External GPU enclosures promise a lot, but are still lacking in the delivery department.
The recent advent of exciting technologies like Thunderbolt 3, paired with the rise of external GPU enclosures, has created new possibilities – work laptops with desktop level performance that can be teamed up with a high-end graphics card at home for gaming. A bunch of companies, from Razer to HP, have all announced half a dozen prototypes and end products that support the Thunderbolt 3 standard and enable laptop users to experience just this dream.
The reality, however, is significantly less enthusiastic, particularly thanks to a poor effort by almost everyone involved to hop on board in any meaningful way. In my research to see if would be possible to add an eGPU unit to my Dell XPS13 I discovered a vast array of pitfalls – from a complete lack of local stock of the the more solid and supported units (Razer Core, AkiTio Node) to a rocky compatibility chart that relied entirely on a community of tinkerers on Reddit and eGPU.io to complete tests, create benchmarks and highlight the various problems that pop up.
Cost is also a significant factor – even the cheapest option, the AkiTio Node, costs $US300 ($374) plus postage, for what is essentially a blank chassis. You still need to buy a compatible graphics card that fits and ensure that your machine is also compatible with both. There is limited manufacturer support and no local warranty either, so if you can’t get it to work you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place – the eGPU.io forums are full of stories, both good and bad, of long drawn out processes to get combinations both working and, most importantly, performing.
The other issue is Thunderbolt 3 itself, the magical technology with its four lanes of 40gbit transfer goodness. Dell, and a couple of other manufacturers, in their infinite wisdom decided to cheap out on some of their earlier models and abide by the most basic implementation of TB3 – something not advertised on glossy tech sheets – which requires a minimum of two lanes, not four. This restriction effectively halves the transfer rate from 40gbits to 20, making eGPU use still possible, but only for external monitors, and with a 15-20 per cent performance hit (on top of existing overheads) at that.
Then there are machines that do support Thunderbolt 3 but do not support eGPU enclosures. There really isn’t much reasoning for this, in most cases it seems the underlying system firmware has disabled compatibility for no real reason and as a result the eGPU enclosure just will not be detected across the TB3 cable. Then there are the GPU drivers – most graphics cards still aren’t entirely happy with being placed inside enclosures, which effectively trick them into thinking they are inside a regular PC. As a result, there are some enclosures that flat out don’t work with certain cards thanks to driver faults – although this is becoming less of an issue over time.
It’s all very risky, to say the least. PC use has never really been for the faint hearted, especially when it comes to bolting on technology in this manner, but I had really expected more from the hardware. From what had seemed like a straightforward, hardwired, standard, there is a boat load of third party support and tinkering required to get anything working. Some eGPU pioneers have even had to disable other parts of the system (Wifi, Bluetooth, etc) to gain compatibility, as well as modifying Windows’ startup procedure.
That’s not to say that many people have been able to get this technology working with little to no problems. Razer note that its own laptops are sent out with full compatibility baked in for its Razer Core product, although your mileage may vary when using the Core with a differing brand of machine. The AkiTio Node is the only product line from that manufacturer “designed” for gaming GPUs, but many users have found their other, non-gaming GPU enclosure have better compatibility with more cards.
If you’re rocking a brand new laptop and wondering if the dream of running a powerful gaming rig is possible, we’re not exactly there yet. Sure, if you have the money and time to experiment with gear that may or may not work in your circumstance, I recommend doing your research extensively before putting any money down. Ensure your machine meets the TB3 standards and your graphics card has been tested in the enclosure you intend to purchase.