I like playing video games, and most games I play require a GPU that is more powerful than the integrated graphic chipset that can be found in laptop or computers. I recently found that external graphic card were a thing, and fortunately I had a few spare old graphic card for trying.
The hardware is called an eGPU (for external GPU) and are connected to the computer using a thunderbolt link. Because I buy most of my hardware second hand now, I've been able to find a Razer Core X eGPU (the simple core X and not the core X Chroma which provides USB and RJ45 connectivity on the case through thunderbolt), exactly what I was looking for. Basically, it's an external case with a PSU inside and a rack, pull out the rack and insert the graphic card, and you are done. Obviously, it works fine on Windows or Mac but it can be tricky on Linux.
My setup §
I'm using a Lenovo T470 with an i5 CPU. When I want to use the eGPU, I connect the thunderbolt wire and keyboard / mouse (which I connect through an USB KVM to switch those from a computer to another). The thunderbolt port also provide power to the laptop which is good to know.
How does it work? §
There are two ways to use this device, the display can be connected to the eGPU itself or the rendering could be done on the laptop (let's say we only target laptops here) using the eGPU as a discrete card (only rendering, without display). Both modes have pros and cons.
- External display Pros: best performance, allow many displays to be used
- External display Cons: require a screen
- Discrete mode Pros: no extra wire, no different setup when using the laptop without the eGPU
- Discrete mode Cons: performance penalty, support doesn't work well on Linux
The performance penalty comes from the fact the thunderbolt bandwidth is limited, and if you want to display on your screen you need to receive the data back which will reduce the bandwidth allowed for rendering. A penalty of at least 20% should be expected in normal mode, and around 40% in discrete mode. This is not really fun but for a nice boost with an old graphic card this is still nice.
What to expect of it on Linux? §
I've been using this on Gentoo only so far, but I had a previous experience with a pretty similar setup a few years ago with a laptop with a discrete nvidia card (called Optimus at that time), and the GPU was only usable as a discrete GPU and it was a mess at that time.
As for the eGPU, in external mode it works fine using the nvidia driver, I needed an xorg.conf file to tell to use the nvidia driver, then the display would be fine and 3D would work perfectly as if I was using a "real" card on a computer. I can play high demanding games such as Control, Death Stranding or other games using my Thinkpad Laptop when docked, this is really nice!
The setup is a bit weird though, if I want to undock, I need to prepare the new xorg.conf file and stop X, disconnect the eGPU and restart the display manager to login. Not very easy. I've been able to script it using a simple script at boot that will detect the Nvidia GPU and choose the correct xorg.conf file just before starting the display manager, it works quite fine and makes life easier.
Video games? §
I've been playing Steam video games, it works absolutely perfectly due to their work on Proton to make Windows games running. GOG games works fine too, I use Lutris games library manager to handle them and it works so far.
Now, there is the tricky discrete mode. On linux, the bumblebee project allows rendering a program in a virtual display to benefit from the 3D acceleration and then show it on another device, this work was done for Optimus hardware hence the bumblebee name (related to Transfomers lore). Steam doesn't like bumblebee at all and won't start game, this is a known bug, Steam is bad at managing multiple GPUs. I've not been able to display anything using bumblebee.
On the other hand, native Linux GOG games were working fine using bumblebee, however I don't own much high demanding Linux games so I've not been able to see if the performance hit was hard. Windows GOG games wouldn't run, partially because the DXVK (directX to vulkan) Wine rendering can't be used because bumblebee doesn't allow using Vulkan graphical API and error messages were unhelpful. I have literally lost two days of my life trying to achieve something useful with the discrete GPU mode but nothing came out of it, except native Linux games.
Why using an eGPU? §
Laptops are very limited in their upgrade capabilities, adding a GPU could avoid someone to own a "gaming" tower PC and a good laptop. The GPU is 100% replaceable because the case offers a pci express port and a standard PSU (which can be replaced too!). The EGPU could be shared among a few users in a home too. This is a nice way to recycling old GPUs for a nice graphic boost to play everything that is more than 5 years old (and that's a bunch of good games!). I think using a top notch GPU in this would be a waste though.
I'm pretty happy with the experience so far, now I can play my favorites games on Linux using the same computer I like to use all the day. While the experience is not as plug and play than it is on Windows, it is solid and stable.