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How to Use an External Video Card with a Laptop



My desire to run a laptop with an external video card began in 2015, when I started looking for PC games – a popular pastime that I had neglected since my childhood.

But the only PC I had a Lenovo ThinkPad X220 from 2011 with Intel HD 3000 graphics card. That just would not do it for a real PC game. Certainly, the laptop alone is good enough for older titles like Diablo III especially on the laptop's tiny display with a resolution of 1366 x 728, but more graphics-intensive modern games on an external 1080p monitor. Therefore, I decided to investigate external video card setups (eGPU).

And indeed, I found whole communities of people creating DIY setups that connected desktop graphics cards to their laptops via ExpressCard or MPPCIe slots to play games on an external monitor. It is not difficult to configure, and the use of desktop graphics cards with a laptop has become even easier lately. The wide availability of Thunderbolt 3 in combination with external video card docks has further simplified the process for users of a modern notebook.

Many DIY enthusiasts who use Thunderbolt 3, ExpressCard, or mPCIe get a plug-and-plug experience that requires little to no modification-although some research is required. When this is done, however, you will be charged with a PC gaming setup with console top-up at about the same price as a new Xbox One S, depending on which graphics card you choose. This is much cheaper than building a completely new gaming desktop, and you can still use the portability of your laptop by disconnecting the eGPU hardware.

We'll walk you through the DIY process to configure an external graphics card later in this article. along with the sudden increase in streaming PC games from the cloud. First, the modern approach of using a graphics card dock via Thunderbolt 3 is addressed.

Thunderbolt 3 graphics docks

  Razor core Adam Patrick Murray / IDG

A Razer core connected to a Razer Blade stealth laptop over Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C.

Thunderbolt 3 (TB3) is Intel's high-speed external input / output connection, capable of up to 40 gigabytes per second (GBps) through a compatible USB-C connector. In resource-intensive activities like games, a quick connection between your laptop and an external graphics card is a big performance boost.

Earlier attempts at external video adapters were there, but they were over-priced using proprietary connectivity technologies. Thunderbolt 3 has the same requirements, and several companies now offer TB3-based graphics card docks with dedicated power supplies, additional ports, and of course space for desktop graphics card slots.

Everything in the world is not perfect from Thunderbolt 3 graphics cards though. Housings are usually still an expensive offer – much more than the DIY method, which we outline later. You also need a relatively new notebook that comes with a Thunderbolt 3-compatible USB-C port. Today, most Thunderbolt 3 laptops and graphics card enclosures work well together with Intel's Thunderbolt 3 external graphics compatibility technology, which the PC maker must explicitly enable.


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