With the introduction of External Graphics Cards or eGPUs, high-end gaming has finally come to laptops. With an external GPU, you won’t need to upgrade your entire setup to get the best out of your graphics. Buying one of these external video cards can be tricky, though. So here’s our eGPU Buying Guide!
This guide was created to walk you through all the basics of external graphics cards so that you can make an informed decision on whether or not they are right for you. As a newer technology, they can be a bit mystifying so we tell you everything you need to know to understand this incredible leap in graphical technology. We’ve also sifted through tons of options and selected the five best that you can find on the market today. Read on to hear why an eGPU may be the best gaming purchase you’ll make in 2020!
If you already know the tech behind these cards, scroll down to our favorites below. If not, check out our buying guide found at the bottom to get up to speed on everything you need to make a great purchase.
We’ve hand-picked five of the best Externals on the market today! The eGPU market is still in its infancy but there are some fine contenders out there that will give you top of the line graphics on demand.
Why We Love It: Looking like a prop from the set of a Sci-Fi movie, this gorgeous futuristic GPU chassis is the best you can find on the market today. The Razer Core X Chroma is CNC machined on the outside, has excellent cooling, and comes with sweet Chroma lighting. Despite being designed for Razer laptops, the Core X is compatible with a wide-range of laptops provided they have Thunderbolt 3 support. The plug and play option means that you don’t have to restart your laptop or desktop to use this eGPU. This makes it possible to use this eGPU as a docking station. We love the look and feel. It edged over the XG Station 2 just barely because we had a smoother installation experience.
Drawbacks: The Razer Core X is quite heavy. This eGPU isn’t designed to be that mobile (No handle, and it weighs in quite a bit). It’s not impossible to take somewhere but ideally the Core X is intended to turn your laptop into a gaming PC at home.
Why We Love It: Republic of Gamers just gets the gaming demographic. They make top-quality products that always look cool and run well. The ROG XG Station 2 is no exception. At a pretty high price point, it won’t be the cheapest option, but it will make your games perform incredibly well. The ROG can be equipped with near any card. This is great for enthusiasts who want to plop a 1080 or Titan X into an eGPU. We really recommend the ROG XG Station 2 for those who own a desktop and laptop, but only want one high-end GPU solution.
Paired with a Transformer Book Pro it also makes one of the most powerful touch-screen laptops in history.The XG Station 2 is also the easiest eGPU to slide a GPU into on this list and we are raving fans of the way ROG has rigged the lighting to give a gorgeous presentation to this card.
Drawbacks: Slight driver issues on our initial set-up. We easily fixed that with some updated driver software but it was enough for the Razer Core V2 to take the edge over the XG as our pick.
Why We Love It: Hands down the BEST value in the market is the AORUS GTX 1070 Gaming Box. Nothing can beat getting a 1070 for free while getting the same bells and whistles of modern eGPUs. While the GTX 1070 comes preinstalled it can actually be swapped out if you find the performance lagging a couple years from now. The Gaming Box is also Plug and Play, making this one of the most mobile eGPU solutions on this list. The Aorus Gaming Box also charges your laptop concurrently (Thanks to Thunderbolt 3!) meaning you don’t need to have two power adaptors running. We think the best feature is portability though, the size is so small that you can actually take this to a friends house or Starbucks to game on the go. An excellent all around solution to laptop gaming!
Drawbacks: The Gaming Box comes with a specially designed GTX 1070 that is made to fit inside the small chassis. Replacing the GPU requires finding another mini-build which is not a huge issue but something to be aware of. The Gaming Box also doesn’t feel that durable when you are switching cards so proceed with caution.
Why We Love It: All the other eGPU solutions on this list come from companies that produce laptops or have very close ties with laptop manufacturers. This means that most of them are designed to work with a specific laptop line. We love the Akitio Node because it runs on many different system set-ups including some Mac builds. It fits a full-size card and also has good cooling. The carrying handle is great for taking this eGPU on the road as well. As an external, this is the cheapest option on the market that attains our high standards for quality. If you are looking for all the benefits of an eGPU but at a much lower price point, consider the Akitio Node. Since it works with Mac builds, the Node is a great option if you just want some extra power for creating media files on OSX.
Drawbacks: The old adage is still true, you get what you pay for. The Node performs just as well as the other items on this list but it is larger, louder, and ultimately tamer than the other models. The mobility is hampered a bit by the fact this eGPU is about half the size of a desktop computer tower. If you want small and sleek, this probably isn’t the external you’re looking for.
Why We Love It: The Alienware 9R7XN is the oldest item on this list but it also very affordable. When eGPU technology was in infancy alienware devised a device that works a bit more like a docking station. The benefit to the 9R7XN is that an older alienware laptop can get some continued life by using this Amplifier. The 9R7XN is only compatible with Alienware devices but offers a great solution. Just toss a cheap mid-range GTX in there and you can be playing modern games at great settings for an unbeatable price. This eGPU ONLY works with Alienware products so be aware that this is a proprietary device.
Drawbacks: Not Plug and Play. This means that you’ll have to restart your laptop every time you plug the 9R7XN in, or unplug it. If you don’t plan on moving around regularly but still want cutting edge gameplay, this is a great buy. Also it only works with other Alienware devices.
While the External GPU connects a GPU to a laptop, you usually need to purchase an actual graphics card as well to use one. This can add quite a bit of cost so we’ve selected three great options from Nvidia. With the GTX 10-Series, Nvidia has created an iconic GPU series that will be quite loved for years. The entire line gives incredible performance gains over the competition as well as large increases from past products too. Easy to plug into a PCIe slot, install some drivers, and you are up and running.
If we were to not look at the Titan GPUs, the newly released RTX 3080 is Nvidia’s best 4K card, and there’s plenty of reasons for that. First of all, it comes with 10GB of memory, but it is GDDR6X. This is more than plenty for modern gaming at high resolutions. To add to this, the ASUS ROG Strix variant we’re looking at comes with a 1740MHz boost clock, which is rather impressive.
Even though the RTX 2070 is Nvidia’s lowest end 3000 series card at the moment, it’s still a great choice. The main one is that if you’re willing to not push the settings all the way, you can get a taste of what ray tracing is about, with decent framerates, too. And it can run much better than previous cards at 2K, which is great.
Not everyone can afford to spring for a high-end model. If you’re looking at saving a few bucks, something like the GTX 1660 Super can be a good choice. The card is the highest end non-RTX card, which is why if you don’t care about ray tracing, it’s perfect for you. It’s meant to give you respectable gaming performance at 1080p without breaking the bank.
Why no AMD cards?
If you are familiar with the graphics card market, there are two major producers of GPUs. We LOVE AMD and the cards they produce, but Nvidia cards are still more widely used. Our list with the Best Graphics Cards contains a whole bunch of them, though. And if you’re looking to build your own AMD-powered gaming setup, check out our article on that. To add to this, AMD is just releasing their RX 6000 series GPUs, so keep your eyes peeled as we might update this list.
Last year was an incredible year for PC Gaming. Traditionally laptops have had little to offer in terms of graphical fidelity, especially when they are compared to modern Desktop Computers. Unfortunately some gamers don’t actually have the room for a weighty Desktop PC or need something that is a bit mobile for work and school. This means that many gamers who would love to play modern AAA games have been stuck using underpowered laptops. To combat the need for mobility and high-quality graphics, Gaming laptops were introduced to the market. Yet even the best gaming laptops have been known to suffer from poor cooling, increased weight, and inferior graphical quality. Until recently most gamers have had to pick between having the best gaming experience or a device that offers mobility. That all changed with the introduction of modern eGPUs. Simply put, an External Graphics Card connects to your laptop and instantly gives you all the power and performance of any modern GPU on the market.
Laptop gamers often miss out on cutting edge graphics for the price of convenience. The technical hurdles have just been too daunting to offer top quality performance on the go. The introduction of Thunderbolt 3 has given rise to a brand new piece of hardware, the eGPU. Prior to Thunderbolt 3, laptops didn’t have enough bandwidth to use a modern GPU without connecting via PCIe. There were some solutions introduced before Thunderbolt but they couldn’t run a GPU at full-power meaning a performance loss of 50% or more. The new Thunderbolt format allows a transfer speed of 40 Gbit/s meaning that any modern GPU can finally run at full-power without being throttled.
Most desktop users are familiar with the GPU or Graphics Card because it has the largest performance effect on graphical fidelity while gaming. GPUs are primarily used for three purposes, Gaming, Media, and most recently Cryptocurrency Mining.
Graphics cards consist of two different components, VRAM and the Graphics Processing Unit (Which is where the shorthand GPU designation actually comes from). The processing unit performs complex mathematical calculations while the VRAM works as high-speed memory for the GPU. The strength of a processing unit and size of available VRAM are incredibly important to gaming because they control the power of your computer to simulate visual effects.
Any PC Gamer will tell you that the most critical component in a good gaming setup is the Graphics Card. GPUs have the largest influence on gaming per cost.
The terminology can be a bit confusing with External Graphics Cards. The is because the External GPU or eGPU is not actually a GPU at all. Rather, the term “External Graphics Card” is an industry designation for a special cage/chassis with cooling and proprietary software that an internal GPU is inserted into. This cage is then plugged into a Thunderbolt 3 port where it runs a GPU at full-power exactly like it would inside a desktop case. Internal Graphic Processing Units are attached by plugging them into an internal PCIe Slot. All an eGPU does is provide the best possible environment with which to run an Internal Graphics Card without the need for PCIe. Basically an eGPU is an external plug-and-play case for your GPU.
Until recently it was unfathomable to run a GPU outside of a traditional Desktop PC Case. This combined with the fact that an External Graphics Card Cage is useless without an accompanying Internal GPU has created the slightly misleading term “External Graphics Card.”
As you can see in the photo below, a modern GTX 10-Series card is paired with an External Graphics Card Cage. This is then simply plugged into a Thunderbolt 3 port.
Most External GPUs do not come with an actual GPU but there are one or two exceptions to the norm. Typically what you are buying is a cooled external chassis that can connect to a device and run a normal Desktop GPU externally. This requires special drivers, a power source, and the correct hardware. You can’t just plug a GTX 1080 into a laptop. Thus the eGPU was introduced to simplify the process.
Note: It’s important to make sure you are aware of whether or not your external GPU enclosure comes with a graphics card. Otherwise you’ll need to purchase one separately.
External GPUs are designed to fit a rather specific niche, such as those who need the extra power of a Desktop quality GPU while keeping themselves relatively mobile. For instance if you fit into one of the following, en eGPU could be a good fit for you,
There are two factors to consider when purchasing an external. Compatibility and Bandwidth.
As covered earlier, Thunderbolt 3 is a newer data transfer technology that offers up to 40 Gbps of bandwidth. This is the equivalent of four PCIe slots. Older data transfer systems such as USB 3.0 can still run an eGPU but they often have massive amounts of data lag resulting in large performance drops. This throttles your card and results in less than desired graphical quality. Due to needing a modern Thunderbolt 3 port, eGPUs can have a real compatibility problem with older laptops. Make sure to check whether or not you have one before purchasing an eGPU.
Since eGPU technology is relatively new, some models have stringent restrictions of compatibility. For instance Razer eGPUs run the best with Razer laptops and struggle to achieve the same performance when running on certain laptop models. There are some eGPUs that reach across the aisle and work with multiple laptop manufacturers. Sticking to the same manufacturer though could offer the best support for specific eGPU models at this point in time. When selecting an eGPU look for a model that supports your Thunderbolt 3 capable Laptop or PC.
Graphics Cards are capable of producing enormous amounts of heat. External cages are often filled with fans or other cooling technology in order to help cards cool down when under intense strain. This is critically important if you plan on using a high-end card such AMD’s Vega 64 or a GTX 1080. Adequate cooling helps your card have a long and healthy product life as well as allows the possibility of minor-moderate overclocking.
Some modern cards are particularly large such as the Nvidia GTX 10-Series. They can run from 11-12 inches in length. It’s absolutely critical you pick an External Chassis with enough room to house your GPU correctly. Otherwise it may not fit and you’ll find yourself needing a different eGPU. Most cards will fit within the recommended specs but the top-tier cards are a bit bulkier and might not. Make sure to double check this as well before purchasing.
Every External GPU has a power supply that helps run the internal GPU as well as charge your laptop. Make sure your card is compatible with the electric settings of your GPU and laptop. There is a wide variety between eGPU power settings but most modern Graphics Cards will run well with the five that we’ve selected.
Most externals come with extra ports that are extremely useful. These allow for peripherals as well as a direct place to plug in monitors, ethernet, and more. This makes an eGPU an excellent companion for a laptop as you can create a docking station from an eGPU. Then, all you do when you get back home is plug in your Thunderbolt 3 cable, and you get charging, display output, Ethernet, peripherals, and of course, a desktop-grade graphics card – all with a single cable.
Some eGFX chassis are particularly easy to open up. Others are incredibly sturdy and made from industrial parts. Beyond the aesthetic value of having a good looking GPU case, durability is very important. Often External GPUs will be moved around quite frequently meaning you want a case that stands firm against bumps and scratches. Some even come with handles to help with the constant movement an eGPU may experience.
Currently almost all eGPU have individual lists of products they work with. Make sure to do research before picking one up as it will be useless if your laptop lacks a Thunderbolt 3 port or is incompatible.
There is a lot to think about when it comes to eGPUs. Right now anyone who purchases an eGPU is an early adopter of what will become a cheaper, better, mainstream technology. As such there are a few kinks that manufacturers are working out of the system. Realistically though, it’s the only way to get Gaming computer quality on a laptop. For a lot of us that means it is a resounding yes!
The only card on this list to not use Thunderbolt 3 is from Alienware. That’s because they developed a proprietary technology for eGPU use. It’s a good technology but means that Alienware eGPUs only work with Alienware laptops. The format is similar to a miniaturized PCIe slot in actuality.
Some eGPUs do offer support for slightly older GPUs but currently its best to stay within modern series such as the GTX-9 series or later. As a newer technology they cater to the most recent GPUs to hit the market.
Thanks For Joining Us!
We hope this guide has educated you on the exciting world of eGPUs. There will be many changes in the next few years as this technology matures but early adopters will be very pleased to finally achieve the dream of mobility and top-tier graphics! As always, if you’ve found this guide useful please like, comment, and share so others can learn about some awesome tech Hardware. Until next time, good luck choosing an eGPU and keep coming back for more articles on Gaming and Gaming Hardware!
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