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Echo Express Pro: Desktop Graphics In A Thunderbolt Chassis

Powerful Add-In Cards...Over Thunderbolt?

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.