Laptops provide incredible portability and convenience, but when it comes to gaming, they often leave power users wanting more. The latest slim and light laptops may be great for getting work done on the go, but they rarely have the graphical horsepower to play AAA games at high frame rates or run VR headsets. That’s where adding an external GPU (eGPU) enclosure can make a world of difference.
An external GPU enclosure allows you to add a full-sized desktop graphics card to your laptop through a speedy connection like Thunderbolt 3. With an eGPU setup, you get desktop-class gaming performance from a lightweight laptop while still retaining portability when needed.
The concept of external GPUs has been around for almost a decade, but only in the past few years has it become viable for the mainstream as Thunderbolt 3 connectivity (40Gbps speeds) has proliferated across laptops. With the right eGPU enclosure and graphics card, you can transform an ultrabook or MacBook into a potent AAA gaming machine and VR-ready system. It’s an enticing prospect for laptop gamers who don’t want the hassle of building and maintaining a traditional gaming tower.
Critical Considerations for Choosing an eGPU Enclosure
If you’re convinced that an external GPU is right for your laptop needs, the next step is picking the right enclosure. There are a few key factors to evaluate:
- Thunderbolt 3 Connection: This is an absolute necessity – older Thunderbolt generations don’t have enough bandwidth to drive a modern GPU effectively. Make sure the enclosure uses a full 4 lane Thunderbolt 3 controller. Some cheaper enclosures may cut corners with 2 lanes which cripples performance.
- Power Supply Wattage: The PSU needs to be robust enough to deliver adequate power to high end GPUs which can consume 200W or more under load. Most enclosures offer 600-650W power supplies, but confirm this spec before buying. A 500W unit may be insufficient.
- Size of Enclosure: Bigger enclosures allow for better cooling capacity for powerful GPUs, but portability may suffer. Consider the tradeoff between performance and ease of transport. Larger cases normally allow bigger GPUs too.
- Extra Ports: Additional ports like Ethernet, USB hub and SATA storage can be useful. But more ports add cost, so consider if you really need them.
- Aesthetics: External GPU enclosures run the gamut from basic black boxes to elaborate cases with customizable RGB lighting. This decision comes down to personal taste and budget.
- Price: eGPU enclosure pricing ranges from around $200 entry-level models up to $600 for loaded options with beefy power supplies and premium materials. Set a budget and find the best fit.
The Top eGPU Enclosures to Power Up Your Laptop
Based on performance, features, design, and overall value, these are my picks for the best external GPU enclosures currently available:
Razer Core X
- 650W PSU, tool-less design
- Classic understated look in black with Razer logos
- 4x USB and Ethernet for connectivity
- Straightforward setup, compatibile with a wide range of GPUs
- $299 MSRP – excellent value for features
In benchmarks, the Razer Core X proves itself as one of the most capable and reliable eGPU solutions out there. The ample power supply easily handles power-hungry cards like an RTX 3080 without shutdowns or instability. Just be sure to use the included ATX power cable for best results. At its reasonable price point, the Core X is my top value choice.
- 400W PSU, compact aluminum design
- No-frills black enclosure meant to blend in
- Carry handle for portability
- Solid performance but limited PSU may restrict GPU choice
- $249 MSRP – good budget pick if you don’t need extras
The Akitio Node is a straightforward aluminum enclosure without extra ports. But what you do get is a proven Thunderbolt 3 eGPU platform in a nicely constructed, compact chassis. It’s easy to stash the Node in a bag for travel or VR demos. Just know that the 400W PSU limits maximum GPU power, so forget the RTX 3090. Overall, the Node is a great pick for a basic but portable eGPU setup.
- 550W PSU, aggressive gamer styling with lighting
- loaded with ports: 5x USB, Ethernet, SATA
- Large internal volume fits the biggest GPUs
- Performance on par with pricier competitors
- $389 MSRP – great value considering connectivity
For gamer bling combined with eGPU power, check out the Mantiz Venus. This enclosure comes loaded with ports and aggressive styling including an easily customized RGB light strip. Testers have achieved solid speeds with the Venus across many Thunderbolt 3 laptops. And it has the space to house the absolute largest consumer GPUs. Just watch the extra heat from those power-hungry cards in this case. At its price, the Venus hits the sweet spot of looks, capability and affordability.
ASUS XG Station Pro
- 600W PSU, clean design mimics a mini-ITX case
- Generous port selection: 4x USB, Ethernet, SATA
- Asus software integration for system control
- Top-tier performance with excellent cooling capacity
- $549 MSRP – premium price but delivers on speed
As you would expect from Asus, the XG Station Pro is a well engineered eGPU enclosure that blends tasteful design and excellent construction. It forgoes flashy gamer aesthetics, instead sporting a refined chassis similar to a compact ITX system. But inside, the XG Station Pro is packed with ample power and smart cooling that allow it to achieve some of the highest speeds among eGPU options. If you want an eGPU optimized for performance with zero compromise, this Asus enclosure is a smart luxury choice.
OWC Mercury Helios FX
- 550W PSU, rugged industrial design
- Massive set of ports: 10Gb Ethernet, USB-C, SD card
- Screwless access panels and room for 2x 2.5″ SSDs
- Quiet thermal design but lacks headroom for 300W+ GPUs
- $359 MSRP – great pick for content creators
Optimized for creative professionals, the OWC Helios FX eGPU stresses connectivity and storage expansion. It provides over a dozen ports and has mounting points to install two internal SATA SSDs. Combined with its understated aluminum chassis, the Helios FX looks great on a designer’s desk. Just note that the 550W PSU and focused cooling may not be ideal for squeezing the most gaming performance out of the very latest powerhouse GPUs. But for accelerating creative software like photo and video editors at a reasonable price, the OWC Helios FX hits the mark.
Choosing the Right GPU for Your eGPU
Once you select the ideal external GPU enclosure, it’s time to pick out a graphics card to populate it. The key factors in GPU selection:
- Performance Target: Match your GPU’s capabilities with your target resolution, game settings and frame rate. A GTX 1660 may be fine for 1080p, while 1440p high FPS demands an RTX 3070 Ti or better.
- NVIDIA vs AMD: Both GPU brands work well in eGPUs. NVIDIA cards generally score better for Adobe and content creation apps. AMD RDNA 2 models currently offer better value.
- Video Memory: 6GB or 8GB is the sweet spot today. Only consider higher VRAM if you do production workloads.
- Generation Matters: Brand new GPUs deliver better performance per dollar than 1-2 year old models. But you can still get great deals on used/refurbished options.
- Size Rules: Larger 3+ slot wide GPUs won’t fit in compact eGPU enclosures. Double check dimensions!
- Factory Overclocked: Overclocked cards run hotter and may be more temperamental in an eGPU environment. I suggest reference models for stability.
- RTX 3060 Ti – Great High-FPS 1080p gaming, capable 1440p
- RTX 3070 – Excellent 1440p, entry-level 4K gaming
- Radeon 6800/6800 XT – Top notch value for 1440p gaming
- RTX 3080 – Serious 4K gaming power for high-end setups
Based on your target resolution and framerate, you can narrow down GPU choices to find the right balance of gaming power and value for your needs and budget.
Top Tips for Smoothing Out Your eGPU Experience
Adding an external GPU supercharges your laptop, but it also introduces complexity that may require some tweaking to work optimally. Here are some top troubleshooting tips:
- Install the latest GPU drivers directly from NVIDIA or AMD. Avoid using the basic Windows-supplied ones.
- If you run into stability issues, try reducing GPU factory overclocks or lowering power limits. This reduces heat in the enclosure.
- Always connect your external monitor directly to the eGPU’s video outputs rather than chaining through your laptop. This avoids a performance hit.
- On Windows laptops, check for BIOS or firmware settings related to enabling external GPUs. Some laptops have these options.
- If your eGPU disconnects or acts flaky, make sure to use the included power adapter for full stability. Don’t just run off Thunderbolt power.
- Try using a different Thunderbolt 3 port if you experience problems. Some laptops have multiple controllers and the ports may behave differently.
- Adjust in-game graphics settings to find the right balance between visuals and smooth frame rates. Your usual laptop settings probably need tweaking.
With some care taken to optimize the setup, an external GPU unlock incredible new gaming possibilities for your laptop that approach smooth desktop-like performance!
Frequently Asked eGPU Questions
If you’re new to external GPUs, chances are you still have some questions about how well they work and what’s possible. Here I’ll address some of the most common queries:
Does an external GPU work with ANY laptop?
No, your laptop must have a Thunderbolt 3 port to connect the eGPU enclosure. Some laptop OEMs also restrict functionality to only approved models. Always verify eGPU compatibility before buying.
What’s the real-world performance difference between an eGPU and mobile dGPU?
It depends on the specific GPUs compared of course, but generally an eGPU provides a 50-100%+ increase in frame rates for games compared to the top mobile GPUs like RTX 3080 Laptop Edition.
Can an eGPU help with tasks beyond gaming, like video editing?
Absolutely! An external GPU accelerator speeds up GPU-accelerated software like Adobe Premiere, After Effects, Photoshop just as well as 3D games. Content creators are a major user group for eGPUs.
Is it possible to use multiple eGPUs together for even more power?
Unfortunately no. The Thunderbolt 3 connection works between one laptop and external enclosure. To add more GPUs, you’d need to build a desktop PC with PCIe support for multi-GPU.
Do external GPUs work smoothly on macOS or Linux distributions?
Apple officially supports eGPUs on only select macOS models and actively blocks them from working on others. Linux support exists but isn’t plug and play. Windows provides the most seamless eGPU experience.
How much PSU capacity do I need for the most powerful GPUs?
NVIDIA recommends a 650W PSU for RTX 3080/3090 series cards. For ideal stability, allow 50-100W extra headroom in your eGPU enclosure’s power supply.
Should I connect my monitor to the eGPU or directly to my laptop’s ports?
For maximal performance, attach displays directly to your eGPU’s video outputs. But Windows makes it easy to switch where screens are connected when you disconnect the eGPU.
Unlock Your Laptop’s Hidden Gaming Prowess
In closing, adding an external GPU enclosure can utterly transform an everyday ultrabook or MacBook into a capable high-end gaming machine perfect for AAA titles, VR gaming, and content creation. With the information provided in this guide, you now have a solid understanding of what an eGPU setup entails.
We covered the key factors in choosing an enclosure like GPU power support, extra ports and physical size considerations. You now know what to look for in an ideal Thunderbolt 3 eGPU chassis. I also detailed the top eGPU enclosure options currently available from leading manufacturers like Razer, Akitio and Asus.
You also learned how to pick the best graphics card for your needs based on performance targets and budget. And for smoothing out your eGPU experience, I provided pro tips on troubleshooting, optimizing performance, and answering frequently asked questions about these clever devices.
While an eGPU may require some tweaking, once up and running it unleashes desktop-class graphics performance in even the most compact ultrabook laptops. If you need serious gaming power in a portable package, or want to accelerate content creation and pro apps on the go, adding an external GPU is an appealing option worth considering.