My desire to power up a laptop with an external graphics card began in 2015, when I set out on a quest to get back into PC gaming—a beloved pastime I’d neglected since childhood.
But the only PC I had at the time was a 2011 Lenovo ThinkPad X220 laptop with Intel HD 3000 integrated graphics. That just wouldn’t cut it for proper PC gaming. Sure, the laptop on its own works well enough for older titles like Diablo III, especially on the laptop’s tiny 1366x728-resolution display, but forget about more graphics-intensive modern games on an external 1080p monitor. That’s why I decided to examine external graphics card (eGPU) setups.
And indeed, I found entire communities of people creating DIY setups that connected desktop graphics cards to their laptops via ExpressCard or mPCIe slots to play games on an external monitor. It isn’t hard to configure, and using desktop graphics cards with a laptop has become even easier in recent times. The wide availability of Thunderbolt 3 combined with external graphics card docks has simplified the process even more for people with a modern notebook.
[ Further reading: Our picks for best PC laptops ]
Many do-it-yourself types using Thunderbolt 3, ExpressCard, or mPCIe end up with a plug-and-play experience requiring little to no modification—though it takes some research first. When it’s done, however, you’ll be left with a console-toppling PC gaming setup for about the same price as a new Xbox One S, depending on which graphics card you choose. That’s far cheaper than building a whole new gaming desktop, and you can still take advantage of your laptop’s portability by disconnecting the eGPU hardware.
We’ll walk you through the DIY process for configuring an external graphics card later in this article, along with the sudden rise of streaming PC games from the cloud. First, let’s tackle the modern approach of using a graphics card dock via Thunderbolt 3.
Thunderbolt 3 graphics card docks
A Razer Core connected to a Razer Blade Stealth laptop via Thunderbolt 3/USB-C.
Thunderbolt 3 (TB3) is Intel’s high-speed external input/output connection, capable of speeds up to a blistering 40 gigabytes per second (GBps) over a compatible USB-C port. For resource-intensive activities like gaming, a speedy connection between your laptop and an external graphics card provides a big boost for performance.
Earlier attempts at external graphics card docks existed, but they were usually overpriced and relied on proprietary connection technologies. Thunderbolt 3 levels the playing field, and several companies now offer TB3-based graphics card docks, complete with dedicated power supplies, additional ports, and—of course—room to slot desktop graphics cards.
All is not perfect in the world of Thunderbolt 3-powered graphics, however. Enclosures are, for the most part, still a pricey proposition—much more so than the DIY method we’ll outline later. You’ll also need a relatively new notebook equipped with a Thunderbolt 3-compatible USB-C port. These days most Thunderbolt 3 laptops and graphics card enclosures play nicely together thanks to Intel’s Thunderbolt 3 external graphics compatibility technology, which PC makers must specifically enable.
If you’re in the market for a new laptop compatible with an external graphics card dock, some good choices at this writing include the HP Spectre x360 and the Lenovo Yoga 730. Still, Nando, an eGPU expert who is an administrator at eGPU.io, recommends researching your desired laptop model for compatibility with graphics card enclosures before buying just to be sure.
Once you’ve got your laptop sorted out it’s time to decide which graphics card dock to buy. We can’t cover all possible enclosures here, as virtually every major PC graphics card vendor is rolling out a graphics dock of its own, but we’ll look at some of the major products out there.