External graphics cards: Turn your laptop into a gaming machine

Laptop computers are some of the most frequently used and purchased pieces of technology in today’s world. The core of the laptop’s appeal is that it gives you some (if not all) of the functionality of a desktop computer while being extremely lightweight and portable.

However, one big issue has plagued laptops since day one; their internal components can’t be upgraded. This is because laptops are prefabricated with a certain spec that can’t be altered, only replaced with a whole new device.

While this isn’t an issue if you only use you laptop to send emails and create spreadsheets, it can be particularly tricky if you’re a gamer. This is because the latest and greatest game software requires more powerful computer components to run them optimally.

This means that while some games will run okay on a laptop, they won’t run optimally and are often simply unplayable because of computer lag. This is happening because the laptop’s internal components aren’t high enough spec to run the software properly.

Games that aren’t very graphics intensive, like those with 2D artwork, will normally run fine on a laptop. Bigger games that have in-depth 3D environments naturally require much more power and are normally unplayable on laptops.

This is because three-dimensional polygonal spaces require the graphics processing unit (GPU) to work harder in order to draw the image that displays on your screen. A bigger GPU means better graphical fidelity.

The problem is; GPUs have always been considered internal components with no mechanism to connect them to a laptop. This is now changing with the rise of external GPUs that can be plugged into a laptop to give it an instant performance boost.

Before you start looking for the the best external GPU, you should learn a little bit more about how they work. This technology is still relatively new and as such there is still a lot of room for improvement as manufacturers continue to innovate.

How do they work?

An external GPU operates just like any other graphics card, except it is housed in its own chassis separate from the rest of the computer. This is known as external GPU ‘housing’ and can be quite expensive depending on the quality you desire.

The external GPU is connected to the laptop via a Thunderbolt 3 (TB3) high speed input/output connection that is attached to a compatible USB-C port. The speed of this connection between the laptop and the external GPU plays a big role in how good a game’s performance will be.

In the early days of external graphics cards, the available docking mechanisms were very expensive and inconsistent. Intel’s TB3 manages to level the playing field with many manufacturers offering Thunderbolt 3 compatible docks complete with lots of additional features.

This means that in order to use external graphics power, you’ll need a relatively new laptop that has a compatible USB-C port.

Who are they most suited for?

External GPUs are definitely a very attractive option for people who want to get better software performance out of their laptop. Naturally, external GPUs are most suitable for people with laptops who are unable to currently experience the latest games.

Keep in mind; an external GPU will negate the benefits of the laptop’s portability, so they are only really suitable to use at home. This is why external GPUs are most commonly used as a stopgap measure short of buying a dedicated gaming desktop.

In truth, an external GPU won’t perform as well as a dedicated desktop tower and those who are serious about PC gaming would probably prefer that option. However, an external GPU gives you the ability to easily convert your portable laptop into a fully functional gaming device that allows you to enjoy the latest games.

This makes external GPUs perfect for students who use their laptop routinely in different locations but want something more powerful for when they get home. External GPUs effectively let you plug in and play games your laptop would otherwise struggle to run.

They are also great for non-gamers who use 3D drawing programs that can also be particularly graphics intensive. Basically anyone who needs a quick boost to their laptop’s graphical power will love the convenience of an external GPU.

External GPUs are a common-sense solution to an age-old problem for laptop users. While they aren’t necessarily a replacement for a dedicated gaming PC, they provide an effective in-between solution for those who need something right away.

Christian Woods
Christian Woods
Christian is a morning reporter and technology columnist for Best in Australia. Christian has worked in the media since 2000, in a range of locations. He joined Best in Australia in 2018, and began working in Melbourne in 2019.
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