What is An External GPU Enclosure?
Because you’re reading this article, it’s safe to assume that you’re interested in external video cards. Whether you’re a laptop owner and you’re interested in getting more out of your laptop, or you’re on a desktop and are just curious. Regardless of what the case may be, External GPU Enclosures are a really cool concept hindered only by a small market. Below, we’ll go over what they are.
A Brief ExplanationTo say “An External GPU Enclosure is a box that plugs into your laptop and you can put a graphics card in it” wouldn’t be wrong, but there’s so much more to it than that. The enclosure itself is rather simple —
To say “An External GPU Enclosure is a box that plugs into your laptop and you can put a graphics card in it” wouldn’t be wrong, but there’s so much more to it than that. The enclosure itself is rather simple — usually, they’re just some form of a box with ventilation. Some variants will offer expanded I/O for your laptop. Extra USB ports, HDMI / DisplayPorts, SD Card Readers, Ethernet and more. These are intended to act as an aid, as most laptops only have a very small amount of I/O. This is especially true with laptops that offer USB Type-C ports, which we’ll be focusing on a lot more later down in the article.
An External GPU Enclosure typically contains these elements: an enclosure for the GPU itself, expanded I/O, ventilation for the card, and sometimes a fan(s) for additional cooling, a standalone PCB for the GPU to interface with, and a power supply to deliver additional power to the card if necessary. The enclosure will terminate to a single cable that will plug into your laptop. These pieces all come together to create a seamless piece of hardware offering an elegant solution to enhance your laptop’s graphical capabilities. Unfortunately, this comes at the price of a few headaches along the way.
If the concept of a single box with a single cable to make your laptop much faster sounds too good to be true, you’d be somewhat right. Between inconsistencies between enclosures, only one type of interface really being worth using, and driver issues, not to mention whether or not your laptop even supports the interface, there’s a lot of hoops to jump through before you can get right into picking what enclosure and card you want. That is, of course, unless you’re on a Razer Blade using a Razer Core, or a few Alienware models using an Alienware Graphics Amplifier.
While we’ll go over it in more detail later, it’s worth mentioning now that USB Type-C with Thunderbolt 3 is the best — and in some respects only way to go when it comes to using an external graphics card. The Thunderbolt 3 interface supports data transfers of up to 40Gbps. This is nearly equivalent to PCI-E 3 4x speeds. Anything below this, and you’ll find that your card harshly underperforms. Your framerates will be much lower than they otherwise would be, and in some cases, you might even encounter frame skipping and stutters.
Next, you’re going to want to ensure that your laptop not only has USB Type-C but that it also has Thunderbolt 3 support, which uses the USB Type-C interface. If you have USB Type-C, it might only have SuperSpeed USB support, which is roughly equal to 10gbps bandwidth, or 25% of Thunderbolt 3. There are only a few laptops available with Thunderbolt 3 support as of now, but that should change going into the future.
With all of this said, we have a few tips for you to ensure that your experience is as pleasant as it can be.
- Ensure your laptop has USB Type-C support.
- Ensure that your USB Type-C is Thunderbolt 3.
- Note that not all enclosures will work on all systems, and some enclosures claiming to work only on one brand might work on others.
- Ensure the enclosure you purchase uses the Thunderbolt 3 interface.
- An External GPU Enclosure might not benefit you if your laptop’s CPU is very old or slow.
- Keeping all of this in mind, your experience as a shopper should be pleasant and painless.
What Type of eGPU Do I Want?
Above, I tried to drive home how important it is that your enclosure and laptop both support Thunderbolt 3. This is true, but I wanted to take the opportunity to go over a few types of interfaces you’re likely to see while shopping for an enclosure.
Arguably the worst solution out of all current enclosures, USB 3.0 offers the bare minimum in bandwidth for the GPU: 5gbps. This is only 1/8th of what is offered on Thunderbolt 3 and is roughly equivalent to PCI-E 2.0 1x speeds. This would simply starve the card for bandwidth and result in an awful experience. That being said, it will be a step up from integrated graphics, so in an absolute bind, it is a possible solution.
Bear with me here, it’s about to get confusing.
USB Type-C is different than Thunderbolt 3 in that Thunderbolt 3 is an interface which can be adapted into USB Type-C. However, USB Type-C can also be using the SuperSpeed USB interface. This will result in speeds of either 5gbps (same as USB 3.0) or 10gbps, about 25% of the bandwidth possible through Thunderbolt 3. If your enclosure only supports SuperSpeed USB Type-C, you’re going to be limited in the amount of bandwidth your GPU has access to, and this will hurt your experience. However, if the interface is 10gbps and not 5, it won’t be quite as bad.
It’s important to note that Thunderbolt 3 is not a connector type. It’s actually a type of interface which is often used by USB Type-C. This enables data rates of up to 40gbps, power delivery of up to 100w, and it can be adapted into many USB ports or other interfaces. Having an enclosure support USB Type-C is important, as this will allow your GPU to have full access to more than enough bandwidth for modern GPUs. This interface can also transfer enough power over Thunderbolt 3 to allow low-power cards to be powered without an additional power supply.
While these explanations are simple and only scratch the surface of the technical background behind these connectors and interfaces, it should give you more than enough information about what to look for when buying an enclosure.
The Best External GPUs – Our Recommendations
At this point, it’s safe to bet that you know what to look for, but just in case, we’ll go over it one more time.
When buying an External GPU Enclosure, look for one that supports Thunderbolt 3 over USB Type-C, if your laptop supports it. If you only have access to USB 3.0, then do that if you absolutely have to. Note though that this is a last resort, as the bandwidth offered over USB 3.0 is not nearly enough for modern GPUs.
Buying a product like this can be daunting, what with how many variables there are to ensure you have a comfortable experience. From brand-exclusive enclosures to interfaces and other conditions for compatibility, buying something like this isn’t nearly as simple as buying a new graphics card, computer case or power supply. To help alleviate some of this, we’ve laid out a few product recommendations to get you started.
All Featured External GPUs:
|Best eGPUs 2017||Razer Core||PowerColor Devil Box||Alienware Graphics Amplifier||AkiTio Node|
|Interface:||Thunderbolt 3||Thunderbolt 3||Proprietary Connection||Thunderbolt 3|
|Compatibility:||Most* w/TB3||All Laptops w/ TB3||Alienware Only||All Laptops w/ TB3|
* Most cards are supported with these boxes. The manufacturer(s) only specification is “full-length double-wide cards.” The Razer Core natively only supports Razer products, but users report the enclosure working fine with other, non-Razer TB3 laptops.
* The Razer Core and PowerColor Devil Box show no official support but users have reported enabling functionality through unsupported methods in OSX.
The Razer Core is an expensive, well-built External GPU Enclosure from Razer that is marketed towards its Razer Blade series of laptops but has compatibility with a wide variety of laptops which support USB Type-C with Thunderbolt 3. The enclosure is well-built, supports most if not all modern GPUs, and works on most Thunderbolt 3 laptops. Its main shortcomings are in its finicky drivers and odd software-end issues when used on non-Razer laptops.
Alienware Graphics Amplifier
The Alienware Graphics Amplifier is well-built, has support for a variety of GPUs, and is relatively inexpensive. Unfortunately, this comes at the price of Alienware opting to use a proprietary connector for the enclosure, which means the device will only be supported on Alienware devices. However, this proprietary connector boasts performance comparable to Thunderbolt 3, so you shouldn’t have to worry about bandwidth issues with any modern GPU.
PowerColor Devil Box
The Devil Box by PowerColor is the first External GPU Enclosure not tied to a specific brand. However, this also comes with some downsides. The Devil Box boasts support for many modern GPUs and will work on most — if not all Thunderbolt 3-enabled devices. However, many users report the device being rather loud, very large and it comes with a barrage of headaches when setting it up. However, once you’ve got the device all configured, the experience using it is relatively painless. The enclosure also has a handful of USB 3.0 ports to expand your I/O, and two 2.5” hard drive bays for expanded storage using SSDs or SFF hard drives.The Devil Box will require some disassembly and reassembly to install graphics cards, and many users also report that the firmware needs to be updated in order to function properly. With a price tag of $449, the Devil Box comes in just under the Razer Core. Both in price, and ease of use.
The Devil Box will require some disassembly and reassembly to install graphics cards, and many users also report that the firmware needs to be updated in order to function properly. With a price tag of $449, the Devil Box comes in just under the Razer Core. Both in price, and ease of use.
You can read our review on the AkiTio Node soon.The AkiTio Node is an interesting product, in that it boasts a very sharp, clean design with minimal branding and works near-seamlessly on both Windows and Mac. Many users report that it simply “works.” Drop in your card, plug it in and download your drivers and you’re off to the races. The Node does not offer expanded I/O, but this helps its case as well. The Node comes in at a very competitive price point of $329, which is $200 less than the Razer Core. Sure, you lose your additional ports, but the Node, unlike the Core, works without issue on most setups. It also uses Thunderbolt 3, which means your graphics card won’t be starved for bandwidth. The only real downside to the Node is that it can often take a long time to ship in the United States. Estimated shipping varies between two and three weeks from date of processed order. This is to be expected with a relatively small and unknown company.
The AkiTio Node is an interesting product, in that it boasts a very sharp, clean design with minimal branding and works near-seamlessly on both Windows and Mac. Many users report that it simply “works.” Drop in your card, plug it in and download your drivers and you’re off to the races. The Node does not offer expanded I/O, but this helps its case as well. The Node comes in at a very competitive price point of $329, which is $200 less than the Razer Core. Sure, you lose your additional ports, but the Node, unlike the Core, works without issue on most setups. It also uses Thunderbolt 3, which means your graphics card won’t be starved for bandwidth. The only real downside to the Node is that it can often take a long time to ship in the United States. Estimated shipping varies between two and three weeks from date of processed order. This is to be expected with a relatively small and unknown company.
In conclusion, whether you’re buying a Razer Core, Alienware Graphics Amplifier, AkiTio Node or a Devil Box, there are many options on the market for you. Razer and Alienware laptops dominate the gaming market, and this means that a majority of customers with high-end laptops are likely to own one of these brands, enabling access to a really nice product that they know will just work. The Devil Box is an experiment by PowerColor to test the waters in the market, but unfortunately, they fall flat on their face when it comes to delivering a headache-free product. This, however, is where AkiTio comes in to save the day. While it’s not as affordable as the Graphics Amplifier by Alienware (which has a price tag of $170) it is much more affordable than the Razer Core or Devil Box, and it’s the only enclosure on our list that stands with glowing reviews, touting how it “just works.”
In the future, as more laptops hit the market with better mobile CPUs for better prices, the market for an external graphics card is only going to grow. Here’s hoping.