External Graphics Upgrade for Notebooks

Modifying the ViDock for use with other graphics cards: the Radeon 2600 XT and 3870

Without faster graphics cards to test through the ViDock’s ExpressCard interface, it’s difficult to judge exactly how much of an impact the slower bus has on performance. To that end, let’s see if we can do a few modifications and help the ViDock accommodate some faster video cards. (Of course, this sort of thing will almost certainly void your warranty, so it’s not something we’d recommend by any stretch of the imagination.)

With the ViDock open, it’s easy to imagine taking out the stock Radeon 2600 PRO and substituting a more powerful video card. The cards we chose to put in the ViDock would have to be Radeons to work with the driver, so we chose a Sapphire 2600 XT and an HIS 3870 to work with.

The 2600 XT was quite easy to integrate into the ViDock chassis. The large silent heat sink was a bit too large to fit in the enclosure, but we simply ran it with the enclosure off of the unit. Since the 2600XT doesn’t require a separate power connector, it was that simple.

The Radeon 3870 was another kettle of fish entirely, though. The large card interfered with some of the parts on the ViDock chassis that had to be temporarily removed. In addition, the 3870 requires its own dedicated power cable; to get the card to work, we had to hotwire a separate power supply to provide the 3870 with the juice it needed to run. This was not a very practical solution for real use, but we figured it would get us through the benchmarks.

After we got things going, we recorded the following data.

vidock expresscard graphics

3dMark shows us the ExpressCard bandwidth bottleneck as clear as day. The Radeon 3870 should be getting scores many times that of the 2600 PRO in the stock ViDock, but instead we saw only a subtle increase in performance. The 2600 PRO is looking like a good match for the slow ExpressCard bus.

vidock expresscard graphics

Prey shows us a close representation of what 3dMark just displayed: the ExpressCard bus is limiting the faster video cards so that they perform very close to the 2600 PRO that comes with the ViDock Pro.

vidock expresscard graphics

At low settings, Crysis shows us a curious drop in performance for the Radeon 3870 compared to its slower 2600 brethren. This puzzling scenario defies explanation.

vidock expresscard graphics

At the shader intensive medium settings, the 3870 takes its rightful place at the head of the pack. But it’s important to note that the 3870 can’t even muster enough power to play Crysis at medium settings at 1024x768, again because of the ExpressCard bus’s relatively low bandwidth.

vidock expresscard graphics

Professional 3D applications show us more of the same story: the ExpressCard bus severely limits the performance of the Radeon 2600 XT and 3870. It’s no wonder that ViDock offers the Radeon 2600 PRO in the fastest ViDock model, as anything more is a waste of money and would just require more power to run.

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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.