2008 15" Dell Precision M4300 (GTS360M) [0th,2C,M] + RX 570 @ 2Gbps-mPCIe (PCE164P-N03) + Win10 // inexpensive
I’ll start by saying I don’t recommend my setup, it’s just the cheapest possible system I could make and it shows that a Dell M4300 can take an eGPU (my recommendation for a cheap but better system is at the end of this post).
The laptop’s internal GPU has the c.2008 Nvidia manufacturing defect that eventually causes the GPU to lose contact with the motherboard. My laptop’s GPU died during the first COVID lockdown, and I didn’t have any spare cash (or the freedom to go out) to buy a replacement, but I did have a PCI-E riser, an RX 570 and an old ATX PSU.
- Dell Precision M4300 (this setup also confirmed to work fine in a Dell D630)
- Internal GPU: Nvidia Quadro FX 360M 512 MB
- Chipset: Intel 965PM Express
- CPU: Intel Core2 Duo T8300 2.4GHz 3MB L3
- Memory: 4GB PC2-5300 667MHz
- Display: 22” 1680x1050
- Windows 10
- Radeon Software
- MSI RX 570 Gaming X 4GB
- PCE164P-N03 PCI-E to USB 3.0 Riser
- I’d recommend the option with molex connector since SATA doesn’t meet the PCI-E power spec and PCI-E connectors are too valuable in most PSUs.
- Riser version 009 is out now, which I’ve read is better than V007 and V008. V006 is a tried and tested more likely to be reliable, but if buying new, I’d go for V009.
- Already had a riser so just bought a mini-USB 3 to mPCI-E adapter and cable
- More convenient would be a USB 3 to PCMCIA or Expresscard adapter, but I can only find home-made ones like @DIYman’s
My Windows was blue-screening after using WiFi for a few hours (started happening after installing Win10 so I guess a driver issue) so the obvious connection option was into the WiFi card slot.
- Removed screen
- Connected it up (as described further down. The Wifi socket was under the keyboard.
- Booted up, Windows recognised a GPU.
- Rebooted into Safe Mode and ran DDU.
- Installed the latest AMD drivers.
- To my absolute surprise, it worked, albeit with a few crashes to begin with.
- I started powering the GPU with just 1 SATA and 2 Molex 4-pin connectors, so had to limit the power to 85W otherwise the PSU would shut itself down.
- Then I had to limit power to 70W because a Molex connector started melting.
- Then my adapters arrived so I could spread the power among more wires/connectors and I could run at full power.
- At first I had regular system hangs whenever I did anything that changes the electrical state even a tiny bit eg. plug in / unplug USB, Ethernet or HDMI, and unplug devices sharing the same extension lead.
- This was improved a lot by plugging both laptop and PSU into a socket with an earth. I’m in Spain and some old extension leads only have 2 pins.
- Hangs caused by HDMI were completely solved by switching to DVI
- It does still hang sometimes when I unplug other devices from the extension lead (but usually doesn't). Seems to be very sensitive to any voltage fluctuations in the system.
- It now hangs rarely, usually when it’s at max performance. Haven’t had the time to diagnose the cause.
If I’m repeating information that’s better explained in other guides, let me know and I’ll link to them. My PSU set up is not common so I thought I’d share.
To prove the eGPU connection, I used an EVGA N1 750W PSU (all issues listed happened with that PSU) but I couldn’t keep that so extracted a crappy one from an abandoned PC. Rated at 312W on the 12V supply, more than enough in theory for the 120W TDP of the RX 570 (I’d recommend using a PSU with at least 50% more 12V power than the card needs, 100% more is ideal).
This PSU doesn’t have a PCI-E connector, so the question is which wires to connect to the GPU to spread the current evenly. Looking at the pinouts for the connectors:
The 8-pin CPU connector has 4 12V wires so that’s the obvious choice to feed into the GPU's 8-pin PCI-E connector. The adapter splits the 4 CPU pins into 2 lots of 3 (I couldn’t find one with a single PCI-E connector), so I lose 1 wire, but that’s ok.
If the power on your PSU is split over 2 rails (eg. 12V1, 12V2), one is often just the CPU connector and the other is for all other connectors, so plugging CPU into the highest power drain (the GPU) will avoid 1 rail being overloaded.
I have 2 Molex/SATA cables, so the dual molex to PCI-E 6 pin cable is for the riser. A single molex connector should be fine but I chose to spread the load. A simpler solution is to get a riser with a molex socket.
There are 2 more 12V lines in the 24-pin ATX connector (1 12V line in the 20-pin)
So I got a ATX 24-pin to PCI-E 6 pin adapter cable. This comes with the PSU “on” pins connected so you don’t need to jump it (one with a power switch is available). To connect it to the GPU along with the CPU I needed a dual 8-pin to 8-pin PCI-E cable. So I now have 5 12V wires powering the GPU and 2 powering the riser.
Depending on how the adapters feed the wires through, there could be a GPU 12V pin fed by 3 wires and another pin fed by only 1. No problem if you have a low power GPU like mine, but if it’s a beast, you’ll want to check that the 2 wires are feeding each pin, or if it’s got 2 8-pin connectors, that 1 12V wire is feeding each of the 6 PCI-E 12V pins. NB. To swap wires around in the connectors, it’s worth getting a pin remover and it's worth triple-checking your changes to make sure all the pins are at the right voltage!
Now, the wires in my PSU are 20AWG (ie. thin – you want 18 or 16 for high power applications), but they can easily carry the current I’m demanding. The limitation is in the connectors. These cheap adapters (and connectors in cheap PSUs) have thin, resistive metal, badly crimped onto the wire, and cannot carry as much current as the wires so they heat up. A LOT. Before all the adapters arrived, I was powering the GPU with 2 molex connectors (with an adapter I had) and the riser with a SATA connector (with adapter) which was sharing a wire with a molex. This is what happened:
With all power going through 2 wires, the PSU shut down if indicated power went over 90W, so I limited power and it stayed on. After a day of constant high power usage, the pin heated its way through the plastic, so I ran at 70W limit until the CPU cable adapter arrived. I could have put a fan blowing onto the connectors, but that’s not a good (or safe) long-term solution.
In any set up, once it’s running stably at full power, touch all the connectors, they can be hot, but if they’re so hot you can’t hold them for a long time without discomfort, they’re too hot. You really don't want the connectors or wires to overheat because (way before they’re hot enough to start a fire) the sheath will go brittle over time then crack when you flex it, exposing wire and risking a short.
Now the power is spread around 7 wires and their connectors, they’re cool to touch and the setup is happy
All benchmarks and games were run on external display.
Game Performance (all at 1680 x 1050):
- X-COM: Enemy Unknown: Max settings, totally smooth
- Alien Isolation: Max settings, totally smooth
- Civilization VI: Max settings, totally smooth
- Shogun: Total War II: Max settings, 23 FPS on the game’s benchmark
- CS:GO: Starts to stutter above 1024x768 resolution
Getting a laptop with a GPU manufacturing defect (with everything else working) is an extremely cheap way to get a base system. A local M4300 has been listed on ebay for $20 for months with no takers. If you get a laptop in this state with a good screen, you can detach it, add an I/O board and make yourself a high res portable monitor:
or even a touchscreen:
Most (all?) laptops with a Core “i” CPU, have an Intel iGPU so can still be used as a laptop when unplugged from the eGPU.
My experience led me to develop a recommendation for a best value eGPU set up:
Specs of laptop to get
- Not a Macbook. We’re talking about value here.
- Find one with a slow CPU that can be upgraded to a fast one. These are rare since the days of the Core 2 Duo, but later options are out there. What generation you choose should depend on the games you want to play.
- Memory: If 4GB is enough for you, a DDR2 laptop is fine, if you want more, go with DDR3 because 2x 4GB modules of DDR2 are so expensive that it’s cheaper just to get a better laptop.
- Find a laptop with a small HDD so you can replace it with the SSD of your choice.
- SATA 2 is good enough, the SSD’s read/write rates are much more important.
- HDMI or display port. Older machines just had VGA.
- USB 3.
- Expresscard socket for convenience of connecting the EXP GDC dock. If you need more than 4GBps data rate, you’d need a multi-lane M.2 connection and this stops being a budget setup.
- The upgrade must be supported by the motherboard / BIOS / chipset of the laptop have a TDP the same as the highest officially supported CPU (often you can upgrade to CPUs that aren’t officially supported, but if the TDP is higher, you’re gonna have a hot laptop).
- Get one that’s not top of the range for that generation eg. The best i5 or worst i7, not the best i7. The top-level CPUs are so expensive that it’s cheaper just to get a better laptop. Bear in mind that in older machines, the number of cores and amount of L3 cache are more important for max performance than the clock speed.
- You can compare CPU performance here to find the best value https://cpu.userbenchmark.com/
- EXP GDC 8.c . Haven’t tried this and have heard it’s unreliable due to signal loss in the cable, but it’s the best value for an old PC setup.
- The largest, fastest SSD you can afford. Here’s a comparison site
Minimum Recommended Spec
For an idea of the lowest performance to look for (ie. the least you can spend without ending up with something painfully slow), I made one like this for my girlfriend a few years ago and she’s still using it for both work and play with no complaints:
- Upgrade to T9600 2.8GHz Core2 Duo. That’s the best price-performance of any Core2.
- 4GB 800MHz DDR2 RAM. Never felt short because the CPU’s 6MB cache and the SSD take up the slack (even with Chrome).
- Almost any SATA 2 SSD 120GB and above.
- Internal graphics that are better than a GeForce 9200M GS. I say this because my gf’s machine starts to stutter with youtube 1080P 60FPS (it handles non-youtube video at that quality smoothly) and it’s the only limitation we’ve found for her uses.