External GPUs for Neptun Laptops
Here at Projekt Neptun, we are often asked about the power of the laptops that we offer. Sometimes, this includes the laptop’s capability of running games. As an avid gamer myself, I do know that sometimes after a long day of lectures or work, you just want to relax by going on a high-speed chase through space, clear a raid with your guild, or blast your way through hordes of zombies. Doing this with a laptop, however, poses some problems.
First, most laptops today are built with either portability or performance in mind. For people who want to have the power on hand to play a game or two and still need their device during lectures, there are not a lot of solutions. You could either sacrifice power for portability or vice versa. Second, contrary to desktop solutions, most laptops do not offer exchangeable CPUs or GPUs, which makes upgrades impossible. This second point is especially problematic in the light of the fast paced gaming industry and the upcoming VR setups.
So is the only real solution the purchase of a desktop computer for the sole purpose of gaming? The answer to that is pretty simple: No. Apart from making a compromise, there are solutions now that use the high bandwidth offered by Thunderbolt 3 connections to attach a graphics card to your laptop. Combined with the new CPU generation providing 4 cores as a standard, this promises a valid alternative. Since we offer an external GPU housing ourselves, we naturally took the liberty of testing it.
We took the HP OMEN Accelerator, installed an Nvidia GTX 1060 and hooked it up to an X1 Carbon from the fall 2017 wave. Just for good measure, we connected the curved 34” NEC MultiSync EX341R to this setup. An important note from us at this point: if you consider building a similar setup, you should pay attention to the bandwidth of the Thunderbolt connection of your preferred device. While the X1 Carbon we used here featured a 40 Gb/s Thunderbolt connection, the T480s only features 20 Gb/s of bandwidth. Using the latter, you might see lower performance, despite having the same components built into your device (CPU and memory wise).
Installation of the OMEN eGPU worked flawlessly, we just had to install the corresponding driver and voila, the setup was running. After a few initial tests, we determined that it is best to disable the integrated display of your laptop. This is because the image signal is sent back to the laptop via the same Thunderbolt port the GPU is using, thereby reducing the available bandwidth.
Also notable is that the OMEN eGPU doubles as a docking station, even though it is a bulky one. The laptop is charged via the Thunderbolt port and USB peripherals and a network cable can be connected to the GPU casing.
The pricing of the eGPU (excluding laptop and display) depends on the graphics card you want to install. Using a GTX 1070, the price tag comes in at around 700 to 800 CHF. This is not cheap, but still less than building a new gaming desktop with the same specs.
Performance and Gaming Experience
Using Unigine Superposition, we benchmarked the eGPU setup and compared it to the two other devices featuring the GTX 1060: a 13’’ Alienware laptop and a desktop computer. The results were pretty surprising, as the eGPU solution was right up with the other alternatives (Scores: 2169 (eGPU), 2092 (integrated), 2203 (desktop) @ 1080P extreme setting).
However, not only the synthetic tests speak for the eGPU setup. We also tested a few games: Subnautica, for example, runs as smooth as you would expect it from a GTX 1060. After installing Star Citizen (my favorite unfinished space-exploration game right now), however, the age of the X1 Carbon’s dual core i7-7500U started to show itself and it could barely handle the game in open universe mode and the FPS dropped down to 15 or even less. Star Citizen is a highly CPU-intense game so the i7 was overwhelmed with the calculations required by the physics engine. Once started in a closed off, flight-simulator style environment, the FPS were again enjoyable around 50-60. Newer laptops with quad core CPUs will fare much better here.
Our experience with the eGPU was comparable with a desktop solution and it provided a good overall performance. There are some limitations imposed by the nature of the setup, which might not make it the perfect solution for the hardcore gamer. The most important one would be the CPU bottleneck, as the CPU is mostly not exchangeable in a laptop. Here, the newest processor generation could alleviate this problem since even smaller and more compact laptops are now available with quad core CPUs.
The OMEN eGPU also doubles as a docking station and in combination with its feature to house a 2.5” disk can also provide backup space or additional storage. The only drawback here would be the higher power consumption compared to a normal docking station.
Another non-obvious advantage compared to a desktop computer is its portability. The weight and dimensions of the eGPU (40 cm * 19 cm * 19 cm, 5.5 kg) enable you to visit a friend and play together.
Other use cases are also possible, for example GPU programming or cryptocurrency mining.
In the end, an eGPU provides a valid alternative to a desktop computer. It provides you with an exchangeable graphics card which stays at home, enabling you to use a portable laptop for your studies or work and still play games with it. However, it does not completely replace a desktop computer, as you are still locked in in terms of CPU and (especially with very portable models) memory. Another difference to consider is the cooling of the components. While the graphics card is well vented inside the eGPU case, your laptop is limited by the built-in cooling system.
Altogether, an EGPU certainly does satisfy the average or casual gamer and comes at an affordable price (700 to 800 CHF).