the most overall?) There are plenty of benchmarks showing that external GPUs provide a huge boost in graphics power, especially in MacBooks.
It’s difficult to say exactly how much of a boost your external GPU will give, or even how easy it’ll be to get everything up and running. However, if your laptop cannot run a particular game and you really want it to, an external graphics card is a viable solution.
6. External GPUs Will Only Get Better
The Thunderbolt/USB-C bandwidth issue isn’t going to alleviate magically. External GPU hardware and software will continue to improve and it’s more than likely that external GPUs will continue to improve.
Many people are interested in external GPUs. Additionally, hardware manufacturers want to get their GPUs into more people’s hands. As such, there’s plenty of incentive for them to keep improving the technology.
7. What Are the Best External Graphics Cards?
Finally, there are several excellent external GPU options available, depending on your budget and requirements. Here are three for you to consider:
Best Nvidia External GPU: Gigabyte AORUS Gaming Box
Gigabyte is a long-established name in GPU manufacturing, and its AORUS Gaming Box packs a massive punch into a reasonably stylish external GPU dock. The AORUS Gaming Box comes with an 8GB GTX 1070 Mini ITX, which is smaller than its full-size desktop counterpart but still offers similar stock performance.
Gigabyte’s Gaming Box connects to your laptop using Thunderbolt 3. The GTX 1070 Mini ITX features one HDMI port, one DisplayPort, and two DVI ports, as well as four USB 3.0 slots. Another plus for the Gaming Box is its weight. It only weighs about 4.4 pounds, making it relatively easy to travel around with. Furthermore, the AORUS Gaming Box comes as a single package, so there’s no fiddly installation process, either.
Best AMD External GPU: Akitio Node Pro With AMD RX 580
The Akitio Node Pro comes from a less-than-familiar name, but still comes with many advantages. Number one is the additional 500W power supply unit for the external GPU. For moments when you need maximum power from your external GPU, you can plug it in for optimal graphical output.
Furthermore, while this is an excellent choice for an AMD external GPU solution, you can easily swap your AMD GPU for an Nvidia card in the future.
You’ll find the Node Pro is a significant upgrade on its predecessor, the standard Akitio Node. The Node Pro weighs 10.2 pounds, which while not exactly lightweight, you could feasibly take it with you on public transportation. However, one definite downside is the Node Pro’s overall size. It is definitely better suited to living on your desk at home.
The Akitio Node Pro external GPU dock also features a single integrated DisplayPort, as well as two integrated Thunderbolt 3 ports.
Is an External GPU Right for You?
All 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 cheap 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.