A Macbook Air And A Thunderbolt GPU

When Intel and Apple released Thunderbolt, hallelujahs from the Apple choir were heard. Since very little in any of Apple’s hardware lineup is upgradeable, an external video card is the best of all possible world. Unfortunately, Intel doesn’t seem to be taking kindly to the idea of external GPUs. That hasn’t stopped a few creative people like [Larry Gadea] from figuring it out on their own. Right now he’s running a GTX 570 through the Thunderbolt port of his MacBook Air, and displaying everything on the internal LCD. A dream come true.

[Larry] is doing this with a few fairly specialized bits of hardware. The first is a Thunderbolt to ExpressCard/34 adapter, after that an ExpressCard to PCI-E adapter. Couple that with a power supply, GPU, and a whole lot of software configuration, and [Larry] had a real Thunderbolt GPU on his hands.

There are, of course, a few downsides to running a GPU through a Thunderbolt port. The current Thunderbolt spec is equivalent to a PCI-E 4X slot, a quarter of what is needed to get all the horsepower out of high-end GPUs. That being said, it is an elegant-yet-kludgy way for better graphics performance on the MBA,

Demo video below.


73 thoughts on “A Macbook Air And A Thunderbolt GPU

      1. See here: http://www.plxtech.com/products/usbcontrollers/net2282

        The NetChip™ NET 2282 PCI to USB 2.0 Hi-Speed Peripheral Controller is designed for easy integration with existing PCI-based systems and silicon. While there are many PCI-based USB Hosts on the market, the NET 2282 is one of the only PCI-based USB Peripheral Controllers available. It is optimized for converting existing PCI Cards or CardBus Adapters to stand-alone USB Devices. The NET 2282 is offered in a 14 x 14mm 120-pin TQFP. This device is available in lead-free packaging.

        1. That’s not PCI-E. Anyways, let’s extrapolate some: Assuming there is/will be a USB 3.0 PCIe version of that IC (unlikely), you’re stilling going to run into bus latency issues, bandwidth issues, and most fundamentally the issue of USB not being an extension of the system bus. It’d be /possible/ to run a PCIe GPU over USB, however, it would be extremely cumbersome at the code level, you would have to re-write large portions of the driver, and bus latency would be murderous. USB is designed to be a bulk transfer bus, not a system bus. (think: sequential transfer vs random-access)

          You are more likely to see a somewhat enhanced version of the USBVGA/DVI converters that already exist (little more than a framebuffer and some bltting functions), but don’t expect to play anything requiring 3D acceleration.

          1. I gave wrong link, there is a PCIe version of the chip.
            But the question of latency still remains (I wrote code for USB device side on one of the jobs, so, I understand the difference between system bus and ).
            On the other hand, PCIe is a packet bus, and GPU, when using it for 3d, as opposed to 2d, is about bulk transfers. We do not want to execute code from the GPU memory, so the difference between being an extension to system bus or being attached by something, is one level of abstraction in driver for access procedures.
            So, would the USB3.0 approach work? It would, if the driver is open source.
            Would it be workable with 3d? I do not see much problems, at least in theory (unless there would be very large textures involved).

    1. Thunderbolt is essentially Displayport+PCIE muxed over a cable. Its a lot like going from coax Ethernet to rj45. The protocols are the same, you just need to convert from one physical layer to another.

      USB 3.0 is fundamentally different from an architecture point of view. The converter would need to get a lot smarter and more expensive.

    1. Assuming you’re not just trying to be an obnoxious troll, the reason for this sort of technology is to enable people to use a lightweight and power-efficient laptop while on the go, which they can plug into a docking station to use a high power desktop GPU.

      1. It does seem to be a very tight niche though as I would probably just spend the money on a better laptop rather than adding a external gpu but it does give the opportunity to bring more to lower powered laptops. Pretty neat but I wonder if it will go anywhere being such a niche market is any company going to start producing external gpus any time soon?

        1. It isn’t always an option to just buy the device with higher specs. I could easily have bought the maxed out 15″ Macbook Pro Retina a month ago, but decided to go for the somewhat lower powered 13″ Macbook Pro (still Retina). I haven’t looked back. It would be nice to have a GPU to dock it with at home, but while travelling it’s just not worth the GPU to have the bigger screen. And yes those 2″ inches means that it can’t easily fit on the desks in Danish trains, the 13″ inch however fits perfectly.

          1. You haven’t looked back because you know behind you is regret- regret that you had to settle for less, because the manufacturer you chose to buy from trades in gimmicks and charges too much.

            Also, stop calling your display “a retina” – it’s just an LCD and you sound like an idiot using some buzzword. What’s the resolution then? From a computer architecture design point putting the GPU anywhere but literally on the motherboard is a compromise. Hell, ideally it’s paired right into the rest of the CPU. It has nothing to do with NVIDIA, they’re against it because they *gasp* actually know the reasons we don’t do this already.

          2. @Henrik
            I went for a Macbook Air for a similar reason. It’s powerful enough on the go and the battery life is wonderful, but when I get home, it would be nice to just plug in an external GPU and get working, instead of syncing my files with my desktop computer.

            Quit being such a troll. First off, Macbooks are excellent. They can’t be beat when you take price, performance, battery life, and design all together.

            Second, “Macbook Pro with Retina display” is the official name of the laptop, to differentiate it from the vanilla Macbook Pro. So quit being such a pedant; you sound like an idiot for being hypercorrective.

            Third, an external GPU is neither Apple’s nor Nvidia’s prerogative. Apple provides a reasonably capable mobile GPU — it is a laptop, after all. The form factor demands compromises be made. If you want additional power, that’s up to third parties.

          3. @Luke:
            “Macbooks are excellent. They can’t be beat when you take price, performance, battery life, and design all together.”

            Except price, performance, and design are all better on a PC laptop. Take the list of specs from whatever MBP or MBA you want to compare, build or find that spec(or better) in a PC on a site like NewEgg, and you will quickly realize you are paying twice what the computer is worth when you buy a Mac. Don’t get a Mac from an unauthorized/discount/used reseller, either, or you’ll soon realize Apple Care doesn’t have any intention of helping you with repairs. My only logical conclusion was that the freakish Cult of Mac is made of people who like to waste money.

            I also can’t approve of a computer that claims to be a serious work machine, and has as abysmal of ventilation/heat management as the last couple lines of MacBooks. Awesome, powerful Intel processors, with such shit heat management that they can’t run at full power without going thermal or making the case red-hot after a few minutes. Programs like SMCFanControl can add some hours to its useful time, but in the end the fans burn out more quickly(a $150 Apple Store repair, versus $10-$20 in parts and a screwdriver on a PC).

            There’s also the small issue of having to use the clusterfuck that is Mac OSX, which I will never do again. Windows isn’t amazing, but it’s better than that BSD-cloned Fischer Price: My First OS. You can like or use it all you want, but don’t try to tell me it’s better than anything else out there; honestly, you can do more with a RasPi.

          4. I must have missed something here? Great hack for the sake of a hack, so credit where credit is due.
            Why does anyone with any clue /brains/ self respect buy any Apple product or microsoft product for that matter. After you dig through the gimmicks and buzzwords, filter out all the marketing gloss and ignore the fact stupid yuppies think its fashionable to have a crapple there is no good reason left to buy it.
            Is it the walled garden your all so desperate to join?
            Or do you as a hacker feel Apple deserves our support? WHY?
            Or mayby people are so blinded by the gloss and glamour of these new fashionable appendages they cannot think straight.

            Look, ill admit I could be wrong, I have not and will not touch an apple product so I lack the experiance. In-fact its been years since I even operated a windows machine. And I have NEVER looked back.

            These corprorate mosters you fan boys treat like gods are the same people trying make it illegal for us to pull apart our own gear, or prevent us from sharing files / music online. Its the same people who if they get ti there way, lock us out of root access on our machines. The very same corporate dogs whom lock up any and all technology they can in some inteletcual property vacuum preventing anyone with an acutall good idea from bringing it to competeion

            These poeple are the enemy of every self respecting hacker who walks this earth. If we dont stand up and point out who will? I tell you know things are changing and not for the good. Its up to people like us to educate the puplice against stupid mistakes like buying I-Anything or Nanolimp shit. The ONLY time we should see APPLE or microsoft crap on hackaday is if we can subvert the perverted little walled garden and install a real OS that doesnt track your every move and restrict what you can do on your hardware….

            Appologies for the rant, But that has been building up for a while now…..

          5. @luke

            There’s nothing wrong with a macbook if you need software that is OSX only.
            However to state “They can’t be beat when you take price, performance, battery life, and design all together.” leads me to believe you haven’t even bothered to look at other brands or machines at all. For instance off the top of my head… Lenovo y510, MSI GE40, Asus N56DP (yes it’s amd but it’s the a10, Sony Duo 13″, Sony pro series, etc…

            to break it down further the lenovo has 1080p, JBL speakers, backlit keyboard with 2 brightness settings, dual gt750 graphics cards in sli, quad core i7 4th gen, 8GB ram, 1TB hard drive and is $849 at lenovo’s web site right now.

            the MSI has 750Gb hard drive + 128Gb ssd, 1600×900 display, 4th gen i7 quad core, 8 Gb ram is only 14″ and slightly thicker than the retina 13 but not as thick as the regular 13, and has gtx 760 graphics on board and is $1299 everywhere

            the asus is an a10 which means decent graphics performance and adequate cpu performance, it has 1080p ips screen, bang and oulfsen speakers w/ subwoofer module, nice design and a solidly built aluminum case and a 1 year worldwide warranty with accidental damage coverage and 0 dead pixel policy.

            the sony duo beats the mac book pro retina in design and also in the screen department and makes the air look like a sick toy. the retina display has 8 bit per color channel precision the duo has 10. the duo has touchscreen no mac does, the duo has the same ssd size options as the retina line, the duo also has a digitizer and wacom stylus and is about as thin as the air only with the i7 or i5 4th gen cpu options.

          6. @M4CGYV3R
            Don’t diss OS X if you’re comparing it to Windows. Windows doesn’t compare to any recent Unix-like OS whatsoever. If you wanted to make the case that FreeBSD or such-and-such Linux distro win out, then we could have a reasonable argument.

            When Microsoft introduces Bash with a reasonably complete set of Unix CLI utilities (or at the very damn least, introduces something like Automator), and when Microsoft finally gets its multitouch gestures in order and sticks with that set for more than a couple of years, then we’ll talk. Otherwise, Windows is pretty useless if you care about productivity or power user features, especially with Windows 8. (Yes, I tried it, and no, I didn’t like it, not even with Start 8.)

            Even keystrokes on Windows suck — you can’t readily configure them like with X11, and they’re pretty weak compared to OS X’s out of the box. When you do the following characters in Windows, system-wide, without digging through the Character Map, Googling for Alt codes, or installing an extra utility to help you, then I might look at Windows a little more seriously: – — ¡ § ¶ • º ≠ ≈ ≤ ≥ ± ‘ ’ “ ” ß ƒ ∆ … µ and Ω.

            Actually, I take that back. When Microsoft makes uninstalling an app as simple as dragging it out of the Applications folder and into the Trash folder without a registry full of orphaned entries to bog things down, then we’ll talk. (Okay, if you want to be extra thorough, you’d have to do a search to find extra files related to a program in your Library folder; still quicker than digging through the Windows registry.)

            Now, for the sake of argument, let’s assume I don’t like OS X, that I actually want that crap heap called Windows. If I got a laptop with the same specs as my Macbook Air (I don’t mean in the same ballpark, I mean the same down to the webcam and the real-world battery life), the overwhelming odds are that it would cost more (not terribly much — say, $50 to $150 — but usually it ends up costing a tad more), its construction would be flimsier, and it wouldn’t be quite and light or compact.

            That’s not even touching on the little details. Little details like the roomy, slick, responsive trackpad (sorry, but Synaptics kinda sucks even now — the Broadcom chip Apple uses really ought to be the golden standard, as well as using satin glass) or the centered position of the trackpad with the lack of a number pad. For comparison, I had an Asus laptop some years ago, and it was generally okay, except for the fact that my right shoulder would get unusually sore after a long session because of the way the num pad ate up one side of the keyboard and shifted everything useful over to the left.

            Besides that, the aluminum unibody construction spoiled me, and the creakiness of plastic makes me a little sad now; Sony’s Vaio Z is just about the only laptop I can tolerate besides a Macbook now. Even Thinkpads, with their tough internal frames, don’t feel as sturdy anymore. So yeah, Apple does have design down pat.

            Maybe these don’t matter to you. Maybe you only care about numbers, without so much as a glance at real world user experience. I dunno, maybe you live in the command prompt, doing whatever people do with I Can’t Believe It’s Not DOS (TM). That’s cool, I guess. But it doesn’t make Macs bad.

            You make some fair points, but some proprietary software is needed for many jobs. LibreCAD and Inkscape won’t do the job for all of us — not yet at least. If you need a proprietary OS, you might as well go with the only good one. OS X isn’t like iOS; it’s not a “walled garden”, and although all the user-facing stuff is proprietary, there are many open source components Linux and BSD users would recognize immediately.

            Hardware-wise, Apple likewise beats out PCs. You’ll find ones that edge out Macs in some way or another, but you won’t find any that edges out a Mac in every regard. The laptops in particular last long, they’re light, and they’re plenty fast.

            And yes, Apple doesn’t design their computers to be very upgradeable. They trade that for sleeker industrial design and lighter weight. You could even argue pentalobe screws specifically push against upgradability. If that’s an important issue to you, and you have no other concerns, then maybe a Mac isn’t for you. But then again, good luck finding any particularly upgradable laptop.

          7. @tastec “Why does anyone with any clue /brains/ self respect buy any Apple product or microsoft product for that matter.”

            Seriously? I have a clue, brains, AND self-respect, but I need Windows to get my job done. Show me a EDA/CAD package that runs on Linux and isn’t complete buggy beta shit, that has a nice UI – a UI that actually facilitates project completion, not get in the way, and become a frustrating hindrance.

            OK, so let’s say KiCAD or gEDA sucks – let me run some ugly, ancient Mentor shit on a remote UNIX system so I can please all the “self-respecting” hackers out there. LOL, OK pal.

          8. @Luke:
            You realize that Windows has been POSIX compliant since, oh, 2000? If you need BASH for Windows, it’s right here: http://win-bash.sourceforge.net/ . There’s also CygWin. Why should Microsoft waste resources on stuff barely anyone ever uses?

            If your registry is bogging things down, then you really should be looking out for other things – or have you been believing all those stupid ads you see claiming to improve performance? Leaving uninstalled programs in there are irrelevant to speed and occupy stupidly little disk space (this 8 yr old computer that’s been in use for 8 years without reformatting is ~10MB), while giving you the opportunity to reinstall programs and not have to reconfigure everything to your liking. Also, from what I hear, there’s multiple ways of “installing” / running on your platform of choice, one of which you have to manually dismount a virtual drive after closing the application. So it’s not all fun and games, if you want to nitpick.

            I do love how you pick out one particular Asus product “several years ago” to proclaim Windows and everything else is “intolerable” (why did you pick a laptop that had a numpad?). Also, notice (https://www.google.ca/search?q=laptop with number pad) that the keys are the same size as those without number pads (and the trackpad being just below the space bar). I don’t understand how you managed to keep your left hand on the home row keys while contorting your right side … because you didn’t need to: the keys are the same size and the same position as regular keyboards, and your hands would have been the same distance between each other. LOL

            Also, a google for “typing special characters” returns a OS10.6 help document: “… by choosing Special Characters from your text application’s Edit menu.” So … this is any different than using character map or an on-screen keyboard? With Char map, you don’t have to rely on the application putting in that Special Characters menu option… cluttering up the UI with something most people never use. Style? What’s that?

            Here’s a start to all the companies that are using aluminum (because it’s cheap: pop cans use it all the time) https://www.google.ca/search?q=windows+aluminum+laptop

            I could also turn your argument “each one beats one aspect”. There’s also Windows laptops that edge out Windows laptops, but not in every way, because DUH. Want a 16″ screen while still being the same light weight as a 11″ screen? Have a good everything and still be cheap? HAHAHAHA, good one!

            It’s not so bad if you like certain features, but to go to your extreme of convincing yourself? LOL

          9. Sir, I’d love to prove you right: that “Apple can’t be beat when you take price, performance, battery life, and design altogether.” so I went to the best laptop manufacturer I know of: Falcon Northwest. Every laptop is hand checked and hand assembled with a custom paint job of your choosing. The selection is anything you want and the result of the result is magnificient, I assure you.

            Now, I selected the top option on everything at first. However, the total price ended up being about $1700 more, and the specs were so much greater than I had to downgrade a few options to put it back on parity with the Macbook Retina Pro. Specifically: I had to drop a second user-serviceable battery, drop from 32 GB of RAM to 16 GB, drop the (replaceable) SSD from 960GB to a full-size 480GB and a very 240GB (3cm x 5 cm), and dropped the graphics card from a GTX 780m to the GTX 770m as it appears the Macbook does not have one. Apple appears to ship a Core i7-3840QM @ 2.7GHz, while I had a Core i7 4930MX @ 3.00GHz selected. I had to drop it down to the i7 4800MQ @ 2.7GHz, which benchmarks similarly.

            After I had done all of this, the price was Falcon Northwest’s 3,735 to Apple’s 3877. It should be noted that out of all of those options, the only truly big changes were the CPU and GPU drop. Everything else only added $100 or so to the cost per option. It should also be noted that the full 780m kicks the everloving crap out of my new 560 Ti. The Falcon Northwest also comes with a bootable USB key, containing all the drivers and software that your laptop shipped with, providing a nice backup should everything go wrong for free. The closest thing Apple appears to offer is the ‘Time Capsule’, which adds another $400 to the price and Apple loses this competition at that price point. It also comes with a very nice backpack, in case you wanted to carry other gear with you, such as a mouse, keyboard, 2nd battery, or speakers.

            After all of this is said and done, I just can’t see the appeal. No graphics card, same price, or custom paint job. I guess if you still truly want MacOS, you could instead add $150 to the price tag and get the 960 GB SSD to dual boot. At that point, you could just dual boot both. Or, if Windows 8 pro isn’t your taste, you could drop it for Windows 7 pro for $50 saving. Personally, if I had such an overpowered rig, I would boot a branch of Debian and let my rig eat Wine’s inefficiencies.

          10. Ah, I forgot to mention: I was comparing Falcon’s 15-inch TLX(thin n’ light), which is the same size and form factor. They also offer a much, much more powerful 17-inch DRX (desktop replacement), which I’m sure has much better options and price/performance. They have the same warranty as Apple, as well.

          11. The troll @blue said: “from a computer architecture design point putting the GPU anywhere but literally on the motherboard is a compromise.”

            What a bunch of crap. A GPU on Thunderbolt, which is a PCIe bus, is no different than putting a GPU in a slot on a motherboard.

            @M4CGYV3R said ” Except price, performance, and design are all better on a PC laptop.”

            Total BULL. *PROVE* it. Name a model that proves your point.

            “Take the list of specs from whatever MBP or MBA you want to compare, build or find that spec(or better) in a PC on a site like NewEgg, and you will quickly realize you are paying twice what the computer is worth when you buy a Mac. ”

            Ok, do it. Pick a model and let’s compare. Claiming that it’s *twice* the price is a total *LIE*, making you a *LIAR*.

            “Don’t get a Mac from an unauthorized/discount/used reseller, either, or you’ll soon realize Apple Care doesn’t have any intention of helping you with repairs.”

            Another steaming load of crap! Apple is well known for excellent support, including servicing out of warranty machines at *NO CHARGE*. The machine I’m typing on at the moment was out of warranty when the video failed, and Apple replaced if for *FREE*, so save your lies.

            “My only logical conclusion was that the freakish Cult of Mac is made of people who like to waste money.”

            The only ‘freakish cult’ is that of the PC fanboy who loves cheap shit Chinese whitebox crap that fails from bad capacitors in a few months. Talk about wasting money. PC crap depreciates to nothing while Macs hold their value.

            “There’s also the small issue of having to use the clusterfuck that is Mac OSX, which I will never do again.”

            Clearly all your taste is in your mouth.

            ” Windows isn’t amazing,”

            Understatement of the century.

            > “but it’s better than that BSD-cloned Fischer Price: My First OS.”

            Seriously, you’re a tard. Better in what possible measure? It’s not a BSD clone, it’s fscking BSD! If *anything* looks Fischer Price, it’s the hideous themes that come the steaming pile known as Windows. Windows is in a death spiral. W7 and 8 are enormous memory hogs and it’s performance is abysmal. It’s still the same old leaky insecure POS it’s *ALWAYS* been. My W7 desktop at work used to *scream* running XP. Now it feels like a 386.

          12. @someone.asdf@mailinator.com

            Seriously? Simply calling yourself Anonymous is one thing, but using a Mailinator account? Hackaday doesn’t send spam.

            Anyway, you’re grasping at straws.

            Microsoft’s POSIX subsystem is only for servers, and it’s not the same as running an actual Unix-like system. It’s like putting a bandaid on an axe wound. You don’t even seem to know what POSIX is; from a user perspective, it doesn’t make much of a difference — it’s mostly relevant to developers, which I’m not.

            Second, porting Bash isn’t the same as being Unix-like, with Bash (or a similar shell, like Ksh or Zsh) out of the box. So what if I could install Cygwin and a Bash port? I’d still be dealing with Microsoft’s shitty file system, the OS isn’t going to treat everything as a file, and my ability to run shell scripts is still limited, and I sure as hell can’t have scripts be triggered when specific system events happen. (Say, my camera’s SD card is mounted, so a script would run ImageMagick to convert my ARWs to JPEGs, package said JPEGs into a ZIP archive, then email that archive to my coworkers with “Raw Shots ” as the subject).

            Unmounting an image on OS X is comparable to dropping a file in the trash off the desktop. Same exact user action as ejecting a disk. You take the image, and drop it in the trash, done. So yeah, it’s easy as it gets. Even apps installed with an installer can still be removed by hand very quickly if you have a look at its .BOM file. You don’t have a million files snaking their way through your whole OS, leaving bothersome little traces that pop up when you go to search for something (which is another area where Windows falls woefully short compared to alternatives).

            Tell you what: try mounting a disk image in Windows without a 3rd party app, then we’ll talk. If you can’t even do that, you can hardly criticize alternatives for permitting it. And that’s not even getting into the annoying way Windows forces you to open up My Computer to get at drives, like a shortcut to your mounted disks couldn’t just appear on the desktop like any civilized OS. What’s the point of having a GUI if it’s only going to get in your way?

            Special characters can be done with a keystroke, simply by holding Option down, like the Shift key. In fact, Shift and Option together give an even broader set of characters, and as of Lion, simply holding down a key for a letter for which Unicode accents exist gives you a small popup that lets to select the accented character. Try typing résumé without resorting to [Alt] [1] [3] [0] on Windows. Simply pointing out that special characters can be selected by some contrived and convoluted means doesn’t negate the convenience factor. (Now, Linux distros typically don’t have that out of the box, sadly, but as I said, X can easily be configured to more or less do what Macs have always allowed, since before OS X. Microsoft really has no excuse here.)

            Speaking of hardware, I sit squarely in front of the screen both hands over the home row, with thumbs hovering over the trackpad. Shove in a num pad, and everything is skewed. Not a huge issue, but for a long session doing CAD, it does start to hurt after a while. Small changes make big differences, over a long enough time scale.

            As for why I had that laptop, it had all the features I needed for my job at the time, and it was all I could afford. The num pad was a dick move on ASUS’s part. (Incidentally, the time I’m referring to was back when Apple used PowerPC processors, just before the Intel transition, and Rhino at the time was Windows-only. I needed Rhino, so I had to put up with Windows.)

            As for use of aluminum, that’s not the same as milling it out of a single block of aluminum. Apple has used metal since the Powerbook G4. The metal alone means nothing — the construction plays a huge role. Like I said, even Thinkpads feel a bit creaky, and they have a tough magnesium frame.

            And I won’t even entertain your straw man quip about 16″ screens.

          13. @rakyth
            I appreciate the comparison, written in a level-headed comment.

            A couple of counterpoints:

            First, yes I really do like Mac OS X. It’s a huge selling point. I wouldn’t mind a Linux laptop, but at the very least, some Linux-specific keys would be nice, instead of a Windows key.

            Second, the TLX is still chunkier than a Macbook Pro with Retina display, doesn’t have the same resolution (and I’m not even sure if it’s an IPS panel), and the trackpad is rather poor.

            I haven’t seen one around in a while, like a year or two, but the last I’ve come across one, the keyboard wasn’t anything special either, and the construction was all-plastic. The screen isn’t glass, and the body is par with any other. Maybe they’ve improved in that regard?

            Just about all it has going for it, design-wise, is a paint job, but I could get that with Colorware if I was so inclined.

            The part of the price Apple charges is something of a design tax. Look at it this way: why get a Dyson Air Multiplier when you can get a fan from Target for $15 that can move just as much air? Well, Dyson is durable as far as mass market products go, they’re pleasing to look at, and they’re a joy to use. A fan with a smooth stream of air and no exposed blades to get caught in something might be worth the extra price for a lot of people.

      2. FTFA: “TLDR: By buying around $250 in commonly available parts, plus a video card, you can make the graphics of your 11″ Macbook Air from 5X to 7X faster.” The only problem with that is that by buying around $250 in commonly available parts, plus a video card, you can build an entire PC with that video card in it. If your goal is to play games or something, you’ll get more compatibility, too. If you could buy a single $100 device that would let you plug in a fancy video card, THAT would be a worthy value proposition. Still a cool hack though.

    1. No shit, really? It’s almost as if they literally wrote the following in the article:

      “The current Thunderbolt spec is equivalent to a PCI-E 4X slot, a quarter of what is needed to get all the horsepower out of high-end GPUs.”

      I know, I know, reading is so HARD, isn’t it?

    2. 4x is actually not that much of a hindrance, either – even running a GPU at PCIE-1x only causes a handicap of about 50%. At 4x, it’s maybe 10%, worst case. 90% (or even 50%) of a GTX675 is a lot more performance than a HD 4000.

  1. I wonder how much latency it would add with all those conversions taking place opengl -> thunderbolt -> converter -> card and then it looks like it sends the results back up to be displayed on the lcd rather that directly? I know alot of that can happen really fast but is it noticeable?

    1. yea im guessing it is a little slower (both bandwidth and latency) wise because of that.
      Probably not noticeable on borderlands 2, though. That game can run full on a 460, and its slow enough to not notice small input lag.
      Definately not up to par with a direct to 120hz monitor, though.

    2. It shouldn’t be noticeable. Thunderbolt is a transport for PCIe, and Expresscard is PCIe and USB side by side. So logically the path looks like CPU->chipset->Thunderbolt PHY->Thunderbolt PHY->Thunderbolt to PCIe bridge->GPU.

      The loss here is in dropping to a single PCIe gen2 link. Of course, when there are no other options…

  2. Hooray!

    –okay first, that is a really impressive achievement. One that is to be admired. back to internet tough guy snark mode (ITGSM). Standards must be kept!–

    Great you have a decent desktop for the price of a luxury laptop and less portability than either!

    Setting it up for easy use would make a nice, stationary gaming rig while mitigating much of the cost and keep the portability. It would make a good product to kickstart.

  3. Intel restrictions?
    But there are direct thunderbolt to pcie adapters with psu included. You can buy them from sonnettech, okay they are ridiculously expensive, but you can buy them…

  4. So by running Windows, and purchasing almost enough additional hardware to pay for a separate gaming PC, you can run games with reduced performance on an already overpriced MacBook.

    Apple people are weird.

    1. I’m 3 for 3 on having friends who are Apple fans for no intelligible reason that didn’t know:

      -What INTEL PROCESSOR their computer has (it’s most important specification).

      -What RESOLUTION their displays had (something you shouldn’t be able to avoid knowing if you play VIDEO GAMES on a COMPUTER).

      I’m at “why even bother” anymore. Props to those guys goofing these idiots off with their planned-obsolete designs.

      1. I totally agree with you. For the price of a macbook air I can buy e3-1220 server from ibm. But again, for the same price, I can build more suitable system for me(and most of the people) than ibm server; and it still be an over kill.
        In terms of hardware, I like apple’s fancy aluminum body and nice lcd display, but since they switched from powerpc to intel, there is no point of buying mac stuff unless they are cheap or someone is buying one for you.

  5. Ok this is cool and all. I get the reason for hacking this together (you don’t have to give me the “why not” speech. But two things. Borderlands 2 runs great on just about anything. Thing two, as soon as I realized that I was going to spend more cash than it would take to build a semi decent gaming rig and get performance that equaled something around 5 years ago it would have just done the latter. Also as a side note I would make a little shelf under, and to the back of my desk for all the stuff and just have the TB cable coming out. Again very cool hack!

  6. AFAIK some of the lastest Nvidia GPU’s supports truncating the traffic on the pci express line in order to avoid bottlenecking, but in turn wasting a few cpu and gpu cycles.
    So it really isn’t THAT much bottlenecked

  7. The silverstone enclosure seems like a much better (especially cleaner) way to do this. If I have the money, I will definitely get a setup like this. For me, I generally don’t game OTG, so I need extreme portability and battery life, but I will also like nice gaming quality when I am home (without having to custom build a dedicated gaming desktop). All in all, I personally see great potential in this. I hope GPU manufactures start embracing this idea and develop elegantly packaged products to specifically target this untapped market.

  8. I could have sworn there are Thunderbolt GPU enclosures out there.

    Wouldn’t using ExpressCard add some overheard? I mean, hey, it’s all PCIe in the end, so I don’t expect the performance hit to be huge, but I would expect it to be both measurable and practically significant.

  9. eGPU is not just for macbooks. I used an ExpressCard to PCI-E adapter to upgrade my Lenovo X220T with a Nvidia 660TI.

    I didn’t need to mess with any settings. All I had to do was install the Nvidia drivers. The system recognized and used the graphics card automatically. Optimus drivers give you a boost by compressing over the PCI-E link as well as routing to the internal display. Other than the need for an external power supply it was basically plug and play.

    I have had this setup for about a year now, and it still out performs any gaming laptop out there I have seen (3dmark 2011 score 5640). If I want to upgrade the graphics card later I don’t need a whole new system.

    I wouldn’t carry the system everywhere with me, but it is still very portable. I have found I don’t really game on the go anyhow.

    1. Most of the TB->PCI-E products are aimed at users who need to run kona, 10GbE, fiber channel, Audio DSP, transcoding, hardware raid or whatever. It will continue to be expensive unless PC manufacturers start pushing it out on their laptops. . .The price would probably drop from 800-1000$ down to a few hundred (at most)

  10. With any luck, Thunderbolt to PCIe external enclosures will hit the market after the new Mac Pro is released. The software side will still need improvement, but it would eliminate the kludgey combination of adapters and ATX power supply used here. (Don’t get me wrong, it’s amazing that external buses have reached this point. It’s just an inelegant, fiddly solution right now, especially considering the new Pro’s target audience and lack of internal expansion.)

  11. That’s pretty awesome, clunky, but awesome. I concur with the above sentiment that about turning your laptop into a decent gaming rig. I mean I use my Windows laptop to play games, but my 512mb graphics card pumps out a ton of heat and it’s nowhere near top of the line. Gaming with laptops generally has some significant drawbacks. Seems like it would really be in line with the transition to using laptops and portable systems for most things. I’d bet that a significantly streamlined version of this hack would sell pretty well to some LAN party gamers. Especially if you could do the same with a Windows machine.

  12. I recall finding a whole community of folks who were experimenting with using their express card and mini pci-e ports on laptops to add on discrete graphics to laptops. There was a company selling a board+cable set that allowed you to merge separate pci-e 1x lanes into a 2x or even 4x lane for such a purpose. For the life of me, my google-fu is failing me today and I can’t find it. Anyway, they did some pretty extensive performance testing with various flavors of video cards on 1x and 4x connections and the like. In answer to all the whining about how you can’t game with a graphics board in a 4x lane. . .their performance tests showed that it worked tolerably well. You are not going to stuff an nvidia titan into such a rig and expect it to max out; but you can drop a mid end graphics board onto your laptop and have a pretty damn good experience at 720/1080 resolutions. Yeah. It will run Crysis.

  13. People have been doing this awhile with adapters from hwtools and expanding either internal mPCIe or expressport. Look up “DIY ViDock” and check out the forum posts on notebookreview. You get really good performance doing this, the only caveat is you need an external monitor… speed using the internal monitor is drastically cut.

  14. To all of people saying apple is too expensive compared to other laptop manufacturers*:

    I want a new laptop with intel HD 5000 integrated gpu.
    Basically it means intel i7-4350, i7-4550, i7-4650 (Macbook Air 2013), i5-4250 (Macbook Air 2013),.

    Any laptop has this cpu other then Macbook Air? No.

    My current laptop is 6 years old. I’m using it with the 8. battery (the batteries has been cost almost twice as much as the laptop initially).
    I’m not the guy who rushes to buy new laptops.

    Here are all of my criterias:
    – fully intel based (kinda required for seamless linux support), so no radeon or nvidia
    – 15″
    – matte display (I have glossy one and I hate it, I had 6 other matte displays in past)
    – under 2kg
    – big touchpad (like what a macbook has)
    – limited 3D for cad purpose. (Nothing fancy: freecad, openscad, blender, solidedge 2010)
    – at least 128GB disk
    Possible candidates:
    – Macbook Air 13″ 2013 (misses the 15″ point)
    – Samsung NP900X4C (lacks the 3D performance, HD4000; also locally unavailable under 3200$ usd with strange layouts (de, sp, it))
    – Google Chromepixel (misses the 15″ point, and also the 128GB point)

    So when the price is not important, then Apple products are not that bad.
    I’m saying this as a person who never owned an Apple product.
    I do respect Apple products, because they have considered all those tiny details
    which makes the product really usable.
    (also I always hated the software restriction side and lack of linux support, and the lack of del,home,pgup,pgdn,end buttons and the undersized arrows. How one supposed to do any serious programming without those buttons? )

    Seriously guys, if you ignore the pricepoint (or you look at your laptop as a working device), then all apple products are well thought out, if you are fine with the walled garden side of things.


    *: jeff8j, blue, M4CGYV3R, tastech, wetwareinterface, someone.asdf, rakyth, noob, blujay42, and I probably missed someone:)

    1. I didn’t say if Apple was too expensive or not; my conclusion was that, at the price point, you can get better performance from other manufacturers. In fact, in my comparison for the same performance, my chosen manufacturer only came out *slightly* ahead. If you’d like to compare the actual screen, then the only comparison should be made to Samsung…since they’re the ones who manufacture them.

      1. My point is, if you take everything into account, and see the laptop as a package (see my criterias above), then there are no alternative at all (at any price level).

        Let’s say someone wants a Haswell based laptop (nothing else is important), then at the moment only Macbook Air 2013 has it.

        So there are priorities (purely hardware based), which may be fulfilled by apple product only.

        Just an another example: There are very few laptops on the market which are under 2kg, and provide adecate performance. The macbook pro is under 2kg. I can’t name a *single* other laptop which has the same performance, and are under 2kg.

  15. usb3 would be plenty fast (assumin the codin’ is done right) t’ run say a radeon 5450/6450, which’d give ya decent 3d acceleration fer hd movies, older games like Halo 2, ‘er n64 emulation, but yer never gonna get the kinda’ power needed fer anythin’ modern without a real pcie port, ‘er one a’ the new APU chips.

    Incidently on the subject a’ adapter cards, Ah’d love t’ see a usb adapter fer ISA cards, cause I got a $100.00 hardware modem sittin on the shelf Ah caint use cause they don’ make AM# ‘er FM2 motherboards with ISA ports, an’ Ah’m stuck on dialup out here’n the middle a’ nowhere. when Ah had it goin on a AthlonXP machine the ISA modem’d connect at 52kbps, but bes’ Ah kin get with mah new pci winmodem is 32100bps, not even 56k.

  16. US $3028.10 + tax and shipping
    ~3.5 weeks build time as configured
    Falcon Northwest
    TLX Exotix Single
    Color (Lid)
    15.6″ Matte LCD Panel 1920×1080
    Pixel Guarantee
    Perfect Pixel Guarantee
    Laptop Keyboard
    Illuminated Keyboard
    Intel® Core™ i7 4800MQ 2.70GHz
    SD 1333MHz 4x4GB (16GB)
    Video Card
    NVIDIA® GeForce® GTX 770M 3GB
    802.11 B/G/N & Bluetooth
    Hard Drive
    Crucial® M500 SSD 480GB
    Optical Drive
    8x DVD Writer
    Operating System
    Microsoft® Windows 8 Standard
    1x LithiumIon
    Power Supply
    1x AC Adapter
    Carrying Case
    Falcon Northwest Backpack
    USB Rescue Drive
    USB Rescue Drive
    TLX 1
    Year & Falcon Overnight
    ~7.1 pounds
    14.7″ (W) x 10″ (D) x 1.7″ (H)
    Shipping Options
    UPS Ground : $52.48
    UPS 2Day
    : $136.40
    UPS Overnight : $211.20
    USPS (APO Only) : $200.00
    UPS 3 DAY : $80.00
    US $2878+tax and free shipping
    Available to ship within 24 hrs as configured
    Aluminum Unibody
    15.4″ Retinal Display LCD Panel 2880×1800
    Laptop Keyboard
    Illuminated Keyboard
    Intel® Core™ i7 2.70GHz
    SD 1333MHz 4x4GB (16GB)
    Video Card
    Intel HD Graphics 4000
    NVIDIA® GeForce® GT 650M with 1GB of GDDR5 memory and automatic graphics switching
    Dual display and video mirroring: Simultaneously supports full native resolution on the built-in display and up to 2560 by 1600 pixels on up to two external displays, at millions of colors
    802.11 A/B/G/N & Bluetooth
    Hard Drive
    512 GB onboard
    Optical Drive
    Apple USB Superdrive 8x DVD Writer
    Operating System
    Mac OSX
    Built-in 95-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery
    Power Supply
    1x AC Adapter
    1 Year
    ~4.46 pounds
    14.13″ (W) x 9.73″ (D) x 0.71″ (H)
    Shipping Options
    Falcon Northwest pros
    custom paint, usb restore, backpack, built in optical, ram and hdd upgradeable
    and cons
    ~1 inch thicker and ~2.5 pounds heavier, 3.5 weeks build + ups ground shipping (cheapest shipping option) ads up to another week, $200 more (with cheapest shipping option)

    Apple Pros
    thiner, lighter, higher screen resolution (work on full hd video in a window on your screen with ample room on screen for tools) cheaper by $200
    not upgreadeable,( but really who upgrades a laptop these days) VC not as good as the Falcons

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