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How to use an external graphics card with a laptop


My desire to power up a laptop with an external graphics card began in 2015, when I set out on a quest to get back into PC gaming—a beloved pastime I’d neglected since childhood.

But the only PC I had at the time was a 2011 Lenovo ThinkPad X220 laptop with Intel HD 3000 integrated graphics. That just wouldn’t cut it for proper PC gaming. Sure, the laptop on its own works well enough for older titles like Diablo III, especially on the laptop’s tiny 1366×728-resolution display, but forget about more graphics-intensive modern games on an external 1080p monitor. That’s why I decided to examine external graphics card (eGPU) setups.

And indeed, I found entire communities of people creating DIY setups that connected desktop graphics cards to their laptops via ExpressCard or mPCIe slots to play games on an external monitor. It isn’t hard to configure, and using desktop graphics cards with a laptop has become even easier in recent times. The wide availability of Thunderbolt 3 combined with external graphics card docks has simplified the process even more for people with a modern notebook.

Many do-it-yourself types using Thunderbolt 3, ExpressCard, or mPCIe end up with a plug-and-play experience requiring little to no modification—though it takes some research first. When it’s done, however, you’ll be left with a console-toppling PC gaming setup for about the same price as a new Xbox One S, depending on which graphics card you choose. That’s far cheaper than building a whole new gaming desktop, and you can still take advantage of your laptop’s portability by disconnecting the eGPU hardware.

We’ll walk you through the DIY process for configuring an external graphics card later in this article, along with the sudden rise of streaming PC games from the cloud. First, let’s tackle the modern approach of using a graphics card dock via Thunderbolt 3.

Thunderbolt 3 graphics card docks

razer core Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

A Razer Core connected to a Razer Blade Stealth laptop via Thunderbolt 3/USB-C.

Thunderbolt 3 (TB3) is Intel’s high-speed external input/output connection, capable of speeds up to a blistering 40 gigabytes per second (GBps) over a compatible USB-C port. For resource-intensive activities like gaming, a speedy connection between your laptop and an external graphics card provides a big boost for performance.

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