Ultraportable laptops are great when you need to put together a presentation for work, crunch some numbers or binge-watch the first season of Stranger Things before the next season premieres. But graphically taxing games and support for VR headsets (Oculus Rift, HTC Vive) are out of reach. Or are they?
If you have a laptop with a Thunderbolt 3 port, there’s a good chance that you can attach an external GPU (eGPU), which allows you to get the benefits of an Nvidia or AMD graphics card, without carrying a bulky notebook. Unfortunately, not every Thunderbolt 3-enabled laptop will work with every eGPU, because compatibility issues abound. For example, our Razer Blade Stealth recognized only three out of six eGPUs we connected to it. So make sure you check online forums to see if anyone else has had success with your laptop and desired eGPU, and be prepared to return an eGPU if it doesn’t work.
To help you find the best eGPU, we tested six popular models and ranked them from best to worst. Where possible, we tested each unit with a Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1070 Mini GPU and tried connecting it to three laptops: a Lenovo ThinkPad T470 and a Razer Blade Stealth.
The gaming frame rates we recorded in our testing were similar with every eGPU — the video card is responsible for performance — so we focused primarily on design, value, ports and especially compatibility.
Asus ROG XG Station 2
The only thing bigger than the Asus ROG XG Station 2’s size and outlandish design is its price tag. However, once you get past the initial sticker shock and the box’s out-of-this-world looks, you get an eGPU that’s easy to open with enough ports to support a sizable gaming battle station.
Design: Asus sure knows how to put the “show” in showpiece. The front, top and right black plastic sides of the ROG XG Station 2 are stamped with thick lines meant to mimic circuitry gone wild. It gives the box a funky, futuristic chic that I can’t get enough of. But the show really begins once a GPU is added and the box is connected to a laptop. The front-mounted red Tesla coil springs to life, while the interior backlighting illuminates the box with pulsating red light. At 8.3 x 6.3 x 3.7 inches and 5.2 pounds, it’s one of the bigger eGPUs we’ve seen, so you’ll want to have enough space to fit it on your desk.
Ports: Ports include four USB 3.0 ports, one USB 3.0 Type-B port, a Gigabit Ethernet, a Thunderbolt 3 and a power port all mounted in the rear. Throw in a powerful-enough GPU and you can support either an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.
Accessibility: The ROG XG Station 2 is one of the easiest eGPUs to open. Slide the long button on the top right toward the back of the box, and both sides fall away, opening like some techno-fauna. From there, you just pop the card in, close the box and you’re ready to rock.
Compatibility: The Lenovo ThinkPad T470 recognized the Asus immediately. It was also one of the only systems to work with the Razer Blade Stealth, and was able to charge both systems.
Value: At $549.99, the Asus ROG XG Station 2 is one of the most expensive eGPUs, second to the $589.99 Aorus GTX 1070 Gaming Box. However, the Aorus comes with a built-in GTX 1070 GPU; supplying the same card for the ROG XG Station 2 cost us $419.99, which brings the total price of the Asus to $969.98.
Aorus GTX 1070 Gaming Box
When you first see the Gaming Box’s $589.99 price, it looks like it’s the most expensive eGPU in the line-up. However, since it comes pre-installed with a GPU, you don’t have to worry about shelling out even more money for a graphics card. That makes it the cheapest option in the long run. But since you lose the ability to swap out GPUs, you might find yourself purchasing another Gaming Box in a few years when the GTX 1070 can’t cut the mustard.
Design: The Aorus GTX 1070 Gaming Box is hands-down the most adorable eGPU. Measuring 6.4 x 8.4 x 3.8 inches and weighing 5.2 pounds, it’s the smallest box we tested. It’s the perfect size for those with little space to spare.
Similar to Aorus laptops like the X7 v6, the Gaming Box is swathed in matte black aluminum. The silver chrome avian logo gleams on the top front of the device. A pair of large grates sit along both sides of the system allowing for airflow and a nice view of the GTX 1070 Mini GPU inside. And if you want to game on the go, the Aorus also comes with a little carrying case for stow-and-go convenience.
Ports: Despite its diminutive size, the Gaming Box comes with plenty of ports. There are three USB 3.0 ports, an orange quick-charge USB 3.0 port, an HDMI, a DisplayPort, a pair of DVI-2 ports, a Thunderbolt 3 and the power jack.
Accessibility: Unlike other eGPUs, the Gaming Box comes with the GTX 1070 Mini GPU installed. The box is sealed, so you don’t have the luxury of switching out the graphics card at a later date.
Compatibility: Though we tried using the box with the MacBook Pro 13 and the Blade Stealth, the ThinkPad T470 was the only system that recognized the Aorus.
Value: When you first see the Gaming Box’s $589.99 price, it looks like it’s the most expensive eGPU out there. However, since it comes pre-installed with a GPU, you don’t have to worry about shelling out even more money for a graphics card. That makes it the cheapest option in the long run. But since you lose the ability to swap out GPUs, you might find yourself purchasing another Gaming Box in a few years when the GTX 1070 can’t cut the mustard.
The Razer Core is made for the Blade Stealth both literally and figuratively. While the Core will work with other laptops, the Stealth is rather finicky when it comes to its eGPU. Despite its heavy frame, the Core is exceptionally svelte, allowing it to squeeze into more narrow spaces. I’m also a fan of the easy accessibility of the box’s Quick Release handle.
Design: The Core just looks like a Razer product, which is a plus. Like the Blade Stealth, Blade Pro and Blade, the Core is made of jet-black CNC aluminum that’s at once ominous and stunning. It even has the three-headed snake logo occupying the right side of the device.
Razer added its trademark Chroma lighting to the bottom front of the device and the interior, which can be seen through the large grate on the right. Similar to other Razer products, you can change the lighting via the company’s cloud-based Synapse app. You can even match the lights to certain zones on the laptops. All that aluminum adds up, though, as the Core weighs 10.8 pounds, despite its crazy slim 11.8 x 5.1 x 1.7-inch frame.
Ports: The Core has four USB 3.0 ports, a Thunderbolt 3, a Gigabit Ethernet and the power port.
Accessibility: The inside of the Core isn’t as cool-looking as the Asus’ internals, but the process is just as simple. At the back of the device is a large Quick Release handle. Simply deploy it from its resting position and pull backward to expose the Core’s interior.
Compatibility: Since it’s designed specifically for the Blade Stealth, the Core works with the notebook almost the second you plug it in. The box also worked with the T470, but not the MacBook Pro.
Value: Sleek looks and cool lighting aside, $499 is a bit steep, especially when you have to factor in the cost of a GPU. Paired with our $419.99 GPU, the Core’s price jumps to $919.89. But for the price, you get Razer’s sturdy design and easy-access interior. Plus, if you’re looking to augment a Blade Stealth, you don’t have much of a choice, because few other products worked with that laptop.
PowerColor Devil Box
It’s not the prettiest or most ergonomic eGPU out there, but the PowerColor Devil Box gets the job done. The eGPU is one of the few systems that will support the Razer Blade Stealth along with other ultraportables.
Design: The PowerColor Devil Box reminds us me of everything that was wrong with the early 2000s. The front of the box has a section of silver aluminum with what looks like a bad tribal tattoo and Devil spelled out in blood-red lettering. Another silver piece sits along the top, accentuating the black metal sides, which have large black grating for airflow and lighting. And if that wasn’t enough, the sides of the box feature four silver bolts jutting out like bad body modification.
Ports: Unlike other eGPUs manufacturers, PowerColor had the great idea to put one USB 3.0 port in the front so you can plug in a mouse without having to reach around the rear. The remaining ports, however, do sit in the back and include three USB 3.0 ports, a USB Type-C port, a Thunderbolt 3, a Gigabit Ethernet and a port for the AC cord.
Accessibility: Getting into the Devil Box is simple. It’s closing the damned thing that’s the problem. After removing the rear part of the silver metal cover and the right-side panel, I learned that the Devil Box doesn’t support the dimensions of our rather wide mini GPU (5.2 x 6.7 x 1.5 inches) because the maximum dimensions are 12.2 x 5.5 x 1.9 inches. The lesson here: always do your research before buying anything. The Devil Box did fit my Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 Founder’s Edition GPU.
Compatibility: PowerColor lives up to the claim that it works with the Stealth. The second I plugged it in, the box began charging the laptop and the system recognized my 1080 GPU. The Devil Box also worked with the T470.
Value: The $369.99 Devil Box is the midlevel option. Combined with my $569.99 1080 GPU, the cost would jump to $939.98. With a $399.99 GTX 1070 card, the price is a somewhat more reasonable $769.98.
Sonnet EGFX Breakaway Box
A no-frills purchase, the Sonnet EFFX Breakaway Box offers little in the way of ports and design. However, it’s easy to get into and install the graphics card, and this box could be fine for people who just want to game on their laptop.
Design: Other than the rounded edges along the front and a blue backlit squiggle meant to resemble an “S,” the Sonnet EGFX Breakaway Box won’t turn heads. The 13.4 x 8 x 7.3-inch, 7.1 pound box is rather squat and wide and sure to take up a sizable space on your desk. Two metal lattices on the sides of the device make sure the GPU receives proper airflow.
Ports: Like the AKiTiO Node, the Breakaway Box only offers a Thunderbolt 3 port and a port for the AC power cord.
Accessibility: Getting into the Breakaway Box involves removing two black bolts on the back of the box and lifting off the top. Installing the GPU is as simple as snapping it in.
Compatibility: Despite multiple attempts, we could only get the Breakaway Box to work with the ThinkPad T470. However, we had to install a driver to get the system to recognize the eGPU.
Value: At $258.99, the Breakaway Box is the cheapest eGPU we’ve tested, and with the plain-Jane design and lack of ports it shows. Throw in our $419.99 GPU, and you’ve got a grand total of $679.98.
The AKiTiO Node is the embodiment of getting what you pay for. The Node offers a rather boring design and unintuitive accessibility. The eGPU barely has any ports, and it was compatible with only one out of two Windows laptops we tried. Which when you think about it, puts it on a par with the minimalist ultraportables it’s trying to augment.
Design: There are sleek black boxes like the Razer Core, and then there’s the AKiTiO Node. Where the Blade exudes sexiness, the Node screams afterthought. A silver logo embellished with a bootleg version of the Marvel Avenger’s “A” on the front of the system is the black aluminum box’s only bling.
Whatever card you place in the Node will have plenty of air, thanks to grates on the front and right side of the box. A spider web cut out toward the left rear delivers air to the power system. Measuring 16.9 x 8.9 x 5.7 inches and weighing 10.8 pounds, the Node is the longest eGPU we tested, so you’ll definitely have to scout out some space before you make that purchase.
Ports: The AKiTiO Node has a Thunderbolt 3 port and a power port. That’s it, so you can forget any and all thought of VR due to the lack of a USB 3.0 port. You could try stretching the Rift or Vive’s rather short cables around to the laptop, but I doubt it would work.
Accessibility: I had the most difficulty opening the AKkiTtoO Node. The large handle in the back is non -intuitive, as my first inclination was to pull outward rather than push inward. A number of my colleagues also wanted to pull instead of push. Once I got over that hiccup and got to install the GPU, I had a hell of a time puttinglling everything back into place. The inner case rests on a track, but if you push the whole setup out of the cover, you run the risk of removing from said groove and fighting to restore it.
Compatibility: The T470 is the only ultraportable that would work with the Node.
Value: The Node is one of the cheaper eGPUs aton the list at $268. And for that price, you get a rather bare- bones system that must then be augmented with a GPU. For our testing, the final price of the Node is $688.98, which is still more expensive than the Aorus Gaming Bbox.