What happened to eGPUs?

What happened to eGPUs?

While you can still buy great eGPU enclosures today, they’re undeniably going the way of the dodo. I’ve been updating our eGPU buyer’s guide for a few months, and I’ve had to remove several models from the list due to them going out of stock, presumably forever. At the same time, only one company has launched a new eGPU this entire year. The market is a ghost town.

eGPUs used to be highly sought-after and attractive accessories for laptops; who doesn’t love being able to marry the portability of the laptop with the power of one of the best desktop graphics cards? In hindsight, however, it’s pretty clear that the underlying concept of the eGPU was flawed, and that the industry just didn’t take it in the direction it needed to. eGPUs died because they failed to evolve, and they probably aren’t coming back anytime soon.

The brief rise and sudden fall of eGPUs

Front view of a Razer Blade 14 laptop in a darn environment illuminated in green

Source: Razer

It’s hard to say when people first started dreaming about hooking up a desktop graphics card to a laptop, but eGPUs really became a thing in 2013 with the introduction of Intel’s Thunderbolt 2. Older data interfaces like the original Thunderbolt and ExpressCard were technologically capable of driving eGPUs but ultimately didn’t spark the rise of eGPUs. What Thunderbolt 2 introduced was simply higher data transfer speeds, which eGPUs need for good performance. These first Thunderbolt 2 eGPU chasses were really expensive and relatively primitive however and didn’t exactly become mainstream.

eGPUs were finally brought into the limelight with the launch of Thunderbolt 3 in 2017 and Thunderbolt 3-powered enclosures like the Razer Core. These enclosures were higher quality than old Thunderbolt 2 models, had double the bandwidth, cost significantly less, and also came out around the same time Nvidia’s legendary GTX 10 series did. It was a really excellent time for eGPUs to finally become accessible to the masses, especially since they seemed to fulfill the promise of bringing desktop-level graphics to the masses, which is what everyone wanted.

From 2016 to around 2020, new eGPU products came out like clockwork, and lots of companies tried their hands at the technology: Razer, PowerColor, Blackmagic Design, and Asus, just to name a few. It was a very vibrant and competitive field for years and it seemed that it would stay that way for a while thanks to the launch of Thunderbolt 4 and USB4, which was compatible with Thunderbolt 3. After 2020 though, the flood of new eGPU enclosures and accessories became a drought that never got any better. Today, we can only find a handful of eGPU enclosures you can actually buy brand-new.

So what happened? How could a product with so much interest behind it decline so rapidly? In my opinion, there were two key problems with eGPUs that prevented it from realizing all the hype that surrounded it, and these problems ultimately doomed it to irrelevancy.

eGPUs couldn’t deliver on the hype, and had significant problems

The Razer Core X is one of the most popular external GPU enclosures. Some models have RGB lighting, and the eGPU even supports charging your laptop while you use it.
Razer Core X

I think at its core, eGPUs are one of those things that sound really cool in theory, but fall apart in practice. Not only do we really like the idea of a portable device with the performance of a desktop, but also being able to upgrade laptops, which are traditionally very limited in terms of upgrades, especially when it comes to processors. However, implementing this vision for eGPUs is really challenging and simply didn’t work out.

Firstly, GPUs require access to lots of bandwidth and need to be able to communicate with the rest of the computer at a low latency, and solutions like Thunderbolt just can’t do this well enough. It’s really difficult to engineer a data interface that has high bandwidth, low latency, is hot swappable, and comes in the form factor of a regular cable. At least today, it’s just impossible to combine the performance of the PCIe slot on a desktop PC with the convenience of a USB cable, and Thunderbolt burdened itself by trying to do both of those things.

Even if you could make the perfect cable, it’s not like it would have made the eGPU experience perfect. For starters, eGPU enclosures are pretty large and aren’t convenient to lug around in addition to a laptop, especially thanks to requiring big PSUs since desktop graphics cards can consume more power than a whole laptop. Sure, eGPUs can come with a USB hub, Ethernet, and can charge your laptop, but at the end of the day you’re still making your laptop less portable, which is self-defeating.

And then there’s the price and performance. eGPUs cost way, way more than desktop graphics cards, usually demanding $300 at minimum for the enclosure. That’s combined with the historically poor performance of eGPUs in games, which depends on the laptop, but seems to have always been pretty bad. For reference, I reviewed an RX 570 eGPU back in 2019 with a pretty high-end laptop, and it performed half as well as the same RX 570 in a desktop PC, and was even slower than the midrange AMD graphics already in the laptop. As a product, the eGPU just failed on multiple fronts.

The industry hasn’t pushed eGPU technology forward in nearly a decade

The Asus ROG Ally and ROG XG Mobile external GPU

The other core problem for eGPUs is the fact that nothing has really enhanced the eGPU market since Thunderbolt 3 debuted in 2016. The main issue here is the fact that GPUs have gotten much, much faster since 2016 (the RTX 4090 is like four times as fast as the GTX 1080, the fastest card in 2016) while there has been practically no improvements to Thunderbolt since then. The bandwidth and latency that was okay in 2016 is not even close to sufficient in 2023.

Now, you may be wondering about Thunderbolt 4 and USB4, since those are supposed to have really improved things. Well, Thunderbolt 4 is ultimately just Thunderbolt 3 as far as eGPUs are concerned since there’s no improvement to bandwidth and no known improvement to latency, while USB 4 is based on Thunderbolt 3 and even the best implementations of USB 4 are only as good as Thunderbolt 3. The lack of a faster interface has been an existential problem for eGPUs.

How we use eGPUs hasn’t really changed either. The most innovation the space has seen is Asus’s ROG XG Mobile, which is interesting but suffers from the same problems eGPUs typically have (especially when it comes to price), plus some new ones like being proprietary. It’s just not enough that the most interesting eGPU we’ve seen in years is only compatible with a few Asus devices, including the ROG Ally, the whole point of which is to be portable, something that the ROG XG Mobile essentially destroys.

The window for eGPUs has closed in all likelihood

While many of these problems could potentially be addressed, such as the performance issue since Thunderbolt 5 will double bandwidth, I think at this point it’s too little, too late. Enthusiasm for eGPUs has more or less completely died down, and there’s a good reason why: laptop graphics are really, really fast today, especially in the best gaming laptops.

Back when eGPUs were first introduced to the mainstream, even a laptop GTX 1080 wasn’t quite enough for 1080p gaming with max settings, but things are different now. Modern GPUs have obviously gotten faster since the 1080 came out in 2016, but gaming laptops also haven’t really moved on from 1080p, as 1440p and 4K aren’t that much better on small laptop displays, so a desktop graphics card is just overkill for a laptop.

Maybe for professional users, the eGPU can still be compelling, but for everyone else it’s just not a useful thing to pair with a laptop. There are lots of fundamental problems with eGPUs, and even if those problems are solved, it won’t change the simple fact that eGPUs don’t have a problem to solve anymore. We will see in the coming years if Thunderbolt 5 and other innovations will be enough to revive the eGPU, but I don’t have high hopes.

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