Echo Express Pro: Desktop Graphics In A Thunderbolt Chassis

Have the rigors of life on the road forced you to ditch your desktop in favor of a laptop? What if you could add discrete graphics to your Ultrabook? We test the gaming performance of Sonnet's Echo Express Thunderbolt expansion chassis for PCIe cards.

Earlier this year, we gave MSI's GUS II a Best of CES award. The company wasn't showing off final hardware, and indeed, the GUS II still isn't something you can buy. However, its demonstration of discrete graphics attached to a notebook via Thunderbolt wore down some of the cynicism we had building up under our fingertips. For the first time at the show, we were seeing something that genuinely got us excited.

There are many legitimate reasons to want an external chassis enabled with PCI Express slots. However, such a device would only be effective if it connected to a host machine over a high-speed interface. Thunderbolt is just that. Each link supports up to 10 Gb/s of bidirectional PCI Express-based throughput, or the equivalent of four second-gen lanes. That's enough bandwidth to do a lot of things, including gaming on a relatively high-end graphics card.

Could a road warrior with a diminutive Ultrabook attach a device like the GUS II to his or her machine and enjoy enthusiast-class frame rates, even with laughable integrated graphics under the hood? That'd sure make it easy to enjoy the benefits of a thin and light laptop on the road, and then get a more desktop-like experience back at home.

Suddenly, Thunderbolt sounds a lot more useful, doesn't it? Up until now, I think the interface has been misunderstood by the folks shopping for storage devices who already see plenty of USB 3.0-enabled hosts and client products selling for far less. It doesn't look like a particularly attractive solution for adding multiple displays. With most GPUs incorporating two or three independent display pipelines, plus DisplayPort, it's already possible to arm many notebooks with a pair of desktop monitors or more.

Want To Know More About Thunderbolt?

Check out Everything You Need To Know About Thunderbolt for an in-depth look at the technology and Nine External Thunderbolt Storage Devices, Rounded Up for a comprehensive look at the storage-oriented products currently available.

What we haven't really explored yet, however, is what else you can do with external access to PCI Express, aside from attaching SATA controllers. Although we've seen some very impressive performance from high-end hard drive-based storage arrays attached via Thunderbolt, what we've really been dying to see is a GUS II-like device that gives us the freedom to add the full force of any add-in card to a mobile machine.

Enter Sonnet Technologies' Echo Express and Echo Express Pro, the first devices we've seen for sale that truly externalize PCIe in its native form.

Both products accommodate any desktop PCI Express-based add-in card (the Echo Express supporting single-slot cards and the Echo Express Pro making room for dual-slot boards), delivering their functionality to a Thunderbolt-equipped host.

Does this mean we can finally enjoy the portability of a thin-and-light Ultrabook, and then return home to the power of a configurable desktop, enabled by Sonnet Technologies and the Thunderbolt interface? It's time to investigate.

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  • amuffin
    Well, getting a laptop that supports thunderbolt is already pretty expensive. Then, you have to get one of these which ranges from $400-$800. THEN you have to buy a dedicated card....

    It's pretty expensive once you add it all up :/
  • yobobjm
    I like it, but I see limited use for it, especially for those of us who already have large towers, and don't really want another small tower added on to that. That being said, this would make a pretty awesome home dock for a laptop, and good for those tiny desktops that intel, apple, asrock, zotac and many others make (once all of those get thunderbolt).
  • acku
    Prices will go down. Remember that.

    Second, it's about the cost you'd have to pay anyways for a desktop (which you need if you want to game since you can't on a vanilla ultrabook), so its more like an alternative solution for those who want a single system setup.

    Andrew Ku
    Tom's Hardware
  • amuffin
    Prices will go down. Remember that.

    They don't go down enough...
  • mayankleoboy1
    any controller + the surrounding ecosystem that is this expensive cant survive much. Not being a hater, but being a realist.
  • acku
    You don't know that :). USB 3.0 was expensive when it first came out. Look at things now. Wow things have changed. Prices are substantially lower now.
  • Darkerson
    Pretty interesting, even with the currently high price tag.
  • Vorador2
    Needs to be cheaper. That's my only serious gripe.

    And well, for this purpose Thunderbolt still needs to be faster to fully take advantage of the external GPU, best around 16 Gb/s since it's the speed of a 16x PCIE 3.0 slot.

    Although you could potentially sidestep this issue if you use two linked thunderbolt interfaces, but then there's the problem of synchronizing data transfers (and finding a laptop with two thunderbolt interfaces...if there's any)
  • Menigmand
    If they can make this much cheaper, I would be very interested. I prefer to game on a laptop so I can easily stow it away when I have guests over and need the dining table. An extra box would be ok, as long as it doesn't need an external display.
  • assasin32
    Well this makes things more interesting, when the price goes down and becomes resonable within probably the next few years it may give us the ability to buy laptops and attach some reasonble GPU's to them so we can play games on them a lot better.

    If this was around 8 years ago I would have been all over it and had it for my laptop since I used to use that for gaming.
  • beavermml
    this maybe a stupid problem.. but will there be mouse lag using external dock with xtra latency? i dont know internal stuff much...
  • de5_Roy
    intel core i5 2400 does not have intel hd 3000 igpu. it has intel hd2000 igpu. iirc core i5 2405s has hd3000 igpu.
  • abhijitkalyane
    Think of the possibilities - Sonnet or nVidia or AMD could release Thunderbolt GPUs directly (instead of dock+GPU) - that would be a very viable alternative for Ultrabook gamers.
    If such a combination (UB with i7 + Thunderbolt GPU) is available at a reasonable price, a lot of mobile gamers will consider it. I know I would.
  • ojas
    Yeah, but can it play Crysis?

  • fbbam
    Awesome, but still out of reach for most
  • toddybody
    Really cool idea...but the real world application doesnt make much sense for a windows (HW) user. For this much could just build another rig/upgrade desktop internals.

    If gaming on OSX is your cup o' tea...then it does have some (albeit expensive) application.

    No offense, but hardcore gamer + Apple dont jive. Im at peace with the fact my MBA cant game...its great at what it does. Same goes for my gaming desktop (I dont cry about the lost potential of OSX applications on it).
  • gunbust3r
    Well, now we know why the Lucid Logic demo is only using a Radeon 6700...
  • thefizzle656
    menigmandIf they can make this much cheaper, I would be very interested. I prefer to game on a laptop so I can easily stow it away when I have guests over and need the dining table. An extra box would be ok, as long as it doesn't need an external display.

    I'm pretty sure that this and all other possible external GPU solutions require an external monitor. The box hooks up the TB port on your computer, and then you have to hook up the actual GPU to a monitor (via HDMI, DVI, etc).
  • Hi there, from reading this review, i noticed that you used it with your macbook pro. Were you able to use the external graphic card with OSX or did you install windows on your mac to use it. Would be really nice to be able to use this in OSX. Also would the Echo express be able to accommodate the GTX 460 or even better hd 7750, or would i need the more expensive echo express pro. Thanks for helping me with these questions. =)
  • xenol
    Call me crazy, but maybe this will simplify the laptop market a little (sort of). At least in the entry level to midrange, the only thing distinguishing laptops is their processor, memory, storage, etc. Then if the user wants to, add in a discrete external card.

    Should also save board space since you no longer have to have a dedicated GPU and its RAM and house keeping to put on the board. Which means more room for the battery.
  • yialanliu
    I actually have an external graphics card via an expressport on an old Dell laptop. Works great. Also, I know Sony makes an external GPU for their high end laptop as well. So this isn't new tech at all. It's just using a new interface that's it.

    While it works really well, the price is a limiting factor and it never did come down after I bought it since it's just not that popular.
  • pacioli
    Not ready for prime time... too expensive when you can build an entire system for the price of this sub-system.
  • boiler1990
    I'd be in for one of these if the price were ~half. An external GPU would be ideal for somebody who wants a laptop that is useable on the go (MacBook Air, maybe even the 13" Pro) but likes to dock it when they sit down to work for extended periods of time. This would prevent some people from buying a desktop for just one or two features.
  • KelvinTy
    There used to be products using PCIe 4x or 2x slot for external graphics... but then they abandoned it.
    I would imagine this would be exactly the same since the thunderbolt is an even more expensive solution...