When it comes to gaming, laptop owners have always been stuck between a rock and a hard place. Thin and light systems often portability and convenience, but limited gaming performance. Larger, desktop-replacement systems offer more than enough firepower for gaming, but are typically heavy and fall into the category of “transportable” rather than portable. The handful of external chassis that have been built by various vendors tend to have their own limitations and often require a reboot when changing the graphics mode, or don’t support laptop hibernation. They’re also typically tied to either a specific product family or even a single product SKU.
AMD wants to offer mobile gamers a more flexible option, and it’s partnered with Razer and Intel to make it possible. XConnect is the name of AMD’s driver support and implementation using Thunderbolt external graphics.
AMD XConnect: External graphics done right?
Since we’re talking about the efforts of three different companies, let me break out which manufacturer contributes what.
AMD wrote drivers for its own Radeon GPUs in order to support an external graphics chassis. Radeon cards running Radeon Software 16.2.2 or later are capable of plug-and-play configuration with an external chassis. The new software can monitor which applications are running on an external GPU and offers the option to close current applications and prep the system for safe removal. Unlike previous solutions, you can connect or disconnect an external dock without rebooting the system.
Razer built the first system to support this feature (the Razer Blade Stealth) and is the first company to adopt the BIOS extensions and capabilities required to allow for PCI Express hot-plugging. Razer also built the first desktop chassis (the Razer Core). Right now, the Razer Blade Stealth and Razer Core are the only compatible products on the market, but that will change with future launches.
Intel developed the Thunderbolt 3 standard that makes the entire system function and specifically developed the external graphics specification that ties these components together. While external Thunderbolt chassis have existed for years, these are not necessarily designed for any graphics card and have many of the restrictions mentioned above regarding both hot swapping and reboot requirements.
All three companies have contributed their work back into the general Thunderbolt eGFX system, which means it should be much easier for third parties and other vendors to create their own solutions. The x4 PCI Express 3.0 connection isn’t as fast as a full desktop slot, no, but it’s enough to drive gaming with an average 10% performance hit depending on the title and the GPU.
While these results have been provided by AMD, they’re also running on an ultrabook at 1440p. That’s strong performance all around.
The ecosystem long-term goal
The mobile graphics industry has never developed an ecosystem that allowed for simple or easy graphics upgrades. While the MXM standard defines a specific pin-out for a graphics card, it does not specify the card size or configuration. As a result, two MXM cards from two different systems may be practically incompatible with each other depending on the laptop’s design.
AMD, Intel, and Razer want to solve this problem by introducing a flexible external standard that bypasses all the heat and thermal issues associated with jamming top-end graphics cards into small enclosed spaces. The Thunderbolt eGFX specification isn’t limited to large chassis. At IDF last year, Intel demoed external graphics solutions with a wide number of breakout ports and capabilities that were designed with far more modest TDP requirements. Our sources have indicated those were all using an early version of Thunderbolt external graphics and were powered by AMD hardware.
If laptop manufacturers and third-party component companies buy into this capability, you’ll be able to purchase a chassis from any vendor and use it with any laptop that offers Thunderbolt eGFX. While the chassis would still cost a non-trivial amount of money ($ 200 to $ 300 seems a safe bet), the hardware would be upgradeable and compatible with future systems. Intel will maintain backwards compatibility in any future version of Thunderbolt, which means future systems that utilize a hypothetical Thunderbolt 4 should still be backwards compatible with a Thunderbolt 3 dock.
Desktop GPUs also tend to be less expensive than their laptop counterparts and to offer better performance at any given price point. Over time, the chassis could effectively pay for itself by allowing gamers to use less expensive video cards that offer higher overall performance.
Razer has stated that its dock is also compatible with both AMD and Nvidia GPUs, but Nvidia has stayed fairly quiet about this capability. The company added hot-plug support in a driver around CES, but hasn’t said much since. AMD has stated that its XConnect driver will work with the R9 280, R9 285, R9 290, R9 290X, the R9 300 family, and all Fury and Nano products. It will also be compatible with various AMD mobile GPUs and future Polaris hardware.
As someone who has covered the mobile industry for years and watched video cards vanish from lower-end hardware, I’m genuinely excited to see a GPU solution that can meet mobile gamers’ needs without requiring them to buy desktop replacements. This standard appears to solve all of the problems that previously held the industry back. Will customers bite? That’s another question.