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eGPU: Why you should or shouldn’t get one

eGPU’s, external graphics cards connected over the relatively new Thunderbolt 3 connection, are fascinating pieces of hardware that enable Thunderbolt 3 equipped laptops to use high performance desktop graphic cards. With an entry price point of around $400 for a plug and play system for both Mac and PC, you might want to see if it’s worth the money for your laptop.

These devices range in sizes but are typically smaller than the average desktop computer and come either prepackaged with a graphics card or come as an enclosure only. The latter allows you to choose what graphics card you’d like to out fit it with and enabling you to upgrade in the future.

An eGPU could be for you if you want …

Performance in rendering or gaming

Laptops have been known to be underpowered when it comes to video graphics compared to their heavy and stationary desktop relatives. Some reasons include the amount of power necessary to facilitate the demands of a desktop video card, the need to disperse the greater amount of heat generated by the more powerful video card, space for the chips to actually reside on the internal motherboard and connectivity to the logic board for the graphics card to mate to. People typically want laptops to be functional and portable, powerful, light and long lasting — adding a powerful graphics card tends to compromise the latter three.

To do so, laptop manufacturers would compensate by either making laptops larger and heavier with a larger capacity battery to offset the power draw (or have shorter battery life), adding more fans or liquid cooling since high performance desktop video cards become hotter, raising the price for adding a low powered video card to the laptop along side the high performance card to help with that battery life, or a combination of the above. While some manufacturers have actually built some beast laptops like that, the mass majority wouldn’t need that kind of performance all the time.

This is why many smaller and lighter laptops contain the Intel HD, Iris or Iris Pro Graphics cards. These graphics cards are integrated into Intel processors which don’t require a heck of a lot of power to run which means that manufacturers don’t have to make space for additional cooling and can use smaller batteries without compromising the laptop’s battery life and weight.

With an eGPU, Thunderbolt 3 equipped laptop and a monitor, one can have a lightweight portable laptop solution in the day and plug into high performance graphics workstation at night.

There are a lot of small details when it comes to specifics of eGPU enclosures, but you can use many of the popular video cards, including:

  • NVIDIA GTX 10 series (1080Ti, 1080, 1070Ti, 1070, 1060, 1050, etc.)
  • Radeon RX Series (590, 580, 570, 560, 550, 540, 480, 460, etc.)
  • Other PCI-e video cards

macOS users will have to use AMD Radeon RX 470, RX 480, RX 570, RX 580 and Radeon Pro WX 7100 cards if they’d like to keep their operating system’s integrity, as Apple has created drivers specifically for those cards to work. Otherwise, you could go through the trouble of patching macOS to allow other video cards from NVIDIA and encountering a lot of interesting nuances (believe me, I’ve tried, succeeded and changed paths).

Windows users can use all of the above as long as there are drivers made for the video card — which is basically all of them.

The performance metrics can be astounding. A 2016 13″ MacBook Pro (my personal machine) with Intel an HD 540 integrated graphics card is massively outperformed by the RX 580 that I have in my eGPU box. Massively being anywhere from 200% to 500% faster. The gains were very dependent on the software I ran them on. I tested on GeekBench 3, some in-game benchmarks, SketchUp for Mac and some editing and exporting of iPhone XR videos and found improvements and gains in all of those scenarios.

Gamers will definitely enjoy the large boost of FPS in their games, while videographers and 3D artists can benefit a great amount in rendering, also depending on the software. For instance on my PC workstation, a Lenovo P52s with an i7-8650U processor, 16GB of RAM and a NVIDIA® Quadro® P500 2 GB video card, fun little games like League of Legends ran decently well when hooked up to an external monitor at 1080p at high settings with about 70FPS. I hooked up a Gigabyte RX580 Gaming box and saw the FPS jump to around 300PFS on the same settings — this was a lot more complicated than just hooking it up though, more details below.

Multiple high resolution monitors

If you desire more than two displays for your laptop without plugging up all the ports for your workstation, you should get an eGPU.

The integrated graphics cards have improved over the years, with most allowing for one or two monitors if your laptop manufacturer supplied adequate ports to plug into. If you have a 4K monitor you’ll be lucky to run just one at 60Hz.

So what if you want more?

With the additional power that an eGPU provides, you can add additional screens to your setup for more workspace and better multitasking. Some eGPU and graphic cards setups allow up to four 1080p displays to a box or up to three 4K displays — depending on the graphics card.

If you’re a photographer, imagine having a laptop to go on-site with for a photoshoot, tethering your camera to it then coming home to your three screen setup to edit and do all the other fun things that photographers do. Run Lightroom on one screen, Photoshop on the other and have a tutorial going on the last screen.

If you’re a videographer, you could do the same. Perhaps run DiVinci on one screen, Premiere Pro on the other and have a window of a bunch of videos on the last.

Perhaps you shouldn’t though …

Since this tech is still new, there are a lot of apps that the community uses that we would love to see support eGPU’s better.

For one, Apple doesn’t support eGPU’s on the Bootcamp side of things. While it is possible, it’s super frustrating to get everything working super smoothly while swapping back from one OS to the other. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who relies on both Mac and Windows platforms for their work.

The other thing is that there are some finicky things going on with some different computer specs. If you’re not sure about how many lanes your Thunderbolt 3 port has, you might want to look into it. In order to get full performance on a eGPU and charging, you’ll need all four lanes of PCIe. Some computers only have two lanes, and those specs can be hidden or even omitted from the spec sheets of laptop manufacturers. I wouldn’t recommend this if you know that you don’t have four lanes on the Thunderbolt 3 bus.

Also if you already have a discrete GPU built into your laptop, you can encounter crazy issues with configuring an eGPU with a card from a different manufacturer than what is built into your system already. You’d have to disable the internal GPU and clean the drivers out before installing the eGPU. If you’re not versed in playing with drivers, I wouldn’t recommend getting an eGPU with a card from different company.

If you’re already sitting at your docked laptop and haven’t undocked it to move around or use portably, chances are that you’ll probably continue doing so. You could technically get more performance for your money in the long run by just building a PC or buying a desktop Mac with decent specs and a good GPU.

For me

Perhaps you’re like me. I for one, am part of that majority and don’t need to have high performance video cards with me wherever I go. I tend to take my laptop with me all over town, so weight is important to me, and the light editing and gaming that I do is easily handled by the onboard video.

However, when I’m at home, I want to be editing and multitasking efficiently. I like larger screens and a place for me to plant my butt down and hopefully crank out the heavy work that is sluggish done on the go.

I have a Gigabyte RX580 Gaming Box, which is pretty straightforward with working with my 2016 MacBook Pro at home. This one is pretty affordable at $400, sometimes seen for under $375 on Amazon, and the performance is quite good. It isn’t a GTX 1080 by any means, but it works as well as a GTX 1070 I’d say. It’s hooked up to two ViewSonic VP2468 monitors that keep my setup pretty clean.

I also have a Mantiz Venus enclosure with a GTX 1080 in it at the office with a Lenovo P52s workstation — that works pretty well too, it is just bigger and requires you to buy a video card as well. This setup cost roughly $1100 after tax; the GTX 1080 was a hefty chunk at around $700 and the Enclosure itself was $375. The cool thing about the build-it-yourself eGPU boxes like the Venus and the Razer Core, is that you can put other PCIe cards in there — like M.2 Storage cards or RAID cards if the box supports it. The Venus does support that, so I often change the video card out for a card that holds 4 M.2 SSD’s for blazing performance and a whole lot of storage.

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