Update

How to transform your laptop into a gaming powerhouse with an external graphics card

With a little bit of research and elbow grease, an external graphics setup can transform your laptop into a gaming powerhouse for a fraction of the price of a whole new gaming PC.

egpu hero
Credit: Ian Paul/IDG

My desire to power up a laptop with an external graphics card began in 2015, when I set out on a quest to get back into PC gaming—a beloved pastime I’d neglected since childhood.

But the only PC I had at the time was a 2011 Lenovo ThinkPad X220 laptop with Intel HD 3000 integrated graphics. That just won’t cut it for proper PC gaming. Sure, the laptop would work well enough for older titles like Diablo III, especially on the laptop’s tiny 1366x728-resolution display—but forget about more graphics-intensive modern games on an external 1080p monitor. That’s why I decided to examine external graphics card (eGPU) setups.

And indeed, I found entire communities of people creating DIY setups that connected desktop graphics cards to their laptops via ExpressCard or mPCIe slots. It isn’t hard, either. Many do-it-yourselfers end up with a plug-and-play experience requiring little to no modification—though it takes some research first. When it’s done, however, you’ll be left with a console-toppling PC gaming setup for about the same price as a new Xbox One S, depending on which graphics card you choose. That’s far cheaper than building a whole new gaming desktop, and you can still take advantage of your laptop’s portability by disconnecting the eGPU hardware.

But powering up a laptop with desktop graphics has taken major strides forward since 2015.

We’ll walk you through the DIY process for configuring an external graphics card later in this article, along with the sudden rise of streaming games from the cloud, but first let’s take a look at a major recent development in the world of eGPUs: the widening availability of Thunderbolt 3 on Windows notebooks.

Thunderbolt 3 graphics card docks

razer core Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

A Razer Core connected to a Razer Blade Stealth laptop via Thunderbolt 3/USB-C.

Thunderbolt 3 (TB3) is Intel’s high-speed external input/output connection, capable of speeds up to a blistering 40 gigabytes per second (GBps) over a compatible USB-C port. For resource-intensive activities like gaming, a speedy connection between your laptop and an external graphics card provides a big boost for performance.

Previous attempts at external graphics card docks existed, but they were usually overpriced and relied on proprietary connection technologies. Thunderbolt 3 levels the playing field, and several companies are now building TB3-based graphics card enclosures.

All is not perfect in the world of Thunderbolt 3-powered graphics, however. Enclosures are, for the most part, still a pricey proposition—much more so than the DIY method we’ll outline later. You’ll also need a relatively new notebook equipped with a Thunderbolt 3-compatible USB-C port. If you’re in the market for a new clamshell, some good choices at this writing include the HP Spectre x360 and the new Dell XPS 13.  

Plus, Thunderbolt 3 and graphics cards have only recently started to play nicely together thanks to Intel’s Thunderbolt 3 external graphics compatibility technology, which PC makers must specifically enable. It’s a slightly maddening situation that should improve over time as Thunderbolt 3 matures.

Once you’ve got your laptop sorted out it’s time to look at some enclosures. We can’t cover all possible enclosures here, as virtually every major PC graphics card vendor is rolling out a graphics dock of its own, but we’ll look at some of the major products introduced in recent months.

Razer Core

razer core gpu AMD

An opened Razer Core revealing an AMD Radeon Nano graphics card inside.

The $500 Razer Core was the first major TB3 enclosure to make a splash, ostensibly designed for Razer laptops but able to work with any compatible TB3 system. The Core uses Thunderbolt 3 over a USB-C connection and includes four USB 3.0 ports, ethernet, and a 500-watt power supply. It’ll handle any modern GeForce or Radeon graphics card you throw at it.

[ Further reading: The best graphics cards for PC gaming ]

The Core is the most expensive TB3 enclosure available right now. When I asked Razer why, the company pointed to some premium features, like support for Razer’s programmable Chroma RGB lighting and the ability to charge your laptop and run the graphics card at the same time thanks to the Core’s 500W power supply.  The Core was also a trailblazing Thunderbolt 3 enclosure, requiring a co-operative effort between Intel, Microsoft, Nvidia, AMD, and Razer. That kind of R&D doesn’t come cheap.

PowerColor Devil Box

powercolor devil box PowerColor

Newegg’s currently selling the Thunderbolt 3-based PowerColor Devil Box for $450. Like the Core, the Devil Box works with many recent AMD and Nvidia graphics cards. It also has four USB 3.0 ports, one USB-C port, ethernet, and a 500W internal power supply that can support a maximum 375W for the graphics card itself.

PowerColor maintains a list of supported graphics cards and host systems in the specifications section of its Devil Box webpage. Be sure to check it out before you buy!

Akitio Node

akitio node Akitio

If your laptop hasn’t enabled Intel’s external graphics technology, the 400W Akitio Node is the Thunderbolt 3 graphics dock to check out. Given its low price you won’t see any extra ports for connecting peripherals. Nevertheless, this particular enclosure is creating interest in the eGPU community, as Nando— a leader in the eGPU community—recently told me.

The Node quietly received a firmware update in January 2017 that made it the only enclosure to bypass any software restrictions preventing a Thunderbolt 3 port from interfacing with a graphics card. That makes it an ideal choice for anyone with a Thunderbolt 3 laptop that doesn’t support external graphics. However, unofficial workarounds like this mean you are taking a risk with your hardware, and there’s no guarantee a future firmware update won’t reverse this functionality.

The rest

aorus gaming box Gigabyte

Those aren’t the only eGPU boxes around. Gigabyte recently launched the Aorus GTX 1070 Gaming Box, which comes with a GTX 1070 preinstalled for $600. Zotac’s working on a graphics card dock, too. Heck, even Apple’s rolling out an external graphics dock for MacBook users. And for anyone with an Alienware laptop there’s also the Alienware Graphics Amplifier, which uses a proprietary connector but only costs $170 on Amazon. That’s a lot less than TB3 graphics card docks are going for.

But enough about pricey enclosures for pricey new laptops. Let’s get into transforming older notebooks into gaming machines with our DIY eGPU guide for the Thunderbolt 3 deprived.

Next page: Diving into DIY external graphics.

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