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Everything you need to know on: eGPU

Ever wanted your old laptop from 2007 to have a nice, decent GPU that will run your games right? The solution at that time was pretty scarce. Except, it actually existed. And the only existing solution on your cheap-ass laptop is to have an external GPU. And that’s what I will write in this very article (for the sake of people to stop asking me “how to upgrade graphics card on laptop”).

The eGPU and history

An eGPU is an acronym for “external graphics processing unit”. Hence, eGPU. They started surfacing sometime in the middle of 2007, where people started developing them by using the ExpressCard port, which existed until Late 2010. The only last gaming laptop I know that uses an ExpressCard port was the Dell XPS M1730, which is also the time that Dell started pulling the plug on XPS machines (both desktop and laptop series).  However, eGPUs started to become an attention to some people once it started gaining a momentum on internet in Mid 2008. Which would mean: People are now asking for one.

The very first eGPU modules or hardware introduced into the market was the PE4L in Early of 2009.  PCIe Adapter. They are capable of running any PCIe device apart from a graphics card. You can name any PCIe device that you have in mind such as 3D soundcards, TV tuner cards with video capture features, I/O hardware, and everything else in the ballpark of PCIe hardware features that are needed. It had 3 connectors that it can connect to. And they are the ExpressCard connector, the mini PCI-e, and a PCI-e for the desktop boards.

In case you’re going to ask, yes. You can put the PE4L on your desktop’s PCI-e. This is usually for those desktops that are retail types (usually with a brand like HP for example) and slim.

And to power it up, you will need an external power supply that will still be connected to the PE4L. The power supply it uses is either a PC desktop PSU or a power brick similar to of a laptop or a 12V 10A power brick used by your 3.5-sized external hard drives.

The compatibility range is a hit and miss. However, they were also working right out of the box on the Apple devices such as the MacBook and MacBook Pro from the years 2008-2010, that has the ExpressCard port. But it wasn’t really reliable as the PE4L on the desk would look like a mess. To solve that issue of messy wires, another company came by called Village Intruments came to play their product in Late 2009, where they introduce ViDock as a solution. Granted if you provide it a graphics card. There were two variants: The ViDock 3 and ViDock 4.

The ViDock , is essentially an eGPU device with case that houses the PE4L in it. Of course, it has its own PSU unit too. The setup is pretty straightforward just like every eGPU device you see on the market today like Razer’s Core X and Asus’ XG Station. Except that the ViDock is essentially expensive. From this timeline of 2008-2010, ViDock and PE4L were the only external GPU devices that were sold on the market. And the only way to get them is to order them online. They were not sold in stores and the scarcity of availability isn’t really wide even for a fact that the PE4L is made in China. And this is also another thing why Filipinos do not know about eGPUs, including the rich kids that owns the world’s expensive gaming laptop. As well as the IT Technicians in the Philippines.

Trust me on this, if you ask an IT Technician in the Philippines if a graphics card is upgrade-able on a laptop… They will say no. For me, I will say yes with a catch. And until an IT Technician comes to me and explains his “engineering expertise”, which I do not listen at all because of his close-mindedness and superior arrogance towards me.

Although all these eGPU ideas are around, the first timeline of eGPU interest from the crowd also has its fair share of trouble. For example, the compatibility. Compatibility has always been a bitch when it comes to hardware that is pretty alienated. We can’t forget the fact that Windows 7 came out in this timeframe as well with a lot of problems before its final retail release. The issues of compatibility were mostly making both NVIDIA and ATI (now AMD) cards work with any laptop at full 100%. It was not also just that. There’s also another thing like finding a way to make the eGPU work and slipstream through the laptop’s LCD screen too (because, when you use an eGPU… You’re required to use an external monitor. A bummer right there, right?), and making sure that it does not crash the computer.

So, jumping to 2011… Apple started making Thunderbolt ports for their MacBooks. And this also helped change the eGPU scene a little. ViDock devices themselves were the first ones to upgrade to a Thunderbolt port to ensure full compatibility. On the paper of tests made, the eGPU on macbooks with Thunderbolt were not as pleasing as it sounds. There was a huge difference when it was applied on the iMac.

Which means: The iMac performed better with an eGPU than the MacBook or MacBook Pro. So gaming became active straight-away on the iMac than those portables. Except that the MacBook and MacBook Pro still went with eGPU but not for gaming. It went for people who would render 3D stuff in CAD. Which is also useful until Apple decided to put NVIDIA or AMD GPUs into their macbooks for the whole 2011 until Early 2012.

Then sometime in 2014 or 2015, Village Instruments went bankrupt. Giving the ViDock a no-chance to sell well to today’s market due to the cost and less sales since the product was only sold in the US of A. And at the same time, a new competitor comes into play to go against the PE4L. That competitor is what we know of today. And that is the Beast EXP GDC eGPU device, which is way too better than the PE4L.

If you wish to learn more about the compatibility and the PE4L stuff along with the ViDock, this link will be very interesting to learn from more: http://forum.notebookreview.com/threads/diy-egpu-experiences.418851/

 

The EXP GDC eGPU device and experiences

As explained above with the history, it does the same with what the PE4L does. Except its design is really simple than of the PE4L. It uses the HDMI cable as its source of high bus speeds to transfer data from the external hardware to the laptop itself. The EXP GDC isn’t really limited to the number of GPUs that it can install. But the PC will have to try carrying the GPU itself.

Just way back in December 2018, I have bought myself an EXP GDC on Lazada.ph. And eventually, I am able to get it. And test it with a PSU and GPU that I borrowed from my friend’s desktop. The GPU in question used is Gigabyte’s GTX 1070 8GB OC ITX and it is a very good candidate for the test with my Asus G551JW.

The laptop and the eGPU

 

The install is pretty straightforward. And luckily, I bought the mini PCI-e plug version since it’s easily accessible on the laptop, except I have to remove the wifi+bt module that’s sitting there.

So I boot it up, thinking that laptop drivers will be able to boot and detect that card. I just realized I need to download the desktop drivers instead. So I went and download it anyways.

After setting it up with the desktop drivers, I booted some games like Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Need For Speed Payback, Forza Horizon 3, Soulcalibur VI, and Final Fantasy XV. These are the games that nearly ran only 50% to 80% of the resource usage with my poor GTX 960m 2GB from the laptop. So I booted up first Shadow of the Tomb Raider. The very first problem I encountered is making it playable at 30fps (because 60fps cannot happen with my current specs because, laptop specs). The problem is that it runs at 20fps and dropping. So I thought maybe it was my laptop not performing it very well until I checked the benchmark results; It was running the fucking GTX 960m 2GB. I headed off to the egpu.io forums to search for solutions. And one of the topics states that if I have a switchable graphics feature, I have to disable the GTX 960m 2GB so that it can fully detect the eGPU in question. I went to the Device Manager of my PC and found out that the GTX 1070 wasn’t detected at all (despite the fact the driver really took it in). I went to dig in more. Of course, the eGPU gets detected but it’s not fully working. And that’s because it needed some sort of “fix” to get things done. There were many problems at first. And the forums had the solution.

The first problematic roadblock was NVIDIA’s Error 43. Which made the eGPU not detectable at some point even with the older or latest driver. So I got the fix from the forums, install it, restarted, and the eGPU finally works. Although I have patched it. After a restart again, it went back. I figured I forgot to disable the GTX 960m so… I disabled it, patch it again, and it works even after several restarts or shutdowns.

The second problematic roadblock was a bluescreen with the error code “VIDEO_TDR_FAILURE”. I checked the forums again on egpu.io and got no information about it (assumingly, people might have gotten it). Digging more with google, a Tom’s Hardware tech forum explains that it’s the Power Supply or the supply of power straight to the set of parts or devices. And here I am like: “I am fucking using a 650W 80Plus Gold PSU from FSP. There shouldn’t be a problem about this” Then I realized that it’s the laptop’s mini PCI-e reliability. The laptop is looking for it to give it some power. It took one week to solve the VIDEO_TDR_FAILURE code. Like trying to make sure the GPU sits well with the EXP GDC, proper mounting of the cable from the mini PCI-E to the EXP GDC, and the PSU giving out a whooping full voltage to power up the EXP GDC as well (without its cables shaking). I even attached a multitester on it to see if it is giving out the correct voltage values (which it did).

After all that problem solving, it was time to put the games to the test.

The first game I booted up was Shadow of the Tomb Raider. It ran at the peak between 40-50 fps on either settings I put (from low to ultra). however, it was more satisfying when I put it at medium instead because, hell why not?

The second game was Final Fantasy XV. It was one of the games I find annoying to play on my PC than on the PS4 (yes. I have the game on PS4 but do not ask me why I went PC). It works at high settings, giving that 60fps facto with frame drops to 40fps at some point (because, mechanical hard drive is full and is slow).

The third game was Forza Horizon 3. It ran decently without giving me the warnings of low VRAM issues. Although, it was only a demo copy of the game I downloaded from the Windows Store. On my GTX 960m, it gave me VRAM warnigs, which I didn’t like even if I have lowered every setting to make it good and in proper running state. But with an eGPU, I knew it won’t give it to me anyways despite having 30fps locked on the game (which I didnt’ care much but what I cared is that the game ran decently).

For the rest of the two games mentioned before, it ran completely good (even with the GTX 960m that I had in my laptop). But it also had a big significant difference in my laptop as well. I also found out that the temps of my gaming laptop lowered drastically, which is good news. And that worked out nicely.

The aftermath

To solve my GPU issues, I think buying an eGPU DIY kit was the last resort. I have already gotten the EXP GDC and all I need now is a GTX 1050Ti that’s decent enough and cheap. For a power supply, I am thinking of getting those Pico ITX PSUs instead because, they’re small and reliable. But will have to look for the 250W versions than the usual desktop PSUs. The reason being is that a Pico ITX PSU makes more room for space than a regular PSU from a desktop computer. Plus, I wouldn’t worry about space with it. And if I plan to build a case for it, it will be ready anyways.

If I have to spend for an eGPU solution for my gaming laptop in one go, it would cost me nearly PHP 12,000 just to buy the eGPU device, the GPU card, and the Pico ITX PSU kit. Although second hand solution would cost me PHP 3000-4000 less.

But the learning experience is very good for me. I’ve always longed to do this with most of the laptops I have gotten for free like my HP EliteBook 8440p by adding a GTX 760 Ti 2Gb to play some games or the HP G6-2000, which had a decent Core i5 processor. To think that you can make your old decent laptop into a gaming desktop, would be the best solution for a “budget build” until you are able to suffice yourself to build the starter gaming desktop that would cost PHP 20k and above. But at least, once I start here… I think I might be able to build myself a new gaming desktop with the available basic parts or buy a new gaming laptop once I have enough money to cover it all up. I think it’s a great advise to say that this is pretty advisable to do, just remember where your budget goes. You don’t necessarily need to buy a Pico ITX PSU if you have a GPU that requires the PCI 6-pin on it. You can go all the way to regular desktop PSU for it instead as it saves the hassle from it.

Resources for getting your eGPU kit:

  • eGPU IO forums: https://egpu.io/forums/expresscard-mpcie-m-2-adapters/
  • EXP GDC eGPU device: https://www.lazada.com.ph/products/v80-exp-gdc-laptop-external-independent-video-card-dock-mini-pci-e-for-beast-intl-i102438456-s102705288.html?spm=a2o4l.searchlist.list.1.7b026e59V1vRZ2&search=1
  • Pico ITX PSU module: https://www.lazada.com.ph/products/new-dc-12v-250w-24pin-pico-atx-switch-psu-car-auto-mini-itx-dc-to-dc-power-supply-i272567350-s397049767.html?spm=a2o4l.searchlist.list.3.26de12c3UcF7FY&search=1
  • Pico ITX PSU power brick: https://www.lazada.com.ph/products/dc-12v15v16v18v19v20v24v-120w-laptop-ac-universal-power-adapter-charger-for-asus-dell-lenovo-sony-toshiba-laptopcarregador-portatil-universal-i206998897-s261975393.html?spm=a2o4l.searchlist.list.1.3da44047JG8KPb&search=1

If you have any questions, just comment here and I’ll just reply whenever.

 

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