Razer Core Review – an eGPU Enclosure Built for Battle

The eGPU.io team would like to thank forum member, nyanmatt for gifting us his Razer Core + Nvidia GTX 980 Ti setup. Without the contribution and participation of members such as this fine gentleman, we would not have the resources to grow our community. Following this review, the Nvidia GTX 980 Ti is our next giveaway (to forum members only). You can enter for a chance to win by posting in this Razer Core discussion thread. We will do a drawing and announce the winner at the end of June.

 

Introduction

The Razer Core was the first certified production Thunderbolt 3 external graphics enclosure on the market. Seeing photos of this product online doesn’t do it justice. It’s the best looking enclosure to date in my opinion. The Razer Core is also one of the smallest eGPU boxes available (13.38″ x 8.6″ x 4.13″ / 33.99 cm x 21.84 cm x 10.49 cm). Small doesn’t equal light though. Picking up this enclosure reminded me of the first time I lifted a Mac Pro tower; it felt a like tank. Weighing in at nearly 11 pounds (4.9 kg), the Razer Core is the good kind of heavy.

Pulling the handle to slide the inner cage out of the enclosure is a satisfying experience. Two metal guides run along the bottom to both align the two parts and provide just the right amount of resistance. PCIe power cables are nicely sleeved and secured with zip-ties. You won’t need any manual to figure out how to mount a graphics card into this Razer Core. You only need to remove one thumb screw on top of the dual PCIe bracket then replace to secure your graphics card.

My first impression was that the Razer Core could have been an Apple product. I’ve repaired and upgraded thousands of Macs over the years. This thing looks and feels like a miniature version of the Mac Pro tower (design elements, materials, attention to detail of component placement, etc.). Everything screams high quality and built with a purpose. The Razer Core’s price certainly reflects this quality craftsmanship. It’s $499 if you buy the enclosure as a standalone purchase, $399 if it’s accompanied with a Razer system such as the Blade Stealth.

 

Hardware Specifics

Similar to a Mac computer, it’s not an easy task to take this Razer Core apart to repair or upgrade. I didn’t have any instructions but went for it anyway because that’s part of eGPU.io enclosure review process. I admit I had some concerns whether it would work after reassembling. The good news is the Razer Core is still fully functional, with no spare screws lying around. The bad news is you don’t want to break any component in this enclosure after the warranty is over. And there are a lot of components to break.

While other enclosures we reviewed can be taken apart with nothing more than your digits and a screw driver, this Razer Core requires hex screw drivers in different sizes and a putty knife at times. There are no less than 50 tiny screws holding this metal block of an enclosure together. In terms of individual components, I counted 25.

Built from the ground up to be a gaming accessory to its Blade Stealth, this Razer Core has 45W power delivery, one Ethernet port and four USB 3.0 ports. This 45W PD is unfortunately not sufficient for the majority of ultrabooks that use Thunderbolt 3 ports for charging. The USB ports add the much-needed extra I/Os for the new breed of thin and light laptops. A concern with the Razer Core’s USB addition is the well-known lagging and freezing issues when connecting peripherals such as a mouse and keyboard. Razer has been made aware of this for nearly a year now, and there’s yet to be a permanent fix.

The LED light strip runs along the bottom right side of the inner cage. Even though I’m not a huge fan of LEDs inside computer case, I have to say it’s done tastefully on the Razer Core. There is also another LED section in the front underside. These can be changed through Razer Synapse software.

Some reviews of the Razer Core had mentioned the airflow exhausts through the bottom of the enclosure. The three fans at the base actually intake fresh air from the bottom. The cool air is then routed upwards through the internal components. This is a fairly common thermal dissipation design found in all-in-one computers such as the iMac. This was confirmed when I removed the bottom fans. They had collected the most amount of dust build-up compared to the other fans inside this enclosure.

Speaking of fans, this Razer Core has five total and they like to get vocal. During the heaviest of benchmark/gameplay, the fans sound like a jet engine at takeoff. My suspicion is most of this noise is generated by the tiny fans in the front and back of the custom server-style (Flex ATX) power supply. There’s an outlet piece to route hot air from the PSU out the back of the enclosure. 

Being the first has its advantages and disadvantages. In the case of the Razer Core, the disadvantage comes in the form of the Texas Instrument TPS65982 (TI82) chipset. While this USB-C controller is compatible in Windows, macOS specifically blocks older controllers such as this TI82. If you intend on using a TI82 enclosure in macOS, a workaround is to run TB3-enabler, but it doesn’t work reliably.

The Thunderbolt 3 controller is DSL6540, same as the other three Thunderbolt 3 eGPU enclosures we have reviewed. From our understanding, this controller can be flashed with a new Thunderbolt firmware. However Razer has not released any firmware updates for the Core. Perhaps this is for the best because its current firmware is at the highest performing settings possible under Intel’s guideline for Thunderbolt 3 data bandwidth (Figure 7 on Page 6).

 

Testings & Benchmarks

I ran the Razer Core + Nvidia GTX 980 Ti setup with these hosts:

  • Razer Blade Stealth – dual core i7-7500U Kaby Lake, 16GB RAM, Intel HD 620 iGPU – Windows 10
  • Alienware 13 R2 – dual core i7-6700U Skylake, 8GB RAM, GTX 965M dGPU & Intel HD 520 iGPU – Windows 10
  • Gigabyte GA-Z170X-Ultra gaming – quad core i7-6700K Skylake, 8GB RAM, Intel HD 530 iGPU – Windows 10
  • Apple late-2016 MacBook Pro – quad core i7-6700HQ Skylake, 16GB RAM, Radeon Pro 450 dGPU, Intel HD 530 iGPU – macOS 10.12.4
  • Apple late-2013 Mac Pro – hex-core Xeon E5- v2, 32GB RAM, dual Fire Pro D500 dGPU – macOS 10.12.5

From our discussions in the forum about determining the true speed of Thunderbolt 3, I became obsessed with building a test bench using an ATX motherboard with Thunderbolt 3. This host can help standardize our testings and show the difference in GPU performance through x16 PCIe slot, x4 PCIe slot, and Thunderbolt 3 connection on the same computer. It’s not yet an ideal motherboard for Thunderbolt 3 connection testings because the Alpine Ridge controller is routed through the Platform Controller Hub (PCH) rather than the CPU directly. If you know of an X99, Z170, or Z270 motherboard with a direct Thunderbolt 3 to CPU, please let us know.

 

Windows 

It’s a straightforward process to use the Razer Core in Windows 10. Upon plugging the enclosure into a Thunderbolt 3 laptop, you’ll be greeted with the Intel Thunderbolt Software connection preference. Once you allow the computer to connect to this Razer Core, Windows will proceed to install the graphics card drivers. I recommend downloading and installing the latest drivers from AMD or Nvidia rather than the drivers Windows provides.

I tested the base performance of each laptop with its internal graphics card. On the Razer Blade Stealth, the Intel HD 620 iGPU was the only graphics card. The Alienware 13 R2 has both Intel HD 520 iGPU and a discrete GPU, Nvidia GTX 965M 4GB. These Thunderbolt 3 laptops were run through internal display mode and external display mode with the Razer Core + GTX 980 Ti eGPU.

While sporting a Thunderbolt 3 port and controller, the Alienware 13 R2 is running at Thunderbolt 2 speed due to Dell limiting this PCIe 3.0 connection to only 2 lanes rather than 4 lanes. We can see the drop in performance vs. the proper x4 PCIe 3.0 connection in the Razer Blade Stealth. Results through the test bench were highly anticipated. These numbers give us a better look into the performance loss as we use the graphics card externally through Thunderbolt 3 enclosure.

Alienware 13 R2GTX 965M dGPUGTX 980 Ti eGPU InternalGTX 980 Ti eGPU External
Unigine Valley25.4 FPS61.4 FPS64.1 FPS
Unigine Heaven24.9 FPS60.0 FPS71.3 FPS
Unigine Superposition28.0 FPS72.9 FPS82.5 FPS
3DMark Time Spy11.9 FPS29.7 FPS33.4 FPS
3DMark Fire Strike27.9 FPS60.1 FPS70.9 FPS
Rise of the Tomb Raider23.4 FPS51.3 FPS58.2 FPS
Tom Clancy's GhostRecon26.9 FPS40.4 FPS52.1 FPS
Razer Blade StealthIntel HD 620 iGPUGTX 980 Ti eGPU InternalGTX 980 Ti eGPU External
Unigine Valley4.4 FPS72.5 FPS78.6 FPS
Unigine Heaven4.7 FPS73.2 FPS78.2 FPS
Unigine Superposition5.5 FPS82.9 FPS86.6 FPS
3DMark Time Spy2.2 FPS30.6 FPS32.2 FPS
3DMark Fire Strike4.8 FPS53.7 FPS72.7 FPS
Rise of the Tomb Raider6.5 FPS54.4 FPS57.3 FPS
Tom Clancy's GhostRecon1.9 FPS47.1 FPS56.0 FPS
Z170X Test Benchx16 PCIe 3.0x4 - PCH PCIe 3.0GTX 980 Ti eGPU
Unigine Valley95.1 FPS90.3 FPS83.7 FPS
Unigine Heaven90.7 FPS87.6 FPS79.0 FPS
Unigine Superposition93.2 FPS91.7 FPS86.9 FPS
3DMark Time Spy36.0 FPS35.1 FPS33.5 FPS
3DMark Fire Strike88.2 FPS84.7 FPS71.7 FPS
Rise of the Tomb Raider60.0 FPS60.0 FPS58.5 FPS
Tom Clancy's GhostRecon87.9 FPS69.2 FPS56.6 FPS
Shadow of Mordor128.5 FPS113.4 FPS97.3 FPS

 

macOS

Setting this Razer Core up with a Mac required one extra step. You can read our detailed eGPU setup guide for Mac for more details. Both the late 2016 15″ MacBook Pro and late 2013 Mac Pro needed the ThunderboltFamily kext file modification in order to communicate with the TI82 controller in this Razer Core. It works for the most part, but I don’t recommend TI82 enclosures for Mac users.

Generally speaking, the GTX 980 Ti is a lot more powerful than the AMD graphics cards Apple uses in these “pro” Macs. However, due to high optimization of software such as Final Cut Pro X, the Nvidia eGPU didn’t provide much performance boost in OpenCL tasks.

In the midst of testing and running benchmarks for this review, Apple announced official support for its next version of macOS, 10.13 High Sierra. This is wonderful news for eGPU enthusiasts but bad news for this Razer Core. Its TI82 controller means future compatibility in macOS is nonexistent. The TB3-enabler script no longer works in 10.13 beta. Therefore, we decided not to post benchmark results for Mac and do not recommend the Razer Core for Mac users until Razer updates its eGPU enclosure.

 

Conclusion

Razer definitely nailed the look and feel of its eGPU enclosure. Nevertheless, there are several functionality flaws that can’t be ignored. It’s loud during operation with occasionally glitchy USB ports and an unsupported TI82 controller in macOS. The next iteration of this Razer Core will be a winner if it uses a TI83 controller, possesses a quieter power supply, and enters the market under $400.

 

GTX 980 Ti Giveaway

If you’re a forum member and would like to participate in eGPU.io GTX 980 Ti giveaway (courtesy of nyanmatt), please post in this Razer Core discussion thread. We will announce the winner at the end of June.

Update: The lucky winner of this giveaway is forum member jim_survak.

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