External Laptop Graphics Card

For users who have laptop or notebook computers or for desktop users who have no available PCI slots, an external graphics card may be a viable graphics card upgrade option.

An external graphics card, also known as an external GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) plugs into any compatible computer via a either a USB 2.0+ or ExpressCard interface connection, negating the need for a free PCI slot. Obviously, using these devices also negates the need to open the laptop computer case and install a new graphics card.

External Graphics Card History

External video cards are a new innovation. The first widely released external GPU was called developed by ASUSTeK Computer Incorporated, and was called the XG Station.

The XGS offered 2 USB 2.0 ports, headphone input, and user defined overclock settings. On screen displays provided real-time updates of GPUs clock speed, memory speed, fan speed, temperature, and frame rate.

The XGS used a single PCI-Express lane, providing limited bandwidth in comparison to most graphics cards of the time, and power consumption was capped at 84 watts.

Ultimately, the XGS was only sold in Australia. It was built from a modified GeForce 8600GT with 256 megs of video memory, and sold for roughly $350. A year later, due to poor demand, the XGS was shelved.

Since then, the market has rekindled here in America, and numerous options now exist for external graphics cards.

External Card Manufacturers

Nvidia Corporation and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) both offer external graphics card solutions.

The Gigabyte Booktop M1305 shipped in mid-2009 with an external Nvidia GeForce GT220 that sported a 720 MHz GPU and 512 megs of video memory. Additionally, Nvidia has been providing external graphics cards for industrial and enterprise-level buyers for several years, so it's safe to assume they have a newer version of this technology in the works.

AMD offers a line of Notebook computers with Radeon 5000 series external graphics cards that support CrossFireX multi-GPU technology and multiple display devices out of the box.

External Graphics Card Advantages

Both Nvidia and AMD implement ExpressCard technology to utilize external graphics cards in notebook or laptop computers, which provides more than 4 gigs per second in bandwidth - plenty for running most modern games at high resolutions.
  1. Since the graphics card is operating outside the computer, heat dissolution is markedly easier, increasing both the stability of the computer system and of the card itself. This is especially pertinent for notebook and laptop owners, since liquid cooling systems are not an option in portable computers.
  2. Having the graphics card operate externally provides a modular usage option for the user: if there is no available AC power, and the laptop or desktop is operating on batteries only, the user can simply disconnect the external card and use the on-board GPU. This lets the user choose between performance and battery life in low-power situations.
  3. Upgrading external graphics cards is as easy as unplugging the old one and plugging in the new one. No computer surgery is required, and there is no risk of damaging internal components or voiding a warranty.

External Graphics Card Disadvantages

External GPUs require outside power sources and often cap out at wattages that will not support the faster lines of GPUs available on the market now.

While ExpressCard technology provides ample bandwidth for the near future, new technology must be implemented. Games and applications released a few years from now will simply require more bandwidth than the ExpressCard is able to provide.

External graphics cards are much more expensive, by comparison, than standard graphics cards in the same series. This is largely due to their modularity and casing - a graphics card installed inside a computer does not require the same amount of protection or the same number of outgoing ports as an external card.

External Graphics Card for Laptops Summary

While the advances made in external GPU technology are significant, internal cards remain the most cost effective option. Further, the speeds and performance characteristics of internal cards still outpace those of external cards, making external GPUs an almost unnecessary expense for most computer owners.

While the modularity of external GPUs is a factor for laptop or notebook users who want to be able to choose between performance and battery life, the external GPU has nearly nothing to offer the desktop PC market. All desktops, by definition, have access to AC power and therefore do not require a modular graphics card option.

In the end, the external GPU is a marvel of technology and engineering, but at the time of this writing, remains little more than a novelty item for laptop computer users.