Even the best laptops are a bit limited. If you want to push your laptop into the realm of high-end desktop gaming, then you’ll need to buy an external graphics processing unit, or eGPU.
What Is an eGPU?
Dedicated graphics cards (also called GPUs—graphics processing units) are essential for any gaming rig. They process visual data faster than integrated (built-in) graphics chips, and they’re usually the dividing factor between unplayable and outstanding game performance.
While desktop gamers can replace their graphics card every year or two, laptop gamers aren’t so lucky. Call me Captain Obvious, but full-sized desktop GPUs are too big to fit into a laptop, and gaming laptops with built-in GPUs are impossible to upgrade.
But, that’s where eGPUs come in. An eGPU is just a desktop graphics card that sits outside of your laptop (hence, the name eGPU or “external” GPU). eGPUs have their own power supply and enclosure, and they’re occasionally packed with extra video, USBs, and Ethernet ports for your monitors and accessories.
Most modern eGPUS are universal-ish. They’re sold as enclosures (without a graphics card), and they work with most Thunderbolt 3-equipped laptops. However, old-fashioned eGPUS are proprietary, which means that they’re built for specific laptops and use non-standard cables. As of right now, Alienware is the only manufacturer whose laptops work with proprietary eGPUs.
Some eGPU options will work without a Thunderbolt 3-port or a proprietary connector. However, these options are too complicated for most people and can potentially void your laptop’s warranty, so we’re focusing on Thunderbolt 3 instead.
Getting an eGPU to work shouldn’t be any harder than plugging a phone or keyboard into your laptop. But, there’s a chance that your laptop and eGPU won’t play nice together. Some Thunderbolt 3-ports aren’t built to Intel’s eGFX standards, and as you might expect, propriety GPUs will only work with a handful of specially made laptops.
So, before you buy an eGPU, check Google to see that how well it works with your laptop. Make sure that your laptop actually has a Thunderbolt 3-port (and not just a USB-C port), and confirm that any proprietary eGPUs are certified for your laptop.
There’s also a chance that your eGPU enclosure won’t work with whatever graphics card you buy. If you’ve ever bought a desktop GPU, then you already know the drill. Make sure that a GPU fits into your eGPU enclosure before you buy it (as length and power draw are the limiting factors here), and be sure to check Google for any compatibility issues between the two products.
Also, MacBook users should stick with AMD cards. NVIDIA graphics cards aren’t officially supported by macOS.
The Best Thunderbolt 3 eGPU Enclosures
It doesn’t matter if you’re using a MacBook, a Dell XPS 13, or an inexpensive Acer Swift 3—any laptop with a proper Thunderbolt 3-port should work with a Thunderbolt 3 eGPU. This means that shopping for an eGPU enclosure is actually pretty easy. You just need to decide how many graphics cards you need.
The Razer Core X is one of the most popular, versatile, and universal eGPU enclosures. It isn’t too expensive, it works with Windows laptops and MacBooks, and it supports most full-sized graphics cards, including three-slot enthusiast cards. Plus, it supports 100-watt pass-through charging, so your laptop will never run out of juice mid-game. (Razer also sells an RGB version of the Core X with built-in USB and Ethernet ports).
Of course, the Razer Core X may be overkill for some gamers. If you’re just looking for a small eGPU enclosure, then the Sonnet Breakaway or the Akitio Node may be a better option for you. These enclosures work with Mac and Windows laptops, they support pass-through charging, and they work with most full-sized graphics cards. (Again, be sure to double-check compatibility before buying anything.
The Last Remaining Proprietary eGPU
Proprietary eGPUs are far from universal, but they’re just as effective as Thunderbolt 3 eGPUs. Sadly, Alienware is the only company that still manufacturers a proprietary eGPU. It’s called the Alienware Graphics Amplifier, and it’s a pretty awesome piece of hardware (especially for the price). It’s has one PCIe slot for a full-sized graphics card, and it works with most Alienware laptops.
Some other proprietary eGPUs are floating around the internet, but there’s a slim chance that they actually work with any laptop manufactured after 2015. The MSI Shadow Dock, for example, is very difficult to find and only works with one laptop.
If your laptop doesn’t work with any proprietary or Thunderbolt 3 eGPUs, then a laptop upgrade may be your only option. That is, unless you’re willing to go down the Thunderbolt 2 and DIY rabbit hole.
Other Options: Thunderbolt 2 and DIY eGPUs
If your computer doesn’t have a Thunderbolt 3-port or any proprietary eGPU inputs, then you’re mostly screwed. Some low-bandwidth and DIY options exist, but they aren’t very accessible, up-to-date, or guaranteed to work with your computer.
Thunderbolt 2-enclosures, for example, are expensive, underpowered, and difficult to set up. But they do exist. We don’t think that this path is worth going down (as it’s too janky and expensive), but if you’re committed to using an eGPU with your old MacBook, then a Thunderbolt 2-enclosure is your best bet.
You can also crack open your laptop, pop out your WLAN card, and build your own eGPU. This isn’t the easiest task on the planet—it requires a bit of tinkering, frustration, and research. But if you really want to boost your old laptop’s gaming performance, then this may be your only option.
Thankfully, some great DIY eGPU communities and video guides are floating around the internet, and DIY solutions rarely require any serious hardware modification.