Netstor Hercules HL23T Review - Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick  

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goalque
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July 31, 2017 1:12 pm  

Introduction

Did someone recognize those metal bars in my sepia-toned forum icon? It’s a NA211TB - the same chassis is the base of Netstor’s just announced HL23T single-slot PCIe expansion. It has gotten a refreshed appearance. Precisely painted aluminium, the fascia decorated by a cartoonish super hero that represents a power boost to your gaming experience. I was lucky to get the neon green variant from their 3-color collection for a review. I'm going to try some arm-wrestling with this super hero and we'll find out how superb the box really is.

Exceptionally, Netstor hasn’t followed the mainstream path. HL23T is the first eGPU enclosure with two Thunderbolt 3 ports and you can mount up to 32cm card in there. It’s not advertised for external GPUs, but I have very good news for you. It’s Mac certified and works out of the box on macOS High Sierra with a Sapphire NITRO+ RX 580 8GD5 Special Edition. Clamshell mode works as well in the latest beta. Literally plug-and-play.

Windows through Bootcamp on a Mac is a bit more involved. I'm using my Late 2016 13" non-Touch bar MacBook Pro with an Apple Extended USB keyboard via Apple USB-C to USB adapter. This keyboard works great as a hub with two USB ports on either end. On one side, you can put your wireless mouse transceiver, and to the other the EFI USB stick. Read my instructions to successfully boot into Windows with the integrated GPU activated so that you can have instant internal screen acceleration with new AMD cards and Windows 10 built-in drivers. For performance testing, I downloaded the latest Crimson ReLive Edition drivers from AMD’s web site. Accordingly, you can install Nvidia drivers, restart from the USB stick, and you have a ready gaming machine.

Netstor Hercules HL23T Thunderbolt 3 enclosure Netstor Hercules HT23T + 2016 MacBook Pro

Hardware Specifics

At the first look, the box definitely looks to be targeting gamers; a super hero holding a sledgehammer in his muscled hand. On opening the chassis, I was amazed to see how tiny the backplane was, all electrical components hidden underneath wisely to be in cover from the heat. All shells are accurately painted from the inside too, only the shiny metal frames and the side metal rail are left unpainted. The rail has a movable 8cm intake cooling fan and you can move it to any spot in the rail you like, to match the position with a blower style GPU cooler. There are three fan speed levels that can be adjusted by the switch on the top of the metal rail.

The box is primarily designed for reference cards that can be up to 12cm in height. Other cards that blow hot air vertically or to both sides are not ideal to be used with this enclosure because the side rail may block and interfere air flow. In this case, you can completely remove the rail to have more room to fit wider cards with bigger fans.

Unlike other manufacturers that have trusted on TUL Corporation’s backplane design and single TB3 port, Netstor has designed and manufactured their own dual port Thunderbolt 3 card. In this iteration all components are flattened; no sticking out capacitors that can accidentally loosen up and peel off when you pull the card out (yes, one dropped from my NA211TB, I got it fixed).

The TB3 card is powered by the common DSL6540 and two TI83 PD chips, providing Nvidia compatibility with older macOS versions. My automate-eGPU.sh script couldn’t scrape Nvidia’s hosted XML file for new packages at the time of testing, so I had to manually check the correct web address and use script’s -url option. Ran, rebooted, and it worked on macOS 10.12.5. I don’t know if the situation is still the same, but we all know that Apple favours AMD, and the script has became to the end of its lifecycle.

Overall, my first impressions are very positive.

Pros
+ Very good build quality
+ Dual TB3 ports and firmware switching possibility
+ Lightness and size, only 2.7kg in total
+ Easily removable 170g top shell with a thumb screw
+ Adjustable side fan
+ 1m TB3 cable included

Cons
- Cards over 12cm in height (such as the Sapphire NITRO+ RX 580) can be used only with a top shell removed
- Somewhat buzzy 4cm PSU fan
- Although the 300W PSU survived from 320W peaks in a stress test with R9 390, 400W power promise would have been better
- Only 15W power delivery to the host computer

Testings & Benchmarks

All the benchmarks are conducted on the external UHD display at full HD resolution, at maxed out settings, just the USB-C power adapter cable and included 1m TB3 cable plugged in.

Netstor told that it may not reach the 22XX MiB/s H2D performance with the factory default firmware, but it did on the Windows 10 Boot Camp after warmed up. They provided a firmware upgrade tool for testing and said that end users will have a possibility to switch between the factory firmware and specialized eGFX configuration in order to gain maximum H2D transfer speeds.

Details regarding the eGFX configuration are not discussed in this review but you will be notified on Netstor's website about this when these boxes become more widespread in autumn. MSRP of Netstor HL23T is $379 USD.

After running a couple of rounds of Fire Strike stress tests, I checked CUDA-Z readings and they looked great.

F1 2016 Benchmark
Hitman 2016 Benchmark

Conclusion

It’s not a Hulk, but gives expected power boost in gaming, especially with Nvidia. Keep in mind, that AMDs are generally better in computing tasks. Additional devices connected to the other USB-C port got detected on startup straight away. The additional USB-C port makes possible to daisy chain 10Gbps USB3.1 Gen2 device, NVMe SSD via TB3 or another RX 580 on High Sierra. It’s important to keep devices connected from the beginning. Hot-plugging didn’t work properly on Windows with a 2016 13” MBP. The colourful appearance might divide opinions in professional use, but the whole unit including inner components are high quality and it is very likely capable of supporting more professional cards under 300W power consumption, such as Vega FE. The only minor downsides being the PSU, a bit buzzy to my ears, a well known issue in other vendors’ boxes too with an industrial Flex ATX PSU. Finding a silent balance between compactness and good air ventilation is not an easy task. Keep up the good work Netstor.

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Sky11
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July 31, 2017 4:51 pm  

The power supply - 300W is a problem. Yes RX580 and WX7100 will be fine, however for anything beyond that you will need a beefier power supply.

Try to find a mini-ITX power supply >400W...   (with reasonable price and noise)

Soon I will add my system & eGPU details or a build link to this my signature to give context to my posts


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wimpzilla
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July 31, 2017 5:01 pm  
Posted by: Sky11

The power supply - 300W is a problem. Yes RX580 and WX7100 will be fine, however for anything beyond that you will need a beefier power supply.

Try to find a mini-ITX power supply >400W...   (with reasonable price and noise)

To be honest, something strange with the psu.

Even rated 300W, it seems to be 300W on the 12v only, plus 80/100W on the +3/5v i think.

It should not be bad just looking the specs, 12v1/12v2 20A each for 25/30A combined for +/- 300W output.

Still i do not know the brand but should be good quality psu, 80+ at least.

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Eightarmedpet
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July 31, 2017 5:16 pm  

This looks like the exact enclosure I have been waiting for! A lick of paint to cover those gross graphics and its a winner... any news on availability or did I miss that? (edit: yep did, bit expensive too considering its just an enclosure - unlike Mantiz etc).

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theitsage
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July 31, 2017 5:29 pm  

This is an interesting choice of a power supply. All the Thunderbolt 3 eGPU enclosures we've seen so far have PSUs with single +12V rail. The Netstor HL23T is the only one with a dual rail +12V PSU.

Best ultrabooks for eGPU use

eGPU enclosure buying guide

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Sky11
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July 31, 2017 5:31 pm  
Posted by: theitsage

This is an interesting choice of a power supply. All the Thunderbolt 3 eGPU enclosures we've seen so far have PSUs with single +12V rail. The Netstor HL23T is the only one with a dual rail +12V PSU.

Have you seen the PSU in HP box?

Soon I will add my system & eGPU details or a build link to this my signature to give context to my posts


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nando4
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July 31, 2017 6:32 pm  

@goalque, then you for the great review. I believe dual TB3 USB-C port units are not eGFX certified and so have PCIe firmware instead of eGFX firmware.  Mymantiz_John suggested the former does not support hotplugging within Windows. Can you verify if that is the case?

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theitsage
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July 31, 2017 6:49 pm  
Posted by: Sky11
Posted by: theitsage

This is an interesting choice of a power supply. All the Thunderbolt 3 eGPU enclosures we've seen so far have PSUs with single +12V rail. The Netstor HL23T is the only one with a dual rail +12V PSU.

Have you seen the PSU in HP box?

I have not. I've contacted OMEN by HP social media reps but was told no media sample available. 

Best ultrabooks for eGPU use

eGPU enclosure buying guide

86 external GPU build guides


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goalque
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July 31, 2017 7:07 pm  

@nando4: HL23T is macOS certified for all PCIe devices. Apple doesn’t support eGFX on Windows Boot Camp.

At some point, my 2015 15" (M370X) TB2 MBP suddenly became hot-pluggable on Windows, thanks to new AMD drivers. I am not sure about the current status. Late 2016 13" MBP is a bit more tricky due to its firmware but apple_set_os.efi works. Netstor’s simplified single-slot backplane should be more Windows friendly than their multi-slot version in a NA211TB3 regarding eGPU use.

I will do more tests later, also with the new "eGFX" firmware when I come back from a cottage holiday.

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Sky11
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July 31, 2017 11:35 pm  

Please don't get me wrong - this is an interesting device, but I do not want people to have illusions about what GPUs they can plug.
Since this box is dual-port, it cannot officially advertise eGPU support and hence the OEM has not tested that many GPUs - and there is no official compatibility list.

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goalque
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August 1, 2017 12:50 am  

True, there is no guarantee that your GPU would work in Windows. People should be aware that this is officially under macOS PCIe expansion category with the factory firmware: for major professional PCIe cards like Blackmagic Design video cards, audio cards, RAID controllers, and video transcoding such as Red Rocket-X are supported, as with the more expensive NA211TB3.

Samsung 960 PRO NVMe SSD is automatically recognized with the M.2 NVMe to PCIe adapter on macOS High Sierra. I’ve successfully daisy chained RX 580 and RX 480 but officially Apple supports just a single Sapphire RX 580 Pulse at the moment.

eGFX firmware will make it different. Unfortunately, I can’t say more about it for now but supposedly I can test and show results later.

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wimpzilla
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August 1, 2017 10:18 am  
Posted by: goalque

@wimpzilla:

I found one photo, testing the 3.3V part of 75W with a R9 Nano 🙂

Thanks for this picture, i did not thought they would use the backplane to hold a part of the board voltage regulation.

As you wisely said, it seems to me too, the enclosure is pretty straight forward without fancy add-in options. The main board shown only the TB ic controllers and a bunch of voltage regulatory component.

What the 3pin on the main board stand for? It is the output for fans regulation of the box i think?

Just check if the backplane do not heat up, same for the main board. It should not since the whole box uses 12v for pci-e feed and 5v for the logic to power the main board. I think the 3.3v is pumped from the psu 5v, so the psu get only the load on the 12v rail and the 5v rail. So you should drain 70W max for the 5v and 300W from the 12v.

Should not be an issue on latest power efficient cards, but as you said with older card the topnotch Hp omen psu would be a advised. The mini-itx psu are often louder than the normal ones, especially on coil whine and switching noise. Some compromises are needed since the box dimensions.

*Note also the fan shroud that take some space in the box layout. I could only suppose you could disassemble AIB cards to remove their fan shroud and replace it with some 100mm fans, mounted directly to the box shroud. This should free some space on the card heatsink and maybe fit in the box even if the AIB card was bigger than the space allow. Also you could directly remove the box fan shroud to free some more space for the card.

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goalque
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August 1, 2017 9:13 pm  

@wimpzilla: If I recall correctly, the 3-pin connector provides 5V to the TB3 card and powering on via TB host.

5V from the 4-pin on the backplane is converted to 3.3V by the DC-to-DC converter.

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wimpzilla
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August 1, 2017 10:32 pm  
Posted by: goalque

@wimpzilla: If I recall correctly, the 3-pin connector provides 5V to the TB3 card and powering on via TB host.

5V from the 4-pin on the backplane is converted to 3.3V by the DC-to-DC converter.

Thanks you.

Edit: Gotcha, that connector should care the PSU sense pin, a ground and the 5vsb or -12v to the TB main board.

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goalque
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August 3, 2017 6:25 pm  
Posted by: Sky11

The power supply - 300W is a problem. Yes RX580 and WX7100 will be fine, however for anything beyond that you will need a beefier power supply.

Try to find a mini-ITX power supply >400W...   (with reasonable price and noise)

The R9 390 that I tested was a Sapphire Nitro R9 390 with two 8pin power connectors.

http://www.sapphiretech.com/productdetial.asp?pid=C436E37C-8A09-48B6-9F2B-F4AF86E377B6&lang=eng

The TDP of this card is 375W and I had no problems running it through Fire Strike stress loops (do not try this at home!). When running GPGPU apps, the power consumption is often much more less, and therefore I bet that HL23T's PSU can handle Vega FE's 265W-275W for rendering very well.

Unfortunately, there does not exist 400W PSUs at this size as far as I know (height 40.5mm)

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goalque
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August 5, 2017 1:40 am  

I found Enhance’s product specification:

http://www.enhance.com.tw/new/enp7000-80plus-series/
http://www.enhance.com.tw/new/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2013/11/ENP7030-SPEC.pdf

Notes:

( 1 ) The maximum combined load on +5V and +3.3V outputs shall not exceed 80W

( 2 ) +12V total DC output power shall not exceed 275W

( 3 ) When +12V load is 14A, the Min load of +5V is 3A.

( 4 ) The maximum continuous average DC outputs power shall not exceed 300W

It has an over-power protection:

3.1 Over-power protection

The power supply will be shutdown and latch off when output power over 110% ~ 150% of rated DC output.

As a rule of thumb, your floor power strip’s energy meter should never exceed 300W readings. R9 390’s Fire Strike stressing 320W peak was the whole eGPU system power consumption. R9 390 and Vega FE go over the limits so these cards are not recommended.

I hope that Netstor can provide a new PSU in their future versions to serve also Vega FE and Vega 64 users. They may work in rendering tasks continuously, but heavy gaming should be avoided.

My wish would be a customized PSU with a quiet, 8cm bottom fan. 

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wimpzilla
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August 5, 2017 6:18 am  

I think each setup need to be tested before, especially if testing Vega or power hungry cards. Including all other parameters that are the psu T°, main pcb's t°, power consumption of the various box component, psu behavior depending the load and the box t°, etc. To clearly describe the overall product behavior when used and stressed.

Nevertheless as you said, the psu 5v should not excess 80Watt. I hope the whole TB main board + backplane + charge, do not pump so much.

If i not mistake here, the load of the psu rail is divided, since it is a small psu. So if you do not use the 5v you can pump max current on the 12v and vice-versa.

Here you should not load the 5v too much, so imo, the psu could reach peak of 20/23A on the 12v, so almost 275Watt. It is quite a lot for a single gpu, especially if the gpu/vrm t° are low. Obviously overclocking or mining with it is strongly not recommended, for a heavy professional use, it need to be tested before with a power hungry gpu like.

Just for the sake, what also matter is the psu current and voltage stability/quality, in few word the build quality of the psu. You could have a 30A cheap psu beated by a lower but branded 20A psu, when testing the overall power delivery behavior. It is another key aspect that one should consider when buying a psu.

Usually the component are rated over the manufacturer specs, if good quality build, often it run fine even under heavy stress, because well studied for that.

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goalque
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August 5, 2017 9:19 am  

The specs of PCIe slot are 12V @ 5.5A and 3.3V @ 3A for a total of 75W. It’s generally not much more than 3 Amps when the 5V is converted to 3.3V. The backplane and the TB3 card are not power hungry. Their TB2 variant worked without the 3-pin connector and I suppose the TB3 behaves the same way. I think the main purpose of the 3-pin is just to power on the PSU, and the TB controller relies on PCIe slot power.

The total power consumption matters, and the PSU manufacturer stated that 300W should not be exceeded.

Here are the exact Vega FE numbers, measured by an oscilloscope:

http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/amd-radeon-vega-frontier-edition-16gb,5128-10.html

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wimpzilla
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August 5, 2017 1:24 pm  
Posted by: goalque

The specs of PCIe slot are 12V @ 5.5A and 3.3V @ 3A for a total of 75W. It’s generally not much more than 3 Amps when the 5V is converted to 3.3V. The backplane and the TB3 card are not power hungry. Their TB2 variant worked without the 3-pin connector and I suppose the TB3 behaves the same way. I think the main purpose of the 3-pin is just to power on the PSU, and the TB controller relies on PCIe slot power.

The total power consumption matters, and the PSU manufacturer stated that 300W should not be exceeded.

Here are the exact Vega FE numbers, measured by an oscilloscope:

http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/amd-radeon-vega-frontier-edition-16gb,5128-10.html

That's why you could, i think, run and bench the box with a power hungry card like a R9 390, without too much problems. The overall consumption on the 5v is low, so the 12v get almost all the current. The real question as you wisely said, it's "how much" time and if it "will be stable" for long runs.

Vega as all news gpu die in general, have a strong correlation between power consumption and gpu t°. So the watercooled vega will consume less for example than the aircooled, at same clocks/voltage. It is also why if you are a overclocker, you wish have your GTX 1080Ti under water, to ensure that the card hold his max boost clock without dropping frequency.

So the overall for sure, i would not recommend a Vega FE straight with this kind of psu. Without at least have some folks that have tried it before, under different workloads.

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goalque
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August 6, 2017 7:49 pm  
Posted by: Sky11

The power supply - 300W is a problem. Yes RX580 and WX7100 will be fine, however for anything beyond that you will need a beefier power supply.

Try to find a mini-ITX power supply >400W...   (with reasonable price and noise)

PSU problem solved.



Two 8cm Noctua fans + Silvestone SFX ST45SF-G (450W)
http://www.silverstonetek.com/product.php?pid=342

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goalque
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August 7, 2017 9:23 pm  

I removed the side rail and was able to fit up to 22cm card + 12cm fan, the SFX PSU tightly in the corner. PSU cables on the top and exhaust downwards this time, lots of empty space there.

Very DIYable 🙂

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switch
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August 8, 2017 10:41 pm  

Yeah, lots of empty space. Not really a smart move in MY opinion, but I guess you need an enclosure for everyone, right?

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goalque
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August 8, 2017 11:14 pm  

Netstor can modify the enclosure for your needs in the future, feedback is welcome.

In my opinion, a SFX PSU is a smart move if they can customize and place it under the GPU, only 6.4cm in height.

1) eliminates the buzziness of the 4cm fan

2) GPUs with 300W TDP aren’t an issue anymore

3) May open possibility for 60W-100W power delivery to the host

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August 9, 2017 12:19 am  

@goalque, as the product isn't released yet, did Netstor want to integrate those three mods into the Intel-certified final product? An upcoming competitor, the AKiTiO Node Pro: https://egpu.io/forums/thunderbolt-enclosures/akitio-node-pro-tb3-egpu/ has a tentative spec sheet integrating features in your mod list. It too is a dual-TB3 port enclosure targetting professional users.

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goalque
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August 9, 2017 7:59 am  

HL23T is reviewed as a final product. I meant in future versions.

Already listed by the retailers:

http://www.atreid.com/netstor-hl23t.html

341€

Keep in mind that the included 1m 40Gbps TB3 cable is more expensive (~$50-$60) than those shorter o.5m from other manufacturers.

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switch
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August 9, 2017 8:02 pm  

With a 1m cable? Does this mean that you can do 100W PD to the laptop via ACTIVE CABLE? The cable must be getting its power from the laptop, then?

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goalque
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August 9, 2017 9:32 pm  

No, the PD firmware delivers 15W. The TB3 card gets its juice from the PCIe slot up to 75W (12V + 3.3V combined). Assuming that the 3-pin connector can be utilized for extra power, a more powerful PSU might open this possibility. I don’t know if it requires a new PCB design.

Then it would be on the same line with the Akitio Node Pro, two TB3 ports and 60W PD.

Netstor’s 40Gbps active cable has a bigger header than 0,5m Belkin but I don’t know how it’s rated. There does exist 1m cables that provide up to 100W of power delivery.

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late-2016 13" Macbook Pro nTB + [email protected] (Netstor HL23T) + macOS & Win10
late-2016 13" Macbook Pro nTB + GTX980/[email protected] (Netstor HL23T) + macOS10.13 & Win10


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mattlee
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August 24, 2017 1:32 pm  

Has there been an update to when this will be available? Can't seem to find the information anywhere

Soon I will add my system & eGPU details or a build link to this my signature to give context to my posts


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goalque
(@goalque)
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August 24, 2017 2:19 pm  
Posted by: mattlee

Has there been an update to when this will be available? Can't seem to find the information anywhere

Mass production has just been started.

span.com shows green and +12 days.

automate-eGPU EFIapple_set_os.efi
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late-2016 13" Macbook Pro nTB + [email protected] (Netstor HL23T) + macOS & Win10
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goalque
(@goalque)
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August 26, 2017 10:14 am  

Who will be interested, how it copes with a RX Vega 64? I installed a semi-fanless Seasonic SS-500L1U 500W PSU. Buzziness went away.

One 8cm fan in front and three 8cm side-by-side fans? The green metal grill can be removed to provide the best cooling solution.

The most DIYable enclosure ever made.

automate-eGPU EFIapple_set_os.efi
--
late-2016 13" Macbook Pro nTB + [email protected] (Netstor HL23T) + macOS & Win10
late-2016 13" Macbook Pro nTB + GTX980/[email protected] (Netstor HL23T) + macOS10.13 & Win10


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goalque
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September 7, 2017 10:11 pm  

Anyone interested in results or an implementation guide with the RX Vega 64?

2 x Noctua NF-R8 redux-1800 PWM on the green grill, attached magnetically without screws, pushing hot air out of the case, NF-A9x14 PWM (92x92x14mm) pulling fresh air in, and NF-A4X20 FLX in front of the Seasonic 500W PSU. HL23T passed FireStrike's 335W peaks (measured from the power strip) without any issues. This wasn't much more compared to a R9 390 (two 8pins).

I was running it over 20 minutes, and the Seasonic PSU stayed cool at the bottom space, LCD value increased from 30C to only 42C in twenty minutes, when the GPU was stressed continuously in Valley benchmark at ~200W. The temperature sensor was placed on the top of the PSU, under the middle metal bracket.

Plug-and-play on macOS 10.13.

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late-2016 13" Macbook Pro nTB + [email protected] (Netstor HL23T) + macOS & Win10
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theitsage
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September 8, 2017 12:39 am  

The modifications looks great! I really like the placement of the temp screen. Please post your implementation with the RX Vega 64.

Best ultrabooks for eGPU use

eGPU enclosure buying guide

86 external GPU build guides


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goalque
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September 9, 2017 5:38 pm  

Thanks! I was a bit wondering why HL23T doesn't bring much discussion, despite being at the same price range as Akitio Node in Europe (341€) but benefits are dual TB3 ports, macOS certified, 1m cable, and this aluminium enclosure is light in weight (~2.4kg side metal rail removed), you can easily put it into a backpack.

I made a video 🙂

 

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ikir
 ikir
(@ikir)
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September 17, 2017 8:50 pm  

Sadly I really dislike the design, a green warrior with an hammer? Oh god...

Anyway  it seems a nice solution, dual TB3 is quite interesting.

eGPU.it | LG 34" 4K 34UC88 curved ultrawide display
MacBook Pro 2018 Touch Bar i7 quad-core 2.7Ghz - 16GB RAM - 512GB PCIe SSD --> my Mantiz Venus extreme mod with Sapphire Nitro+ RX Vega 64


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goalque
(@goalque)
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September 17, 2017 9:16 pm  

They are aware of your feedback and would be happy to hear suggestions how to improve. What kind of color would you like?

I guess none of these.

I would prefer minimalistic color appearance and paintings as well. Stay tuned, something new may be coming 😉

automate-eGPU EFIapple_set_os.efi
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late-2016 13" Macbook Pro nTB + [email protected] (Netstor HL23T) + macOS & Win10
late-2016 13" Macbook Pro nTB + GTX980/[email protected] (Netstor HL23T) + macOS10.13 & Win10


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