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.

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.

  • 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