(Disclaimer: These specs were recorded in July 2017, and may be subject to change by the manufacturer. Clicking on the table will take you to the retailer such as amazon.com or newegg.com)
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 2018, the best eGPU for Macs, the best Thunderbolt 3 external GPU, and the best desktops built for use with external graphics cards. Enjoy.
Since their inception, computers have constantly shrunken in size, evolving from ginormous machines that would not fit in a modern house (for example, ENIAC, one of the first computers, was 30 meters long and weighted a whopping 27 tons) all the way down to minuscule devices that can easily fit in the palm of your hand (think Intel Computing Stick).
However, while solutions and workarounds had been found for most components to accommodate for the shrinking and still retain their performance, there’s one specific segment that has taken a significant hit in the process – graphics performance. Things were never simple when it comes to graphics, as every time graphics cards manufacturers found a way to shrink down graphics cards a bit, a new graphics technology would emerge, which required more capable GPUs, which consisted of more components and thus required better cooling, which ultimately meant a larger physical size. The main point is that, despite all technological advancement, we are still yet to have a GPU solution powerful enough to fit in a small-size device such as an ultrabook, for example. The existent solutions that fit in small machines are not powerful enough to be used for demanding tasks, and the ones that are powerful enough do not fit in such devices, so what do you do if you want to enjoy the best of both worlds? You opt for an on-demand solution, which provides you with the necessary graphics performance only when you need it. You get a eGPU.
This article will guide you through the ins and outs of external GPUs, allowing you to familiarize yourself with the technology, understand how they work, and make the best purchase decision. We have also included a selection of the best eGPUs available at this time, so everything you need to know in order to make an informed decision when choosing your eGPU is right here.
The term eGPU stands for external GPU, and the name is pretty self-explanatory: we’re basically talking about an external GPU unit that can be connected when you need a graphics boost, and disconnected when not needed. The externalization of peripherals is something that laptop manufacturers have been doing for quite a while now – most modern laptops no longer include an optical drive, so you have to connect an external one if you need to use a DVD, for example. And let’s not get into Apple laptops, where you’re stuck with USB Type C ports only, and require external adapters for pretty much anything you want to connect.
eGPUs are a bit more sophisticated than your average peripheral, though, mainly because we are not talking about a peripheral component, but rather a core component of a computer, which tend to be a bit more pretentious. For starters, while your external HDD may work very nicely connected to an USB 3.0 port, and still decently when connected to a USB 2.0 port, the transfer speeds offered by these ports are nowhere near what a GPU needs to function properly. To get a clearer picture here, let’s look at some figures: a USB 2.0 port is capable of transfer speeds of up to 480 Mbps, whereas a USB 3.0 port is roughly 10 times faster, at 5 Gbps. Aside from speed, there’s also latency to consider. Data that goes through connectors such as USB ends routed to the USB controller, then the main chipset, where its way to the CPU is prioritized based on the amount of data other devices are transferring, which can result in delays. These are both downfalls that prevented eGPUs from becoming a thing. Until Thunderbolt technology came in, that is.
Thunderbolt ports showed up in Apple computers, and were the result of a cooperation between Apple and Intel, which worked together to develop a high-speed interface that would be fast enough to carry multiple streams of data between devices. This first version toped up at 10 Gbps, while the second doubled up in speed, reaching 20 Gbps. The current standard, Thunderbolt 3, has doubled in speed again, reaching a mind-blowing 40 Gbps. Not only did Thunderbolt ports solved the speed issue, but they also addressed the latency one by using dedicated PCI Express lanes for transferring data to and from the CPU. Simply put, Thunderbolt is what made eGPUs possible.
Thunderbolt hit the market in 2011, but Thunderbolt 1 and Thunderbolt 2 were only available natively in Apple devices, so even though the concept of external GPUs was born around that time, it didn’t gain much traction at the time due to the fact that it was targeting a very specific user base: Apple users that needed more graphics power, a user base that consisted mostly of professionals that worked in graphics-intensive fields such as 3D rendering. Thunderbolt 3 changed all that.
There are two main things that set Thunderbolt 3 apart from the first two versions: 1) it is available on both Apple computers, as well as PCs, and 2) it was integrated directly into an already-existing port, namely the USB Type-C, which was already making its way into modern machines. And thus the eGPU revolution began.
In order to properly determine which eGPU is best for your needs, it’s important to get a better understanding of what an eGPU is and how it works. Contrary to popular belief, eGPUs are not some sort of custom sophisticated hardware gizmos, but rather just your off the shelf GPU (the same type you get into a PC), fitted into an enclosure, along with a power supply and some basic circuit boards. In fact, some eGPUs do not even include the actual GPU – you just get the enclosure, and buy the GPU separately.
The idea behind an eGPU is to provide a solution to adapt a standard GPU and make it usable outside of a PC, and this is reduced to two main requirements: powering the GPU, and ensuring data transmission between the eGPU unit and the device it is connected to. The eGPU enclosure’s power supply handles the powering part, while the magic of Thunderbolt handles the rest. Pretty simple, right?
One of the things that a lot of people get wrong about eGPUs is that, even though they technically fit in the “external peripherals” hardware category, same as portable hard drives, for example, they are not as flexible. While you would normally take an external hard drive and just plug it into any device that has a free USB port, and expect it to just work, the same cannot always be said about an eGPU. Even if the device you’re connecting it to has the necessary Thunderbolt port, there may be compatibility issues at a lower hardware level that will prevent the eGPU from working at an expected level, or it might not even work at all. This is due to the fact that the Thunderbolt technology is still a fairly new technology, that was not designed to carry this specific type of data, and can also have to do with the fact that the rest of the hardware of the machine in question needs to be compatible.
To prevent compatibility issues, some device manufacturers created dedicated eGPUs, and some even went as far as deviating from the standard and using proprietary hardware, such as the case of Alineware laptops, for example.
So, to summarize: an eGPU is aimed to make it simple to hook a GPU to a compatible system, but accurately determining if a machine fits the “compatible system” bill can be a hit or miss at times. Worry not, though, as we’re here to help.
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.
The external GPU market is all to play for in 2017, 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).
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:
(external GPUs make it possible to hook up your notebook to even the GeForce Titan X GPU!)
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.
The question im sure many of you will be asking is: what is the best external GPU for sale in 2017? 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 2017.
We will roundup the best eGPUs for sale including:
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
UPDATE: The Akitio NODE is now available to buy from Amazon
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.)
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.
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.
Read Amazon Reviews for the Akitio Thunder 2 here
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.
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?