Did you ever wonder if you could have desktop-like performance on a notebook while at home, and still retain portability and power efficiency when on the move? Obviously, while the option is always there to simply buy a gaming notebook, sometimes you want to try a more budget-friendly approach that will let you have a good-performing gaming system at home, and something lighter (and less expensive) on the go. That’s where external graphics cards (or eGPUs) come in. It’s not a new idea, and there are tons of big-name products out there already. But my old Lenovo T420 did not have a Thunderbolt port. And I really needed some extra UMPH for graphic design and video editing at home… and some light gaming. Enter the EXP GDC Beast: an eGPU adapter for Mini PCIe, or in my case, Expresscard.
If you’re not familiar with the Expresscard port, I don’t blame you: it never really caught on outside of the corporate market, and there weren’t many peripherals released for it. But a lot of late 2000’s/early 2010’s workstation notebooks have this port. My Lenovo T420, for example, has an Expresscard port. And while looking for ways to optimize that unused port (I first thought of adding USB 3.0 ports), I came across the wonderful world of eGPUs.
You can find a ton of information on the subject in forums. My personal favorite is the dedicated, and very helpful https://egpu.io/ which has a ton of resources for getting started. After a quick look-around, I realized that my laptop was actually a prime candidate for an eGPU setup.
After doing some more looking around, I bought a few pieces to complete my setup, which ended up looking like this:
- Laptop: Lenovo Thinkpad T420 (buy here)
- eGPU adapter: EXP GDC Beast (buy with Expresscard cable) (buy with Mini PCIe cable)
- GPU: AMD Radeon HD 7770
- Power supply for eGPU adapter and GPU: Dell DA-2 (buy here)
I went with the Dell DA-2 power supply because it is compatible with the EXP GDC Beast. In fact, it’s actually optimized for this Dell power supply. You just plug it in, and then out the back of the eGPU adapter, you get a 6-pin out for the GPU, should you need more than 75w of power (which I did, so I got a 6-pin to 6-pin cable locally).
And when my whole Frankenstein-like assembly was completed, I followed the setup procedure. It was fairly straight forward: plug the GPU to the eGPU adapter. Plug the power supply to the eGPU adapter. Plug the 6-pin cable to the eGPU adapter and the GPU. And finally, plug the eGPU adapter to the Laptop using the Expresscard port. I changed the BIOS setup to accept a PCI signal on the Expresscard port, and plugged a monitor to the end of my GPU. And prayed. And pushed the “On” button.
The laptop booted briefly, and then it went off. My heart stopped.
Then, the laptop started again, and it booted straight into Windows. I’d later find that it’d reboot every time I plugged the adapter into the Expresscard port. I think it needs to “wake up” the rest of the laptop to make it aware that there’s something going on.
After that, it was smooth sailing, really. The drivers for the HD 7770 are very up to date (one of the reasons I went with AMD rather than nVidia). Before you know it, I was running benchmarks. Before I tell you the results, it’s worth noting that if you use an nVidia GPU series GTX 400 or newer, you can actually power the internal screen of your laptop with it. You don’t even need the external monitor. BUT, older nVidia drivers are not that great, so I went with AMD.
Did I see a boost in performance? Hell yes, I did. Overall, I saw a 400% increase in performance over the Intel HD 3000 graphics that come with my laptop’s upgraded i7 2670QM quad-core processor. I could actually run GTA V and most modern games at native resolution for my monitor (one of those odd 16:10 1050p ones).
Interestingly, though, I later tried a more powerful graphics card, but I was not able to get any more performance out of the setup. This is something that I suspected: the Expresscard port is a limiting factor, as the buss speed is really not that great. I think anything beyond an AMD HD 7770 or nVidia GTX 465 will be bottlenecked by the Expresscard buss. If you plan to go that round, either find a notebook that has a Thunderbolt port, or run the Mini PCIe version of this adapter (though I don’t recommend that, because you have to keep the laptop disassembled and it defeats the purpose or portability).
Was it worth the investment, then? Well, for me, it certainly was. At that point in time, I could not get the budget together for a better laptop or a desktop computer. I invested a total of $125 in the adapter, the GPU and the power supply and cable. I was then able to get much better export times in Sony Vegas and Adobe After Effects. I was also able to play non-competitive games, even modern ones, at 30fps.
I’ve since got the money together to build a Ryzen gig and I’m very happy with it. But for a year and a half, my EXP GDC Beast, the HD 7770 and this whole shebang ran my business. I paid my mortgage payments with the money I was making on that laptop setup.
You can’t beat that, really.