Guide To External Graphics Card

Guide To External Graphics Card

by

Martha Davis
August 17, 2021
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Playing AAA games on ultra-thin notebooks and mini-PCs faces a real bottleneck because these systems may not support full-sized graphics cards.

So, even after installing a super-fast processor and necessary air/liquid cooling on your mini-PC, you cannot leverage their extra performance.

Are you wondering why?

Well, first, because the integrated graphics from your CPU does not cut it. So, in these instances, external graphics cards, coupled with an efficient eGPU, are the best way to go about things.

External graphics cards make it possible to play high-quality games by connecting your desktop or laptop to an external GPU.

Do not worry if you are a bit confused; it is normal. If this idea sounds interesting, though, you must have a clear understanding of external graphics cards.

More importantly, you should know which external graphics card to select for the best performance. In this guide to external graphics cards, we have explored all these areas, also answering some of the questions you may have.

We will start with the basic questions.

What Is an External Graphics Card?

What Is an External Graphics Card?

An external graphics card, also known as external GPU and eGPU, is a portable graphics card system that you can connect to your laptop or desktop devices. eGPUs are designed for laptops/desktops that do not come with an internal graphics card.

For instance, you may have a compact PC that uses a high-efficiency CPU and cooling system. However, this PC may not be able to accommodate a full-sized GPU, thus forcing you to rely on the integrated graphics from the CPU.

In this case, connecting an external graphics card will allow you to combine the CPU resources with a fully-fledged GPU in the package.

As a result, you can enjoy boosted speed and performance on the laptop screen or an additional display. Depending on the eGPU you have picked, it must have support for Thunderbolt 3 or Thunderbolt 4.

As for their size, external graphics cards do not consume a lot of space. Therefore, you can carry them around without any hassle. In some cases, you will have to provide a separate power supply for the eGPU. In other instances, however, the eGPU may draw power from the Thunderbolt 3 or Thunderbolt 4 connection.

As you can expect, external graphics cards are more expensive than conventional graphics cards. It is because an eGPU contains dedicated equipment to house different cards. At the same time, some models may come with a non-replaceable card as well.

We will talk about these things in the later parts of this guide.

How Does It Work?

An external graphics card works straightforwardly. However, as we said, these devices are used with laptops or desktops that do not have a built-in GPU.

Therefore, once you have connected the eGPU to your computer, the device will establish a strong signal transfer line. While the CPU will take care of the core processing tasks, graphical processing requirements would be sent to the external GPU.

The external GPU will process these requests and send the rendered images back to the system. These images are then forwarded to the computer’s display for both laptop and desktop devices.

The performance and the speed of these transactions depend on many factors. For instance, most eGPUs in the market work as enclosures. It means you can accommodate a suitable graphics card inside the eGPU.

But, of course, it will depend on the performance you need and the budget restrictions. In any case, an eGPU can work with the internal CPU quite seamlessly. So, you will not see any significant issues from a usability point of view.

The specifics of the working process would also vary based on the technology used by the eGPU. As we said, in many cases, they use Thunderbolt 3 or Thunderbolt 4 for connection.

If your laptop/desktop offers limited or no support for these connection protocols, you cannot consider eGPUs the best solution. We will discuss this in detail in one of the following sections.

Is It as Good as Regular Graphics Cards?

Is It as Good as Regular Graphics Cards?

It is difficult to give a specific answer to this question since many aspects of eGPU performance are relative. Furthermore, as we said earlier, most eGPUs are enclosures that can accommodate a wide variety of graphics cards.

So, the specific graphics card you install on these eGPU units will define the performance you can expect from the portable GPU system. For instance, you cannot expect the same performance from two eGPUs if you use an old-generation NVIDIA GPU on one unit and the brand-new RTX 3060 series on the other one.

Even when we use the same graphics card on both devices, there are discrepancies in terms of performance and speed. For example, we will consider two devices.

The first device is a fully-fledged PC equipped with an NVIDIA RTX 3060 GPU. The second device is a compact PC with a high-performance CPU, but you have connected this device to an eGPU, which packs the same NVIDIA RTX 3060 GPU.

Now, even though both the PCs are connected to the same GPU, the level of integration varies a lot. For example, while one device is optimized for the GPU from scratch, the other uses a Thunderbolt 3 / 4 connection to transfer data.

As a result, the device equipped with the NVIDIA RTX 3060 GPU via an eGPU enclosure will offer relatively lower speeds than the other PC.

Therefore, eGPUs cannot be as good as regular GPUs. There will always be a slight difference of preference, which you can easily ignore. Nevertheless, the actual comparison in these instances must be between the integrated graphics performance from the CPU and the performance after installing an external GPU.

By common logic, we are using an eGPU because we cannot accommodate a full-sized GPU in the first place. So, it does not make sense to compare an eGPU to a full-sized GPU.

Rest assured, you can play AAA games and handle resource-intensive tasks like 3D modeling with the help of an eGPU.

So, it is a blessing when you have a laptop/desktop with the conditions mentioned above. Yet, a crucial aspect that may catapult your expectations is the eGPU that you select.

How to Choose an External Graphics Card?

How to Choose an External Graphics Card?

You have to consider the following factors while choosing the best external graphics card for your needs.

Compatibility

Unlike other PC accessories, eGPUs still do not have universal compatibility. You cannot expect all USB ports to enable communications with an external GPU.

Therefore, you have to make sure that the laptop/desktop has complete support for Thunderbolt 3. You have to double-check with the manufacturer that the device supports Thunderbolt 3 over USB Type-C or a Mini DisplayPort, in some cases.

Only after this confirmation should you attempt to look at the potential eGPU models in the market. When going through the available options in the market, ensure that the eGPU dock uses the same protocol for communication.

Type of eGPU

As we mentioned, you can find multiple types of eGPUs. The three common types are as follows.

First, we have eGPU enclosures that do not come with a GPU. In this case, you will have to purchase a GPU and install it separately. Second, there are eGPUs that come with a pre-installed GPU. However, you may have an option to replace the GPU over time to upgrade the overall performance.

Third, some eGPU systems do not allow these upgrades. It means you will have to use the GPU that came in the package. Depending on your needs and long-term plans, you have to make the right choice from these three options.

Size

You do not have to worry about the size of an eGPU if you plan to use it with your desktop PC. You can find a considerable amount of time on your desk.

However, if you are looking for a truly portable experience, you should ensure the best size and dimensions for the product. Only then will you be able to carry these eGPUs around.

When looking at the size of the product, you should also see if the desired GPU would fit inside the enclosure. You should also make sure that you can attach an external cooling system if the built-in cooling is not enough.

Power Supply and Cooling

External GPUs can consume a lot of power like traditional GPUs. Therefore, your system must be able to handle the heat and provide a stable power supply.

Keeping this in mind, you should check the details given by the manufacturer to make sure that you can power the device safely. Equally important is the aspect of cooling.

Because these devices have a lot of heat, there should be space for heat dissipation. For example, we do not recommend placing the eGPU in an overfilled area. It will lead to the suffocation of the hardware, in turn causing failure.

Card-level Compatibility

Before you finalize which external GPU to buy, you should see if the particular model supports the GPU you have in mind.

As you know, eGPUs are available from many manufacturers, including Razer. However, because these are launched at different times, they may not accommodate all the GPUs available in the market.

So, if you want to run the most recent GPU on an eGPU, it could be a complex affair. So, it makes sense to decide which GPU you want to use and do the research later – instead of the other way around. You may want to check the card’s specifications to confirm this aspect.

In addition to these, you have to consider the price of the product.

You should be more careful about this aspect if you get a simple eGPU enclosure. In this case, as we said, you will have to pay separately for a GPU unit. Once you have taken care of these aspects, you can focus on the design and build quality of the eGPU, among other factors.

How to Connect It?

The specific process of connecting an external GPU depends on the model you are dealing with. However, a general set of steps you can follow are as follows.

  1. You have to unbox the eGPU enclosure and install the GPU inside, if applicable
  2. Now, you can connect the GPU to your desktop/laptop using the Thunderbolt 3 cable
  3. Your system may require a minute or two to detect the external GPU that you have connected
  4. Once it is done, you may have to reboot your PC to see the impact of the GPU

Depending on the motherboard and the OS version, you may find options to control the external GPU. In some cases, you can download the eGPU drivers from the manufacturer’s websites.

You can use the driver software to manage the performance, cooling, power, and other aspects of the device. If you are looking for maximum performance from the eGPU, you should install the driver software before setting up the eGPU.

Can I Use an External GPU for Mining?

As you probably know, a pair of good GPU and CPU is the first step of using a PC for mining.

So, you may not use your PC for cryptocurrency mining when relying on integrated graphics. But, once you set up the eGPU, you may have a better chance at using your PC for crypto mining. However, it does not mean you should do it right away.

Unlike gaming or video editing, cryptocurrency mining generates a lot of heat in the GPU sector. Compared to a conventional GPU, external GPUs do not have the best cooling tech. So, there is a higher chance of the GPU getting damaged due to extra heat. You should try to use the external GPU for mining if you can bear all these risks.

We should also remember that most eGPUs are designed for gaming and content creators, not mining. So, you may want to check the manufacturer’s warranty policy.

If they find that you have used the product for cryptocurrency mining, you may not receive all the warranty benefits. Also, you cannot expect the eGPU to last long if you use it for mining.

Conclusion

Before we end, we must also mention that external graphics cards are still in their early development stages.

So, because tech giants are improving their tech every day, you can expect a variety of better options in the coming years.

Resources:

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Martha Davis

Martha Davis is a computer hardware specialist who works extensively in designing and manufacturing hardware devices, researching advanced computer technology. She built GadgetGangster.com as a platform to share her insight on computers and PC assembly with the web. Currently, she is carrying out her research on Robotics and Computer Vision and working privately to deliver services. Martha makes sure that readers of GadgetGangster.com master the basics of setting up computer components like motherboard, CPUs, and GPUs through the informative articles that she writes.