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How to transform your laptop into a gaming powerhouse with an external graphics card

Ian Paul | Sept. 21, 2015
With a little bit of research and elbow grease, an external graphics setup can transform your laptop into a gaming powerhouse for a fraction of the price of a whole new gaming PC.

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Credit: Ian Paul

I haven’t been much of a gamer in recent years, but I’ve always liked the idea of being one. That feeling intensified when I got my first glimpse of the upcoming Star Wars Battlefront. Then when I saw the Fallout 4 trailer, I knew I had to start gaming again.

But I quickly stumbled across a major problem: The only PC I have is a 2011 ThinkPad X220 with Intel HD 3000 integrated graphics. That just wasn’t going to cut it for proper PC gaming.

Sure, I could make it work for titles like Diablo III with only small moments of stuttering on my laptop’s 12.5-inch, 1366x728-resolution display, but forget about more graphics-intensive games on an external 1080p display.

That’s when it hit me: “Hey, you can have an external hard drive, why not an external graphics card? Surely somebody’s done that.”

Many people have. There are even a few companies building their own external graphics card (eGPU) enclosures such as Alienware, MSI, and ViDock. But these eGPU kits tend to be overpriced or use proprietary connection technology.

That’s why the bulk of the eGPU gaming world is all about DIY set-ups.

The good news is that many people who go the DIY route end up with a plug-and-play experience requiring little to no modification—but to get to the plug-and-play part, you’ve got to do your research.

When that’s done, however, you’ll be left with a killer console-toppling PC gaming setup—all for a cheaper price than a new Xbox One, depending on which graphics card you choose.

The eGPU glossary

Before we get started, I want to introduce a few terms. Without a basic vocabulary the world of eGPU can get confusing, fast. There’s not much to see here for veteran gamers—you can skip to the next section.

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PCIe slots in a standard PC motherboard. Credit: Thomas Ryan

PCIe x16: PCI Express (PCIe) is the motherboard slot that a standard graphics card fits into. The “x16” part means the PCIe slot has 16 lanes that data can travel through. With an eGPU set-up we typically compress an x16 slot down to an x1 (1 lane) or x2 (2 lanes) connection to the laptop. That sounds like a raw deal, but it works surprisingly well. PCIe slots come in three generations: 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0. PCIe 4.0 is also in the works but isn’t expected until 2017. Most new graphics cards will run on PCIe 3.0, which is backward-compatible with version 2.0.

 

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