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.

10 thoughts on “External GPU: Is It Worth It? Let Me Work It

  1. darren Reply

    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?

    • theitsage Post authorReply

      Hi Darren,

      I didn’t have time to try any games on the Alienware 13 R3. I played Rise of the Tomb Raider on the Mantiz Venus + XPS 9365 and all was well. The fans of the graphics card were more audible than the enclosure fans. The XPS laptop itself got warm but nothing I would call uncomfortable.

      The Alienware 13 R3 on the other hand is loud. It got hot and certainly could not be used on the lap. If you watch the short demo clip above, you would see the motions on the Alienware 13 R3 display was not smooth. I was setting things up to record this video and within 15 minutes or so running Unigine Superposition, the laptop got warm enough and it started slowing down.

      I encountered no issues on Dell XPS 13 9365 + eGPU at all in the meanwhile. I was flipping it between laptop mode and tablet mode while the benchmark was running without ill effect. I’m sure there are games which demand more from the CPU and this XPS will not do as well.

  2. darren Reply

    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?

    • theitsage Post authorReply

      Other than the weaker CPU and one less Thunderbolt 3 port, the Dell XPS 9365 is way better than the HP Spectre 13 X360. The cooling system in HP Spectre laptops is not good. It’s either OFF or ON full speed.

      The side bezels are minimal on the Spectre X360, but the bottom section really extends the foot-print of this laptop. That would be fine if HP had used that extra room for a more proportional trackpad. That wasn’t the case. The trackpad area and usage experience is horrendous.

      • darren Reply

        Good to know- I still have a little time to decide, but I’ve added the 9365 to the list, thanks for the suggestion! I really like the Costco XPS 15 9560 deal too, but the 2-lane TB3 limitation concerns me. I gather it’s enough bandwidth to do external 1080P gaming which is all that is needed for my situation. Plus I’m guessing the 4K display should downscale reasonably well to 1080p which would make the GTX1050 usable. I think I’ve ruled out the Alienware 13 R3 based on your comments, though. It’s too chunky and heavy for noise and heat throttling to be a problem. I’d rather get the thinner and lighter XPS 15 or the MSI GS63VR at that point.

  3. Klaus Reply

    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.

    • theitsage Post authorReply

      Portability depends on your needs. I don’t always need high-performing GPU and would rather have an ultrabook for the majority of the time. When I need more GPU performance, I can hook the eGPU up and use it at my desk. For my particular use, a setup such as XPS 13 + eGPU is more portable.

      If you need a high-performing GPU the majority of the time you use your laptop, a gaming machine such as this Alienware 13 R3 is definitely more portable.

  4. Arthur Reply

    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.

  5. nOrbX187 Reply

    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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *