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What’s The Deal With External Graphics Docks?

What is an External Graphics Dock?

Not everyone who likes to play video games has the time, money, or know-how to build their own gaming PC. These people will more often than not opt to get a gaming laptop instead, which with their high cost and TDP/wattage-limited graphics solutions prove unsatisfactory for high intensity gaming. If not a gaming laptop, then they do what they can with their thin & light notebook with integrated graphics that, while great for portability, can not run games very well at all. Using an external graphics dock you can get the best of both worlds! There is minimal assembly required, and you can have your thin and light laptop to bring to class or to work, then when you get home plug into your external graphics dock and have all the gaming horsepower and display outputs you need.

Sounds Great! How Do These External Graphics Docs Work, Then?

egpu
The most basic eGPU dock

The basic concept of an external graphics dock is this: take a regular desktop Graphics Card, plug it into a PCIe slot in a dock, get power to the dock and the Graphics card, then plug that dock into your laptop. After installing the right drivers and performing two or three restarts, hark! High frame rates at high settings are coming your way. The internal GPU is completely bypassed and data is sent from the laptop to the GPU to an external display, and in some cases back to the laptop to power its own internal display. The graphics card will have to be purchased separately, and to see a sizable difference in performance over a dedicated laptop GPU you will be looking at around $200 for that card on top of the cost of the dock. Each commercially available dock has their own benefits and drawbacks, but all of them share some basic properties. They can all accept any single or dual-slot GPU from AMD or Nvidia (cooler size permitting), and have at least two 6+2-pin power connectors to power the graphics card. Along with the GPU support, docks usually also add at least four USB ports to connect peripherals similar to the laptop docks of olde.

So What Are The Performance Numbers Really Like?

In general, performance loss over using that same GPU in a real desktop is 10-15%. This can be due to a reduced bandwidth over the connection to the laptop, or due to bottlenecking from less powerful laptop CPUs. However, even over a dedicated laptop GPU the increase in performance when using an external one is roughly double. Here’s a few benchmarks of recent AAA titles, courtesy of TechSpot. Listed from bottom to top, each graph has performance of the internal GPU, the Graphics Amplifier with a desktop GPU, and that same GPU in a regular desktop PC.

aga bench 1aga bench 3 aga bench 2

 

Let’s Take A Look At What is Available Today:

Alienware Graphics Amplifier (MSRP $199):

aga
Pros – Relatively inexpensive, High bandwidth interface, Good airflow, PSU is user upgradeable
Cons – Only works for Alienware machines (R2 & up), Uses proprietary cable, Requires shutdown to connect / disconnect

Razer Core (MSRP $499):
razercore
Pros – Universal Thunderbolt 3 interface, Adds ethernet jack, Sturdy aluminum construction, Small size
Cons – High cost, Compatibility list with non-Razer computers is short

MSI GS30 Shadow:
gs30shadow

Pros: User upgradeable PSU, Includes support for internal 3.5″ drive, Has integrated speakers
Cons: Only works for one machine, Huge footprint, Dock cannot be purchased separately

Final Thoughts

After seeing all the facts, does using an eGPU sound like the solution for you? If none of the options available sound perfect right now, don’t fret. As the popularity of eGPUs grows, more companies will inevitably put their hats into the ring and make their own solutions. Prices, form factors, and supported laptops will continue changing and improving as time goes on.