2017 Guide: The Best External Graphics Card Boxes (eGPUs)

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Now, we need to confess this up entrance: The headline of this tale is a tease and, in all probability, a tad deceptive.

Specifically, the issue is the “Best” phase. You can discover a “best” exterior graphics-card field for some pc homeowners (and it might probably range via the pc in query). But for people, the solution is “none.”

It additionally leads into one thing of a limp, geeky shaggy dog story…

   Q: What’s the most efficient exterior graphics card you’ll purchase?

   A: A desktop PC. (Cue “wah-wah” sound.)

The brief model of nowadays’s external-graphics-box tale is that in case you personal simply the proper pc, and you’ve got a pile of hundred-dollar expenses and not using a explicit vacation spot, you will be in success. Otherwise, you can really feel like the child with the wimpy pc, outdoor the electronics-shop window having a look in, with a tear in his or her eye. (Or one thing like that.) 

First of all, for the ones of you perplexed via those confessions and wan wisecracks: What is an exterior graphics card unit? It’s most likely you have by no means observed one in individual. Most other folks have not.

PowerColor Devil Box

Also known as an “eGPU,” it is an exterior enclosure that hosts a desktop-style video card and connects to a PC (normally a pc) to hurry up the graphics processing for gaming. The chassis has its personal energy supply, a cooling gadget, and a PCI Express slot to simply accept your off-the-rack video card. It will normally accommodate a standard-size video card, as much as the highest-end fashions of the day. (Custom-designed playing cards with huge lovers grafted on, or large, sticking out warmth sinks, would possibly not have compatibility, even though.)

In sensible truth, on the other hand, an eGPU is regardless of the few producers that lead them to outline them to be. They’re a unusual bunch. (The merchandise. Not the producers.)


eGPUs: The Background

People within the know within the PC industry had been speaking in regards to the coming near near debut of exterior graphics devices for years now. But the goods have remained at all times simply over the horizon. Only a couple of have in reality hit the marketplace, and they are assured to paintings with only a handful of laptops. The common eGPU field that you’ll plug into any pc is nowhere to be observed. Indeed, none is even shut.

Still, what we have observed has excited us with its doable. The key avid gamers to this point in eGPU are Alienware, Razer, and PowerColor, all 3 of that have rolled out “real” product that you’ll purchase nowadays. We’ve additionally observed a handful of fashions, demonstrated at industry presentations within the closing yr or so, that experience no longer but come to fruition, from Asus, Gigabyte, MSI, Zotac, and SilverStone. In addition, Thunderbolt-hardware specialist Akitio has ostensibly launched a much-anticipated eGPU field known as the Akitio Node, however we have no longer been ready to search out it to be had on the market any place.  

All of that vapor apart, we consider that the eGPU’s time has come—for actual. Why? The generation that can give it a trail ahead is Thunderbolt Three, and it has observed a cheap quantity of adoption in PC designs within the closing yr.

This high-speed interface has proven up most commonly in higher-end laptops, and it serves a host of functions. The port itself is the same to the rising USB Type-C connector and certainly “piggybacks” on that generation. (What that suggests: Some USB Type-C ports are simply USB ports; others are additionally Thunderbolt Three ports. See our primer The Basics: USB Three.1 and USB Type-C for extra element.) For an eGPU unit to boost up graphics on a pc, it wishes a high-bandwidth, two-way connection to the host gadget, one with a connector sufficiently small to be deployed on a trim pc. That’s Thunderbolt Three.

Thunderbolt Three has different benefits. It can elevate energy, so a Thunderbolt Three port too can function a charging conduit for a pc. And, as a common connector relatively than a proprietary one, it has the benefit of being deployed throughout a couple of makers’ pc traces. Which brings us to a key differentiation level a few of the eGPUs available on the market nowadays: Is it Thunderbolt Three-based, or is it proprietary?


The Thunderbolt & the Proprietary

Among the producers that experience introduced eGPU to marketplace to this point—Razer, PowerColor, and Alienware—the primary two have opted for Thunderbolt Three because the interface between the eGPU field and the pc, and the 3rd (Alienware) has trusted a proprietary connection.

What this implies, at the flooring, is that the Alienware eGPU , dubbed the Alienware Graphics Amplifier, works best with sure late-model Alienware laptops, in addition to the corporate’s smaller Alienware Alpha R2 and Alienware X51 R3 gaming desktops. These laptops and desktops are geared up with a different port to deal with the Graphics Amplifier. This connection makes use of a corpulent cable. It is, in essence, an exterior PCI Express interface, with 4 PCI Express lanes to deal with the huge quantity of knowledge operating between the video card and the host PC. It additionally signifies that your funding in Alienware’s eGPU is just right best as long as you stick with an Alienware pc, and assuming Alienware continues to give a boost to the port in long run fashions.

Alienware Graphics Amplifier (Cable)

The particular cable connection for the Alienware Graphics Amplifier

Ironically, even though, the Thunderbolt Three-based devices have fewer computer systems formally licensed to paintings with them than Alienware’s field does. Razer, with its Razer Core eGPU product, and PowerColor, with its Devil Box eGPU unit, are the packing containers in response to the open Thunderbolt Three. Take the phrase “open” with a grain of salt, on the other hand: The use of the port would recommend some distance wider compatibility for those devices than in reality exists. In apply, the Core and the Devil Box are licensed to paintings with just a small subset of recent machines.

In Razer’s case, that listing is its personal Blade and Blade Stealth laptops, the latter of which is an overly slender ultraportable with no devoted graphics chip. In the case of the Devil Box, whilst it labored to various levels at the 3 machines we attempted it on anecdotally, it was once licensed via PowerColor to paintings with best two machines at this writing. One of those is the Razer Blade Stealth. (Redundant, to our eyes; why purchase this unit for a Razer pc when you might want to get the matching Razer Core?) The different is the Intel NUC Kit NUC6i7KYK, higher referred to as the “Skull Canyon” NUC—no longer a pc in any respect however a formidable mini-desktop with built-in graphics. PowerColor notes that it is as much as different pc makers to claim compatibility with the product.

PowerColor Devil Box (Back)

Back of the PowerColor Devil Box: Note the USB ports and the Thunderbolt connector

The factor protecting again that wider compatibility is driving force and firmware give a boost to. More than a couple of current-gen laptops have Thunderbolt Three-compliant USB Type-C ports. But maximum had been carried out and QA’d to be used no longer with eGPU packing containers however for the seller’s personal docking answers—if for anything else particular in any respect. HP’s Thunderbolt Three-equipped EliteBooks, for one, paintings seamlessly with the corporate’s Thunderbolt Three-compatible displays, and Dell has a identical dynamic happening with its newest Thunderbolt Three-equipped Dell XPS laptops, the Dell XPS 15, XPS 13, and XPS 13 2-in-1. The Thunderbolt Three connectivity is not supposed for gaming.

As a end result, we will be able to’t counsel getting fastened at the concept of shopping for an eGPU field except you’ve got probably the most few known-compatible computer systems. If you need to experiment with an eGPU field on an uncertified pc with Thunderbolt Three, be sure the vendor you purchase the field from has a bulletproof, no-questions-asked go back coverage. You would possibly run into roadblocks with a non-certified pc. Indeed, you most likely will.

The roughly issues we noticed in trying out the PowerColor Devil Box, for instance, with a few unsupported Thunderbolt Three-equipped laptops (the HP Spectre x360 15 and Dell Latitude 7480) integrated a loss of reputation of the video card (on account of a devoted Nvidia chip already within the Spectre) or the power to boost up video best on an exterior show, no longer the pc’s personal display. See our overview for the complicated main points on that.


The Limits of eGPU

The thing more to keep in mind about eGPU packing containers is that they’ve some innate barriers via their very nature, and via the PCs you’ll set up them on.

The explanation why you are most likely having a look at an exterior graphics resolution: You need to play the newest video games on a pc that has best CPU-based graphics acceleration. (On Thunderbolt Three-equipped laptops, that is Intel HD Graphics or Iris Graphics of a few taste.) Having an up-to-snuff video card is a large a part of attending to that function. But there are different gadget necessities that, if no longer met, will stay the eGPU from attaining its complete doable.

If a given recreation calls for a definite grade of CPU or collection of processing cores, the host gadget will nonetheless want that to accomplish nicely (or in some instances, to run in any respect). So do not be expecting an eGPU to show a slender, Thunderbolt Three-equipped ultrabook with a light-hitting, dual-core cell processor into the fire-breathing similar of a Razer Blade Pro or an Alienware 17. You would possibly nicely run right into a sad-face phenomenon referred to as finishing up “CPU limited”; in different phrases, the graphics efficiency and body charges could also be held down via the processor’s lack of ability to stay alongside of recreation calls for. The remainder of the ones gaming gadget necessities—the ones past the graphics card—nonetheless follow with an eGPU in play. 

Another factor is bandwidth. Even if the pc in query is stacked when it comes to CPU muscle, you could nicely see some “overhead”—which is to mention, frame-rate penalty—on account of the character of the relationship. The proprietary connection utilized by the Alienware Graphics Amplifier is an x4 pathway; the Thunderbolt Three connection might also extract its personal pound of frame-rate flesh within the back-and-forth around the bus.

This overhead is unimaginable to quantify with each and every imaginable aggregate of video card, eGPU field, and host gadget. But we are saying this best to indicate that you should not be expecting to achieve the whole 100 p.c of efficiency you would see with the similar video card in a well-outfitted desktop PC, even supposing CPU-limiting isn’t a topic. 


The Key Players: A Summary

At the instant of this writing, you can in finding 3 major eGPU merchandise available on the market nowadays that you’ll purchase. Here’s a short lived rundown of each and every.

1. Razer Core

ESTIMATED PRICE: $499 

PROS: Elegant exterior design; makes use of Thunderbolt Three interface for information and charging; 4 rear USB ports, Ethernet port

CONS: Certified to paintings best with Razer laptops; expensive

GOOD FOR: Razer Blade pc homeowners with deep wallet who need a plug-and-play gaming improve and docking resolution in a single.  

Razer Core

2. PowerColor Devil Box

ESTIMATED PRICE: $450 to $500 

PROS: Uses Thunderbolt Three interface for information and charging; 4 rear USB ports, Ethernet port

CONS: Certified to paintings with just one pc, one desktop; expensive; noisy lovers

GOOD FOR: Owners of the Intel “Skull Canyon” NUC, or customers keen to experiment with Thunderbolt Three-equipped laptops (and ready go back the instrument if it does not determine).

PowerColor Devil Box

Three. Alienware Graphics Amplifier

ESTIMATED PRICE: $199 

PROS: Works with a number of late-model Alienware laptops and SFF desktop PCs; a lot less expensive than different eGPU answers; 4 rear USB ports

CONS: Limited to Alienware use best; proprietary connection to PC; does not energy/rate the pc like Thunderbolt Three answers do

GOOD FOR: The Alienware devoted, who personal a number of Alienware pc or SFF desktops with the Amplifier port. The caveat is, the machines that paintings with the Graphics Amplifier will all already have devoted graphics chips onboard. It makes essentially the most sense when that chip has turn out to be too vulnerable for what you need to do.

Alienware Graphics Amplifier

Buying Basics

Let’s be blunt: There’s not anything “basic” about purchasing an eGPU field. These are bleeding-edge merchandise that don’t seem to be assured to paintings with out hiccups or deadly flaws except you are connecting them to express, pretested pc fashions. As a end result, you are not really to have a call between a couple of eGPU mannequin, if even that. But listed here are the important thing issues to grasp.

CERTIFIED COMPATIBILITY. Be certain the pc that you simply wish to attach any given eGPU is at the field maker’s licensed listing. In the case of Alienware PCs, you should definitely have the proper era of pc or desktop; some older fashions with the similar identify would possibly not have the wanted Amplifier port. It’s at all times imaginable that the Thunderbolt Three-based packing containers would possibly see their lists of like minded devices extend; regulate the producers’ product pages for those merchandise. 

GRAPHICS-CARD SIZING. Some pumped-up video playing cards have huge or sticking out options that may intervene with becoming within the chassis. Each of the eGPU makers offers very particular measurement specifications for the cardboard area to be had. Make certain your card will have compatibility with out obstruction; give a boost to for a given graphics processor doesn’t suggest that each and every such card in response to it’ll have compatibility within the field. (High-end and overclocked playing cards could also be extra-thick or have warmth pipes that stick out too some distance.)

POWER-SUPPLY ADEQUACY. Look on each and every eGPU’s spec listing for a listing of supported playing cards. The Devil Box and Razer Core each have 500-watt energy provides, however each are designated for a max card energy draw of 375 watts. The Graphics Amplifier is specified at 460 watts however does no longer give a max energy draw.

OTHER FEATURES. All 3 of the present eGPU packing containers can act as docks and/or USB hubs. You can attach an exterior track or displays to the video card’s back-panel ports in all 3 instances. The two Thunderbolt Three packing containers even have Ethernet ports, and in a unusual twist, the Devil Box additionally has a SATA pressure bay that permits you to use the field as an exterior onerous pressure, too.


Ready for Our Recommendations?

Well, let’s be transparent right here: Unless you personal one in every of a couple of particular pc fashions (a couple of licensed, late-model Razer Blade or Blade Stealth machines, a like minded Alienware) or probably the most few SFF desktops supported, nowadays’s eGPU box is a roll of the cube. As we discovered when trying out the Devil Box with non-certified Thunderbolt Three programs, it will paintings nicely, it would possibly not paintings in any respect, it will paintings in part, or it will paintings best below sure stipulations or relying at the video card put in. But test underneath for the few we have reviewed and different that we have got observed demonstrated however no longer but on the market. The best mannequin we have not bench-tested that you’ll purchase nowadays is the Razer Core.