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External graphics cards (or eGPUs, for short) are a truly stellar option if you’re looking to boost the graphical performance of your mini PC/laptop. It’s a feat of engineering and a mighty practical thing, too, although it never really caught up — for a wide variety of reasons.
First of all, one needs a Thunderbolt-compatible device. They’re not rare by any stretch of the imagination but are still on the pricier side. Next, you need to buy an eGPU enclosure which can cost up to three or even four hundred dollars. That’s a hefty sum of money, all things considered. Finally, you need a dedicated graphics card to populate it with — yet another investment.
Once you add all this up, you get a set-up that’s stupendously expensive. Nifty and cool, sure, but expensive nonetheless.
Upon connecting everything, you’ll be blown away by just how seamless it all is, with very few hurdles and obstacles for one to overcome. It really does work as advertised. Most driver-related issues have been ironed out, and while you can still encounter a few bugs during your day-to-day usage, it’ll nonetheless deliver a smooth, hassle-free experience.
And, needless to say, connecting an eGPU to your device would no doubt serve as a great boon to both your creative and gaming endeavors.
It’s not perfect, though. An eGPU set-up has many inherent flaws and limitations. And that, when combined with the astonishingly high asking price, makes it far less alluring (not to mention viable) than one would expect.
The Cons of Having an eGPU Setup
There are numerous — potentially dealbreaking — flaws you need to be aware of and, unfortunately, some of them (the biggest ones) cannot be circumvented and dealt with because they’re hardware-related.
- Thunderbolt itself is a bottleneck — eGPUs only have access to four PCIe lanes for data transfer. That, in addition to the 40Gbps of bandwidth (not all of which can be utilized and harnessed), means that you’re always faced with some kind of bottleneck. No matter which graphics card you end up connecting, it’s never going to perform as it would in a desktop PC. Buying the best and most powerful GPU could, in a way, alleviate some of this issue (as the graphics card will nonetheless render as many frames as you need), but that would only further increase the entire investment, in which case you’re probably better off going with a gaming laptop.
- Internal or external display? — If you’re only going to be gaming on your laptop’s internal display, you’ll face yet another bottleneck as your graphics card will have to send its data back to the laptop through the exact same Thunderbolt cable. With an external display, these rendered frames go straight to the monitor, hence the higher frame rates. Gaming on the internal display will always incur a performance penalty — between 15% and 40% depending on the game you’re playing and the GPU that’s being utilized. A tremendous drop in performance, all things considered.
- Your CPU might also be a bottleneck — Unless you have a laptop that has one of Intel’s latest and greatest processors, you’ll be faced with yet another performance penalty. Older Coffee and Comet Lake CPUs simply aren’t capable enough for an eGPU setup, and that’s evident in their overall frame rates and one-percent lows.
For additional information, make sure to watch the following video from Jarrod’s Tech:
- Most enclosures aren’t all that portable — Most eGPU enclosures are much bigger than one would expect, in no small part because they come with built-in power supplies. The best ones are designed to accommodate large, powerful GPUs which means that the enclosure itself, in some cases, can actually end up taking more space than a small form factor PC. Now, if you don’t plan on taking it with you, that’s not that big of an issue, but if you’re thinking about bringing such a thing to, say, a LAN party, you’re not going to have an easy time transporting it.
So it’s a very complicated conundrum. If you go with a large GPU to offset the bandwidth-related bottleneck (to a certain degree, at least), you’re losing out on portability. If you go with a weaker GPU, it’ll perform noticeably worse than it should.
That’s… not ideal, all things considered.
An eGPU set-up, therefore, simply isn’t worth it. Unless, of course, you have a very unique use-case. For gaming, though, it’s just not a wise investment. You’re paying a hefty premium only to get worse performance. And no matter what you do you won’t be able to find any kind of workaround because the hardware itself is causing the bottleneck.
Buying a gaming laptop definitely makes a lot more sense, no matter which way you slice it. They’ve gotten a lot more affordable over the last few years and, thanks to numerous technological advancements, can offer an astounding level of performance — no ifs, ands, or buts.
If you already have a Thunderbolt-compatible laptop and a “spare” graphics card lying around, then buying an external enclosure does make sense. Or, say, if you’re often commuting and want to game a bit whilst in a hotel. That’s a perfectly reasonable use-case, although going with a gaming laptop would still provide a much better overall experience.
ASUS XG Mobile — A Step in the Right Direction
ASUS’ proprietary XG Mobile is a lot more powerful than a traditional Thunderbolt setup as it has eight PCIe lanes to work with (instead of just four).
These external GPUs are also a lot more portable and are, one could argue, a much better option for anyone looking to reach high frame rates and resolutions whilst on the go.
That sure does come at a cost, though. And, well, it’s only compatible with a handful of devices at the time of this writing.
Let’s go over a few potential questions you might have regarding eGPUs and all that they entail:
Is an eGPU Setup Worth It?
Not at all. It’s just not a worthwhile investment — unless one already has a Thunderbolt-compatible laptop, a dedicated graphics card that isn’t being used elsewhere, and a bit of spare cash to spend on an external enclosure.
In that case, you’d get a tremendous performance uplift without having to invest too much money on a dedicated gaming laptop or PC.
For every other user and use-case, going with a gaming laptop — if portability is your main concern — would be much more preferable.
Is ASUS’ XG Mobile Better Than Regular eGPUs?
Without a shadow of a doubt! It is a fair bit more expensive, though. Still, if it’s sheer performance you’re after — and you have the money to spare — it might just be a worthwhile purchase.