Modern laptop technology has advanced enormously in recent years, as systems have gotten thinner, lighter, and more power efficient. Unfortunately, mobile gamers have been left out of most of these trends. The laws of physics aren’t kind to people who try to stuff 45-80W GPUs into ultrabook chassis. Gamers today mostly have to choose between ultraportable systems with lower-end graphics or larger desktop-replacement class hardware. There are a handful of 15-inch laptops that attempt to straddle this divide, but reviews show that they tend to run hot and noisy — an unavoidable consequence of their configurations.
AMD has a plan to solve this problem through the use of a standardized external GPU interface that would allow customers to attach a desktop graphics card via an external chassis.
AMD’s Robert Hallock posted the following to Facebook, alongside a photo of the Razer Core:
Gaming notebooks are great for gaming, but nobody in their right mind wants to carry one all the time. Ultrathin notebooks are awesome to carry, but nobody in their right mind would confuse one for a gaming notebook…
External GPUs are the answer. External GPUs with standardized connectors, cables, drivers, plug’n’play, OS support, etc.
Given that he posted this next a photo of the Razer Core, I think we can assume it’s the first chassis to implement AMD’s new idea. Since we know that device is equipped with Thunderbolt 3 and a USB-C connector, it’s fairly easy to guess what AMD has implemented.
Don’t we already have docks?
Enthusiasts have been building their own external docks for years, and we’ve covered some of those efforts on ExtremeTech. The earlier solutions used older versions of Thunderbolt, however, which means they wouldn’t deliver as much bandwidth to a high-end GPU. A Thunderbolt 3-powered solution has four lanes of PCI Express 3.0. That may not sound like much, but it’s significantly more than previous external solutions. Single-GPU bandwidth needs tend to scale only modestly upwards; you need high-bandwidth connections for multi-GPU hardware, but one card should be just fine on Thunderbolt 3.
Once you start poking around at existing dock solutions, some problems emerge. Alienware’s Graphics Amplifier doesn’t allow a laptop to hibernate, is only compatible with Alienware hardware, and is frankly rather large.
AMD’s phrasing in this announcement implies that their new solution is based on a standard implementation for everything, including drivers, OS, connectors, and cables. Razer, meanwhile, has already advertised the Core as being compatible with both AMD and Nvidia graphics cards.
In a situation like this, it’ll be the fine print that spells out exactly how attractive a solution it could be. Still, a standardized platform with a common specification, multi-GPU support, and possibly even cross-vendor compatibility? That could be a potent product. With multiple GPU technology conferences coming, we should know more in the near future.
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