I haven’t been much of a gamer in recent years, but I’ve always liked the idea of being one. That feeling intensified when I got my first glimpse of the upcoming Star Wars Battlefront. Then when I saw the Fallout 4 trailer, I knew I had to start gaming again.
But I quickly stumbled across a major problem: The only PC I have is a 2011 ThinkPad X220 with Intel HD 3000 integrated graphics. That just wasn’t going to cut it for proper PC gaming.
Sure, I could make it work for titles like Diablo III with only small moments of stuttering on my laptop’s 12.5-inch, 1366x728-resolution display, but forget about more graphics-intensive games on an external 1080p display.
That’s when it hit me: “Hey, you can have an external hard drive, why not an external graphics card? Surely somebody’s done that.”
Many people have. There are even a few companies building their own external graphics card (eGPU) enclosures such as Alienware, MSI, and ViDock. But these eGPU kits tend to be overpriced or use proprietary connection technology.
That’s why the bulk of the eGPU gaming world is all about DIY set-ups.
The good news is that many people who go the DIY route end up with a plug-and-play experience requiring little to no modification—but to get to the plug-and-play part, you’ve got to do your research.
When that’s done, however, you’ll be left with a killer console-toppling PC gaming setup—all for a cheaper price than a new Xbox One, depending on which graphics card you choose.
The eGPU glossary
Before we get started, I want to introduce a few terms. Without a basic vocabulary the world of eGPU can get confusing, fast. There’s not much to see here for veteran gamers—you can skip to the next section.
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 set-up 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. PCIe 4.0 is also in the works but isn’t expected until 2017. Most new graphics cards will run on PCIe 3.0, which is backward-compatible with version 2.0.
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.
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 cam 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. Windows laptops don’t commonly offer Thunderbolt ports (yet), but many MacBook eGPU enthusiasts report a great experience with a Thunderbolt connection.
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 60fps, though 30fps is considered perfectly playable. Many “next-generation” console games still run at 30fps.
eGPU Basic components
A typical eGPU set-up requires five basic items: a laptop, a desktop graphics card, an external display, a PCIe adapter/board to house the card, and a separate power supply for the graphics card. You may also want a laptop cooling pad if you are going to try to play games that go heavy on graphics, like Witcher 3.
Next page: Getting your eGPU set up and working.
Ideally, your laptop is packing an Intel quad-core Core processor, or a dual-core Core processor with Hyperthreading. It’d also be a great idea to swap your spinning hard drive for an SSD. The latter is far more responsive and makes the gaming experience much better, but it’s not a necessity.
The PCIe board is a specialized piece of equipment. The most popular place to grab a board for ExpressCard and mPCIe users is BPlus in Taiwan (HWTools.net). If you’re looking at using Thunderbolt 2.0 for an eGPU setup there are enclosures you can buy. Check out this eGPU setup featured on AnandTech, as well as Norway-based blogger Poul Peter Serek’s DIY eGPU project for more details.
Most ExpressCard and mPCIe users will want to get the PE4C 3.0 from BPlus, which has 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.
First things first
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 eGPU users have had with your laptop model. There are 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 set up 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.
One of the most common roadblocks people run across is what’s known as “error 12.” This happens when your Windows system decides it does not have enough resources to run the graphics card. Error 12 can usually be fixed with solutions such as Setup 1.30, 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 set ups.
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. You can buy pretty much anything, but I wouldn’t advise going for a top-of-the-line card such as the Radeon R9 Fury X or the Nvidia GeForce GTX Titan X. Instead, I’d advise you to keep your graphics card budget around $200-$300 or less.
The fact is you can get a really great “sweet spot” card for under $300 that should provide you at least a few years of future-proofing, such as the $200 GTX 960 or Radeon R9 380—both are great cards for 1080p gaming. As Nando over at TechInferno told me (via email), you’ll likely see better performance with a higher-grade card, but it will still be bottlenecked by that PCIe x1 or x2 connection to your laptop.
More importantly, however, there’s no guarantee that an eGPU will work until you try it. If you’ve done the proper research for your laptop beforehand, the chances of a bad experience are fairly low. Nevertheless, there are always outliers and you just might be the one person who runs into difficulties.
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.
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 750 Ti, which draws its power from the motherboard. I didn’t test whether the stock GTX 750 Ti would work with a BPlus board, but I did end up buying an overclocked version of the GTX 750 Ti that comes with a 6-pin PCIe power connector.
Picking your power supply
Along with your graphics card, you’ll also need a power supply unit (PSU). There are many reputable brands of PSUs out there, including Cooler Master, Corsair, and Seasonic.
Alternatively, you may only need a power brick similar to what powers your laptop. Take Nvidia’s GTX 650 Ti graphics card, which requires 110 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 110 Watt card needs a PSU with a minimum of 127 Watts.
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 since a standard PSU is so easy to find. PCWorld’s guide to picking a PC power supply can help you make smart buying decisions.
Setting it up
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.
Next, hook your (not yet powered-on) PSU’s 24-pin ATX power supply pins into the BPlus board.
Now connect the 8-pin PCIe connector on the board to the 6-pin power connector on the graphics card.
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. If you’re using an external display connect your graphics card directly to it at this point, 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.
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.
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 options, including the $150 GeForce GTX 950, can obviously perform much better.
Next page: Benchmarks and the future
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 is 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 $215 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.
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 30fps or more and hit console-level quality—and that was with Nvidia Hairworks turned off. Witcher 3 is very graphics intensive, but I noticed serious stuttering and other problems only when the frame rate went below 22fps.
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.
That Witcher 3 works with my rig is also a promising sign for the release of Star Wars Battlefront and Fallout 4 in the coming weeks.
I am a little nervous about performance with Battlefront, however, considering it’s powered by Electronic Arts’ Frostbite 3 gaming engine. I’ve already tried Battlefield 4—another game based on Frostbite 3—and the game ran for only 10 minutes before it failed.
Tip: 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.
Less intensive games easily clear the 30fps 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.
Finally, check out the major frame rate leap that my eGPU brings in the Unigine Heaven 4.0 benchmark.
The fact that you can go from a laptop that barely runs a 1080p movie without stuttering to a rig that plays Witcher 3 is downright amazing. The future, however, is looking even better for one big reason: Thunderbolt 3.
Intel specifically called out eGPU scenarios as a use case for Thunderbolt 3 in a blog post in June. Thunderbolt 3 promises up to 40 gigabit-per-second theoretical speeds, and eGPU enthusiasts like Nando expect it to offer near-desktop performance for eGPU laptops.
Intel wouldn’t go quite that far, but the company is confident that Thunderbolt 3 eGPU setups will offer a better experience than we have now.
“Generally, we expect to see some reduction in performance of a desktop graphics card over Thunderbolt vs. the same card in a desktop PC graphics card slot, because of the lower PCIe bandwidth over Thunderbolt,” an Intel spokesperson told us. “But it will still have very good performance, especially compared to the system without the desktop graphics card connected.”
Acer, Dell, Asus, and Lenovo have already announced Thunderbolt 3-enabled laptops that we’ll hopefully see before 2015 is out.
Intel is also working on improving graphics solutions for Windows 10. “We are working with graphics vendors on Windows 10 solutions that will support hot plug/unplug [add or remove graphics without a reboot], an important user experience required for Thunderbolt devices,” an Intel spokesperson said. The company expects initial support from AMD.
If you’re in the market for a laptop and thinking about eGPU, you’ll definitely want to hold off until we see Windows notebooks packing Thunderbolt 3. But if you’re looking to add some pep to the step of a laptop you already own, an eGPU connection over ExpressCard or mPCIe is a great way to beef up your hardware without paying for a whole new gaming rig.