Tech Adventures: Thunderbolt 3 External Graphics
06 Jun 2017

Tech Adventures: Thunderbolt 3 External Graphics

06 Jun 2017

Our desktops at home, Alexstrasza and Keristrasza, have seen little use  in the past years. Firstly, because the room they’re in got messed up by our cats. Secondly, because we’ve primarily moved to mobile and console gaming. Lastly, because lounging on a sofa or bed is much more comfortable than sitting in an IKEA work chair. 😛

Seeing how we prefer working on laptops instead of desktops nowadays, I shifted our future PC landscape plan to replace the obsolete PCs with laptops and some accessories to help them out. One of these accessories is an external Thunderbolt 3 GPU enclosure, to give our slim laptops a boost when playing games or rendering video. Essentially, I wanted to have a single portable device that I’ll bring to work and everywhere, while having the ability to hook it up at home and play AAA games on it.

Let’s first look at the laptops that we own. Faizah has the new Dell XPS 15 9560 to replace her struggling Lenovo Flex 15. The XPS has a USB-C Thunderbolt 3 port, but with only 2x PCI-E lanes. I picked up a new HP Elitebook x360 1030 G2, a business laptop but with a USB-C Thunderbolt 3 port with 4x PCI-E lanes. More PCI-E lanes means more bandwidth that can pass between the laptop and the accessory, so 4x theoretically would allow you speeds up to 40Gbps. At the moment the general consensus is that having only 2x lanes isn’t too big of a performance drop, but we’ll take a look at the benchmark results at the end of this article. Anyway, if you want to take a closer look at the laptops’ specs, head on over to the Machines page.

 

I wanted to grab the cheapest enclosure I could find locally, but there weren’t many choices here in KL. Fortunately someone was selling his 2nd hand AKiTiO Node on the LYN forums at a good discount, so I quickly met up with the guy and bought it. The Node is a plain and simple enclosure for the sole purpose of housing a GPU. It has no extra ports, bells, or whistles, so all you get is a 400W PSU to power the graphics card with, and a single PCI express slot. The housing can hold cards that take up two slots, and its length should allow it to easily take in most full-sized cards. A short Thunderbolt 3 cable is provided, but it’s just that: too short.

For the GPU, I was actually aiming for a GTX 1070, but I thought in the end what the heck, let’s go big! I needed some retail therapy anyways. The GTX 1080 Ti is currently the best card available, so hopefully this’ll last me awhile. I chose to go with the Founders Edition, due to its blower-type cooling, which seems more appropriate for an enclosure without an active exhaust fan. As you can see below, there’s still plenty of room for longer cards.

The enclosure takes up the width of the table, but it’s not bad to look at. Gone are days of LED fans and bling for me. 🙂 For now, the cable is too short, so I’m going to have to place it in reverse.

 

 

 


Setup: HP Elitebook x360 1030 G2 + AKiTiO Node + GTX 1080 Ti FE

Setup was very straightforward. The Thunderbolt 3 software that came with the laptop already supports eGPUs.

  1. Make sure external monitor has input set to the eGPU (I made the stupid mistake of not realizing it was still connected to my desktop via DVI).
  2. Power on eGPU.
  3. Power on laptop.
  4. Connect Thunderbolt 3 cable from the eGPU to the laptop.
  5. Install NVidia Drivers, version 382.33.
  6. Reboot.
  7. Win.

UPDATE 7/6/2017: The laptop does not seem to accept power from the Node, most likely because it only supplies up to 15W. There’s also a message about using an original HP power source, so that might be a factor as well.

Benchmarks

Did a combination of Unigine Superposition and Valley benchmarks just for comparison against random online scores, on both internal and external monitors. Overall, the performance loss isn’t bad at all, at slightly less than 10%.

UPDATE 24/6/2017: The performance drop for 1080p isn’t bad at all; within 10% reported by most eGPU users. However, 4K on the internal display shows a massive drop from the expected 9000 score to 7000 on Superposition, showing a 23% drop. Originally I was comparing against one Youtube video which showed a 7363 score, but the average seems to be in the 9000+ range. The Valley benchmark at 4K internal also shows a drop of 38% compared to this benchmark.

I ran another benchmark on 3DMark Firestrike Ultra and got a score of 4989 compared to 6810 and 6696 that other people got (27% drop). Though note that this benchmark forces physics computations on the CPU, which factors into the lower score.

I don’t have a 4K monitor, but running the 4K benchmarks on a 1200p monitor seems to work, so I’ve added them to the screenshots below. I’m still not within 10% of desktop performance, so perhaps there are other things slowing me down, like the CPU.

 

 

 


Setup: Dell XPS 15 9560 + AKiTiO Node + GTX 1080 Ti FE

The setup for Dell was a bit messier. At the time, the BIOS firmware for the Dell was at 1.3.3. My mistake was starting with an attempt to drive my internal LCD before the external monitor because the latter easily worked after all the steps below, but till now I’ve failed on the former. So I’m not sure if any of the steps to update firmware and drivers were actually necessary to get things going on the external monitor.

The Dell does not support eGPUs out of the box, hence the limitations in getting everything to work like the HP.

  1. Updated Intel Thunderbolt 3 software from Dell here. Updated from 16.2.52.250 to 16.2.55.275.
  2. Rebooted.
  3. Powered on eGPU; connected eGPU to laptop.
  4. Updated AKiTiO Node firmware to support hosts that don’t support eGPUs from here. I didn’t know if the previous owner already did it, but I did it anyway. My update killed itself at 95%, but there doesn’t seem to be any damage or bricking. Maybe I should’ve disconnected the eGPU and the TB3 device in software first. Updated to v1.0.0.4 B1-25+4.3.3.
  5. Disconnected and rebooted the eGPU. Reconnected eGPU.
  6. Updated NVidia drivers via Geforce Experience to version 382.33 (I think, missed a screenshot of the driver version :P) then reboot. At some point prior to this, Windows 10 also updated drivers to an unknown version once the eGPU was connected. I rebooted after that as well.

As mentioned above, I wasn’t able to get the eGPU to drive the internal LCD. I’ve tried disabling the internal Intel GPU as well as the internal GTX 1050 (not at the same time) in Device Manager, but it still won’t detect the eGPU. I’ll be continuing my research on this in my spare time, and will update this post if I’ve had any additional success.

Benchmarks

The internal GTX 1050 struggled to churn out Superposition’s “1080p Extreme” settings. The eGPU on the external monitor did well, but with a relatively lower score than the HP Elitebook. The result is still within the expected 10% drop of any eGPU.

 

Summary

Both the Dell XPS 13 9360 and 15 9560 might not be the best choice if you want to go the eGPU route. The new Dell XPS 13 2in1 9365 has 4x PCI-E lanes, but it might still not support eGPU without a proper host firmware update which is not available at this time. There’s some talk about Dell starting to certify for eGPUs, but we don’t know when that’s going to happen if ever.

The HP Elitebook x360 G2, being the business-savvy sister of the Spectre x360, is perfect for this setup. It just works! The eGPU was also able to drive the internal 4K LCD very nicely. While it might not be as refined or battery-lasting as the XPS line, it’s still a nice sleek laptop to wow your clients with. Honestly I was looking to buy the Spectre, but HP Malaysia wasn’t bringing in the 4K version, and international warranty wouldn’t cover it if I bought it elsewhere. My Elitebook had to be custom ordered too. Anyway, it’s a keeper. 🙂

 

Footnotes

  • In both setups, I had to switch the main displays back and forth in Windows 10 settings so that the benchmark would run on the chosen main display. I also had to sign off  and sign back on my Windows account to reset UI scaling.
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