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Reviewed: Alienware's Amplifier turbo-boosts a laptop with Titan X graphics

Gordon Mah Ung | April 29, 2015
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.

Alienware officials told me the issue was with how the Titan X was being identified by the current public drivers in the Amplifier. The fix was to use a tweaked driver directly from Alienware. The company said it expects to have that ironed out quickly and, in general, drivers will come directly form AMD or Nvidia. The only time you might have to get tweaked drivers directly from Alienware is after a new graphics chip launch.

I wasn't alone in my troubles. No product is launched without problems, but given the volume of complaints from early customers you'd get the impression this was a public beta test. Most of the issues trace back to drivers. The good news is, the beta test appears to be over — my GeForce GTX 980's setup was exactly as expected.

Bandwidth concerns

The cable itself carries data at x4 PCIe Gen 3 data rates. That's about 4GB/s. For comparison, a standard GPU connection on a desktop is a full x16 Gen 3 connection, which carries about 16GB/s. That's led to concerns over the bandwidth capability of the Amplifier and how much actual performance you give up by throttling the GPU. Alienware's competitor, MSI, has touted its GS30 Shadow's ability to give your GPU the full x16 connection in its graphics enclosure.

Alienware, however, feels 4GB/s is plenty. For the record, Thunderbolt 2 is about 2.5GB/s. There's some testing to support that "whatevs" approach. Puget Systems found no appreciable difference between x16 and x8 and between Gen 2 and Gen 3. Puget didn't throttle it down to x4 Gen 3, but it did test x8 Gen 2, which is the same data rate. Likewise, Techpowerup.com tests also found no appreciable impact.

Performance

For my performance comparison I used a new $1,500 laptop from Alienware: the Alienware 15 with dual-core Core i5-4210H, 16GB of DDR3L/1600, 128GB M.2 SSD, 1TB hard drive and a GeForce GTX 970m for graphics. I ran my tests with the internal graphics card as well as with a GeForce GTX 980 and a GeForce Titan X installed. These scores are actually the pure GPU scores rather than the overall 3DMark score. While this laptop is a pretty good deal at $1,500 with its GeForce GTX 970m, I fear its dual-core CPU could be a bottleneck in some gaming loads.

To see how the Amplifier could impact a real-world game, I also ran Tomb Raider on Ultimate quality, using an external 4K monitor. As you can see, we go from unplayable frame rates to a very playable 47 fps using the Amplifier and the Titan X. 

Conclusion

There are a couple of key takeaways from the Amplifier. The first is that despite its early teething issues, the problems appear to be mostly over. The second: This thing is freaking awesome.*

 

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