Welcome to GPUnerds guide on buying an external graphics card (eGPU). We will show you what is the best eGPUs are available for sale in 2016, the best eGPU for Macs, the best Thunderbolt 3 external GPU, and the best desktops built for use with external graphics cards. Enjoy.
Why all the hype about External GPU’s?
The GPU in notebooks is difficult to replace, and due to its form factor is often limited in performance too. The GPU in notebooks is physically soldered to the motherboard, meaning it is not possible to upgrade the graphics card when desired.
An external graphics card (also known as an eGPU or external GPU) enclosure allows you to house an desktop graphics card, such as the blisteringly fast GeForce GTX 1080, and connect it to your laptop and allow it to run applications or connect to an external monitor with the desktop graphics card.
Desktop GPUs are far more powerful than integrated mobile CPUs and offer up to 10x performance improvements when running a notebook on an external GPU
External GPU enclosures have been around for a number of years, but the full capabilities have truly been limited by the slow bandwidth and connectivity of the eGPU to the laptop. Only now it is possible to truly embrace the full power of desktop-grade GPUs on an eGPU thanks to new technologies such as Thunderbolt 3, offering bandwidth of up to 40gb/s, almost double the speed of Thunderbolt 2, and four times the speed of USB 3.1!
As virtual reality (VR) begins to hit the market, most current-gen laptops do not currently offer enough graphics processing power to run VR-ready games, and hence using an eGPU provides a solution for this inevitable situation. This saves you buying a top-of-the-range desktop PC to experience VR gaming, or shelling out thousands of dollars on an expensive, VR-ready gaming notebook. External GPUs will make your Laptop or Mac system ready for VR systems such as the OSVR HDK 2 or Oculus Rift.
Why should you consider buying an External GPU in 2016?
The external GPU market is all to play for in 2016, with no single brand ruling this eGPU market, with all major graphics card companies including Alienware, Razer and Asus all releasing their eGPU enclosures and create the best external graphics card in the market. Before the adoption of Thunderbolt connectivity in many high-end laptops that are sold today, external GPUs never really took off due to the limitations of bandwidth when using USB 2.0 to connect the laptop to the external GPU. Hence, this was an inefficient way to gain a performance boost for your graphics performance and overall gaming experience of your laptop.
Recently, the gaming laptop and high-end laptop market are beginning to adopt Thunderbolt 3 connectivity, meaning now there is the opportunity and potential for using eGPUs to increase your laptop gaming power.
Soon the bottleneck of the inbuilt graphics card in notebooks will no longer be the limiting factor in your gaming performance thanks to the desktop-like capability of hooking up to an external GPU.
If you’re in the market for a laptop to hook up to an external GPU, make sure you look for a laptop bearing thunderbolt 3 connectivity. It is possible to hook up an eGPU via ExpressCard or mPCIe to get some extra gaming performance for your hardware, however these connections aren’t the future of eGPUs, the future is in thunderbolt 3 (at least, for now).
Benefits of External Graphics Cards
External graphics card provide the solution for many laptop owners who wish to experience desktop-like graphics performance. A summary of the top benefits of using an external GPU is listed below:
- With external GPUs, it will be possible to unleash your notebooks true potential for graphics intense applications, such as rendering and most importantly gaming.
- External GPUs future proof your laptop, allowing upgradeability of your GPU, and reducing the chance of you being stuck with an outdated and redundant laptop.
- External graphics cards will particularly appeal to the teenage gamer, especially anyone moving out and going to college, looking to retain graphics performance of desktop-grade graphics with an eGPU, whilst allowing for portability and practicality of the notebook around campus.
- External GPU enclosures make current gen notebooks VR-ready with powerful full sized, discrete GPUs, such as the Nvidia GeForce Titan X. Only the top end mobile integrated GPUs are VR-ready and hence are only in the top-end of gaming laptops.
(external GPUs make it possible to hook up your notebook to even the GeForce Titan X GPU!)
External GPU Terminologies explained:
AMD Xconnect Technology: AMD’s XConnect technology makes it possible for Radeon GPUs to be plugged into supported laptops on the fly, whilst for GeForce graphics cards you’ll need to shut down your system before swapping in the card.
Thunderbolt 3: Thunderbolt 3 is a hardware interface which connects external peripheral devise to you computer. Developed my Intel, Thunderbolt 3 promises speeds of up to 40 gigabit-per-second, a blisteringly fast speed capable of providing laptops to offer near-desktop performance when hooked up to an external graphics card. It is crazy to think that you can have a laptop that struggles to play a 1080p movie natively, but when connected to an external GPU it can play Battlefield 4 smoothly without issue.
Top External Graphics Cards Currently on sale in 2016
The question im sure many of you will be asking is: what is the best external GPU for sale in 2016? First, lets have a round up of all the top external GPUs currently offered by the big brands, such as Razer, Alienware and Asus, in 2016.
We will roundup the best eGPUs for sale including:
- Best Thunderbolt 3 compatible external GPUs
- Best eGPUs designed for use with Mac’s (read our in-depth article of the top 3 eGPUs for mac)
- Best Thunderbolt 2 compatible external GPUs
- Best Desktops built for use with external GPUs
Best Thunderbolt 3 compatible external GPUs:
1. Razer Core
The Razer Core is out-of-the-box compatible with Razer’s new Blade series notebook and Blade Stealth ultrabook. It has Thunderbolt 3 technology, so technically should be able to support any laptop which houses a Thunderbolt 3 port. The Razer Core supports AMDs latest XConnect technology, allowing for an external GPU enclosure (specifically containing Radeon GPUs) to easily connect and disconnect to any notebook via Thunderbolt 3 at any time.
The Razer Core offers plenty of connectivity, packing 4 USB 3.0 ports, an Ethernet port, and importantly the capacity to house a full size, fan-cooled high performance desktop GPU of up to 12.20 inches in length. The design and built quality is not bad either, made of an aluminium frame and is very weighty in feel. The build quality is super solid.
The Core eGPU comes in at $499, a price that can be quite difficult to swallow, but we expect this to come down in future iterations of Razer’s eGPU. If you do not want to wait for the Razer Core to drop in price, we do recommend this external GPU as a great option for beefing up your notebooks performance with desktop-grade graphics.
To read our in-depth review on the Razer core, click here. If you want to find out exactly which graphics cards are compatible with the Razer core, click here.
2. Alienware Graphics Amplifier
First introduced back in 2014, the Graphic Amplifier is Alienware’s take on the external GPU enclosure.
The Alienware Graphics Amplifier provides extra firepower to the Alienware 13, 15 and 17 notebooks, as well as the Alienware 17 R2 and R3 notebooks. This external GPU enclosure also provides compatibility to other devices that bear the thunderbolt 3 technology, albeit compatibility with non-Alienware laptops can be a bit shaky. We expect this to be resolved through future driver and BIOS updates to improve compatibility. The setup of the Amplifier is pretty straightforward, simply open up the Alienware Amplifier and plug in the GPU to the singular, full-length PCIe slot. The power supply at 460 watts is big enough to provide juicy to even the most demanding of graphics cards, such as the GeForce GTX 1080 video card!
In terms of connectivity, the Alienware Amplifier houses four USB 3.0 ports at the rear. Hook a mouse and keyboard up to the Alienware amplifier, turning your eGPU enclosure essentially into a large docking station. The Alienware amplifier doesn’t utilize AMD’s XConnect technology, and instead uses proprietary technology to connect to PC’s.
It has been claimed by Dell themselves that this infact delivers ‘better performance and bandwidth than Thunderbolt 3 eGPU enclosures’. However, the use of proprietary connectivity severely limits the compatibility of this with other notebooks and laptops offered by other manufacturers.
Other great features of the Graphics Amplifier eGPU include internal bandwidth on the Amplifier cables being dedicated purely to the graphics, which is not the case for many Thunderbolt 3 eGPUs, where bandwidth is split amongst various devices. This includes external monitors, hard drives and other peripheral devices that are daisy-chained to a single port.
You can run the Alienware Graphics Amplifier either with your laptops monitor, or instead with an external monitor by connecting through the laptop or either directly to the GPU. There is great compatibility of the Graphics Amplifier with the many popular graphics cards, including the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070 and GTX 1080 discrete GPUs. However, others have claimed to experience driver issues, for example with the GeForce Titan X, although we expect these issues to be resolved in the future.
The Alienware Graphics Amplifier currently is on the market for $199, a $100 reduction from its $299 price tag from when it was introduced back in 2014.
Benefits of the Alienware Graphics Amplifier
- Low Price
- Compatible with popular GPUs (GeForce GTX 1080 and GTX 1080)
Drawbacks of the Alienware Graphics Amplifier
- Proprietary technology
- No Thunderbolt 3 connectivity
- Some Driver issues (but this is slowly being resolved)
To read our full, in-depth review of the Alienware Graphics Amplifier, click here.
If you want to find out the compatibility of the Alienware eGPU with GPUs and notebook compatibility, click here.
Read Amazon Reviews of Graphics Amplifier here
3. Asus ROG XG Station 2
Asus introduced its version of the eGPU, the ROG XG Station 2, back in January 2016 at CES. Republic of Gamers (ROG), a brand of Asus, clearly see the opportunity and potential of eGPUs for dramatically boosting laptop gaming performance and hence have recently entered the eGPU market with essentially an device resurrected from 2007 to achieve this!
The ROG XG Station 2 offers the latest Thunderbolt 3 connectivity, offering lightning-quick bandwidth speeds of up to 40gb/s, as well as an ‘exclusive proprietary connector’ claimed to deliver an additional 15 percent improvement in graphics performance. Not bad.
The XG Station 2 houses a 680W power supply, plenty enough of wattage to satisfy even the most demanding of discrete video cards. No worries about running the GeForce Titan X on the ROG XG Station 2 then…
Connectivity on the ROG XG Station 2 is pretty great, too. This external GPU offers four USB 3.0 ports, as well as a gigabit LAN socket for extended connectivity. The XG Station 2 will not only provide the power of Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C to drive desktop-level graphics processing, it will also charge your laptop whilst you’re in the midst of gaming.
The Republic of Gamers XG Station 2 is also reasonably priced, coming in at just $300, compared to the Razer Core which is currently retailed for $499. No word yet however on the release of this beastly external GPU by Asus.
4. PowerColor Devil Box
PowerColor has introduced its own eGPU, the DEVIL BOX, boasting AMD’s XConnect technology and Thunderbolt 3 connectivity, providing any notebook with desktop-level graphics processing power whilst retaining the small form factor of a notebook. The Devil Box eGPU has a remarkably similar in design to the Razer Core. We like it.
There’s plenty of connectivity in the PowerColor DEVIL BOX, which is fitted with a 500W power supply, PCIe expansion, four USB 3.0 Ports, USB Type-C port, Ethernet, as well as SATA controllers. Talking about compatibility of the Devil Box, it has been noted by PowerColor that NVIDIA GeForce GTX 750 and higher is compatible with the Devil Box eGPU, as well as AMD Radeon R9 285 and up. Any GPU should be compatible with the PowerColor Devil Box with the correct driver support and under a maximum GPU power usage of 375 watts and is under 310mm in length.
No words yet on pricing of the PowerColor Devil Box, but expect it to be priced under $400. Release date has not yet been announced, but we think this external GPU will hit the shelves before the end of 2016.
5. Sonnet Echo Express III-D
The Sonnet Echo Express III-D is another top player in the growing eGPU market, with this external GPU focused towards Mac users. Unique to the Echo Express III-D, it offers up to 3 PCIe Slots through Thunderbolt 2 connectivity, although this eGPU enclosure is now upgradeable to accommodate the faster Thunderbolt 3 technology, thanks to a replacement Thunderbolt interface card.
The Sonnet Echo Express III-D is surprisingly quiet thanks to its variable-speed, temperature-controlled fans that automatically provide additional cooling to the graphics cards. This external GPU also features a built-in 300W power supply with a 75W auxiliary power connector. Two Thunderbolt 2 ports are found on this eGPU, and supports one full-length, full height, double-width PCIe card, plus a single-width PCIe card. Alternatively, the Echo Express III-D supports up to three full length, full-height, single-width PCIe cards.
The design may not to be everyone’s tastes, and perhaps not as extravagant as the Asus ROG XG Station 2, but it is a truly solid build thanks to its aluminium housing, and if anything did happen to go wrong with the Echo Express III-D, they provide a 5-year warranty included at no extra cost. Sonnet does believe in the quality of their product with that lengthy warranty!
The Echo Express III-D is a great external GPU with plenty of features, but sure does come at a cost. Retailed at just under $999, the Sonnet Technologies Echo Express III-D is certainly one of the most expensive external graphics cards available on the market.
Benefits of the Sonnet Echo Express III-D
- Supports up to three additional PCIe video cards
- Upgradable to support Thunderbolt 3 technology
- Solid, sturdy aluminium build
- Remarkably Quiet
- 5 Year Warranty included
Drawbacks of the Sonnet Echo Express III-D
- Basic design
- Does not support fully sized discrete GPUs, such as the NVIDIA Titan X, or GPUs with inbuilt cooling fans
- Have to upgrade to Thunderbolt 3 connectivity with a connector
6. Gigabyte GP-T3GFx
Gigabyte has given us a small glimpse of their interpretation of the eGPU at the 2016 Computex expo. Little is known about this external GPU manufactured by Gigabyte, codenamed the ‘GP-T3GFx’, although we do know that this graphics card enclosure will be able to accommodate a full sized, double-width discrete video card. The well-regarded case manufacturers, Silverstone, produce the external enclosure for the Gigabyte-T3GFx, and it really does look great.
What we really hope from the GP-T3GFx is that it will bring a lower price point to the eGPU market. Gigabyte does provide great value in other PC components they produce, so we hope they can continue this tradition through to the expensive external GPU enclosure market!
We don’t know many details about the Gigabyte GP-T3GFx, but expect it to be shipping in early 2017.
7. Akitio Node (Announced: November 2016)
Akitio, the manufacturer of the popular Thunder 2 and Thunder 3 eGPU’s, announced in November 2016 their new model, called the ‘Akitio Node’. The Node eGPU is claimed to be the first affordable external graphics card enclosure designed for the masses, with thunderbolt 3 connectivity, simple interface and a more affordable price compared to similar eGPUs.
Akitio Node at a glance:
- Thunderbolt 3 compatibility
- Built-in 400W SFX PSU
- Supports full-length, full-height, double-width PCIe (x16) cards (e.g. GTX 1080)
- Carry handle for transportation
- Removable back panel
- $299.99 MSRP
The Akitio Node houses the latest Thunderbolt 3 technology, offering up to 40Gb/s of bandwidth speeds. A 400W SFC power supply is built into the Akitio Node, providing more than enough juice for even the most powerful graphics cards (GTX 1080/HD 480 etc..) This eGPU enclosure supports 1 full-length, full-height, double-width PCIe (x16) cards, meaning that it will be no problem trying to fit in your GTX 1080 or Titan X in this enclosure.
The design of the Akitio Node is nothing out of the ordinary, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t like it. We dig the basic, no BS design and by the looks of its high quality and well-built using high quality components. I believe this may be the first eGPU enclosure with a carry handle to easily transport the device for a true portable gaming experience (though correct me if im wrong!).
We can’t wait to get our hands on this eGPU from Akitio, we think product is bridging the gap between eGPUs for enthusiasts and the mass PC gaming market with a simple design and more affordable price. It sure is a step in the right direction for eGPUs.
The Akitio Node is not yet available for sale, but you can find out more information about this eGPU here.
Best External Graphics Card Enclosures designed for MacBooks
1. The Wolfe
The Wolfe is an exciting eGPU currently being crowd-funded on Kickstarter, raising over $150,000 in the first 24 hours of launching! The Wolfe eGPU has its primary focus on providing MacBook users the ability to boost their graphics performance through connection to The Wolfe via Thunderbolt 3 connection.
I’m a big fan of the design of ‘The Wolfe’, with a simple and Apple-like aluminum design; it will blend in to any mac-users minimalistic desk. Once funded on Kickstarter, this product should be hitting the shelves by fall 2016.
We expect ‘The Wolfe’ external GPU enclosure to be a great solution for a Mac user looking for an eGPU to boost their MacBook’s graphics capabilities.
(UPDATE NOVEMBER 2016: The Wolfe’s fundraising campaign has been withdrawn from Kickstarter. A shame.)
2. BizonBOX 2
The BizonBOX 2 is another external graphics card enclosure built specifically for Macs. This eGPU is specifically designed for use with Nvidia GeForce GTX graphics cards, such as the GTX 1080 or even more powerful Titan X graphics card. Bizon have claimed this external GPU to be a true ‘plug-and-play’ eGPU, requiring very little setup time.
We are a fan of the aluminum-housed casing of the BizonBOX 2, as well as the 1-year warranty included with each purchase.
The BizonBOX 2 features Thunderbolt 2 connection (as well as Thunderbolt 1) offering bandwidth speeds of up to 20gb/s.
The BizonBOX 2 external GPU for mac currently retails for $599, and can be bought here.
Best Thunderbolt 2 eGPUs for Sale in 2016
1. Akitio Thunder2
Akitio’s Thunder2 external GPU is one of the best-rated Thunderbolt 2 eGPUs on the market today. This eGPU includes two Thunderbolt 2 ports providing bandwidth speeds of up to 20Gbp/s, and the possibility of daisy chaining up to six Thunderbolt devices.
Housed in a durable and solid aluminum casing, the Akitio Thunder2 eGPU has 1 PCI (x16) slot supporting up half-length, full-height, double-width graphics cards.
Installation is pretty simple, too, with entry and replacement of the graphics card done by removing two hand-tightening screws. No tools required at all.
The price is reasonable for the Akitio Thunder2 eGPU, retailing at a modest $219.
Benefits of Akitio Thunder2 PCIe Box
- Low price
- Daisy Chain up to 6 Thunderbolt devices
- Solid aluminum casing
- Easy access to replace graphics card
Drawbacks of Akitio Thunder2 PCIe Box
- Only supports Thunderbolt 2 connectivity
- Does not support a full size, discrete graphics card
Read Amazon Reviews for the Akitio Thunder 2 here
Best Desktop PCs built for eGPU usability
1. MSI Gaming 27XT
At CES 2016, MSI Gaming announced an all-in-one desktop PC that is focused on the next-gen gaming experience, offering the ability to slot a desktop-size graphics card such as the Nvidia Titan X GPU, into a neat rear mounted enclosure of the MSI 27XT.
All components of the MSI 27XT are positioned behind the display, creating a tidy and clutter-free PC that will look great on any desk, whilst performing like a full size, tower gaming desktop. The MSI Gaming 27XT includes Intel’s 8-core Core i7-5960X processor, the option of a 144Hz QHD display boasting 1440p resolution, as well as a mouth-watering 60Hz 4k display also being offered on the 27XT all-in-one gaming PC.
MSI has yet to put a price on the 27XT all-in-one gaming PC, and we expect this to be available by the end of 2016.
2. Intel ‘Skull Canyon’ NUC
Intel announced its gaming-focused NUC back at CES 2016, codenamed ‘Skull Canyon’. This micro PC is too small to house a full-size, fan-cooled GPU, however Intel have confirmed that the Skull Canyon NUC will include a Thunderbolt 3 port, allowing this barebones PC to be connected and beefed up by an external GPU enclosure.
This is a great option for those who like to upgrade their components when desired, such as the RAM, graphics card and storage, whilst happily retaining the same CPU for a few generations.
The NUC Skull Canyon itself is priced at under $600, definitely one to consider if you like your customizability. More details and full review of Intel’s ‘Skull Canyon’ once we can get our hands on it. More to follow
Read 50+ Reviews of the Intel NUC Skull Canyon here
Buy the Intel NUC Skull Canyon here
If you are planning on buying an external GPU and put a GTX 1080 card in it, why not read our guide to the Best GTX 1080 for sale in 2016?