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

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

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.

The eGPU glossary

Before we get started, we need introduce a few terms. Without a basic vocabulary, the world of eGPUs can get confusing, fast. There’s not much to see here for veteran gamers—you can skip to the next section.

motherboard pcie Thomas Ryan/IDG

PCIe slots in a standard ATX motherboard.

PCIe x16: PCI Express (PCIe) is the motherboard slot that a standard graphics card fits into. The “x16” part means the PCIe slot has 16 lanes that data can travel through. With an eGPU setup we typically compress an x16 slot down to an x1 (1 lane) or x2 (2 lanes) connection to the laptop. That sounds like a raw deal, but it works surprisingly well. PCIe slots come in three generations: 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0. Most new graphics cards will run on PCIe 3.0, which is backward-compatible with version 2.0. PCIe 4.0 is also in the works but the specification, while nearly final as of June, 2017, isn’t expected to be rolled out until later in the year. 

PCIe power connector: PCIe can also refer to a type of power connector with six or eight pins.

ATX 24-pin connector: This is another kind of power connector that is commonly used with PC power supplies, and is one of the power options on PCIe adapters.

psu connectors Thomas Ryan/IDG

A 24-pin power connector, from a PC power supply.

PCIe adapter/board: This is a small circuit board with a PCIe slot, some HDMI slots, and a whole bunch of power options. The only point of the PCIe adapter is to help the graphics card communicate with the laptop.

Express Card Slot: This is the spot in your laptop that is reserved for wireless broadband cards from a mobile carrier.

mPCIe: This is an interface that some eGPU enthusiasts use to connect their graphics card to their laptop instead of an ExpressCard. It offers a better connection, but it can be a hassle because most mPCIe slots are inside the laptop.

Thunderbolt: Intel’s blazing fast I/O technology is also an option for an eGPU connection, including DIY set-ups.

thunderbolt Intel

A Thunderbolt connector.

BIOS: This is the program that first starts when you boot your computer. It’s usually accessed by hitting F2, another F key, or a special button on your laptop. The BIOS controls a variety of options for your PC including, for example, the boot order.

Frames per second (fps): This is a basic measure of how well a game runs on a given system. The gold standard for PC gamers is 60 fps, though 30 fps is considered playable. Many modern console games still run at 30 fps.

eGPU basic components

A typical eGPU setup requires five basic items: a laptop, a desktop graphics card, an external display, a PCIe adapter/board or enclosure for the card, and a separate power supply for the graphics card (though Thunderbolt 3 enclosures have built-in power supplies). You may also want a laptop cooling pad if you want to play games that go heavy on graphics, like Battlefield 1.

Ideally, your laptop packs an Intel quad-core Core processor, or a dual-core Core processor with Hyper-Threading technology. A solid-state drive (SSD) can also improve your gaming experience, but it's not a necessity.The PCIe board is a specialized piece of equipment. The most popular place to grab a board is BPlus in Taiwan (HWTools.net) with options for ExpressCard, m.2 A, E, and M slots, and mPCIe slots.

egpu hardware HWTools

A BPlus PCIe board for external graphics card usage.

The best PCIe board on offer at this writing is BPlus’ PE4C v3.0, which works over mPCIe or ExpressCard connections. It offers a PCIe-3.0 x16 slot, plus a nice stand to support your card. The PCIe board comes as a kit with power connectors and an HDMI-to-ExpressCard cable that allows the graphics card to interface with your laptop. Anyone interested in using an m.2 slot should look at the PE4C v4.1. The downside is that the latter supports only PCIe 2.0, while the former supports PCIe 3.0.

Next page: Picking the right hardware.

Do your hardware research!

Not all eGPU experiences are created equal, but they all have one thing in common: You have to do a bit of research before you get to the plug-and-play part. In fact, you may discover that your particular laptop is not plug-and-play-ready whatsoever, requiring some software tweaks to function properly.

The first thing you should do is read about the experiences other external graphics users have had with your laptop model. You’ll find a ton of eGPU users out there, and unless your model is particularly new or obscure, chances are high that someone has already created an eGPU setup with your laptop model.

If you don’t find anyone with your model, go back a generation, or search for laptops from the same manufacturer to get a sense of the difficulties.

thinkpad egpu Robert Cardin/IDG

Before I bought eGPU supplies for my 2011 Lenovo Thinkpad X220, I had to research exactly what I’d need.

Several sites can help with DIY eGPU research. The first is eGPU.io, which is Nando’s current home and solely dedicated to the art of external graphics card configurations. Others include the TechInferno and NotebookReview eGPU threads. Reddit has a very active eGPU community.

One of the most common roadblocks people run across is what’s known as “error 12.” This happens when your Windows system decides it doesn’t have enough resources to run the graphics card. Error 12 can usually be fixed with solutions such as Setup 1.35, a paid software utility by Nando.

For more references also check out YouTube, which is full of people running benchmarks or shooting video of their eGPU setups.

Choosing your graphics card

Once you’ve figured out what kind of eGPU experience you’re likely to have, it’s time to start shopping for a graphics card. (Note: A good AMD Radeon or Nvidia GeForce card is hard to find these days, thanks to insatiable cryptocurrency miners, but this advice will help you choose from whatever's available.)

I wouldn’t advise going for a top-of-the-line card like the $700 GeForce GTX 1080 Ti. Instead, I’d advise you to keep your graphics card budget around $200-$300 or less.

You can get a really great “sweet spot” card for under $300 that should provide at least a few years of future-proofing, such as the $200 Radeon RX 580 or the $250 GeForce GTX 1060. Both are great cards for 1080p gaming with few compromises. The $100 Radeon RX 560 and $140 GeForce GTX 1050 Ti provide solid entry-level 1080p gaming.

As Nando told me (via email) when we first spoke, you’ll likely see better performance with a higher-grade card, but it’ll be bottlenecked by that PCIe x1 or x2 connection to your laptop.  If, however, you plan on buying a new desktop sometime soon, then investing in a high-end card right now can be a way to spread out the cost of a new PC over time.

sapphire pulse 8 Brad Chacos/IDG

Sapphire’s affordable Radeon RX 580 Pulse graphics card.

More importantly, there’s no guarantee that an eGPU set-up will work until you actually try it. If you’ve done the proper research for your particular laptop model, the chances of a bad experience are fairly low. Nevertheless, there are always outliers, and you just might be the lucky one who runs into difficulties.

The other decision is whether to go with an AMD or Nvidia card. Most eGPU users tend to go with Nvidia, so that’s what I did.

One thing to keep in mind is that your graphics card typically needs its own power connector to work in an eGPU setup. That could be a problem for cards with minimal power requirements like the GeForce GTX 1050, which draws its power from the motherboard.

msi geforce gtx 1050 Brad Chacos/IDG

The lack of supplemental power connectors on energy-efficient cards like this MSI GTX 1050 can actually complicate eGPU setups.

My card, the older GTX 750 Ti, also doesn’t require a power connector in its stock design. I didn’t test whether the stock GTX 750 Ti would work with a BPlus board, as I bought an overclocked version of the GTX 750 Ti that comes with a 6-pin PCIe power connector. If you like the looks of a card like the RX 560 or the GeForce 1050 I’d advise looking for a similarly overclocked card that comes with a power connector.

For more graphics card buying advice check out our regularly updated roundup of the best graphics cards for PC gaming.

Picking your power supply

Along with your graphics card, you’ll also need a power supply unit (PSU) in a DIY eGPU build. There are many reputable brands of PSUs out there, including EVGA, Cooler Master, Corsair, and Seasonic.

Alternatively, you may only need a power brick similar to what powers your laptop. Take Nvidia’s GTX 1050 Ti graphics card, which requires 75 watts of power, according to Nvidia’s specs. Nando advises that your PSU needs about 15 percent more power than the card (not the system) requires, meaning a 75-watt card will need at least a 90-watt power supply.

power supply Thomas Ryan/IDG

A PC power supply.

BPlus recommends that anyone with a graphics card requiring more than 220W should use the ATX power option with a standard PC PSU.

Personally, I just went with a modular Corsair power supply because a standard PSU is so easy to find. PCWorld’s guide to picking a PC power supply can help you make smart buying decisions.

Next page: Setting up your DIY eGPU.

Setting up your eGPU

The research is done, the BPlus board has arrived, your graphics card is ready for unboxing, and so is the PSU. It’s time to get this eGPU rocking.

For our example, we’re hooking up an Asus GeForce 750Ti overclocked edition and a Corsair 430M PSU to a PE4C 2.1a from BPlus. The board connects to a Lenovo X220 via an ExpressCard slot, and the card also connects to an external 22-inch 1080p display via one of the 750Ti’s DVI ports.

First, slip your graphics card into the PCIe slot on the BPlus board.

egpu card Ian Paul/IDG

Next, hook your (not yet powered-on) PSU’s 24-pin ATX power supply pins into the BPlus board.

egpu hero Ian Paul/IDG

Now connect the 8-pin PCIe connector on the board to the 6-pin power connector on the graphics card.

powerboard Ian Paul/IDG

Finally, insert the ExpressCard cable into the laptop, then slide the opposite side of the cable—the one with the HDMI connection—into the HDMI port labled “X1” on the PCIe adapter. At this point you’d also connect your graphics card directly to your external monitor, typically via HDMI or DVI.

Now it’s time for the moment of truth. Flip on your PSU (don’t worry if nothing happens yet), power on the external display, and then boot your laptop—or at least, that’s the boot order that works for me. Some users report that booting an eGPU setup works only when they hook into the ExpressCard slot after the initial boot, or when Windows has loaded.

final shot egpu Ian Paul/IDG

It ain’t pretty, but it works.

Whatever your boot order is, and assuming you had a plug-and-play setup like I did, you should boot into Windows as usual. Your laptop may make a few false starts before it powers on correctly, because you’ve added new hardware to it. Once you’re in Windows, you can check to see if your graphics card is detected by opening the device manager and looking under Display adapters.

If your graphics card is unidentified, manually download and install your card’s drivers from AMD or Nvidia. You may then need to reboot the system to get your eGPU setup working properly.

Once that’s done it’s on to the wonderful world of gaming. Here’s a look at some eGPU benchmarks I ran on my own GTX 750 Ti-powered setup to give you a sense of what to expect from a comparable system. Remember that the GTX 750 Ti is an entry-level graphics card, too. More expensive and and more recent graphics cards can obviously perform much better.

Next page: eGPU benchmarks.

DIY eGPU benchmarks

Our test rig in this case is the aforementioned Lenovo ThinkPad X220, packing a 2.7GHz dual-core Intel “Sandy Bridge” Core i7 2620-M with HyperThreading, 8GB of RAM, a 500GB Samsung 850 EVO SSD, an external 22-inch 1080p display from LG, and Windows 10 Pro 64-bit.

The eGPU hardware consists of an Asus GeForce GTX 750 Ti OC (2GB DDR5), a Corsair CX430M PSU, and a BPlus PE4c 2.1a PCIe adapter over HDMI to ExpressCard. This adapter is no longer available on the HWTools website (though this close relation is). Total cost at the time of writing: About $200 after rebates. That’s far less than a whole new gaming PC would cost.

These tests are not meant to be representative of the 750 Ti’s performance, but of what an average eGPU setup can expect with similar hardware—and to drive home that even an entry-level graphics card can offer a huge leap in gaming performance  over CPU-integrated graphics.

My tests used a PCIe 3.0 graphics card over a PCIe 2.0 connection. Results would likely be higher with the BPlus PE4C 3.0 not only because of the newer PCIe slot, but also because the HDMI-ExpressCard cable that comes with that kit supplies a better signal to the laptop.

That’s enough setting of the scene, though. Let’s dig in.

witcher 3 egpu Ian Paul/IDG

After looking at my numbers for Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt most hardcore gamers will likely cringe in horror. I had to dial it down to medium graphics at 720p resolution to get to a consistent 30 fps or more and hit console-level quality—and that was with Nvidia Hairworks turned offWitcher 3 is very graphics-intensive, but I noticed serious stuttering and other problems only when the frame rate went below 22 fps.

Again, the fact that I can play the game at all, and in full-screen, is a huge step forward over integrated graphics—which couldn’t run Witcher 3 whatsoever. A more powerful graphics card would offer higher frame rates.

metro ll egpu Ian Paul/IDG
metro ll igpu benchmark Ian Paul/IDG
metro ll igpu benchmark 2 Ian Paul/IDG

Less intensive games easily clear the 30-fps mark, however, including Metro: Last Light Redux, which I’ve benchmarked. To put the integrated graphics performance in proper perspective, however, I’ve also included some screenshots of the benchmark running with the eGPU disconnected. All those backpacks floating in midair are supposed to be attached to soldiers, but the integrated graphics simply can’t handle them.

Not all games run flawlessly on my eGPU setup, however. I tried Battlefield 4 and the game ran for only 10 minutes before it failed. Buy your games from online retailers with return policies like GOG and Steam, or that offer limited-time trials like EA’s Origin. You don’t want to be stuck paying $60 for a game that won’t work on your system.

unigine heaven egpu Ian Paul/IDG

Finally, check out the major frame rate leap that my eGPU brings in the Unigine Heaven 4.0 benchmark.

Next page: Cloud-based gaming.

Gaming from the cloud

If an eGPU set-up isn’t in the cards for you there’s another option—or at least there will be soon. Two services currently in beta are hoping to bring cloud-based game streaming to the masses: Nvidia’s GeForce Now and LiquidSky.

With this setup, all you need is a basic Windows PC or a MacBook to run the client software, while a more robust PC runs the actual game in the cloud. Both services use the same basic format. You buy your own PC games from Steam or a similar service, then install it on your cloud-based virtual gaming machine and stream the gameplay to your physical laptop. We haven’t tried either of these services under real-world conditions yet, so we can’t comment on any potential latency issues.

geforce now pcs Nvidia

GeForce Now and Liquid Sky let you game even if your laptop can’t game.

Nvidia says GeForce Now will charge $25 for 20 hours on a virtual PC with the capabilities of a GTX 1060 graphics card, or 10 hours on a GTX 1080-equivalent virtual PC. Resolution for the games is capped at 1080p. Twenty hours sounds like a good chunk of game time, but when you consider that a large game like The Witcher 3 takes over 100 hours to complete, and you need to buy your own copy of the game to play it on GeForce Now, Nvidia’s service doesn’t sound especially budget-friendly. It may be more compelling as a “backup” gaming option—letting you play your games on your work laptop while you’re on the road, for example.

The second service is called LiquidSky. This service charges $10 per month for 4,800 Sky credits. You then spend those credits on virtual PCs running at varying levels of quality. Your $10 worth of Sky credits would get you about 40 hours of playing time on a game running at 60 frames per second with 1080p resolution. That’s quite a good deal—though remember you must purchase the game as well. LiquidSky offers an ad-supported free option, but you’ll still have to bring your own games, and you can only earn three hours of free playtime per day by watching videos.

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