Alienware Graphics Amplifier Review – Faster than Thunderbolt 3 eGPU?

alienware graphics amplifier vs thunderbolt 3 enclosures

 

Introduction

Introduced in late 2014 as an accessory to Alienware’s gaming computer lineup, the Alienware Graphics Amplifier (AGA) was one of the very first production external graphics enclosures. Instead of the more commonly known PCIe over Thunderbolt connection, Alienware created a proprietary PCIe connection and port for its select computers to pair with this Graphics Amplifier. This connection runs at x4 PCIe 3.0 and is faster than Thunderbolt eGPU, or so Alienware claims.

With the onslaught of Thunderbolt 3 eGPU enclosures, does this remain true? There’s only one way to find out. Put the Alienware Graphics Amplifier in a direct comparison with a Thunderbolt 3 external graphics enclosure, the Razer Core. The reference graphics card for this AGA review is an Nvidia GTX 980 Ti. I chose this GPU because I had run many benchmarks in my review of the Razer Core recently. We can use these data sets to look at GPU performance in desktop PCIe speed, full four lanes Thunderbolt 3 speed, and eGPU speed with a quad-core CPU.

Currently, the Graphics Amplifier is compatible with these Alienware computers:

  • Alienware 13 R1, R2 & R3
  • Alienware 15 R1, R2 & R3
  • Alienware 17 R2, R3 & R4
  • Alienware X51 R3
  • Alienware Alpha R2

 

Hardware Specifics

I like the design language of Alienware products. They remain unique and functional rather than following the trend of thin and light. One of my personal desktop computers is the Alienware Area 51 R2 that I use strictly for gaming. Recently, I attempted to build this Area 51 R2 into a Thunderbolt 3 test bench. It was unfortunately a failed venture.

This Alienware Graphics Amplifier looks the part. Sitting next to the Alienware 13 R2, they make a handsome pair. Build quality is a different story though. The top cover of the AGA latches to the base for tool-free opening. The sliding release latch is rather flimsy and doesn’t always move without considerable effort. The hinges at the front let the top cover pivot forward to allow access inside this enclosure. In my experience from opening and closing the top cover, the hinges are not a good match for the length and weight of the cover. It wobbles during movement and at times feels like the enclosure would break pulling the top cover out.

Once you manage to uncover the Graphics Amplifier, the inside is clearly laid out with the main PCIe board, I/O board, ATX power supply and two PCIe 6+2-pin power cables. There are two PCIe slots on the main board. You may notice one of them is placed in reverse of the other. This reserved PCIe slot is for the proprietary connector and USB expansion board. It’s a x8 PCIe slot as far as I could tell. The other one is a x16 PCIe slot for a full-length graphics card.

I know what you’re thinking when seeing the two PCIe slots; is it possible to pop a Thunderbolt 3 add-on card in this thing? I tried, two of them, without success. The first one was the Thunderbolt board from the AKiTiO Node. The second one was an Asus Thunderbolt EX3 expansion card. Unfortunately they didn’t work because the Alienware I/O card is responsible for powering this enclosure on when it’s connected to a matching Alienware laptop. You won’t find a Power switch anywhere in or outside this enclosure.

Alienware used an off-the-shelf Dell ATX 460W power supply in the Graphics Amplifier. This PSU takes up more than half the footprint of the enclosure’s width. Using an SFX power supply found in most Thunderbolt 3 eGPU enclosures would create more space for larger graphics cards or minimize the footprint of the AGA. The fan inside the PSU is rather loud during operation, even when idle. At the front of the Graphics Amplifier, there’s one cooling fan to direct air front to rear.

After taking the Razer Core apart in my last review, this Alienware Graphics Amplifier disassembly was a lot easier. I only needed a single Philips P1 screwdriver. The enclosure’s hinges and their mounting plates were the only parts that required special attention. I have mixed feeling about this hinge design. It’s unique but ultimately feels like a cheap toy due to poor material quality.

Unlike the half-meter long Thunderbolt 3 cables included in all TB3 enclosures, the AGA proprietary cable is almost three times as long at 4.5 ft (1.37m). The connectors are the same on both ends. Once you plug the cable into the host computer and the AGA, it will flash Red to White as an indication you need to restart the computer to make use of the Graphics Amplifier. Solid White lights on both ends mean the AGA is working. Disconnecting the AGA requires you shut down the host computer. I found the connector rather challenging to dismount from the port. It has two metal retractable hooks on the side that don’t always unhook in perfect alignment.

 

Testings & Benchmarks

Let’s start with Alienware’s claim that its Graphics Amp is the fastest external graphics implementation on the market. Its FAQ section describes the proprietary x4 PCIe 3.0 connection as direct and fully dedicated to the graphics card, not sharing bandwidth with any other components.

What is the difference between PCI Express Gen3X4 lanes and Intel Thunderbolt 3 Plug and Play?
The Alienware Graphics Amplifier’s technology uses a direct hardware connection, while the Thunderbolt 3 technology is based on a platform with shared bandwidth. Alienware’s amplifier will never share, or compromise, the bandwidth to your system’s GPU. Instead, it provides reserved high bandwidth directly to your system’s GPU with one unique cable connection. Alienware Graphics Amplifier utilizes four lanes of dedicated PCIe Gen 3. The Thunderbolt 3 specification is capable of either two or four lanes of PCIe depending on the OEM’s implementation of Intel’s technology. Alienware gains an advantage by having these lanes dedicated to graphics that are not shared by LAN, USB or display ports.

Here are the screen captures of CUDA-Z, GPU-Z, and HiNFO64 when I paired this AGA to an Alienware 13 R2. If you’ve read our discussion on H2D half bandwidth issues on earlier Thunderbolt 3 eGPU firmware, you can immediately tell something is not right with these numbers from the Alienware Graphics Amplifier.

Even though GPU-Z showed this AGA runs at full x4 PCIe 3.0 speed, CUDA-Z hovering around 1,600 MiB/s means it’s not anywhere near the theoretical max 32 Gbps. HWiNFO reveals the PCIe connection travels through the PCH which shares bandwidth with other components. This is against Alienware’s specification page. I reserved judgement until all benchmarks were run through this Graphics Amp to compare with the baseline numbers on my Z170 test bench. 

Nando4 recommended I try to identify the culprit in causing this GTX 980 Ti + Graphics Amplifier to run at what seems like 4x PCIe 2.0 speed. I ran GPU-Z and CUDA-Z again after having disabled all Nvidia power savings to see if those were making the difference. The results were the same. Reading through Dell’s Support articles, I checked to make sure the BIOS on the Alienware 13 R2 was the latest (it was). If you have an AGA box, please share the CUDA-Z reading.

Unsettled with this result from the 13 R2 + AGA, I found another Alienware computer that could use this Graphics Amplifier. It’s an X51 R3 small form factor desktop. Here are the screen captures of CUDA-Z, GPU-Z, and HiNFO64 for comparison.

These numbers are more in line with what I was anticipating. CUDA-Z results are in the range of low 2,800 MiB/s to high 3,000 MiB/s, close to 32 Gbps max throughput of x4 PCIe 3.0. HWiNFO64 reveals the AGA connection is going through the PCH PCIe port on the Alienware X51 R2. Again, this contradicts Dell’s claim of dedicated PCIe connection for the AGA.

The main host I’m using for this review and benchmarks is an Alienware 13 R2. This laptop has an OLED display, 6th generation dual-core i7-6500U, Intel HD 520 iGPU, Nvidia GTX 965M dGPU, 8GB of RAM, and SATA SSD. I did not use Thunderbolt 3 eGPU with this laptop due to its half-speed implementation. Instead I reused the results from the Razer Core with Blade Stealth for 4x PCIe 3.0 over Thunderbolt 3. Also shown are results from the Thunderbolt 3 Test Bench.

Alienware 13 R2GTX 965M dGPUGTX 980 Ti AMP InternalGTX 980 Ti AMP External
Unigine Valley25.4 FPS64.0 FPS72.9 FPS
Unigine Heaven24.9 FPS73.3 FPS76.7 FPS
Unigine Superposition28.0 FPS78.4 FPS86.6 FPS
3DMark Time Spy11.9 FPS33.2 FPS35.1 FPS
3DMark Fire Strike27.9 FPS67.4 FPS84.1 FPS
Rise of the Tomb Raider23.4 FPS45.0 FPS59.6 FPS
Tom Clancy's GhostRecon26.9 FPS50.8 FPS53.8 FPS
Nvidia GTX 980 TiZ170 Test Bench x4 PCIe SlotRazer Blade Stealth TB3 ExternalAlienware 13R2 AGA External
Unigine Valley90.3 FPS78.6 FPS72.9 FPS
Unigine Heaven87.6 FPS78.2 FPS76.7 FPS
Unigine Superposition91.7 FPS86.6 FPS86.6 FPS
3DMark Time Spy35.1 FPS32.2 FPS35.1 FPS
3DMark Fire Strike84.7 FPS72.7 FPS84.1 FPS
Rise of the Tomb Raider60.0 FPS57.3 FPS59.6 FPS
Tom Clancy's GhostRecon69.2 FPS56.0 FPS53.8 FPS

 

Conclusion

“When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.” – Steve Jobs

Engineering integrity is the difference between Apple and many of its competitors. While Dell/Alienware crippled its Thunderbolt 3 implementation on many of its laptops (2 lanes rather than 4), Apple attached Thunderbolt 3 buses in the Late 2016 15″ MacBook Pro directly to the CPU. This is a superior routing of Thunderbolt 3 connection for external graphics card implementation.

Alienware can claim its proprietary external graphics solution is faster than Thunderbolt 3 counterparts. This isn’t necessarily true depending on the host Alienware computer. Based on CUDA-Z numbers and comparison with the Razer Core using the Blade Stealth as well as the Z170 Test Bench, this Graphics Amp may not always perform at full x4 PCIe 3.0 speed. Unless Dell decides to publish this information, the only way to figure out what speed you’ll get is to pair your compatible Alienware computer with the AGA. In addition, the x2 PCIe routing of Thunderbolt 3 connection in the Alienware 13 R2 (and most of the XPS laptop lineup) shows Dell’s lack of commitment to fulfilling its performance claims.

For users with a compatible computer, the Alienware Graphics Amplifier is still the best choice for an external graphics enclosure. It’s plug-and-play and more affordable than a Thunderbolt 3 eGPU. The downsides are no hot-swapping capability and lack of power delivery compared to Thunderbolt 3 eGPU enclosures.

From the consumer perspective, the next AGA should become a true docking station rather than an external graphics enclosure only. That means it needs power delivery and a range of different input and output ports. While Alienware engineers are at it, they might as well tell Marketing to sell this box with a GPU. As it’s sold now, the Alienware Graphics Amplifier would more appropriately be named “Graphics Amplifiable.”

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alone1i
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As a Apple Mac Certified Technician, I can confirm that Apple’s engineering is far far far better than any other PC manufacturer.

Nice review

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