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How to transform your laptop into a gaming powerhouse with an external graphics card

With a little bit of research and elbow grease, an external graphics setup can transform your laptop into a gaming powerhouse for a fraction of the price of a whole new gaming PC.

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The eGPU glossary

Before we get started, we need introduce a few terms. Without a basic vocabulary, the world of eGPUs can get confusing, fast. There’s not much to see here for veteran gamers—you can skip to the next section.

motherboard pcie Thomas Ryan/IDG

PCIe slots in a standard ATX motherboard.

PCIe x16: PCI Express (PCIe) is the motherboard slot that a standard graphics card fits into. The “x16” part means the PCIe slot has 16 lanes that data can travel through. With an eGPU setup we typically compress an x16 slot down to an x1 (1 lane) or x2 (2 lanes) connection to the laptop. That sounds like a raw deal, but it works surprisingly well. PCIe slots come in three generations: 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0. Most new graphics cards will run on PCIe 3.0, which is backward-compatible with version 2.0. PCIe 4.0 is also coming but slowly. AMD announced in January 2019 that its third-generation Ryzen processors would be the first to support version 4, with PCIe 5.0 fast behind it.

PCIe power connector: PCIe can also refer to a type of power connector with six or eight pins.

ATX 24-pin connector: This is another kind of power connector that is commonly used with PC power supplies, and is one of the power options on PCIe adapters.

psu connectors Thomas Ryan/IDG

A 24-pin power connector, from a PC power supply.

PCIe adapter/board: This is a small circuit board with a PCIe slot, some HDMI slots, and a whole bunch of power options. The only point of the PCIe adapter is to help the graphics card communicate with the laptop.

Express Card Slot: This is the spot in your laptop that is reserved for wireless broadband cards from a mobile carrier.

mPCIe: This is an interface that some eGPU enthusiasts use to connect their graphics card to their laptop instead of an ExpressCard. It offers a better connection, but it can be a hassle because most mPCIe slots are inside the laptop and inaccessible without cracking open a case.

Thunderbolt: Intel’s blazing fast I/O technology is also an option for an eGPU connection, including DIY set-ups.

BIOS: This is the program that first starts when you boot your computer. It’s usually accessed by hitting F2, another F key, or a special button on your laptop. The BIOS controls a variety of options for your PC including, for example, the boot order.

Frames per second (fps): This is a basic measure of how well a game runs on a given system. The gold standard for PC gamers is 60 fps, though 30 fps is considered playable. Many modern console games still run at 30 fps.

eGPU basic components

A typical eGPU setup requires five basic items: a laptop, a desktop graphics card, an external display, a PCIe adapter/board or enclosure for the card, and a separate power supply for the graphics card (though Thunderbolt 3 enclosures have built-in power supplies). You may also want a laptop cooling pad if you want to play games that go heavy on graphics, like Battlefield V.

Ideally, your laptop packs an Intel or AMD quad-core processor or higher, but a dual-core processor with four threads will also work. A solid-state drive (SSD) can also improve your gaming experience, but it’s not a necessity.The PCIe board is a specialized piece of equipment. The most popular place to grab a board is BPlus in Taiwan (HWTools.net) with options for ExpressCard, m.2 A, E, and M slots, and mPCIe slots.

egpu hardware HWTools

A BPlus PCIe board for external graphics card usage.

The best PCIe board on offer at this writing is BPlus’ PE4C v3.0, which works over mPCIe or ExpressCard connections. It offers a PCIe-3.0 x16 slot, plus a nice stand to support your card. The PCIe board comes as a kit with power connectors and an HDMI-to-ExpressCard cable that allows the graphics card to interface with your laptop. Anyone interested in using an m.2 slot could look at the PE4C v4.1. The downside is that the latter supports only PCIe 2.0, while the former supports PCIe 3.0.

Next page: Picking the right hardware.

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