Alienware's Graphics Amplifier has been described as the Holy Grail of mobile gaming. I think that's going too far. The Holy Grail of laptop gaming would be the ability to upgrade your laptop graphics like a desktop, using off-the-shelf parts.
Instead, the Amplifier is the next best thing: a way to "upgrade" graphics on a gaming laptop, but using an external cabinet holding a standard graphics card and connected by cable.
That really makes the Amplifier more of the Ark of the Covenant of mobile gaming: a whole lot of gaming awesomeness, but without the Nazis melting at the end.
What it is and how you use it
In essence the $300 Amplifier is an external graphics box, connected by a proprietary six-foot PCIe cable to your laptop.
Getting the Amplifier up and running physically was a snap for me. You open up the Amplifier (although ours had a nasty snag problem, which Alienware says it has since corrected) and drop your GPU in to the single full-length PCIe slot.The Amplifier has two 8-pin/6-pin combo plugs for power. With 460 watts, it's enough juice to run any card you can physically fit. Alienware includes four USB 3.0 ports in back, so you can leave a mouse and keyboard plugged in, and it's wired so it kicks on when the laptop is turned on. This basically turns the Amplifier into a big docking station. Just come home, plug in and boot up with the Amplifier under your desk.
When the Amplifier is installed, the discrete GPU in the laptop disappears and the one in the Amplifier takes over. When the Amplifier is disconnected, the internal discrete GPU takes over.
Note that switching GPUs requires a reboot, and it takes a few moments to reinitialize the internal GPU or the Amplifier graphics on power-up. Unplugging the Amplifier when the system is powered up will force Windows to shut down. Don't grumble too much: That's better than BSODs and a hard lock — you are, after all, pulling out your GPU while it's on.
You should also know that while the laptop is installed, there is no sleep mode. It's either on or off.
One more thing to clarify: The Amplifier can be used with the laptop's internal monitor or an external one. You can also run your monitor to the laptop or directly to the GPU. Oddly, I experienced a small performance hit from running monitors off the Amplifier directly, though Alienware said I should experience the opposite.
Problems, we've had a few
The problem I initially had was with setting up the drivers. The first card I reached for was the mighty GeForce Titan X. With it installed, the first test I ran would only use the laptop's integrated graphic's card. After a few different attempts to fix it, I gave up and grabbed a GeForce GTX 980. It worked just fine. Using drivers directly from Nvidia's site, the Amplifier was up and running in minutes.
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