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Does My Laptop Work with an External GPU?

GPU vs. CPU

Does My Laptop Work with an External GPU?

Key Points

  • eGPUs are becoming popular for people who want the benefits of a discrete video card without building their own PC.
  • Laptops have limitations in terms of graphics due to the lack of standardization and difficulty in modification and upgrades.
  • Compatibility with the CPU, hardware interface, and power supply output are important factors to consider when using an eGPU.
  • eGPUs may not be the best option for gaming on the go or for saving money compared to investing in a desktop computer.
  • There are two main types of external GPUs: a chassis with an internal power supply and external PCIe slots.

External GPUs, or eGPUs, are becoming more popular for people who don’t have the time, money, or knowledge to build their own PC with a super-powered graphics card. An eGPU plugs into one of the slots on your computer, usually a Thunderbolt slot, and provides all the benefits of a discrete video card without requiring you to open your computer and install it.

An eGPU can be especially useful for those with laptops. Laptops have two significant downsides in the realm of graphics. One is the lack of standardization in laptop parts. Since the components don’t have a standard form factor, finding a graphics card that fits your laptop can be challenging. The other is that consumer laptops are exceedingly difficult to modify and upgrade.

This factor ties into the lack of standardization but is also its own detail. Laptops aren’t made to last forever. They’re not even made to be repaired when broken. The market has shifted in computers of this kind to a form factor that forces consumers to purchase an entirely new model should their current one become non-functional or unideal. Many laptops can’t even be efficiently opened for repairs!

If you want to use an eGPU with your laptop, you must ensure it has the proper hardware. Like an internal graphics card, external ones require appropriately strong hardware connections and firmware compatibility. Before purchasing an external video card, examine what factors you must consider.

External GPU and Central Processing Unit Compatibility

First, you’ll want to check if your CPU is compatible with the eGPU you wish to buy. If you have an Intel chipset, you’ll be glad to know that most external graphics cards are compatible with Intel processors. However, you’ll still want to check the specifications for the video card you wish to buy and ensure that it interfaces with your CPU.

The biggest issue you’ll run into with CPU compatibility and external graphics cards is hardware compatibility. Most eGPUs require a Thunderbolt connection to transfer data between the chipset and the computer. Thunderbolt ports are only available for Intel processors since the port itself is an Intel property.

Modern laptops with AMD CPUs typically support USB4 and eGPUs. Still, you may run into compatibility issues on the side of the graphics card, which may not support USB4 — only Thunderbolt.

External GPU and Hardware Interface Compatibility

You must also have an appropriate hardware interface to use your external graphics card. Most popular eGPUs, like the Razer Core X, require a Thunderbolt 3 or later interface. However, there are several options for eGPU interfaces. Let’s examine the different interfaces for an external video card.

Mini-PCIe

external gpu
The mini-PCIe standard has mostly been replaced by the M.2.

You’ll encounter three difficulties if you’re using a mPCIe external GPU. The first is that you don’t see mPCIe slots on computers anymore. This slot has been replaced by the M.2 slot for quite a while now. So, if you purchase a mPCIe eGPU, you’ll probably need an M.2 to mPCIe adapter to go with it.

The second is that if your PC comes equipped with the mPCIe slot, it’s typically used for your Wi-Fi card. So, you’ll need to unplug your Wi-Fi card to plug your eGPU into the computer. This means you’ll need a USB Wi-Fi dongle or an Ethernet connection to connect to the internet while using your eGPU.

Additionally, mPCIe cards need to be connected internally (so much for an “external” GPU!). So, if you are unable or unwilling to lug your eGPU around — which would be reasonable, those things are heavy as heck! — you will need to open your laptop up every time you connect and disconnect the GPU.

M.2

The M.2 connector gives you many options for external GPUs, including using an internal GPU as an eGPU with an adapter. This connector on laptops and desktops is an external replacement for the internal PCIe slot. This connector can be a crucial method of connecting additional expansion cards in computers with a small or slim form factor — like laptops.

Using the M.2 connector on your laptop gives you two main options for connecting an external graphics card. Firstly, you can use an adapter that gives you a Thunderbolt connection to connect a standard external GPU. Alternatively, you can use the M.2 connector to connect a PCIe adapter, allowing you to connect either a PCIe eGPU or simply a standard GPU using an M.2 to PCIe adapter.

Thunderbolt

This connector is going to be the one you see on most eGPUs. The Thunderbolt connector is an Intel proprietary one. It requires some heavy licensing and fees to use it. So, you won’t get this one on just any laptop. 

Thunderbolt connectors are becoming more common, with most premium laptops housing at least one or two ports. While you may find a Thunderbolt port on a cheaper model, you’ll definitely want to check to ensure that the laptop actually has a Thunderbolt port. Most companies want to make back their money effectively, and putting Thunderbolt ports on a cheap laptop just doesn’t track financially.

USB4

You may also see eGPUs compatible with USB4, a new USB standard based on the Thunderbolt standard. However, it is essential to note that just because an external GPU supports Thunderbolt does not mean it supports USB4. You’ll want to check the technical specifications of the video card to ensure that it supports USB4 before assuming it does.

USB4 has similar specifications to Thunderbolt. However, it’s much easier for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to implement since it doesn’t have the red tape associated with proprietary technologies. Thus, you’ll see USB4 ports on more affordable models rather than Thunderbolt ones.

It’s also crucial to remember that USB4 ports come in two models. The highest-level model of USB4 supports data transfer speeds of up to 40 Gbps, while the lower-level version only goes up to 20. An external GPU requires a data transfer rate of at least 40 Gbps. So, if you plan on using a USB4 port, ensure it is appropriately powerful for an eGPU.

VGA, DVI, HDMI

You may also see lower-level external graphics cards compatible with standard monitor outputs like VGA, DVI, and HDMI ports. VGA will be less helpful if you see one of these older external video cards. This standard is obsolete, having been replaced almost entirely by HDMI and DisplayPort. However, some older external video cards may still be floating around with this connector.

These external graphics cards typically plug into a USB-A port and tend to be pretty cheap, around the $30–$50 mark. Now, this connectivity does mean that the video cards in question are less powerful. They’re typically able to handle things like dual-monitor displays and light gaming, but you won’t get modern desktop-quality gaming out of these. So keep that in mind. 

External GPU and Power Supply Max Output

You’ll also need to determine if your power supply can handle outputting the amount of energy needed to run the external GPU. Some eGPUs come with internal power supplies, in which case, this will not be an issue for you. However, not all do, and if your external video card is drawing power from the laptop, it may overload the power supply.

Do I Need an External GPU?

external gpu
Desktop GPUs can be used externally with an external PCIe slot adapter.

The real question you want to ask yourself is, “Do I even need an external GPU?” While an eGPU attached to your laptop might sound like an enticing middle ground between a laptop and a desktop, you should consider the reality of having an external graphics card before purchasing one. 

Use Case: I Want to Play Games

Realistically, if you want to play games, you should invest in a good desktop. Laptops are really not meant to game. They’re meant to be slim and portable. This form factor is directly antithetical to powerful gaming needs because a powerful computer requires large parts. 

Desktop parts are standardized, making it easy to slot new parts in. Thus, if you invest in a solid gaming rig, you can upgrade and repair it rather than buying a whole new computer. Gaming is changing and evolving rapidly, and most laptops can’t keep up with the gaming industry’s demanding graphical and computing needs.

Since laptops can’t be directly upgraded, the quickly progressing gaming industry will leave you in the dust. If you need both a laptop and desktop and you don’t intend to play games on the go (or the games you want to play on the go are light on the GPU and CPU), then you’re much better off investing in a desktop and having a cheap netbook to do your work on.

Use Case: I Want to Game on the Go

If you want to game on the go, an external GPU might sound like a good idea, but it really isn’t. eGPUs are pretty heavy and unwieldy. The Razer Core X is 14.5 pounds and is roughly 9 inches × 15 inches × 7 inches. That’s massive. It’s almost the size of a small desktop! Additionally, eGPUs require a unique chassis that adds even more bulk! 

If gaming on the go is essential to you, you’re better off spending the extra money you would be spending on an eGPU setup on a more expensive gaming laptop. While you’ll still be sacrificing the repairability and upgradability of the unit by buying a laptop, you’ll get the form factor you’re looking for with the specifications you want.

Use Case: I Want to Save Money

This use case is a terrible reason to purchase an external GPU. While buying an eGPU might seem like a way to upgrade your current laptop and bring it in line with more powerful desktops, this doesn’t work well in practice. External video cards have an incredibly high cost of entry, requiring an innately powerful laptop to support the video card.

Since most eGPUs require a Thunderbolt interface, you’ll already need a premium laptop just to use the graphics card. Thunderbolt-compatible laptops typically start at around $900 for the absolute bare minimum of specifications. Most of these laptops average around the $1,200–$2,000 mark.

Then, you still need to buy the external graphics card for another $400–$1000. You must also purchase a chassis to rig the eGPU, which costs around $200. All in all, you’re looking at about a $1,800 money sink just to get your external GPU up and running.

That kind of money sunk into a desktop computer can get you a much more powerful PC than the eGPU-laptop combination can provide. You would also be able to repair and upgrade your desktop, saving you more money in the future when you don’t have to buy an entirely new computer every time a new game comes out.

Types of External GPUs

There are two main types of external GPUs you can purchase. One is a chassis and GPU, like the Razer Core X. The other is a standard GPU mounted on an external PCIe slot using the M.2 or Thunderbolt connector. Each one has various advantages and disadvantages. Let’s examine those.

External GPU Chassis 

An external GPU chassis is a case with a GPU inside it that you can hook up to your computer using, typically, a Thunderbolt connector. The biggest draw of these setups is that you can buy one, like the Razer Core X, with an internal power supply.

Power supplies are one of the most significant limiting factors for people considering upgrading a laptop with a new GPU. Laptop PSUs are not that powerful. To keep things within the slim and portable form factor, you sacrifice many things, and the power supply is one of those things.

Additionally, most OEMs don’t use power supplies from dedicated manufacturers like Corsair. They typically manufacture their own power supplies that provide just enough wattage for the computer to run and no more. As a result, you can’t just add new parts. These parts will consume power; if they need more than the original, the power supply won’t support it.

So, an external chassis with an internal power supply is an excellent way to get a more robust part than your computer would typically support set up and working. However, you may still experience a bottleneck from the CPU when using an external GPU chassis.

External PCIe Slot

external gpu
While most PCIe slots are internal on the motherboard, external PCIe slots can be added using port adapters.

An external PCIe slot, like the ADT-LINK for M.2 to PCIe, enables you to equip your PC with additional expansion cards, even if your motherboard doesn’t have the correct hardware. Since desktop graphics cards use PCIe slots, you can use an external expansion slot to add a video card that would typically be outfitted internally to an external mount.

External PCIe mounts come in many shapes and sizes, but you’ll probably want one that uses either the M.2 or Thunderbolt port on your laptop if you plan to use it with a GPU. The main draw of using an external PCIe slot to affix your new graphics card is that you can buy a proper desktop GPU. You can also choose the exact model of video card that gets used in your PC, allowing you greater freedom to select the specifications of your computer.

Additionally, external PCIe slots can be re-used for new PCs and GPUs. So, when it’s time to upgrade your laptop to a new model, you can bring the previous video card along with you and upgrade that graphics card to a newer one instead of buying a whole new chassis and graphics card.

However, an external PCIe slot may suffer from issues with the power supply. Since it doesn’t have its own PSU, it has to rely on the PC’s original one, which may not be powerful enough to support the new GPU. Additionally, an external PCIe slot may be bottlenecked by the CPU or the port it plugs into.

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