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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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Gaming from the cloud

If an eGPU set-up isn’t in the cards there’s another option. Several services are currently working on bringing cloud-based game streaming to the masses. 

With cloud gaming, all you need is a basic Windows PC or a MacBook to run the client software, while a more robust PC runs the actual game in the cloud. Both of the above mentioned services use the same basic format. You buy your own PC games from Steam or a similar service, then install it on your cloud-based virtual gaming machine and stream the gameplay to your physical laptop. 

geforce now pcs Nvidia

GeForce Now and other cloud services let you game even if your laptop can’t game.

One is Nvidia’s GeForce Now, currently in a closed beta and provided at no cost for accepted testers. Nvidia hasn’t commented on current pricing plans, but when GeForce Now was first introduced the service was expected to charge $25 for 20 hours on a virtual PC with the capabilities of a GTX 1060 graphics card, or 10 hours on a GTX 1080-equivalent virtual PC. Those cards will likely change once/if GeForce Now rolls out to the wider public.

Twenty hours sounds like a good chunk of game time, but when you consider that a large game like The Witcher 3 takes 60-100 hours to complete, and you need to buy your own copy of the game to play it, Nvidia’s service doesn’t sound especially budget-friendly—if pricing remains the same at launch. GeForce Now may be more compelling as a “backup” option—letting you play your games on your work laptop while you’re on the road, for example. 

Now for the good news: GeForce Now is currently free-as-in-beer-free during the beta period for the PC, Mac, and Nvidia Shield TV. PC and Mac users need to sign-up and request access, but Shield TV owners can get automatic access to the beta as of July 2018. We tested GeForce Now’s performance in 2018 over a 25Gbps home connection and were suitably impressed with its performance.

Things get murkier beyond GeForce Now.

LiquidSky was another early cloud streaming competitor, but it’s since gone into hiatus after a beta that started pricing at $15 per month for 25 hours of 1080p gameplay and 200GB of gaming storage. French company Blade recently expanded to the U.S. in limited fashion but its “Shadow” streaming service offers a somewhat bumpy ride for its $30 per month asking price. Other companies such as China-based Tencent recently announced something called Instant Play, and Poland-based Vortex currently offers streaming for select games.

More established tech goliaths appear poised to take on cloud-based streaming, in the form of Google’s nebulous, yet ambitious Stadia and Microsoft’s Xbox-centric Project xCloud. Sony’s been into game streaming ever since it gobbled up what was left of Gaikai, an early pioneer in the space, and PlayStation Now has evolved into the surprise OnLive replacement you didn’t know you wanted—though it’s (obviously) limited to PlayStation titles. 

Cloud gaming is a solid, if sometimes pricey, concept that may very well be the best way to play games in the future if the price is right. For now, however, the thriftier way to get gaming is to try a DIY eGPU set-up—especially if buying a full gaming desktop isn’t in the cards.

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