Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Such is the case with the ASUS ROG XG Station 2 Thunderbolt 3 eGPU enclosure. The spec sheet had it as the most competent contender in the field of a dozen external graphics solutions. The ASUS XG2 has the most powerful PSU. It also features a dedicated USB-B connection from the enclosure to the host computer to carry the expansion I/O load. Full Thunderbolt 3 bandwidth is therefore reserved for the external graphics card.
Reminiscent of a Venus flytrap, this enclosures lures you in and shuts its jaws. Beneath its eye-catching appearance are many flaws. It’s hard on your wallet. It’s hot. It’s loud. It’s obnoxious to befriend. Is the performance advantage worth it? Let’s find out.
Hinged doors open to a W shape
The ASUS ROG XG Station 2 has a unique opening and closing action. The release button labeled “PUSH” is misleading. The side panels open outward only after you slide the button on top of the enclosure forward. After playing with the ROG XG2 for a while, I think the designer started modeling it with the letter W in mind. At the center the base holsters a custom fATX power supply on one half. The other half is space for a full-size graphics card. The side panel adjacent to the PSU could be stationary, but there’s no fun in that. ASUS utilized two pairs of metal hinges to transform the I-shaped eGPU enclosure into a W, as to say “Winning.”
With the inside exposed, you have immediate access to the PCIe slot and a red START button. This is a design element carried over from ASUS line of motherboards. It’s cool looking, but I found a major usability flaw with this button. While most Thunderbolt 3 eGPU enclosures power on when there’s an active connection with a Thunderbolt host computer, the ASUS ROG XG2 demands you push the START button before it can go. Once you do that, the plasma tube gets activated. This plasma tube stays on until the next press of the START button to shut everything off.
Once there’s an active connection with a Thunderbolt computer, more lighting effects await. The ASUS ROG XG Station 2 has three RGB lighting zones: one on top of the PSU, another under the GPU, and one that runs the entire length of the side panel. For maximum RGB effect, pair this eGPU enclosure with a graphics card that has its own RGB. I guess the key to full enjoyment of this enclosure is to double up on everything. After all, its fundamental roots start with a dubya.
A positive doubling-up for the ASUS ROG XG Station 2 is the way it handles expansion I/O. Other external GPU enclosures carry everything through a single Thunderbolt 3 cable. The ROG XG2 gives you two choices. For convenience it can work the same way as other enclosures when you use only the Thunderbolt 3 cable to connect the eGPU enclosure to a host computer. In this shared mode, the USB controller inside the eGPU enclosure handles expansion port data transmission.
A much better option for maximizing performance and stability for both eGPU and expansion ports is to connect a USB-B cable alongside the Thunderbolt 3 cable between the enclosure and host computer. The XG2 dedicates an USB-B port to manage its four USB 3.0 ports and one Ethernet port. It preserves full bandwidth to the external GPU through the Thunderbolt 3 connection. In this dedicated mode, the USB controller inside the computer handles expansion port data transmission. This is a very cool feature and a well-deserved win.
As accessible as this enclosure may look, it was not easy to take things apart. There are wirings from the main board to the left side panel for the RGB strip. There are also concerns with the fragile CCFL (plasma tube) in the front of the enclosure. ASUS strongly discourages users from touching this component. I was very cautious every step of the way taking this ASUS ROG XG Station 2 completely apart. The power supply is shielded with no less than four plastic and metal shrouds. I needed to use a putty knife to pry the CCFL clear cover and the PSU L-shape plastic cover apart. I stopped counting the number of screws to focus on not breaking things.
Serviceability is definitely worse than the Razer Core. The challenge with servicing the Razer Core was the much smaller footprint to pack all the components inside. The challenge with servicing this ASUS ROG XG Station 2 is that it was overengineered. For example, the expansion board has its own plastic carrier component. I’ve yet to understand why ASUS built this eGPU enclosure the way it did other than continuing the design language of a SFF computer in ASUS portfolio, the G20AJ.
ASUS marketing did a disservice to this ROG XG Station 2. Unlike Razer who announced the Core V2 as the first eGFX with dedicated lanes for expansion ports through the use of a second Thunderbolt 3 controller, ASUS didn’t make a big deal of its clever USB-B solution. ASUS also undersold the power supply in its eGPU enclosure. Everything from the spec sheet to manual shows the XG2 contains a 600W 80 Plus Gold PSU. The power supply itself states it’s capable of 680W output.
As is the case with other enclosures that use fATX power supplies, noise is a downside. The PSU in the ASUS ROG XG Station 2 has a tiny 40mm fan in the rear. It extracts heat outside through exhaust vents in the back of the enclosure. There are three 60mm fans on the left side panel to exhaust hot air out the top vents. These three fans are mounted next to one another on a plastic carrier and their wires bundled together with the RGB light strip. The bundle is then routed through the front hinge and connected to the main board by the START button.
Speaking of the vent cutouts, I have serious concerns in terms of effective cooling. The side panel next to the power supply has very minimal airflow. The opposing side panel is the only one with vent cutouts. They’re barely large enough for an enclosure this size.
The best component of this ROG XG2 is its mainboard. It has a nice layout with clear labels on connectors. The black metallic capacitors are high quality, similar to ones found on ASUS’s premium line of motherboards. Last but not least, this board contains the three crucial components found in all Thunderbolt 3 eGPU enclosures released this year: Texas Instrument TPS69583 USB-C controller, Intel DSL6540 Thunderbolt 3 controller, and Winbond EEPROM.
Testings & Benchmarks
Power delivery is 100W, the maximum amount per Thunderbolt 3 specification. This enclosure can provide more than sufficient charging wattage to all Thunderbolt 3 laptops that support PD 3.0. The XG2 came out around the same time as the AKiTiO Node. Some may still be running the initial Thunderbolt firmware which is 21.1. This particular firmware version has very limited compatibility. You want either 23.1 or 25.1 (latest) in order to use the eGPU enclosure with a wide range of Thunderbolt 3 hosts (including Mac computers). ASUS Support website has these firmware updates available [V25] [V23P].
In macOS, AMD RX 580 and Vega cards currently have native eGPU support in High Sierra. Goalque created an automate-eGPU.kext to enable quite a few more Radeon cards. If you intend on using Nvidia graphics cards, this workaround by Yifanlu is currently your best bet. My primary test computer is a late 2016 15″ MacBook Pro that is dual booting macOS 10.13.2 and Windows 10 1709. In order to make full use of the ASUS ROG XG Station 2 in Boot Camp, I’d recommend following our Boot Camp eGPU setup guide.
Expansion port functionality in macOS 10.13 and Windows 10 works very well without the need for driver installation. The handoff from Thunderbolt 3 connection to USB-B is seamless. For example, when I had only the Thunderbolt 3 cable connected, plugging the USB-B in would first dismount the USB SSD then remount it through USB-B connection. The eGPU remained intact through this process. Here are a few screen captures in macOS showing the USB tree with Thunderbolt connection on the left and USB-B connection on the right.
In Windows, ASUS provides a few software utilities for the ROG XG2. The first one is a hot-plug tool. It must have been developed to work with eGPU-certified computers only because I could not get it to show the correct status of the eGPU. The screen capture below shows AMD XConnect fully activated, yet the utility stated no graphics card was detected. In my opinion there’s no longer a need for this software. Another tool is ASUS GPU Tweak II. This utility allows you to change the performance settings of the GPU and monitor its status.
ROG AURA is probably the only software I’d recommend installing for this XG2. It controls the output of the RGB light zones and plasma tube. CCFL Mode is to adjust the plasma tube. Light Effects Mode is to adjust the three RGB light zones. Thankfully, OFF is an option.
I had planned to run benchmarks with three Thunderbolt hosts (listed below). Unfortunately due to reoccurring overheating after half an hour of use, I decided not to keep torturing the graphics card. The main culprit is the ineffective cooling of the power supply. Due to its placement right next to the back of the graphics card, things get exponentially worse. At times the temperature reading at the video output ports on the Radeon Vega FE was mid to high 70˚C. The GPU die itself was nearly 90˚C.
- Late 2016 15″ Apple MacBook Pro | iGPU & dGPU| 6th gen Intel quad-core i7-6700HQ | x4 PCIe 3.0 Thunderbolt 3 to CPU
- Mid 2017 13″ Apple MacBook Pro | iGPU only | 7th gen Intel quad-core i5-7360U | x4 PCIe 3.0 Thunderbolt 3 to PCH | OPI GT4
- Late 2017 13″ HP Spectre X360 | iGPU only | 8th gen Intel quad-core i7-8550U | x4 PCIe 3.0 Thunderbolt 3 to PCH | OPI GT4
Vega cards may run hot, but I observed the same thermal throttling with other reference graphics cards (GTX 980 Ti and RX Vega 56). Inside this enclosure, blower-style cards fare worse than open-air design cards with multiple large fans. Therefore I ran only the essential benchmarks to show no loss in eGPU bandwidth when the USB-B cable handles expansion ports. All software was installed on an external SSD connected via one of the XG2’s USB ports. On the left, AIDA64 and ATTO benchmarks were through a single Thunderbolt 3 cable. On the right, these benchmarks used both a Thunderbolt 3 cable and a USB-B cable.
I also ran AIDA64 with no peripherals connected to the ASUS ROG XG Station 2. The Specviewperf benchmark lasted for about 40 minutes and pushed the Vega FE hard. The fan ran full speed for the second half of the test, and it was incredibly loud.
The Vega eGPU performed very well in macOS 10.13.2. Each High Sierra system update has brought performance improvements. There are a few remaining issues such as high fan speed at idle and system crashes when disconnecting the eGPU.
With its host of features and dedicated expansion I/O solution, the ASUS ROG XG Station 2 is an enticing offering at first glance. However it tops the eGPU enclosure list for all the wrong reasons. First is its high price, currently discounted to $550. Next is the large footprint and excess of RGB LEDs. Then there’s the hellacious chamber that can roast your costly graphics card. These are all things to avoid for a first-time eGPU buyer.
While the XG2 failed to check the right boxes, 2017 has seen significant advancement in external graphics technology. There’s still much more to explore in 2018. Please share your opinion on what you’d like to see from eGPU manufacturers in the new year.