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.
|PSU max power||170W|
|Included GPU||GTX 1050|
|Power delivery (PD)||65W|
|TB3 USB-C ports||1|
|Ports max bandwidth||5Gbps|
|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 firmware||26.1 ✔|
|TB3 cable length (cm)||50|
| User builds||link|
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.
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.
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 Stealth||UHD Graphics 620||eGPU Internal Display||eGPU External Display|
|Unigine Valley||5.2 FPS||30.0 FPS||29.7 FPS|
|Unigine Heaven||5.3 FPS||25.4 FPS||25.1 FPS|
|Unigine Superposition||6.2 FPS||28.7 FPS||28.6 FPS|
|3DMark Time Spy||2.4 FPS||10.3 FPS||10.0 FPS|
|3DMark Fire Strike||5.2 FPS||23.3 FPS||25.5 FPS|
|Tomb Raider 2013||13.8 FPS||68.8 FPS||70.5 FPS|
|Shadow of Mordor||9.2 FPS||38.4 FPS||46.5 FPS|
|Dirt Rally||12.5 FPS||37.5 FPS||45.3 FPS|
|Hitman||11.7 FPS||48.9 FPS||52.1 FPS|
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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