Lenovo Thunderbolt 3 Graphics Dock Review – Dead on Arrival

eGPU Reviews 15 Comments

Introduction

Ever since Lenovo announced its Thunderbolt 3 Graphics Dock at CES 2018, I had hoped their participation in the external graphics market would propel this technology forward. The concept was a formidable one. Lenovo intended to build a highly portable, highly productive workstation for your ultrabook. The first catch is that, at least for the time being, you need a Lenovo laptop. The one and only approved model is the IdeaPad 720S 13-inch (Model: 720S-IKBR). Worse still, disassembling this Lenovo Thunderbolt 3 Graphics Dock reveals it’s gimped on inception.

All other configurations, brands, and models are not supported

A damning statement: “Other configurations, models, and brands are not supported”

Specifications  compare 
Price US$
$399
PSU location-type
external-AC
PSU max power170W
Included GPU
GTX 1050
Power delivery (PD)
65W
USB-C controller
TI83
TB3 USB-C ports1
Ports max bandwidth5Gbps
Size (in/mm, LxWxH)
9.76 x 0.89 x 5.12
248 x 23 x 130
Included GPU ports
2xDP,HDMI
Weight (kg/lb)0.69 / 1.51
Updated firmware26.1 ✔
TB3 cable length (cm)50
Vendor pagelink
User builds
link

Hardware Specifics

Let’s start by checking out the teardown photo of the Lenovo TB3 eGFX Dock. It is the first and only external graphics solution with a GPU soldered onto the main board. This makes for a much slimmer and lighter enclosure, less than an inch thick and weighing roughly 1.5 pounds. It also means you can’t remove the graphics card, a GTX 1050 mobile. The problem is the GTX 1050 4GB is not that significant of an upgrade to be future-proof.

Lenovo Thunderbolt 3 Graphics Dock Components

Lenovo Thunderbolt 3 Graphics Dock Components

Taking this enclosure apart was a big challenge. The top cover is sheet aluminum and glued to the entire surface of the inner frame. It took me a while using a putty knife to cut through an abundance of adhesive. Once this top cover came off, the eight concealed Phillips screws were accessible. Removing these screws didn’t free the inner frame from the plastic bottom cover quite yet. There are 6 plastic tabs holding these two components in place still. With the same putty knife, I patiently freed the plastic tabs one at a time.

With the bottom cover out of the way, the inner frame’s underside showed a neat arrangement of the Thunderbolt 3 main board and its cooling assembly. This cooling fan, heatsink, copper pipes and fins make the board appear more like a laptop’s motherboard than one of an external GPU enclosure. Instead of a CPU soldered onboard, we have the GPU sitting in its place. The TB3 main board also contains all I/O ports. In the front of the enclosure, there are three USB-A ports. The audio jack is a headset and microphone combo connector. The rear has one Ethernet connector, one HDMI port, and two DisplayPorts. The power connector for the Lenovo proprietary AC adapter is in the rear as well. A single Thunderbolt 3 port is located on right side of the enclosure. Close by this port are the crucial chipsets: TI83 USB-C controller, JHL6540 Thunderbolt 3 controller, and Winbond EEPROM. The Nvidia GTX 1050 mobile chipset, N17P-G0-A1 sits right in the center.

Testings & Benchmarks

In order to verify Power Delivery from this enclosure, I connected it to the late 2016 15″ MacBook Pro because macOS shows this number under System Information » Power. I’m not aware of a utility software in Windows to find this information. There are some hardware options such as this Plugable USB-C Voltage and Amperage Meter. The Thunderbolt firmware version is also easily accessible in macOS. The Lenovo Thunderbolt 3 Graphics Dock comes with version 26.1.

The three USB ports each serve different purposes. On the far left is a USB 2.0 port that Lenovo recommends for use with a wireless keyboard and mouse. Lenovo also indicates this port allows you to wake up a sleeping computer in clamshell mode. I had intermittent success with this using a Razer Blade Stealth. The middle port is a regular USB 3.0. The far right is a USB 3.0 port with constant charging suitable for connecting mobile phones (2.4AMP output).

Out of more than a dozen external GPU enclosures I’ve used in the past year, none was as challenging as this Lenovo Thunderbolt 3 Graphics Dock to pair with a host computer. The prerequisite is a suite of drivers from Lenovo Support site. This link to the drivers was the first line of text on the Quick Start Guide prior to even Step 1. Definitely not plug and play. The circular status light in front of the enclosure has three states. It operates very similar to traffic lights: Red, Yellow, and Green. When it’s first powered on by plugging in the external 170W AC adapter, the status light turns red. The yellow light comes on when the eGFX Dock connects to a Thunderbolt computer. The all systems go green light is achieved when the unit can communicate with the Lenovo drivers and other mysterious requirements that I have yet to figure out.

I tried pairing this dock with three different Thunderbolt 3 laptops. My only successful attempt was with the early 2018 Razer Blade Stealth. The other two failed due to various reasons. On the Alienware 15 R3, the supplied Lenovo drivers would crash repeatedly when I connected this eGPU. Lenovo’s drivers are older (380.07), possibly patched Nvidia graphics drivers that clash with the drivers Windows 10 prefers for the discrete GTX 1070 in this Alienware. The other failed host was a late 2016 15″ MacBook Pro. This is my main testing system that has worked with every Thunderbolt 3 enclosure to date. Yet Lenovo managed to strike out spectacularly. There’s absolutely no eGPU detection in macOS High Sierra even after installing the Nvidia eGPU workaround from Yifanlu. In Bootcamp, the Lenovo drivers allowed detection of the eGPU. However, Windows 10 could not identify the external graphics card as GTX 1050, and no driver ever loaded. This dock appears to be a locked-in solution for Lenovo’s ecosystem.

Lenovo Thunderbolt 3 Graphics Dock + Razer Blade Stealth

Due to the thin profile and laptop-like cooling system, the Lenovo TB3 eGFX Dock can get loud. As seen in the photo above, the sound meter registered 60 dB by the rear vents. The right half of the enclosure where the GPU chipset is located tended to get warm to the touch during operation. The good news is this Lenovo Thunderbolt 3 Graphics Dock works great as an expansion TB3 dock in both macOS and Windows. The graphics part of this product depends on a lot of factors. Unless you plan on using this TB3 eGFX with a Lenovo ultrabook, there are better options currently available.

I had planned to run benchmarks with more than one Thunderbolt 3 host but due to pairing difficulties, I could only do internal display and external display comparison with the Razer Blade Stealth. Also shown are benchmarks done with the Intel UHD 620 integrated graphics card. Here are the numbers:

Razer Blade StealthUHD Graphics 620eGPU Internal DisplayeGPU External Display
Unigine Valley5.2 FPS30.0 FPS29.7 FPS
Unigine Heaven5.3 FPS25.4 FPS25.1 FPS
Unigine Superposition6.2 FPS28.7 FPS28.6 FPS
3DMark Time Spy2.4 FPS10.3 FPS10.0 FPS
3DMark Fire Strike5.2 FPS23.3 FPS25.5 FPS
Tomb Raider 201313.8 FPS68.8 FPS70.5 FPS
Shadow of Mordor9.2 FPS38.4 FPS46.5 FPS
Dirt Rally12.5 FPS37.5 FPS45.3 FPS
Hitman11.7 FPS48.9 FPS52.1 FPS

Conclusion

The main appeal of external graphics enclosures is upgradability and flexibility. Lenovo’s solution is one step forward and two steps backward. The concept of combining external graphics and expansion I/O in an ultraportable footprint is a good one. However, given the software and graphics card limitations imposed by the Lenovo TB3 eGFX Dock, you would be better served getting an ultrabook with a discrete GTX 1050.  The execution of this Lenovo Thunderbolt 3 Graphics Dock makes it effectively dead on arrival for the majority of eGPU enthusiasts.

 

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spyder57generalheedrodrisanztheitsage Recent comment authors
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“you would be better served getting an ultrabook with a discrete GTX 1050. The execution of this Lenovo Thunderbolt 3 Graphics Dock makes it effectively dead on arrival for the majority of eGPU enthusiasts.” — aye, well, it’s not meant for eGPU enthusiasts. People like me who work on their ThinkPad I think welcome this unquestionably flawed dock for a little after hours gaming. Oh how I wish it was a GTX 1050 Ti or a GTX 1060 MaxQ! Even if it meant the PD was only 45W vs 65W. It has a 170W brick so there’s surely a lot… Read more »

Member

Yes! I forgot to mention price: the retail price of the Lenovo Thunderbolt 3 dock is $279.99 while the graphics dock is $399.99 and so for $120 you are getting an 1050. That is a brutal offer, you can barely get a desktop card at this price. 
There’s another thing to consider price wise: already https://www.sonnetstore.com/collections/thunderbolt-expansion-systems/products/egfx-breakaway-puck-560 has dropped from $449 to $399. Competition, yay!

rodrisanz
Guest

Interesting…
If Auros/Gygabite follows suit with its Gaming Box pricing structure , might just return the Lenovo Graphics Dock.
Looked at the Puck.  Wrote it off after noting its lack of USB / Ethernet.  I would have to keep my Lenovo TB3 Dock at the office, negating one of the main value propositions of a full eGPU docking solution.

Member

I just dunno about the Auros, it’s so thick :`( and the 1070 only has a single DisplayPort, that’s very near useless to me. 

Guest

This is not intended for enthusiasts and it was not intended to be taken apart. The main point of this dock is to provide a minimalist professional setup, which it does fairly well at a very good price. Support for non-Lenovo laptops would be welcome though.

rodrisanz
Guest

Hi @itsage.  

Looks like the Graphics Dock can work wonderfully well for Lenovo laptop users that follow the installation instructions.

I kindly suggest that you modify the title of the review to reflect this.  For example: “Great for Lenovo Hosts – Dead on Arrival for Everyone Else”

generalheed
Guest

I just wanted to add that I was also able to get this Lenovo Graphic Dock to work perfectly with my Intel Skull Canyon NUC. I just had to install Intel’s TB3 manager software and that’s all it took, aside from the Lenovo drivers. So far I’ve been able to run games like Sea of Thieves at max settings with this dock. From what you’ve described, I think the trick to getting it to work is to only use it on systems that don’t already have a discrete NVidia GPU in it. Something, for example, that only has Intel HD graphics… Read more »

Member

That status indicator is , indeed the GPU half, I found USB working even when the GPU half didn’t wake… 

Member

Report: the last week or so it has been waking steadily every single time. It’s like the problem is gone. I haven’t changed a thing.

Also note the perk site mentioned above, look at https://www.reddit.com/r/thinkpad/wiki/intro for USA/Canada discount shops. It makes this dock a killer deal, there are empty enclosures which cost as much.

spyder57
Member

Posted by: chx
Report: the last week or so it has been waking steadily every single time. It’s like the problem is gone. I haven’t changed a thing.
Also note the perk site mentioned above, look at https://www.reddit.com/r/thinkpad/wiki/intro for USA/Canada discount shops. It makes this dock a killer deal, there are empty enclosures which cost as much.

Thanks for your comments, they are helpful in judging the viability of this dock.  However, I don’t see it listed currently on the Lenovo site so the discount is not available. Could you provide a link?

Member

I am still pissed at this title — but for those who still want better information, the dock now works with normal nVidia drivers. Two reports on the thinkpad subreddit and now I tested it too. It is reported to work under Linux too although reports say hotplug doesn’t work (not that’s special to this dock). I have carried the dock from Vancouver, BC to Hungary and — would you want to do that with the Razer Core X? See…