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

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 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.

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 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

 

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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30 Comments on "Netstor Hercules HL23T Review – Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick"

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wimpzilla
Member

Hello @Goalque,
Could you post also the picture of the main board and if you could specify also the ic controllers on board.
Or at least list them like you did for the TB add in board.
Thanks you a lot!
Nvm, i’m noob!
 

wimpzilla
Member

Posted by: goalque
I can take a photo from the rear side of the Netstor’s NP953ABP PCIe 3.0 backplane later today.

No it’s ok thanks you a lot, my bad i’m noob.
I thought nestor would also provide an external TB pci-e card, since the main board looked like an add in card.
It took me just a couple of minutes to understand.
Thanks you for the review.
 

Sky11
Member

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)

wimpzilla
Member
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… Read more »
Eightarmedpet
Member

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).

theitsage
Admin

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.

Sky11
Member

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?

nando4
Admin

@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.  Mymantiz_John suggested the this differs to eGFX firmware by not support hotplugging within Windows. Can you verify if that is the case?

theitsage
Admin

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. 

Sky11
Member

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.

wimpzilla
Member
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… Read more »
wimpzilla
Member

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.

wimpzilla
Member
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… Read more »
wimpzilla
Member
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… Read more »
switch
Member

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

nando4
Admin

@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.

switch
Member

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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