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 eGFX-capable 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.
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.
+ 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
– 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 2XXX 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|
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.