Gigabyte has upped the ante with their release of the AORUS RTX 2080 Ti Gaming Box, the very first liquid-cooled external graphics card solution. It showcases Gigabyte’s commitment to offering the latest and greatest in eGFX technology. At $1,500 the RTX 2080 Ti Gaming Box is more expensive than many Thunderbolt 3 ultrabooks. This raises the question: is the performance gain worth the price of admission?
|PSU max power||450W|
|GPU max power
|Power delivery (PD)
|TB3 USB-C ports||1|
|Size (in/mm, LxWxH)
||11.8 x 5.5 x 6.80
300 x 140 x 173
|Max GPU len (in/cm)
|Updated firmware||44.44 ✔|
|TB3 cable length (cm)||50|
AORUS’ new Gaming Box is no longer the diminutive-sized ITX box that made its first generation a popular eGPU choice. The larger size is a necessary evolution to incorporate an AIO closed-loop liquid cooling system and more importantly to reduce overall noise emission. Surprisingly this second generation Gaming Box remains compact for the power and components it contains. Its footprint is barely larger than a 240mm radiator. For reference, here are some photos to compare the RTX 2080 Ti Gaming Box to the RX Vega 64 LC and the RX 580 Gaming Box.
A unique feature of all Gaming Boxes are their travel cases. It’s no exception with the latest AORUS RTX 2080 Ti version. The new bag retains the same color scheme of a bright orange liner and black exterior. There’s plenty of padding to keep the enclosure protected, and it makes for a truly portable solution. A small compartment contains the power cable and a Thunderbolt 3 cable. It would be a nice touch if Gigabyte had included a longer 40Gbps 100W PD Thunderbolt 3 cable rather than the .5m.
Unlike the original Gigabyte/AORUS Gaming Box that was rather flimsy with thin sheet metal construction, the RTX 2080 Ti Gaming Box is much more solid with aluminum panels reenforcing an inner metal frame. Foam padding and dust filters provide premium touches. Finished in graphite, it matches many ultrabooks that are constructed out of aluminum. Another refinement is the placement of RGB. It is now in a more appropriate location underneath the front fascia. The lighting zone doesn’t strike you straight in the eyeballs like the bare LED diodes in the 1st generation Gaming Box.
Better build quality means it’s harder to service, especially for compact units such as this Gaming Box. Gigabyte used many more screws in this new enclosure. I counted over 50 before I lost track. At the core of the second generation Gaming Box is an RTX 2080 Ti PCB and its all-in-one liquid cooler. A 240mm radiator is mounted to an L-shaped metal frame. The two 120mm cooling fans have cables that are just long enough to reach the Y-adapter that eventually connects to the graphics board. If you ever need to take this eGPU apart, make sure this fan connector is securely in place when you put it back together (ask me how I know).
Due to the horizontal placement of the graphics card, the Thunderbolt 3 mainboard sits vertically. The two boards when connected perpendicular to each other create enough space for an fATX power supply. The PSU is a 12V single-rail unit, producing a max 450W output. One 24-pin and one 4-pin EPS power connector go to the mainboard while two 6+2-pin PCIe power connectors go to the graphics card. This power supply is longer than the unit in the first generation Gaming Box. Another addition with the new AORUS RTX 2080 Ti Gaming Box is a power switch/reset button. We had observed power-related issues with the 1st gen that required a reset, so having a dedicated button is appreciated.
One major complaint with the first generation Gaming Box is the three tiny 40mm fans, two of which are in the front and run constantly. Gigabyte issued a firmware update that keeps them off during light use. In this 2nd generation box, Gigabyte switched to using one 70mm enclosure fan to replace those two 40mm units. The remaining 40mm fan is inside the power supply. Overall noise level from the enclosure fans has reduced greatly as a result of these changes.
The RTX 2080 Ti itself is a delicate and expensive PCB, suspended in midair by the x16 physical PCIe slot and five tiny screws attached to the monitor output ports. Given how short the coolant hoses are, it’s unlikely this graphics card and its AIO components can be repurposed inside a standard PC case. ITX cases with a PCIe extension cable may be able to use it.
As expected in a premium eGFX, the AORUS RTX 2080 Ti Gaming Box has a dual Thunderbolt 3 controller setup to provide stability to expansion ports. The Thunderbolt 3 mainboard has a primary JHL6540 TB3 controller hosting the eGPU and a secondary JHL6340 TB3 controller hosting the expansion ports. Other crucial components as found on a typical Thunderbolt 3 enclosure are Texas Instrument TPS65983 USB-C controller and Winbond 25XX series EEPROM firmware chipset.
Due to a dual Thunderbolt 3 controller setup, the RTX 2080 Ti Gaming Box has two sets of Intel Alpine Ridge and their accompanied firmware EEPROM chips. Both the primary TB3 controller, JHL6540 and the secondary TB3 controller, JHL6340 are running firmware version 44.44. Upstream Power Delivery remains at the maximum 100W to the host laptop. This allows the AORUS RTX 2080 Ti Gaming Box to charge all Thunderbolt 3 laptops, including the latest 2019 16-in MacBook Pro (96W).
Firmware flashing on Thunderbolt 3 enclosures is possible through Intel FW Update Tool in Windows. However this process is not straightforward and was almost impossible with a Mac. We had been trying to to come up with a solution for a while. With the release of the Blackmagic eGPU firmware update, @mac_editor was able to reverse-engineer and develop a very effective solution to flash Thunderbolt 3 enclosure firmware in macOS. Our community is also in the process of collecting firmware that is not available from the Thunderbolt vendor websites. It is our wish that Apple and Intel would release an official tool to bake our own firmware to make the most of these eGPU enclosures.
Ethernet port works plug-and-play in Windows at 1Gbps. The Network Interface Controller attaches to a x1 PCIe connection which is hosted by the secondary Thunderbolt 3 controller, JHL6340. This same TB3 controller also hosts 3x USB-A expansion ports via another x1 PCIe connection. As we learned with the first generation Gaming Box, using a single TB3 controller for both eGPU and expansion ports can cause lagging issues for low-latency peripherals such as mouse and keyboard. In the two months I tested this RTX 2080 Ti Gaming Box, I didn’t experience any lag.
Regarding noise and thermal emission, this 2nd generation Gaming Box is cooler and quieter than the original Gaming Box. Placement of the 70mm fan draws air primarily into the power supply. The eGPU never reached higher than mid-60s degree Celsius. Overall noise level is typical for an AIO 240mm liquid cooler. When the Thunderbolt connection becomes active and powers on the Gaming Box, you hear a rush of liquid flowing through the hoses and radiator. This settles down quickly and the next noise you hear is from the 40mm fan inside the PSU. This fan noise is a weak point in an otherwise great cooling system. There are two software utilities to monitor and control different features of the RTX 2080 Ti Gaming Box. AORUS Engine provides monitoring and overclocking of the graphics card. RBG Fusion is the other software with the sole purpose of changing RGB settings.
I was excited to test the AORUS RTX 2080 Ti Gaming Box with newly available Ice Lake processor ultrabooks. The 10th generation Intel U-CPU has an on-die Thunderbolt 3 controller that eliminates the shared connection through PCH in previous iterations. The host laptop of choice with i7-1065G7 CPU was a Razer Blade Stealth. The Mercury White model I got is the base configuration with no discrete graphics, which allows the CPU to run at 25W TDP. This makes it an ideal eGPU-host.
Another in-demand host laptop with the RTX 2080 Ti eGPU is the 2019 16-in MacBook Pro. I had tried both the i9 and i7 models but found the 6-core i7 more tolerable in terms of thermal management and overall noise during heavy use. Due to no Nvidia support since macOS Mojave 10.14, we can only use GeForce graphics cards in Windows through Boot Camp mode. If you were wondering if eGPU support for Boot Camp has gotten better, I hate to say that it’s muddy at best.
Through Nvidia Optimus, gaming with the internal display is possible and is an overall excellent experience. Given how powerful this Gaming Box is, it really needs an external monitor to achieve full potential. I have a fairly capable Samsung CHG90 – 144Hz FreeSync 2 32:9 FHD monitor that is G-Sync compatible and works well with the RTX 2080 Ti eGPU. However to do it justice, I got an Acer Predator XB273K – 144Hz G-Sync certified 16:9 4K monitor. The Gigabyte team also shipped me an AORUS FI27Q-P – 165Hz G-Sync compatible 16:9 QHD monitor for additional testing. My plan was to observe any noticeable differences between G-Sync certified and G-Sync compatible monitors with the AORUS RTX 2080 Ti Gaming Box.
The two main selling features of Nvidia Turing graphics cards are NVIDIA DLSS (deep learning supersampling) and RTX (real-time ray tracing). At launch there were not many titles optimized for these GPUs. The library of ray tracing games are getting better. The ones I could test with the AORUS RTX 2080 Ti Gaming Box were Battlefield V, Control, and Wolfenstein: Youngblood. As seen in the one-minute gameplay video above, the AORUS RTX 2080 Ti Gaming Box enables eGPU gaming at 4K 60FPS RTXOn with an ultrabook. Testing with all three monitors mentioned above, I could not tell the difference in terms of smoothness between G-Sync certified and G-Sync compatible.
One thing we’ve learned over the years is that eGPU can be a great solution for compute tasks. Unlike the performance loss through gaming, the loss through compute is minimal. We’ve seen strong interest in using eGPU with machine learning platforms such as TensorFlow. With 4,352 CUDA cores, the RTX 2080 Ti is the perfect match for this application. Distributed computing is another great use for external GPU. Our community recently lends a hand in the fight against COVID-19 through Folding@Home and BOINC. The SARS-COV2 projects through FAH use graphics cards specifically. A 3x eGPU setup I recent built can post 2,293,210 points per day.
Using eGPU with Linux is also of great interest. My distro of choice is Pop!_OS by System76. I installed the Nvidia ISO that includes the graphics drivers for this RTX 2080 Ti Gaming Box. Pop!_OS is based on Ubuntu which has very good Thunderbolt hot-plug support. Gaming in Linux has gotten a lot better too. Thanks to Proton and Steam Play, we can now play many Windows titles in Linux with ease. I tried Witcher III and GTAV on this eGPU setup. The installation process and gaming experience was no different compared to Windows.
Gigabyte’s AORUS RTX 2080 Ti Gaming Box is an affordable solution relative to piecing together an RTX 2080 Ti and a premium external GPU enclosure yourself. By no means is it the best value for eGPU users. Yet by all means, it is the highest-performing eGPU available today and the only liquid-cooled option. The ultrabook and monitor you pair will need to be equally as capable in order to make the most use of this eGFX. Enabling eGPU gaming at 144Hz in FHD, 100Hz in QHD, and 60Hz in UHD, this Gaming Box keeps up with desktop alternatives while retaining the versatility of the ultrabook. Ultimately to choose the AORUS RTX 2080 Ti Gaming Box is to answer Outkast’s call for rebellious originality, “What’s cooler than being cool?”
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