Beefing up your laptop’s gaming chops with an external GPU

external_laptop_gpu

If you’re not willing to shell out for a reasonably powerful laptop it seems that there’s not a ton that can be done to boost your gaming performance. That is, unless you have an empty Express card slot and the right chipset.

[Phatboy69] recently put together an external video card for his notebook, with fantastic results. His Vaio Z128GG had an Nvidia GT330M graphics card onboard, which is decent but nothing to write home about. Using an Express card to PCIe adapter, he added an external Nvidia GTX580 to his system, and he couldn’t be more pleased with the results. While the card does take a performance hit when connected to his laptop in this way, he claims that his graphics performance has increased ten-fold, which isn’t too shabby.

There are many variables on which this process is heavily dependent, but with the right amount of tweaking, some great laptop gaming performance can be had. That said, it really does take the portability factor of your notebook down to about zero.

If this is something you might be interested in, be sure to check out this thread over at the Notebook Review Forums – it’s where [Phatboy69] found all the information he needed to get his system up and running properly.

[Thanks, Henry]

Comments

  1. Andrew Smith says:

    how much of a performance hit does the express to PCIe cause?

    • third says:

      From the source link:
      “It only performs at about 60% over @ PCIE x1.opt (with Nvidia Optimus drivers)
      This is about PCIe x2 performance but it still shits all over the GT330M.”

      Express Card provides a single PCIe link, a PCIe slot in a PC provides 16 (PCIe x16 literally means you get 16 independent PCIe links). So you end up with 1/16th of the original bandwidth. The actual processing power is still the same though.

      • Right on! says:

        All the graphics are off loaded onto the external graphics card. So the key is to get a card with a lot of ram built in. The only down side is the loading times are increase, and you have to use an external monitor. I wonder if I would have any major differences with already using a Radeon 6770m 1gig ddr 5 ram. Might do this in the future for tinkering purposes. I’ve did some research on this in past, and hate that I can’t use the monitor on my laptop as an exteral monitor for an xbox 360(lvds vs vga, dvi, hdmi)(Don’t mention capture cards unless know one that works good(I also have usb 3.0, but it’s on a laptop for what it’s worth)). So my idea is to use a laptop monitor with some kind of micro KVM, LVDS spliter, and a HDMI to LVDS converter. This idea is half baked, cost too much for the hardware if it even exist, and I’m dead tired right now so don’t be too judge mental.

        Sempre Fi

      • Hitek146 says:

        @Right On! ^^^

        Check out this seller on eBay. He sells full kits to drive LVDS LCD panels for $30 – $40, and will customize the kit configuration and provide the proper cable for the LCD panel that you have, if you provide him the part number of your LCD…

        http://www.ebay.com/sch/njytouch/m.html?hash=item415e16c8d7&item=280751425751&pt=COMP_EN_Networking_Components&_trksid=p4340.l2562

      • Right on! says:

        Thank you, and you rock. When I get a little time, I will be voiding some warranties, oh yeah. The next challenge is building a switch for the laptop the output, and the board output board.

        Sempre Fi

  2. boomshot says:

    It’s pretty significant as the bandwidth is relatively limited, but I’ve seen lots of results with massive improvements. Most people don’t purchase much past the GTX260-275. I’m surprised this is the first time this hack has been listed, it’s all over the internet, recognized as “ViDock”.

  3. fartface says:

    That will get you pretty much sent to gitmo if you try to fly with it.

  4. landon says:

    I understand wanting more out of your laptop but who buys an i7 laptop and still needs more gaming performance? then is willing to spend $500 on a graphics card to get it? sounds nuts to me, I’d just build a portable desktop setup and not deal with all this messing around. It’s a hack, that is for sure, but I don’t see it as practical except for those very few that have $500 to throw down to get a few more fps on a laptop. plus isn’t the point of a laptop portability? With this setup you are tied to a desk either way and it looks very fragile, imagine someone tripping and catching a cord on that external power supply. i7 laptop, high end graphics card, power supply, and the $30 adapter all possibly destroyed. Seems like such a hassle to me. just my $0.02, there are probably tons of people that will disagree with me.

    • Mike Nathan says:

      Well, I have an i7-based laptop with a pretty decent GPU, but it *could* be better. Some time in the future, I can imagine there will be a point where the processor is still more than capable of running a game, but the graphics card is not up to par. Running an external card would be cheaper than buying a new laptop.

      That said, I mostly agree on the portability argument. I initially thought the same thing myself, but after thinking a bit longer, I can find justification for this sort of setup.

      If I were in college right now, I could easily do without a desktop machine and use the laptop I have. With this sort of setup, I could take my notebook to class/lab/library, then rock out with some killer games back at my dorm without the need for a desktop computer or gaming console.

    • T-Spawn says:

      I agree that the specs here are pretty impractical but this setup would be awesome for a dock for the laptop. Coming home and having the boost at your desk is a great improvement than being stuck with the on-board graphics.

    • third says:

      I see this as mostly being useful for those who use a laptop as their primary (or only) machine. On the road you have all the portability you need. Then, when you get home, you plug your machine into its docking station or equivalent and get the power you need to play high-spec games.

      Many people already do something similar, plugging in their laptop into an AC-adapter, external keyboard and mouse, and possibly external screen(s). This merely extends this to provide additional processing power as well.

      Something similar was already announced for Macs a while back: an external GPU casing using Thunderbolt. And one laptop manufacturer (forgot which one) produces an official dock with a GPU built in. So it’s not that strange to do so. This hack just makes it more accessible.

    • henry99 says:

      A computer with a top GPU is the size of a small plane and not great for travel. You can also get i7s for < 1k. Which would leave plenty of room for a GPU when gaming at home (and can be upgraded later in time).

    • jim says:

      He’s planning to put it in a case. The idea is that you can leave the GPU at home, because most people don’t want to be playing Crysis in a lecture theatre anyway. As for fragile? Isn’t everything?

  5. Reggie says:

    I wonder if he tried ‘mobility modder’ first? use it to update laptop gfx drivers with the ones from ati/nvidia instead of the not updated laptop manufacturer’s drivers.

  6. mrbippers says:

    While a $500 card is overkill, you would likely notice improvements with a sub $100 card. It becomes even more useful for people who don’t have decent onboard graphics. As far as portability, you can always disconnect the card when on the go, and reconnect at home when it’s game time. That said, I’ll still stick with my desktop for all my gaming needs.

  7. Jp says:

    My initial response was that this is so, so hackish, and so very very brilliant!

    @Andrew –
    Performance stats are discussed in the linked article. (So go rtfa)

    Summary is the express card slots are either PCIe 1x, or 2x. Desktop PCIe slots are 16x, so there’s your dividers.

  8. Josef Wells says:

    I was considering doing this for a while, actually I was more interested in using intel Vt-d Device virtualization to pass such an external card to windows from a linux Xen based virtual machine…

    Anywho, this link has a lot of helpful info on this and other similar setups (thunderbolt or expresscard)

    http://forum.notebookreview.com/7585042-post4052.html

  9. henry99 says:

    YAY, thanks for publishing my tip! <3

  10. Thesandlord says:

    There are too many problems with this personally. I was considering this, but it is just really unpractical. First of all, you are running a expensive graphics card at 1/16 or 1/8 the bandwidth. That’s like buying a Ferrari and only driving it in downtown traffic. Then, you need to buy an external PSU to actually power the card, which combined with the card itself makes a mess of wires and a huge bulk sitting on your desk. To make it actually worth it, you need to use the mPCIe slots inside the laptop which are normally used for WWAN and Wifi, which means wires sticking out from the inside of the case. Then you have the problem of trying to push the output back to the screen, which I admit there are solutions but the easiest is just buying an external monitor. After all this it is not portable at all, it is chained to a desk. Its even less portable than a small desktop because everything is modular and needs to be deassembled/reassembled every time. IMO it would be better to just buy an Xbox… If you need to do some actual gaming or work with video, make a cheap desktop because the only parts you need to buy aside from this is a case, mobo, processor, ram, and hard drive, minus the cables from ebay and the eGpu case. You can probably scavenge some of these parts if you needed. Sure its more expensive but seriously you are already spending $300 on this you can spend a little more…

  11. No One says:

    This is really cool in my opinion. I think in the future a laptop with an x16 connector for a dock would be a really awesome way to bridge the desktop/laptop gap.

  12. joesugar says:

    Could this be used along with CUDA to build an external GPU box for a laptop?

  13. CPCT says:

    These adapter cards alone cost as much as a laptop

  14. Matthew says:

    This is particularly useful to me.
    For commodities trade we use 4 monitors, and this makes portability between offices difficult as our indicators are customized.

    If I could just customize everything on my one notebook, but keep a eGPU + monitors at various offices/homes then I wouldn’t have unsynced machines and redundant PCs everywhere….

  15. APH says:

    I could swear I just saw that a new Sony Vaio laptop will have a dock which does something similar (using Light Peak/Thunderbolt technology, though).

    googling….

    Found it.

    http://www.anandtech.com/show/4474/sony-updates-vaio-z-thinner-lighter-light-peak-and-external-gpu

  16. defyboy says:

    I did wonder if this was possible upon learning that the new expressCard slot on my laptop was essentially a PCIe x1 slot + USB but I never looked into the possibilities.

    This could suit my situation well as I have a business class HP laptop that is very powerfull, but lacking in the graphics area. I only play a few older games, and only at home.

    I will be looking into setting one of these up now, thanks for the writeup.

  17. dajjhman says:

    I actually looked into this a while back, but I figured the noise that would get into the PCIe lines would be a bad influence, on top of the card only being able to run at 1x… might just set aside some cash to try it, while I wouldn’t need it for a GPU it would be great for some of my other cards that I would like to use with my Laptop, like my video capture cards.
    also even if you don’t need the GPU to replace a cruddy laptop GPU, I actually have ended up trying to crack password hashes on my laptop (which is much better than what the lab supplies us with at the moment), this would be nice for that.

    -Jimmy

  18. Fili says:

    Whoa, didn’t know this was possible! I’ve always wanted to try, but was too lazy to search how. Now that I’ve seen it, I don’t want any more. It’s too many wires, exposed fans and wires for the cat to play with, and more.
    So I got an i7 desktop and keep my laptop portable. If I want to play something, I go to the desktop :)

  19. nah! says:

    who needs such an expensive adapter card?
    a minipcie -> pcie x1 raiser card is about 30$
    just break the pcie x1 port so that you can plug in a pcie x16 cart into it too, and you pretty much have the same thing

  20. Hosting_Guru says:

    Hi guys this atory is about my eGPU setup over at OCAU.. Im Phatboy69 ;) Howdy :)
    It’s a great setup and has tied me over while i rebuild my beast… > http://forums.overclockers.com.au/showthread.php?t=976135

    If anyone has any questions its a really great setup and with a small uATX case is becomes portable an can render back to the Vaio LCD. I made it take away to my holiday house for some decent gaming while away. :)
    cheers chaps,

    Hilton
    aka Hosting_Guru > http://www.hostingguru.com.au
    aka Phatboy69

  21. Motorcyclist says:

    Maybe if you tell the TSA that “Yes, it’s a bomb.” as you try to catch a flight, they will let you out in 15 years instead of Gitmo.

    Seriously, this is brilliant, but I wonder what (if anything) it would do to all the software installations that register with a machine code challenge response (Adobe comes to mind) if you decided to turn it back into a portable laptop?

  22. Drew says:

    This is awesome- I always wanted to do this with my old laptop, and dramatically kick up the graphics capability to do something useful- turn it into a standalone design station that can do massive part assembly renderings with Autodesk Inventor.

    But even more- I wanted to add a REAL Audio card to my laptop- now, the only options for external soundcards are limited to shitty USB boxes.

    Could this be done to add high-end audio cards with 7.1 surround optical output and such to an old laptop? Can anyone comment on this?

    • Max says:

      Yes, you could add a PCI-e sound card to your laptop. If your laptop doesn’t have an ExpressCard slot, but an old PCMCIA one, you could in theory find a PCMCIA->PCI adapter.

  23. Ziggy says:

    This is actually a really good idea. I plan on using it not for gaming, but to allow my laptop to support 3+ monitors with eyefinity. I planned on building a pc, but all i really wanted is the extra screen real-estate, not the gaming performance, so the setup is great for me. I have a power supply lying around, and this is a bit more fun than getting a tripleheadtogo or something. Kudos on the work, if only we weren’t limited by the x1 bandwidth issue

  24. This is very clever.
    Might look into this for a friend
    who has a failing graphics chipon
    his laptop.

    Is this remotely possible with
    any netbooks?
    Would be quite cool to make a
    folding farm using AO530 or AA1
    motherboards with added graphics
    cards to do the “grunt work”

  25. @Jim, idea here is to make a
    custom connector with magnetic
    locking mechanism.
    Quick connect/disconnect AND can
    be made totally shielded so it
    is less likely to pick up noise.

  26. bhavesh says:

    my laptop is compaq presario CQ62-112TU i want play games on my laptop how can i make external gpu for my laptop???

  27. Jordan chen says:

    Where can I buy an adapter and how do I install it

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