External graphics processing units -- or eGPUs -- have been around for many years. In fact, the first version of the Asus XG Station was released back in 2007, as a way of enhancing graphics performance on its range of gaming laptops.
The advantage of an eGPU is that it allows you to boost the graphics performance of a laptop or desktop PC that might not provide a more conventional upgrade path. That's increasingly the case with slimline ultraportables that barely have room for a few USB ports, let alone a high-end graphics card and cooling fan. Using an external GPU also means that you can still use your lightweight laptop on the road, and then simply fire up the eGPU to provide desktop levels of performance when you're back in the office.
The increasing popularity of non-upgradeable all-in-one desktop systems, such as Apple's iMac, also means that there are plenty of creative and professional users who need to upgrade their office computers for the current generation of graphics, video and VR software. And, of course, gaming is a key market for eGPUs, as 3D games and VR titles require ever-greater levels of graphics horsepower.
In the past, though, most eGPUs were proprietary devices, typically designed as a dock for use with laptop PCs from a particular manufacturer, such as Asus or Sony. However, the arrival -- and recent growing popularity -- of Thunderbolt 3 means that there's now an industry-standard interface that can provide sufficient bandwidth to cope with the vast amount of data processed by the latest GPUs. As a result, there is now a wide range of eGPU enclosures on sale, mostly using Thunderbolt 3 interfaces, and designed to tackle everything from gaming, professional video-editing and VR development, right up to super-computer-level scientific simulations.
External GPU enclosures aren't cheap, especially as you generally have to buy the actual graphics card separately, but they are still a more affordable option than simply buying a brand new PC or Mac. They have other advantages too, as they can be shared by multiple users in an office, and can also provide a variety of additional features for laptops that may have limited connectivity, such as a USB hub, Ethernet interface, and even spare drive bays for extra storage.
Akitio's range of Thunderbolt accessories includes a number of expansion docks and enclosures, but the Node is the main model that focuses on the use of an external GPU. It doesn't have the eye-catching design of its gaming-oriented rivals, but that's because the Node is primarily aimed at professional users such as video editors, designers, or businesses that want to start exploring VR applications.
Like most of its rivals, the Node connects to a host PC via a Thunderbolt 3 interface. The enclosure houses one PCIe (x16) slot and a 400W power supply, and is large enough to support full-length, double-width graphics cards, so you have plenty of choice when selecting a suitable GPU. And although Apple doesn't currently support third-party eGPUs other than the Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Box, Akitio has conducted 'preliminary testing' with macOS High Sierra and reports good results when using AMD graphics cards.
£318 (inc. VAT; £265 ex. VAT, or $270)
A recent price cut to just £150 makes the Alienware Graphics Amplifier one of the most affordable eGPU enclosures currently available. The bad news is that it uses a proprietary PCI interface that's only available on Alienware gaming laptops and some Alpha and X51 desktop systems.
Like most Alienware products, the Graphics Amplifier is built like a tank, and at 175mm high, 158mm wide and 456mm deep it's fully as large as many desktop tower systems. Its PCIe (16x) slot and 460W power supply will support most full-length, double-width graphics cards, and the Alienware PCI interface also allows you to connect your host PC to the handy four-port USB 3.0 hub that's built into the Graphics Amplifier. That proprietary approach obviously limits the appeal of this device, but along with one of Alienware's desktop PCs, it could be an affordable entry-level option for businesses that want to start exploring VR applications and development.
£150 (inc. VAT; £125 ex. VAT, or $175)
Asus launched its first eGPU back in 2007, using an ExpressCard slot to connect the device to a host PC. The current XG Station 2 opts for the newer Thunderbolt 3, and while it's primarily aimed at owners of the company's range of gaming laptops, it is also compatible with a wider range of Thunderbolt-equipped PCs, and could easily be used to enhance performance on a lightweight business laptop.
The XG Station 2 is one of the biggest eGPU enclosures currently on sale, and houses one PCIe (x16) slot, and a hefty 600W power supply that's capable of powering even high-end GPUs suitable for gaming, or professional graphics applications such as video-editing or VR development. The size of the unit also allows it to provide additional features, such as an Ethernet interface and four USB 3.0 ports, which could be useful for business laptops with limited connectivity.
£480 (inc. VAT; £400 ex. VAT, or $550)
Boasting 'unlimited GPU acceleration', the Cubix Xpander Desktop Elite is very much aimed at professional graphics work, such as video editing and photo-realistic 3D rendering for CAD and VR applications.
Rather than housing a single GPU, the bulky enclosure of the Xpander provides no less than four PCIe (16x) expansion slots, with a 1200W or 1500W power supply, and its own internal cooling system. As well as the standard AMD and Nvidia graphics cards, the Xpander is also compatible with Intel's 'supercomputer' Xeon Phi processors, making it suitable for high-end scientific applications too.
But that sort of power isn't designed for laptops. The Xpander eschews the Thunderbolt interface used in more conventional eGPU enclosures, and relies on a dedicated PCI interface card that needs to be installed in the host PC. That means that it requires a desktop PC with an available expansion slot -- although, of course, those are far more common than PCs with Thunderbolt. In fact,
Cubix also states that the Xpander is compatible with old Mac Pro tower systems going back to 2008.
from £3, 577 (inc. VAT; £2,980 ex. VAT or $3,392)
Most eGPU enclosures are sold 'unpopulated', as empty boxes that allow you to install your own choice of graphics card. However, Gigabyte's Gaming Box is a rare exception, as it includes a pre-installed Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070 graphics card with 8GB of VRAM. That card typically sells for around £400 on its own -- which means that the Gaming Box itself is actually costing a little under £200 -- and provides two DVI ports, one HDMI port and one DisplayPort interface for external monitors.
As the name suggests, the Gaming Box is very much aimed at the gaming audience, but its use of a standard Thunderbolt 3 interface for connecting to the host PC means that it can be used with a wider range of laptop and desktop systems. It's more compact and portable than most of its rivals too, so it could easily be shared by multiple users in an office, and also includes a four-port USB 3.0 hub for connecting peripherals.
£587 (inc. VAT; £489.17 ex .VAT, or $555)
Although the Accelerator Shell carries the name of HP's Omen range of gaming PCs, the company's background in business computing means that it's well aware of the potential for using an external GPU with a business laptop or desktop PC.
Needless to say, HP recommends using the Accelerator Shell with its own laptops, but its Thunderbolt 3 interface should work with any compatible PC system. And, along with a PCIe (16x) slot and a 500W power supply for a graphics card, the Accelerator Shell includes a number of additional features that, in effect, allow it to act as a versatile docking station for an office laptop. There's a four-port USB 3.0 hub for connecting peripherals, and an Ethernet interface for wired networks. There's even room inside the bulky enclosure for a 2.5-inch drive bay so that you can add some extra storage to your laptop when it's back in the office.
£299 (inc. VAT; £249.17 ex. VAT, or $300)
The Mantiz Venus has been well received since its launch this summer, although the company doesn't have an official UK distributor at the moment. It does ship to Europe, but that might not appeal to business users requiring UK-based technical support.
That's a shame, because the Venus is a good option for professional users who need a GPU boost for applications such as AutoCAD and Photoshop. In addition to its PCIe (16x) expansion slot and 550W power supply, the Venus includes no fewer than five USB 3.0 ports -- two mounted on the front for easy access, with the other three on the back -- along with Gigabit Ethernet for wired networks, and even a bay for a 2.5-inch hard drive or SSD if you need to add extra storage to a slimline laptop. And, although the Venus isn't officially supported on macOS at the moment, Mantiz does provide a 'how to' guide on its website for Mac users who might want to try it out.
Netstor is keeping all its bases covered with its range of eGPU products. It has a somewhat luridly designed single-slot Thunderbolt 3 enclosure called Hercules that's aimed at the gaming market, and a more conventional Thunderbolt 3 enclosure designed for video-capture and rendering work.
It also makes this four-GPU enclosure for high-end scientific tasks, such as molecular modeling and financial simulations. Like the equally high-end Cubix Xpander, the NA255A requires a PCI interface card to be installed in the host PC, which means you'll need a suitable desktop PC with at least one PCI slot available. The company's documentation states that the NA255A is 'platform independent', but information about Mac compatibility on its website is somewhat sparse.
£1,940 (inc. VAT; £1,616.67 ex .VAT, or $2369)
Razer has always been a company that focuses on the hard-core gaming community, and the sleek Core V2 with its customisable lighting effects has clearly been designed as a companion for Razer's own range of gaming laptops. However, the use of a standard Thunderbolt 3 interface does allow the Core V2 to work with PCs from other manufacturers, while Razer's gaming expertise ensures that the company is well placed to test and ensure the compatibility of a variety of graphics cards.
Razer also emphasizes that the Core V2 can be used for 'work and play', and that it supports Nvidia's workstation-level range of Quadro graphics cards for VR development and other high-end graphics applications. The Core V2 also includes four USB 3.0 ports, and Ethernet for wired networks. The only real disadvantage is that the gaming eye-candy pushes the price of the Core V2 up to a rather hefty £470.
£470 (inc. VAT: £391.67 ex. VAT, or $500)
Apple's belated discovery of VR -- and the public scorn of developers such as Oculus -- has led it to admit that the graphics performance of the Mac range isn't up to scratch. As a result, it recently announced plans for the macOS to support external GPU enclosures for the first time. That support is still in its beta phase, during which time Apple is promoting Sonnet's eGFX Breakaway Box as its 'official' eGPU option for developers. However, the Breakaway Box uses a standard Thunderbolt 3 interface, so it's compatible with Windows PCs as well, and Sonnet has tested the enclosure with a range of professional graphics cards such as Nvidia's Quadro range and the Red Rocket-X for video editing.
The case houses a single PCIe (16x) slot, and is available with either a 350W or 550W power supply -- although the price difference is minimal. We're also looking forward to the release of Sonnet's new Puck, which could be the first truly portable eGPU that you can carry around with your laptop.
from £299 (inc. VAT; £249 ex. VAT, or $300)