External Graphics Upgrade for Notebooks

Laptops are fantastic tools, but the portable design philosophy that makes the laptop possible is responsible for one of its most irritating flaws: an utter lack of upgradeability. Sure, you can upgrade the RAM in your laptop, but other than that, you’re probably out of luck. Even if your CPU is fast enough to perform the newest tasks, your video chipset will often limit what you can do.

Want to use three or more displays? Sorry, most laptops only support the included display plus another using an analog out. Want to buy an external Blu-Ray player for your laptop? If your integrated video chipset doesn’t support DHCP, or doesn’t accelerate decoding, it’s not going to play Blu-ray movies. What if you’d like to play some of the newer video games? Sorry, your laptop’s integrated video is too slow, and you can’t upgrade the video card...

Or can you?

While it’s true that there are a small number of laptops out there with an upgradeable video chipset solution, such as MXM, Axiom, or Dell’s proprietary slot, these are by far the minority. For most laptops, upgrading the internal video chipset is simply not an option. Yet with the introduction of the external ExpressCard interface, we have seen companies explore the realm of the external graphics card upgrade.

By now you have probably heard of XG Station from Asus, an ExpressCard solution currently in development, but not yet ready for purchase or even testing by our labs. The PC technology company MSI demonstrated the Luxium, but when we talked to them they told us it was nothing more than a technology demonstration at this time. A company called Magna has been selling the ‘Expressbox’, which, with no included videocard, looks to be an ExpressCard-to-PCIe adapter that leaves the graphics card purchase and installation up to the user. What you might also have heard of is another solution by a company called Village Tronic: the ViDock Gfx.

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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.