External GPU: Is It Worth It? Let Me Work It

As early adopters, we tend to get very excited by new technology. Sometimes that enthusiasm leads us to overlook simpler, more effective solutions that already exist. So is an external GPU worth it?

Is external GPU worth it?

The idea of an external graphics card is to transform ultrabooks that are rather weak in terms of raw power into capable gaming laptops and portable workstations. The benefits of an ultrabook are portability and long battery life. This same laptop can then turn into a much more powerful computer when paired with an external GPU.

Purpose-built gaming laptops have partially filled the need for high-performing laptops. However they are often noisy, have a much shorter battery life and are still quite bulky. I pitted the Dell XPS 13 9365 2-in-1 ultrabook paired with an eGPU against the Alienware 13 R3 gaming laptop to compare performance and functionality.

Alienware 13 R3 vs Dell XPS 13 9365 eGPU

The Alienware 13 R3 comes equipped with an Intel quad-core i7-7700QH Kaby Lake CPU and a discrete Nvidia GTX 1060 6GB graphics card. It sports an elaborate cooling system to prevent components from overheating. The Alienware is twice the weight of the XPS 9365 at a substantial 5.42 pounds and more than triple the volume. To have a reasonably fair comparison, I equipped the Dell XPS 9365 with the Mantiz Venus Thunderbolt 3 enclosure housing an Nvidia GTX 1060 6GB desktop GPU. In terms of CPU, the Dell with its dual-core Kaby Lake processor i7-7Y75 lags way behind the Alienware.

I chose the XPS 9365 rather than the more powerful XPS 9360 which comes equipped with the i7-7500U CPU because of the well-known 2x PCIe lanes issue. It’s ironic that the least powerful laptop in the Dell XPS lineup is the only one that has full 4x lanes for Thunderbolt 3 connection. Let’s see whether the Dell XPS 13 9365 + eGPU kept up with the Alienware 13 R3.

 AW 13R3 dGPU
GTX 1060 6GB
AW 13R3 eGPU
GTX 1060 6GB
XPS 9365 eGPU
GTX 1060 6GB
Unigine Valley2,3682,4082,067
Unigine Heaven1,4311,3631,188
Unigine Superposition2,0852,0732,164
3DMark Time Spy3,5373,6773,507
3DMark Fire Strike11,32611,0059,292
Metro Last Night Redux83 FPS71 FPS58 FPS
Rise of the Tomb Raider54.28 FPS47.83 FPS43.13 FPS
Tom Clancy's The Division49.9 FPS40.8 FPS39.1 FPS

These benchmarks were run back-to-back in the span of roughly 30 minutes. The Dell produced no noise as the CPU requires no fan to cool it down. All fan noises originated from the Mantiz Venus enclosure which contains the PSU fan and the GPU fan. These two fans combined could barely be heard over the roar of the Alienware 13 R3 cooling system. The Alienware was spitting hot air four different directions through the sides and rear vents. You would definitely need headphones to enjoy game-play audio.

Alienware 13 R3 and Dell XPS 9365 cooling system

For those who need a well-appointed and portable gaming laptop, the Alienware is a good choice. It’s the one laptop for all purposes, all the time. For those who desire a lightweight option with all-day battery life and the ability to customize graphics performance, the Dell is the better choice. For example, pairing a GTX 1080 Ti to this Mantiz Venus eGPU enclosure would yield much higher performance.

Ultimately an external GPU is worth it because it doesn’t force you to make the same compromises that portable gaming laptops like the Alienware 13 R3 do. You can use a small footprint, mobile laptop for basic computing tasks. But you still have the option to plug in the eGPU when you need to run more intensive tasks or play video games. There’s minimal performance loss, but the portability, flexibility and versatility of an ultrabook and eGPU pairing is well worth the effort.

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10 Comments on "External GPU: Is It Worth It? Let Me Work It"

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darren
Member

Thanks for this great comparison! Are you aware of any games that have issues with a 2-core/4-thread CPU that might turn the tide to a model with a 7700HQ like Alienware 13, MSI GS43 or Giga Aerobook 14?

How loud would you say is the Mantiz or Akitio Node compared to one of these compact gaming notebooks?

Any issues with setup or plug and play to get the eGPU working correctly each time with the Dell 2-in-1? For example, crashes, black screens, errors, etc.

And finally, how did framerates compare if you tried any games when comparing them?

darren
Member

Thanks! Pretty impressive for a Y series chip. And here I’ve been concerned about the higher powered U-series chip. How do you like the XPS9365 overall compared to the Spectre x360 13?

Klaus
Member

Can you comment on the portability of the two solutions? The all-in-one package of gaming machines still seems to win that point, given the dimensions of most eGPU enclosures. The Acer Graphics Dock (mobile GPU in special-made enclosure) seemed like a good solution (also price-wise) but lacks a successor or even availability.

Arthur
Guest

Hello, thanks for the nice article, but I still have a question : on an already performant laptop (an ASUS ROG with Intel I7, Nvidia GTX 960, 8G of memory) , can it help with 3D animation on Autodesk Maya (decrease the lag in the viewport, make faster render…). Sorry if it’s a little bold, but you seem pretty competent on the subject.

nOrbX187
Member

Sort of a sidetrack to this article (which is great BTW): what is the Thunderbolt NVM firmware version on your Alienware 13 R3?

I recently purchased one but my Thunderbolt details show that “External GPUs supported: No”. My NVM firmware version is currently 12.00. I would like to use a Thunderbolt 3 eGPU enclosure instead of the AGA as it is more plug-and-play. Also, it would be more so to game with nVIDIA 3D Surround and (assuming) better VR performance vs. pure raw graphics performance.

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