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External GPU for laptops. Supercharge your graphics.


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#1 MoogleAssassin

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Posted 09 December 2013 - 13:45

I move around quite a lot for my job, so I use a 12" ultraportable Windows 8.1 tablet PC. However I also enjoy gaming and sadly the tablet's integrated Intel HD4000 graphics only provide a 3dMark2011 score of:

 

integrated3d11.png

 

To resolve this performance issue I have an external Nvidia 670GTX desktop card that connects to the tablet like a docking station so that when plugged in the very same little 12" tablet provides a 3dMark2011 score of:

 

egpued11.png

 

This setup is approaching 2 years old now so if we compare this to a top 17" gaming laptop purchasable at the same period we come up with 3dMark2011 scores of around 5,900 mark (Alienware M17x R4, using a Nvidia GTX 680M GPU. http://www.notebookc...List.844.0.html). So my highly portable, small, light, tablet machine just bested a 17" behemoth "gaming laptop" that is about 3x heavier… and this is how it looks on my desk:

 

desk.png

 

So lets recap:

  • Small and light 12" Windows 8.1 tablet for portability
  • Powerful external graphics card to play games on when docked that can beat top gaming laptops
  • Cheaper to buy.
  • Upgrading to play the latest games in two years' time can be done by upgrading the graphics card only - not the entire setup.
  • External Monitor optional, can power the internal laptop screen.

 

Interested? I thought so  :).  I'm writing this because it seems that the industry just isn't making it accessible to the masses, so we need to help them along a little.

 

Background

 

Once upon a time I was young and frivolous with my money. I didn't have a wife to answer to and I didn't have a mortgage or children to support - so naturally I threw my money at the most powerful laptops I could find so I could play the most demanding games I could find while retaining my portability and still be able to attend LAN parties. Why have two machines, a desktop and a laptop when you can have a single machine with everything on and take it everywhere?

 

However time inevitably catches up and soon dropping £2k+ every year on a shiny new laptop just to get the latest graphics is no longer practical, a combination of wedding, wife, mortgage, wife, kids and wife have seen to that. So in early 2012 I decided a change of tactic was required. At the time I saw a number of valid options:

  1. Buy a new laptop every 3 years instead of every year? Not ideal, this would mean around 18months of dissatisfaction with the laptop being unable to play the latest games at full detail with top frame rates - yet still weighing the same as a small car.
  2. Buy a desktop machine for gaming and keep my laptop for portable computing? Not ideal, this means I would then have to purchase two machines, then maintain and sync files between them. I just want one machine.
  3. Stop gaming on my PC and buy an ultraportable. Erm - no!!

 

It started while I was looking at a Sony Z Series (LINK) laptop that utilised an external graphics card solution. It wasn't very good and despite being extremely expensive the graphics card was very low specification, but the possibility of an external graphics card sparked my interest. After all - desktop graphics cards are much faster than laptop graphics cards and being external to the laptop it would mean upgrading it to play the latest games could be done at the cost of a graphics card instead of the major outlay of an entire gaming specification laptop, especially when the CPU, RAM and SSD of any decent laptop from the past 2 years really don't need upgrades.

A few web searches later and I came across an entire community of people with the same idea along with a wealth of technical information about how to do it, what works, what doesn't, etc.

 

eGPU Research

 

I'm a technical user, IT is what I do for a living and I have spent years building computers and taking laptops apart so the idea of getting my hands dirty doesn't scare me. However what I came across was a frightening amount of technical information and conditions that even to some technical users would be enough to put them off given the financial outlay required to test anything. Fortunately I soon found a spectacular technical summary:

 

http://forum.techinf....html#post27126

 

IMPORTANT - At this point I want to recognise the work of Nando (and the rest of the community) for his work on creating, maintaining the thread and being an all-round awesome chap for answering the questions of people that arrive on the thread seeking assistance. The amount of time it must have taken to research and put together this summary deserves our thanks. I have been a regular reader of this thread for close to two years now…

 

I'm going to try and stay away from the technical side of it here (that is what the above linked thread is for - plus the community there will be able to answer questions much better than I can anyway!) but after doing a lot of reading it became clear that a "working solution" was fairly cheap as all you really need is one of the PE4L boards, a desktop graphics card and a desktop power supply to power the graphics card.

If you already have a power supply and graphics card lying around you only need to pay about $90 for the PE4L board, so you can see this is a pretty cheap way of supercharging an old laptop's graphic power - however it is not a tidy solution and you need to accept a bunch of open cables on your desk ;)

 

pe4l.png

(image from - http://imageshack.us...s/202/8m54.jpg/)

 

To avoid this and have a tidy setup it is necessary to build or purchase an enclosure for the hardware. As I had the money available I opted to purchase a complete solution from Village Instruments called "ViDock 4 Plus" (http://www.villagein...php?page=ViDock), this included a decent looking chassis along with a standard looking power supply brick that would sit under my desk along with all the other power supply bricks.

 

Laptop Selection

 

There are a few conditions but in general if you have either an ExpressCard, mPCIe or more recently a Thunderbolt port on your laptop - chances are you can successfully implement an eGPU without much issue.

 

IMPORTANT - Make sure to read the thread to establish what speed graphics bus you will have access to on your laptop and what features will be supported by your combination of laptop/graphics/PE4L.

 

I wanted to have an ultraportable that I could easily carry around for work, it needed the latest Ivy Bridge CPU (just released at the time), a touchscreen for Windows 8, minimum of 16GB RAM to allow for Virtual Machines, a Solid State Disk, a cellular option for internet connectivity on the move and of course (as Thunderbolt wasn't available on Windows machines back then) a "1.2Opt" capable ExpressCard slot for the eGPU. My weapon of choice ended up as a 12" Thinkpad X230T (http://www.notebookc...le.92193.0.html).

 

Experience

 

Having run this setup for almost 2 years I can honestly say that it is *very* stable. In fact I would go as far to say I've had fewer problems from it than I have from *any* of my previous "gaming laptops". After getting it all setup I can't think of a single eGPU related crash that hasn't been attributed to me uttering the immortal words "watch this" ;) One possible reason for this could be as simple as that all the heat generated is not inside the laptop chassis, so unlike "gaming laptops" that get ridiculously hot my little tablet runs pretty much cold as all the heat is generated in the eGPU chassis away from my hands and the palm-rest. The eGPU runs pretty cool as it isn't inside a hot PC case, the ViDock case is solid metal and acts much like a heatsink, plus one entire side has ventilation holes so the fans have ideal cooling capability.

 

It uses the standard Nvidia drivers (no modding required, so you can download the latest drivers from Nvidia as they are released) and as long as you are running Windows 7 or later can be both hot-plugged and hot-removed while the system is running without requiring a reboot.

 

eGPU. It works, B*%$!* :D

 

The only real issue I have had with it has been when I was hit by a power cut. While Windows can hot-unplug the eGPU,  it needs to be done gracefully and simply ripping it out from underneath Windows (like a powercut) will cause the machine to bluescreen as although the laptop has a battery, the eGPU does not. Fortunately this really isn't a big problem and if you are really concerned just stick a cheap UPS on the eGPU PSU plug so you have time in the event of a power cut. Hopefully better drivers will arrive soon to get around this limitation.

 

Why are more people not doing this?

 

A lack of public knowledge and a lack of available complete solution packages. For example, I had to imported mine from Singapore (where Village Instruments are based). The future should be bright for eGPU options, desktops sales are declining at a fast pace and this option allows people to have the flexibility of a small laptop/tablet with the graphical power of a desktop, but sadly if anything options seem to have got worse over the past two years and it seems like the PC industry simply doesn't want you to do it.

 

It doesn't take much to realise that people will upgrade their machines less frequently because the CPU/RAM/SSD that they bought 2 years ago really doesn't need changing. The GPU is the main reason people upgrade so they can play the latest games. Perhaps vendors are worried that if people can simply buy the latest GPU for a fraction of the price and plug in via an eGPU solution then their already declining sales will take another loss?

 

In the eGPU technical thread listed above, Nando has listed some of the issues/sabotage he has encountered while pursuing the project. It is found near the top in a section entitled:

 


"Project saboteurs - how corporate/businesses self-interest has negatively interposed themselves in this community-driven project. Intel especially halting the [U]creative opportunities[/U[ that pluggable, affordable eGPU graphics/processing would create:"

 

Again, this can be found at http://forum.techinf....html#post27126

 

From reading things such as this, I conclude that the tech/drivers to get full speed Thunderbolt eGPUs are largely ready, but Intel and/or other vendors are refusing to licence it and make it available. The one company that defied them and sold it anyway appears to have been shut down by Intel and product recall notices issues to everyone that purchased it. Read the thread, check the sources and make your own conclusions.

 

There have been a number of Thunderbolt eGPU devices in the works, many from as long as two years ago (such as the MSI GUS 2 - http://www.pcworld.c...hunderbolt.html) and were suggested as being market ready in mere months - yet 2 years later are still no-where to be seen, reportedly due to Intel refusing to licence the technology?

 

Over the past 2 years Ultrabooks have become smaller, thinner and lighter. While this is a good thing there is not a single Ultrabook that is suitable for eGPU usage according to my ideal specifications. There is *ALWAYS* something missing. My requirements are not that unreasonable:

  • Small/light laptop, ideally a tablet
  • Thunderbolt or ExpressCard port (ideally Thunderbolt)
  • Touchscreen for Windows 8

When I bought my Thinkpad X230T and ExpressCard ViDock eGPU I did so fully aware that in the following couple of years Thunderbolt would rightly so take the place of ExpressCard due to the size of the port being tiny compared to an ExpressCard (making it much more suitable for Ultrabooks) and because of the obvious speed/bandwidth advantages allowing bigger and faster graphics cards to be connected.

 

In mid 2012 this seemed to be happening, Lenovo issued the S430, Acer issued the Aspire S5 (both had a single Thunderbolt port) and a few others offered token gestures as well. However both have now dropped the Thunderbolt ports in their latest models????!!

 

Now both HP and Lenovo have issued their latest models and the only laptops to have Thunderbolt are the "workstation" models that are 15" minimum, have no touchscreen and are definitely not thin/light. Nearly two years on and there is still nothing better than my 2 year old X230T to encorage me to spend my money on - and yet vendors are complaining of low sales? Go figure. If we look at what is currently available (some are not actually available yet):

 

machines.png

 

Clearly some of the above are suitable for eGPU usage, but in my opinion they are still a big let-down. Maybe you don't feel as strongly as I do about the need for a touchscreen? If so then you have a couple of options available in the above list. But I'm forced to ask, where is the Ultrabook device with TouchScreen and Thunderbolt? Is it really that hard? Are Intel preventing people from building them in the same way they appear to be shutting out Thunderbolt development for third parties? Acer got as far as demo'ing a Windows 8 tablet with Thunderbolt in mid-2012, but the Thunderbolt port was removed before the device hit production…

 

What needs to happen?

 

Thunderbolt needs to be included in more laptops. It is clear that ExpressCard is not viable for an Ultrabook due to size/speed, but not including Thunderbolt ports on the new generation Ultrabooks/Tablets appearing right now is just unforgivable. Especially when they have been on Apple devices like the MacBook Air for years now. Once the ports are available people realise they can get desktop level graphics from a tiny device I expect Thunderbolt eGPUs to start popping up everywhere.

 

For me, the dream is currently a Surface Pro type device with a Thunderbolt connection and eGPU connected. I want to be able to have a powerful machine when at my desk that is able to play hardcore games, then walk away and use it as a tablet to browse websites and play Cut the Rope while sat on the Sofa. I don't want to have THREE devices (Desktop, Laptop and Tablet). Put a Thunderbolt port in a Surface Pro type device and we have something that can do all three roles.

 

In the meantime, these vendors can keep complaining of low sales… make something worth my money and I'll hand it over :)

 

Final Example:

 

The latest and greatest Alienware M18x gaming laptop with the fastest mobile graphics solution money can buy right now (2x Nvidia 780GTX in SLI) is advertised on Dell's website for just under £3,000 incVAT - this achieves 14k on 3dMark2011 according to http://www.notebookc...List.844.0.html

 

In contrast, a single Desktop 780GTX can be bought for £400 incVAT, this gets also gets a graphics score around 14k on 3dMark2011. Put this into a ViDock 4 Plus for under £200 incVAT and buy a half decent laptop of your choice with the connection port and enjoy similar performance for about half the cost.

To demonstrate this, consider the following link on the eGPU thread to a benchmark done by someone with a 13" IvyBridge Sony Vaio laptop and a Desktop Nvidia 780GTX using a PE4L card showing 3DMark2011 graphics score of 14k - http://www.3dmark.com/3dm11/7080536.

 

Just saying…




#2 OP MoogleAssassin

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Posted 09 December 2013 - 13:47

also dropping a few videos in showing the following:

 

Hot-plug and hot-unplug video: http://www.youtube.c...eature=youtu.be

 

Playing TombRaider on the internal graphics, then plugging in the eGPU and playing on that instead, no reboot. Just works: https://www.youtube....h?v=L_R6u7PjAwY



#3 ReptileX

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Posted 09 December 2013 - 17:48

I think it's a wiser option instead of a gaming laptop, considering with this external option that you can swap cards.

 

I honestly had no knowledge that thunderbolt could be used for such a thing, I'm impressed.



#4 +warwagon

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Posted 09 December 2013 - 18:00

While impressive, and yes you can plug and unpug it depending on when you need it. But why not just get a desktop at that point.



#5 Astra.Xtreme

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Posted 09 December 2013 - 18:54

The reason people haven't really heard about this is because it's expensive.

 

To use a GTX 670, you have to buy the highest model (ViDock 4 Plus), which runs $279 plus $30 shipping (USD).

Then you buy the GPU for ~$300.

So you're looking at over a $600 investment.

 

Granted, yes it's probably the cheapest way to do something like this, but for $600, you can darn near build a complete desktop PC with that same GPU.



#6 madd-hatter

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Posted 09 December 2013 - 19:02

Wow. Awesome thread! Impressive stuff.

 

Good work, sir. Thanks for sharing.

 

 

While impressive, and yes you can plug and unpug it depending on when you need it. But why not just get a desktop at that point.

Granted, yes it's probably the cheapest way to do something like this, but for $600, you can darn near build a complete desktop PC with that same GPU.

I move around quite a lot for my job, so I use a 12" ultraportable Windows 8.1 tablet PC.

So lets recap: Small and light 12" Windows 8.1 tablet for portability

My requirements are not that unreasonable: Small/light laptop, ideally a tablet



#7 Gotenks98

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Posted 09 December 2013 - 19:24

Sorry but thats just too ghetto for me, I would rather just buy the gaming laptop than to rig something up like this. Maybe in the future if someone implements something that does not take so much to build I might consider this as a viable option.



#8 +Phouchg

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Posted 09 December 2013 - 19:46

An exquisite experiment. While you'd still have to remove my true desktop PC from my cold, dead hands just because it's plain fun to have that sort of thing, I'd want to see actual gaming benchmarks based on one curious statement which is as follows: Thunderbolt - 10/20 Gbit/s, PCI-Express 2.0 x16 - 64 Gbit/s. While 670 does not saturate 2.0. 690 already does, so that's one to ponder on, perhaps.

 

Props for going there and writing up all about it, though (Y)



#9 OP MoogleAssassin

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Posted 09 December 2013 - 20:34

While impressive, and yes you can plug and unpug it depending on when you need it. But why not just get a desktop at that point.

 

A fair question, hopefully I have answered it above but let me take another stab at it. Basically I would turn it around and ask why *would* you get a desktop? Desktop sales are declining at the fastest rate of all hardware form factors for a reason, they are the least flexible. If you have a desktop then it generally stays in one location. If you have no need for a laptop and the portability/flexibility that it provides then ok, however given the choice (and it is a choice - I'm not suggesting people boycott desktops!) why wouldn't you choose to have a laptop that can play the same games as a desktop while also offering the possibility to just close the lid and walk away?

 

Some people, like me, certainly prefer this kind of freedom and I think it is important to make as many people as possible away that this is an option when making a decision based on their needs. Either way - information is good :)



#10 +Phouchg

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Posted 09 December 2013 - 20:55

Oh no, desktop people have the freedom. Freedom of movement is nothing compared to freedom of choice. Philosophically speaking, this is exactly the thing. Vendors do *not* want you to have that freedom. Which is why mobile computing is having such a hurrah. It's even why this very technology is not finding any support from them. It will destroy their pitiful attempts at advancing their own, albeit in a controlled manner of planned obsolescence. It will destroy all expensive top gaming laptop lines first and then it will come for your midrange. You admit it yourself, by the way.

 

I've seen some laptops that will still refuse to boot from USB and only options one can change in UEFI settings is time and date. Even worse, tablets are basically tied to their OS, relying on vendor update cycle, if there is one. Everything is so dumbed down it isn't funny anymore.

 

I may hardly be willing to admit that desktop PC is dying (but it is), but much less I'm going to give it a soap and a rope. These are the best days to be a desktop PC fanatic still.



#11 OP MoogleAssassin

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Posted 09 December 2013 - 20:57

An exquisite experiment. While you'd still have to remove my true desktop PC from my cold, dead hands just because it's plain fun to have that sort of thing, I'd want to see actual gaming benchmarks based on one curious statement which is as follows: Thunderbolt - 10/20 Gbit/s, PCI-Express 2.0 x16 - 64 Gbit/s. While 670 does not saturate 2.0. 690 already does, so that's one to ponder on, perhaps.

 

Props for going there and writing up all about it, though (Y)

 

Any particular gaming benchmarks you would like to see? If I can get hold of the games or already own them I'll see what I can do.

 

On the saturation issue, yes. The 670GTX is realistically as high a card as I would like to put on my current ExpressCard bus (5Gbit/s) and the card runs at PCI-E 2.0 x1 (normal desktop slot is generally PCI-E 2.0 x16) however I have card monitoring software that shows the GPU hitting 100% utilisation so while I wouldn't put anything higher on an ExpressCard slot personally it doesn't seem to be seriously throttled - check my video of TombRaider running on it.

 

This is why Thunderbolt and the upcoming Thunderbolt2 ports are so important. HP is putting Thunderbolt2 on their ZBook15/17 models in Jan2014 so hopefully it will start to filter down - but it should already be here to be honest. Also worth considering is that according to the eGPU technical thread I posted people smarter than me have done the math to say that Thunderbolt1 provides 86% of the maximum bandwidth of PCI-E 2.0 x16, with Thunderbolt2 going up to 94%...

Need to bear in mind that my setup is almost 2 years old and part of my thread was linking to details on how Intel are supposedly intentionally hindering the development of this technology.



#12 Geoffrey B.

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Posted 09 December 2013 - 21:04

this is an obscure comment however,

 

I see you are Horde, and all i need to say is 

 

lok'tar ogar



#13 OP MoogleAssassin

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Posted 09 December 2013 - 21:06

this is an obscure comment however,

 

I see you are Horde, and all i need to say is 

 

lok'tar ogar

for the horde! :D



#14 OP MoogleAssassin

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Posted 09 December 2013 - 21:10

Sorry but thats just too ghetto for me, I would rather just buy the gaming laptop than to rig something up like this. Maybe in the future if someone implements something that does not take so much to build I might consider this as a viable option.

 

Things have improved a lot over the past few years and the promise of what is to come looks even better. Consider the following:

 

http://www.bit-tech....card-case-deb/1

 

Its a complete package, has the GPU, PSU, etc all in one with Thunderbolt. Things will get better, but we need interest and uptake to help push it.



#15 OP MoogleAssassin

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Posted 09 December 2013 - 21:19

Vendors do *not* want you to have that freedom. Which is why mobile computing is having such a hurrah. It's even why this very technology is not finding any support from them. It will destroy their pitiful attempts at advancing their own, albeit in a controlled manner of planned obsolescence. It will destroy all expensive top gaming laptop lines first and then it will come for your midrange. You admit it yourself, by the way.

....

 

These are the best days to be a desktop PC fanatic still.

 

Absolutely! They are seemingly terrified of it, but I genuinely don't understand why they don't capitalise on it.

 

You say that these are the best days to be a desktop fanatic, I disagree and think the best days are ahead - you just won't call it a desktop anymore. All your desktop consists of is a series of plug/play components that you don't have the real options to plug/unplug as required. Once appropriate bandwidth arrives such as thunderbolt2 it will make it possible to connecting components on the fly without the case necessarily enclosing those components.

 

Sure thats a while off, but the componentised view of plugging a graphics card when needed, a storage array when needed, a fancy sound card when needed is where we should be thinking. best of both worlds.





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