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?
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.
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
|3DMark Time Spy||3,537||3,677||3,507|
|3DMark Fire Strike||11,326||11,005||9,292|
|Metro Last Night Redux||83 FPS||71 FPS||58 FPS|
|Rise of the Tomb Raider||54.28 FPS||47.83 FPS||43.13 FPS|
|Tom Clancy's The Division||49.9 FPS||40.8 FPS||39.1 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Interestingly enough, the 2x lanes on the 9360 and 9560 dont seem to affect performance as much as you would think. There is a great article here on eGPU somewhere with comparisons but from personal experience using the Aorus Gaming Box with a 1070 OC and 9360 (i7-7560) I can game at 1440p with medium to high settings and still be over 60fps, drop it to 1080 and I can run Ultra. From what I understand the reason there isn't much of a loss with the 2x lanes is because of the way an eGPU uses the bandwidth, it apparently doesn't use 32gbps (actual 4x lane speed I believe) so the lower 16gbps of the 2x lanes isn't low enough to make a huge difference.
Just my 2 cents since I just purchased this XPS 9365 for the ULTRA portability. I also purchased the 9560 but honestly dont think having the built in 1050 will mean much for me since the Aorus box is SO portable and even comes with a carry bag! Its smaller than 2 small/medium sized books stacked together. I cannot wait to run side by side comparisons of 9360 and 9365 specially since my 9360 has the slightly more advanced i7-7560 cpu. Also, once I get the 9560 with the i7-7700HQ it will be even more interesting to see how a quad core CPU affects the performance.
Update: BTW the 1440 is happening on a predator TN 1440p monitor. When using the internal display with eGPU the performance suffers a bit more probably due to the 2x lane issue. The 4x lanes of the 9365 may increase that performance which would be crazy! As the OP Mentioned its just ironic that the lightest, thinnest and most portable XPS has the best TB performance!! I actually purchased the 9560 because Dell advertises it as having 4x lanes but as we all know this isn't the case and is kind of false advertising.
Just a heads up. While the Dell XPS 9365 has had it's 4-lane TB3 controller highlighted, the BIOS is still configured to run a 2GT/s OPI, giving effectively the same performance as a 2-lane TB3 controller. From here:
Hi @nando4. I looked through my archived folders and found some CUDA-Z screen captures. I ran the XPS 9365 with three eGPU enclosure I had at the time: AKiTiO Node, Sonnet Breakaway 350, and Mantiz Venus. The Memory speed hovering right at 1,600MiB/s.
I'm very confident the XPS 9365 is running 2GT/s OPI. The XPS 9250 is configured very similar in that it has 2 Thunderbolt 3 ports running through a x4 PCIe connection. It too suffers from 2GT/s OPI. The CUDA-Z result in my build guide of the XPS 9250 is identical as what we're seeing here for XPS 9365./p>
I just purchased an XPS 9365 and was a little disappointed to read your original post about only getting 2GT/s.
I was considering getting an eGUP enclosure, but this may make me rethink my plan. If the hardware is sufficient for 4GT/s, and the BIOS is the issue, is there any chance a future BIOS update from Dell could resolve the problem?
Hi, I was searching for something like this, I'm interested in buying a Core X and add a rtx2070 in it, BUT i need my laptop internal gtx1060 to keep working since i'm doing 3d rendering and i wanto to assign render tasks to different gpu's. I have a alienware 13r3 with 6700hq and I'm asking this since i had to return the Alienware graphic amplifier because it disabled the internal discrete gpu when connected.
Thank you very much!