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Goodbye Achilles Heel: External Laptop Graphics


The laptop form factor is super popular, these days to most mainstream users a personal computer is a laptop. As computers work their way ever more into our lifestyles it makes sense that the desk-bound computer form factor becomes less of a mainstream device. Which is great if your computing needs include watching YouTube, writing a few essays and playing some Farmville. When you start to do serious graphical tasks such as CAD, CAM and CG or want to play the latest AAA the way it was meant to be you better get ready to empty your wallet.

Nothing blow up the price tag for a mobile computer like a high-end mobile GPU, not to mention the hilarious effect it has on battery life or thermal design. Finally, one of the most galling issues when it comes to laptops with graphics muscle is upgrading. We’ve reached a point where, even for high-end users, it’s no longer necessary to upgrade CPUs frequently, but GPUs are another story altogether. We’re still seeing substantial improvements in each generation of GPUs and, most importantly, there are software applications just waiting to suck up any extra GPU power new cards bring.

On a desktop machine this is no issue, just buy a new card, whip out the old one and replace it. In a laptop’s case you have to replace the whole thing, even if the CPU, RAM and storage are all still perfectly fine.

Well this might be the year all of that starts changing. Both MSI and Alienware have demoed external docking stations that connect using PCIe and contain a full desktop graphics card. Dock a compatible laptop onto it and you turn your mobile, midrange productivity laptop into a full-on gaming computer or graphics workstation.

MSI’s “Dock Station “solution uses a proprietary connector, so it has to be paired with a compatible MSI laptop. It provides the full 16 lanes for the GPU as well as four USB 3 ports and a 3.5 inch hard drive bay. The dock can house most single-GPU cards, including new ones such as the GTX 980. At $2000 (paired with the GS30 Shadow, the only compatible laptop at present) this docking station isn’t cheap. But the first time you upgrade just the graphics card instead of buying a whole new laptop, or buy a new laptop that doesn’t cost an arm or a leg because you have a GPU docking station to pair it with, it will pay for itself.

Alienware’s “Graphics Amplifier” is $300 device that only provides 4 lanes of bandwidth and none of the other extras like drive bays, but is just as promising.

We’ve had attempts at external laptop graphics before and if you know which Far East websites to peruse you can actually by far less elegant (or reliable) solutions right now for your own laptop. The difference here is that it finally looks like polished, reliable external graphics solutions are coming to market and it could not have happened soon enough.