External Graphics Upgrade for Notebooks

Limitations, Installation, Usability

Limitations using the ExpressCard Interface

Beyond the operating system issues, we should mention the limitations of the ExpressCard interface itself.

First, let’s consider traditional graphics bus interfaces. The older AGP 8x bus provides one-way bandwidth of 21 Gbits/s, and even by today’s standards this is a good amount of bandwidth for a graphics card. The newer PCI Express 16x standard for video cards can push 40 Gbits/s in both directions simultaneously, which is probably more than current graphics card technology really needs for a single video card.

Now let’s look at the ExpressCard bus. It’s based on a PCI Express 1x connection, with about 2.5 Gbits/s of bi-directional bandwidth available, which is a small fraction of what even the older 8x AGP standard can push! When it comes to graphics card technology, the ExpressCard bus is functionally very close to the ancient AGP 1.0 standard, about a quarter the one-way bandwidth of AGP 4x and an eighth of AGP 8x. Yikes!

This bandwidth limitation is most certainly going to limit the performance of an external graphics solution using the ExpressCard interface. The question is: how much will it limit performance, and how much better than the integrated graphics solution will it be? Well find the answers to these questions when we benchmark the hardware later in the article. Now, though, let’s talk about installation.

Installation and Usability

As we mentioned above, the ViDock is picky about the operating system it’s run on. The laptop we had originally chosen for testing was a Gateway model with Windows XP and a Geforce Go 6100 integrated chipset. As Windows XP supports multiple video drivers at the same time, we planned to be able to use the ViDock Pro Radeon version, as the Geforce version was not available for us to test.

As we mentioned above, though, some manufacturers do not strictly support PCMCIA configuration/booting procedures in the BIOS. The Gateway laptop we had slated for testing simply would not work without a new BIOS that would address the problem. Since we couldn’t find any appropriate BIOS available, we were out of luck.

In the interests of completing our review, Village Tronic supplied us with a Dell laptop for testing that used Windows Vista and had an integrated Radeon Xpress 1150 video chipset. Because we were using Vista, the version of the ViDock had to match the internal chipset of the laptop, so we were good to go with the Vidock Pro Radeon edition.

On this second laptop, installation was relatively quick and painless. We simply installed the driver, plugged the ViDock in, rebooted, and everything was good to go. When there’s not much to report as far as an installation goes, that’s a good sign.

Once we were up and running, things went relatively smoothly. To the developers’ credit, we encountered no show-stoppers on the pre-release software and hardware, although we did run into a couple of glitches.

The first annoyance we found was linked to the ViDock’s bundled VT Multidisplay application. The application is quite robust, and offers powerful control of multiple display configurations, window management, display profiles, cloning, and a host of other features. However, we found the early release a little unreliable, in that there were times that it didn’t seem to implement our screen configuration choices. We ended up setting the display configuration within the Catalyst Control Center, which offered us flawless control of all of the multiple displays, even those of the ViDock.

The second annoyance was an intermittent display flickering we had experienced on rare occasions. We couldn’t find an obvious cause for the problem, but it was a little distracting, although when we launched a 3D application it seemed to disappear.

Aside from these two annoyances that we hope will be addressed before the ViDock is released, the unit worked like a champ. 3D applications were greatly accelerated compared to the integrated graphic chipset, as the benchmarks below will demonstrate, and the power of the ViDock to drive the multitude of displays was impressive to say the least.

vidock expresscard graphics

Now that we know the ViDock can handle multiple displays with relative ease, let’s see what kind of 3D graphics prowess it brings to the table.

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  • a 6pack in
    thats a nice work around for 3d graphics on laptops. but at the 429 price tag plus the price of a 8600gt or a 3870.. thats getting pricy.

    its a valid option, but one that a normal user should think twice about.

    nice write up
  • crazyhandpuppet
    "If your integrated video chipset doesn’t support DHCP, or doesn’t accelerate decoding, it’s not going to play Blu-ray movies."

    Amazing how far DHCP has come over the last few years... Looks like it's already replacing HDCP :)
  • cleeve
    DHCP... ugh.

    Sorry, I'm Lisdexic!

    We'll have that fixed real soon. :)
  • cleeve
    At $429, it comes with an 8600 GT or 2600 PRO.
  • gwolfman
    Did they beat ASUS to the punch? When is this product available?
  • gwolfman
    No Call of Duty 4 benchmarks? :*(
  • cleeve
    Call of Duty 4 is so much easier on hardware, I prefer to concentrate on stuff that will really challenge it like Crysis and SupCom so we have a worst-case scenario.
  • piratepast40
    There are several interesting points here. The fact that card compatability is dependant on chipset type is interesting but not really shocking. It's (sort of) similar to the hybrid SLI and Crossfire capability of the 780 series chipsets and the way the chipsets support specific GPU series. It sounds as though another header or bus type is needed to fully support the concept. The expresscard/USB bus was the holdup a year ago and it appears to still be the main bottleneck. I'm curious to see if AMD's PUMA platform or Intel's version (forgot the name) will show us something in this area. Am also wondering if one of the laptop OEM's might offer the external card setup for specific models of their computers. Will be interesting to see what others are doing. Haven't heard anything at all from ASUS since early last year.
  • spuddyt
    would it be possible to run crossfire/sli with two of these things? (largely out of curiosity, twould be insane to actuall sensibly do it...) That way wouldn't you have 2 seperate pcie 1x bandwidths to play with/
  • anonymous x
    aww, i wish the express card slot had enough bandwidth to suport a geforce 9800 card
  • Luscious
    I see two things here that really limit the power of this device. First is the bandwidth. Chipset manufacturers will need to introduce some sort of "mobile express" port option with significantly more juice - something that I just don't see happening, especially considering this device is intended for existing/older notebooks. Second, in order to get the extra graphics horsepower you need an external display, something that will set you back at least another $300 for wuxga. Now we're at $729.

    If you've already got a laptop with upgradeable mxm graphics, you can upgrade to a better card for much less than that, and still use the laptop's display. Even better, if you've got an SLI laptop, that money could buy you a 2nd 8800M GTX.

    In my opinion $729 is a waste of money when $2149 will already buy you a nice Toshiba X205-SLI6 model notebook with dual 8600M GT graphics cards. Better value, better performance and much better looks.
  • piratepast40
    ^ I'm agreeing with you in that it can't be backwards compatable. It's just not going to work well that way. We need a new interface. Let's just hope it doesn't take as long as the "n" standard. Good grief - I bought into pre-n routers and cards 2 years ago and until a few months ago, there were people wringing their hands and saying that the world might end if you did that. It was the same thing going to s939. Naysayers were saying that it the upgrade from sempron was sooooo foolish and that only noobs would waste their money on such a thing. And then along came C2D and the magnetic poles of the planet changed places!!!

    The technology is evolving and it's evolving in multiple dimensions. I'm a little disapointed in Toms'. They just seem to be reporting instead of actually doing something. How about actually getting out a soldering iron and creating electron paths? What do you think guys - actually develop hardware .. what a concept!
  • Christopher1
    The real solution for people who want to play games on a laptop is to get a laptop with a DECENT graphics card at the get-go, meaning splurge on a $2000+ machine from HP or Alienware if you are going to want to play high-power games.
  • dmacfour
    Just buy a new Dell with the dedicated 8600m gt video card... they are going for less than a grand now, and actually do run games pretty well.
  • johnlove
    I think I am better off spending $2,000 on a laptop with 17" screen & 8800gt built in, than on a $1,500 laptop w/15" screen + $429 ViDock Pro + $400 video card.
  • dmacfour
    sorry, no 8800gt in laptops. There are GTS models and GTX models though. I've seen setups from Toshiba and Gateway go for under $1400 with an 8800m gts. Gaming on laptops is A LOT cheaper than it used to be.
  • proctopus
    for that 429$ price why don't you just build a cheap gaming pc with an 8500gt or so? it actually works with most operating systems. I feel that very few people are going to buy this but the one's who are really need it.
  • dmacfour
    Gaming PC and 8500gt in the same sentence?
  • TheGreatGrapeApe
    Nice to see you got the review up.
    Was getting worried there for a while. >B~/

    Nice to see the HD acceleration, I'm wondering if the 100% spikes aren't something to do with something else going on in the background. I see those every one in a while when testing and it's always some other app getting twitchy because Vista's doing something.

    Still seems very niche, like for the ultra-light portables where there is no option possible for something even GF8600M/MHD2600 level to be added something like a MacBook Air or Toshiba 500. But for the general public, best to just sell your old laptop and buy a cheap mid-level one.

    Nice review as usual, next stop LASSO and an HD4870X2! >B~)
  • psansbury
    I don't want to assume that this entire discussion is gaming only. There is another device out there that has been OEM tested and works great in adding additional monitors to a laptop-even a ThinkPad(just disable Presentation Director)
    usb2dvi video adapter allows you to add an additional monitor per adapter up to 6 additional screens in addition to the 2 normally supported by the laptop. Either DVI and/or VGA through a USB hub and/or direct connection.
    It is 2D only.