External GPU Enclosures, are they here to stay?

Jan 14, 2016

Last Winter MSI introduced the world to its new 13” laptop and docking station that could house an external GPU and turn your laptop into a gaming desktop with the GS30 Shadow and Gaming Dock.  Using PCIe lanes and a PCIe connection between the two, you could take your laptop with Intel’s Iris Pro graphics on the go with you easily, and when home, pop it into the Gaming Dock and have the ability to game with a desktop graphics card of your choosing.  It wasn’t cheap, it was noisy, but it was the first real implementation of this, and it did impress me.

The MSI GS30 and Gaming Doc. Credit: www.kitguru.com

Fast forward to CES 2016.  Not only has MSI improved on the design, being a year ahead of the competition, but others have entered the market, too.  Alienware put its version out in summer 2015, and now Asus and Razer are getting in the game too, all with their own spin on functionality.  In other words, four of the major players in the gaming laptop space are going in on external GPU enclosures.  At this point, I’m just waiting on Gigabyte to get in on the action.

Credit: www.pcper.com

So how do these work?  In short, they use PCIe lanes for communication and connection.  How they access those lanes is where there’s some variance, but all of them are using PCIe lanes in order to enable the end user to access Gigabit Network, USB 3.0 Ports and full desktop grade GPUs.  Using 4 PCIe Gen 3 lanes, there is little concern for bottlenecks, as graphics cards these days still can’t saturate those lanes fully, and being so fast and efficient, the use of PCIe makes complete sense.  Alienware uses a proprietary connector from their laptop, as does MSI, but Razer and Asus are using Thunderbolt 3 over USB Type-C which can carry PCIe 3 at 4x as well, and leaving room for the possibility that they won’t be locked down to just their brand of laptop.


Why the push in this direction?  That’s honestly something I’ve been asking myself as I have both a gaming desktop and a gaming laptop.  But then I got to thinking a bit more about why this makes sense, and honestly I took a look at the enterprise as to why it does.  One of my companies’ oldest clients has a decent sized sales force, often times traveling all over Texas and surrounding states.  When a new sales person is hired we get the notice to order them new hardware. They always get the same laptop, with a docking station and dual monitors.  Docking station, dual monitors; portability and productivity.  Everything a high performance sales person needs to be efficient both on the road and in the office.  When you think about it, docking stations for laptops aren’t anything new, having been around for at least 10 years, and the idea of being able to have a desktop-like set-up with a laptop you can take on the go isn’t, either.  Shift the market focus a little and it makes complete sense.  As gamers, we’re entering market saturation.  By that, I mean we are now not just kids at home, but often we’ve already finished school, are on our career tracks, and even have families and are working on the second generation of gamers.  We grow in market size as the years go on, or at a minimum the variance in age does.  From the college kid who can only afford a single system to the professional dad who wants his laptop to look sharp when at a meeting or conference, gaming laptops that can then be docked into an external GPU enclosure can fit both needs, and do it well.

Asus Encloser

The question for me, is whether or not this trend is here to stay or is it just a fad?  Will we continue to see improvements to the external enclosures like MSI has with theirs, or will we see fewer of these at next year’s CES?  Personally, I think that, now that the market has more to offer the consumer, we will see this start to take off. Razer Blade Stealth and Core 2

So what do you think?  If you had to start from scratch, or even if you were in the market for something right now, would you buy a great looking, portable gaming laptop/Ultrabook and an External GPU Enclosure or would you still prefer to buy a gaming laptop and desktop and have the two be separate?  Let me know down in the comments below or on Twitter, @geekindad


Credit for the feature image to userid BoomWaller from the forums at NoteBookReview.com