Some years ago the wave of rumors swept into the Internet that is conducted prosecution of external specification of PCI Express bus. After its appearance they predicted beginning of production of external videocards. If these predictions came true, then besides very massive "small boxes"-computer corps next to it sometimes would be close another, but already with a videocard. Its sizes depended on speed of accelerating and their amount inwardly.
In general all of it happened in one or another degree. But the real embodiment was got by the latest development of AMD, that adopted ATI XGP technology. More precisely not simply real, but also simultaneously mass, which on an idea will be accessible to all. And it is already accessible. This material serves as confirmation. Further speech will go about the early attempts of external realization PCI Express and about the real product on its basis - Fujitsu Siemens AMILO GraphicBooster.
External PCI Express
Lately all computer interfaces suddenly rushed in a friendly manner "outside". eSATA can serve a good example, which is practically a complete copy SerialATA, just in external implementation. Now time came for PCI Express. Even not now, but two years ago. PCI-SIG organization in February, 2007, that is engaged in development and standardization of PCI Express bus, developed specifications of PCI Express External Cabling.
Certainly, such long name did not get accustomed. Literally a few variants of reductions appeared at once: External PCI Express, External PCIe, Cabled PCI Express and all in such manner. There was nothing revolutionary in the technology. The presented documents only described what cables and connectors are necessary to use for providing of carrying capacity for ports of x1, x4, x8 and x16 lanes. Thus a standard until now expressly does not determine maximal length of wire.
As to speed of data transmission there was actual standard PCI Express version 1.1. So one lane provided speed of 250 MB/s. PCI-E 2.0 increases this value twice. However PCI-SIG did not do any additional announcements, though theoretically problems of transition to the second and even the future third version should not be.
What about manufacturers? Nothing. Specifications of external PCI Express have been published but there are no mass products till now. Probably the companies have correctly judged that no one does not desire additional boxes on a desktop. Unless if it is not a question of laptops.
With laptops there was in general an interesting story. As it is known, mass distribution of ExpressCard interface in which PCI Express bus used as the basis. Just of this last property some companies also have taken an advantage. More of all have caused a stir Magma company with the products ExpressBox and ExpressBox Pro.
Magma ExpressBox è ExpressBox Pro
Magma has not offered anything new. It has made a special aluminum case in which the most usual PCI Express x16 slot is allocated. Distinctions between ExpressBox and ExpressBox Pro consist only in bigger size of the last box.
Magma ExpressBox connection to a notebook
The box is connected to an adapter. The adapter is inserted into notebook ExpressCard slot, or in PCI Express slot of the usual desktop computer. Both variants of an adapter go in a delivery package. Thus it is theoretically possible to connect any expansion card PCI Express to the transportable or desktop computer. But here there are some limitations. First of all it is a transfer rate — it does not exceed 250 MB/s, that is corresponds to standard PCI-E x1 version 1.1. For gigabit ethernet card it is quite enough, but it not enough for 3D-cards. And the powerful videocard will not manage to be installed for two reasons: ExpressBox it is capable to provide no more than 55 W of energy that for modern videocards not enough; and modern top accelerators have double-slot system of cooling which can not to be placed in ExpressBox.
Something similar MSI company also released. Presumably its product carried commercial name Luxium. Its box fulfilled from plastic and bearing a strong resemblance radio of the middle of the 20th century, intended basically for videocards, and to connect it was planned to notebooks through ExpressCard.
MSI Luxium plugs
At the same time on the back panel there are the power plug, the PCI Express plug, two USB ports, RJ-45 and the complete set of audio outputs and inputs for connection audio system class 7.1.
Installed videocard in MSI Luxium
As we have understood, the most usual videocard was installed inside. Certainly, all the accompanying limitations of a transfer rate no more than 250 MB/s are presented. We are assured that it is possible to find some more products like that are described above. But unfortunately does not on sale. The similar exclusive has definitely arrived on the market in rather limited quantity and even if it is accessible to acquisition, under the order. But ATI XGP technology should become rather mass product.
In the middle of 2008 AMD has presented the new mobile platform called Puma. Together with it have been presented the new set of processors among which were the top Turion 64 X2 Ultra series ZM, and new mobile chipset AMD M780G with built in GPU ATI Radeon HD 3200.
Hardly for someone becomes revelation that in respect of "pure" productivity AMD chips more slowly than their direct competitors from Intel. It concerns to mobile and to desktop solutions. Therefore in Puma AMD began to press more on graphic possibilities of the platform. Last is equipped not only the fastest 3D-graphics, but also allows to use it together with any discrete videocard of Mobility Radeon HD 3000 series. The technology was named HybridGraphics.
ATI XGP possibilities
The Second graphic novelty of Puma consisted in possibility of connection of an external videocard. This technology named ATI XGP (eXternal Graphics Platform). The first rumors concerning it have appeared in 2007. The project under code name Lasso assumed use of a usual videocard, but in external implementation. It would be connected to the computer with two cables that the first version of the specification external PCI Express required.
Connector developed by JAE especially for ATI XGP
But the project has been closed. It is now obvious that the company has decided to refuse original standard PCI-SIG, in particular from the offered variant of wire connection. After all if to apply it to laptops the connector was too big, and the price was unacceptable. Therefore AMD has appealed for the help to JAE (Japan Aviation Electronics Industry) company who specializes on development of wide assortment of various connectors, including those for high transfer rate. In the official document describing ATI XGP technology, AMD even has resulted comparison of dimensions new connector as compared offers PCI-SIG:
In general JAE made the connector less cheaply. That is very laudable. Besides, as it is possible to notice, original Cabled PCI Express, supports the specification of the interface version 1.1 whereas AMD at once has concentrated on version 2.0. Except twice higher speed of data transmission it supports hot swap function. That means that ATI XGP videocard can be connected and disconnected when the computer is on.
ATI XGP allows connecting of two monitors
ATI XGP in addition supports USB. So external videocards will be equipped definitely with the pair of such ports, and capable to provide a 500 mA that allows to connect external hard disks, optical drives and other power-intensive devices, and not just the keyboard and a mouse. As to video ports DVI-I, HDMI and optional DisplayPort are supported. The number of video ports on the box hardly will exceed two, as it already restriction of a videocard which is equipped with two RAMDACs. However, if to establish accelerator with two GPUs (for example, ATI Mobilitó Radeon HD 3850/3870 X2) it is theoretically possible to use them in pares - maximum number of video outputs will increase to four.
Cross Display mode
ATI XGP has also Cross Display operating mode, allowing to display a picture on notebook screen. But running forwards we will mark that while it has not been realized. But in ATI Catalyst driver version 9.1 the given defect has been corrected.
At the same time new JAE plug is not capable to provide sufficient power supply for operation of a videocard. Possibly at the expense of this it reduced the connector size in comparison with original Cabled PCI Express standard. For this reason external accelerators ATI XGP will be delivered with a separate power supply unit, and work in a battery mode are not possible. We will notice that power management is completely carried out from the computer — any buttons on a box is not provided by design. The accelerator will be disabled if is not connected to a notebook or if the last is in the sleep mode or switched off.
As for technology CrossFireX it is supported only within the limits of one "box". Schematic AMD it represents as follows:
ATI XGP configuration
In the first case will be used only one GPU and also optional presence of an USB-hub is supposed. The second variant more bulky, but number of GPUs can be equal to two, and the USB-store, in particular a hard disk can be connected to an USB-hub. Synchronous operation both GPUs will be carried out by special PCI-E switch. All it bears a strong resemblance to logic operation of double-chips videocards AMD: Radeon HD 3870 X2, HD 4850 X2 and HD 4870 X2. But the teamwork of ATI XGP together with the integrated videocard is not provided yet. It is not eliminated that in one of the subsequent generations of technologies the given possibility will be added. Meanwhile ATI XGP assumes installation of ATI Mobility Radeon HD 3870 in cheaper variant and Mobility Radeon HD 3870 X2 in more expensive. They will connect to notebook with PCI Express x8 version 2.0 interface. But if necessary it will be possible to install PCI Express x16 connector.
Fujitsu Siemens AMILO GraphicBooster
The Fujitsu Siemens one of the first has been presented a product on based on ATI XGP. The real product became accessible only by the end of 2008. In December even there has passed its presentation in Moscow, spent together with AMD. In the beginning of this year the box with ATI XGP inside began to deliver to distributors.
Fujitsu Siemens AMILO Sa 3650
However the JAE connector has received only one notebook — AMILO Sa 3650. The given model is not extraordinary, except support ATI XGP.
It is the 13.3-inch mobile computer with the price about $1000. Our version of this laptop has the following configuration:
Fujitsu Siemens AMILO Sa 3650 left side
External PCI Express x8 plug is placed on the left side of the notebook.
Today GraphicBooster can be purchased together with a notebook. And a notebook of more powerful configuration, than we got. In particular it is a question of faster processor (ZM-86 with frequency of 2.4 GHz), 4 gigabytes of memory, a hard disk with 320 GB of free space. Total price of that package increases to $1300.
Fujitsu Siemens AMILO GraphicBooster
GraphicBooster designed in style of the last generation of Fujitsu Siemens AMILO series notebooks.
Fujitsu Siemens AMILO GraphicBooster front side
On a front side of a box there are the name of the manufacturer and sticker ATI XGP. Two blue LED indicators are placed on the right. The first is on when GraphicBooster is working, and the second when the videocard is connected to a notebook.
Fujitsu Siemens AMILO GraphicBooster back side
There are DVI-I, HDMI and the power supply plug on the back panel.
Fujitsu Siemens AMILO GraphicBooster right side
On the right there are PCI Express x8 plug and two USB ports.
Fujitsu Siemens AMILO GraphicBooster left side
At the left there is the massive block of ventilating holes.
Bottom of Fujitsu Siemens AMILO GraphicBooster
Air blow is carried out through the bottom. When operating GraphicBooster heated up not so considerably, even after approximately hour of testing in games.
We have opened upper covers of an external videocard. Under it there was a card occupying almost all space of a box. At its center the fan is seen.
ATI XGP cable
Fujitsu Siemens AMILO Sa 3650 with connected GraphicBooster
Now let’s take a look on GraphicBooster specs. According to system there is ATI Mobility Radeon HD 3870 accelerator is installed. Its nominal specs are the following:
GPU-Z utility has showed us the following data:
Information about ATI Mobility Radeon HD 3870 installed in GraphicBooster
As it is possible to notice, GPU frequency in GraphicBooster is lowered on 10 MHz as compared with nominal, but memory works on 150 (300) MHz faster than recommends ATI. That is very laudable. The video memory size is 512 MB. Besides, the accelerator is equipped by a totality of sensor controls the data with which GPU-Z reads out with hardly any trouble at all:
GraphicBooster temperature sensors
Now we will pass directly to results of testing.
It is very difficult to find the notebook with "normal" ATI Mobility Radeon HD 3850/3870 GPU so we compared GraphicBooster with following laptops:
- Acer Aspire 8930G;
- ASUS G50V;
- ASUS G2Sv
- Fujitsu Siemens AMILO Xa 3530.
And here is their specs:
Results of testing will be started by us from the simplest tests: graphic benchmarks PCMark 2005 and PCMark Vantage.
In PCMark 2005 for GraphicBooster there is excellent result. But newer benchmark PCMark Vantage could not take advantage of all possibilities of ATI Mobility Radeon HD 3870, NVIDIA GPUs take the lead. However, we believe, in given benchmark CPU speed also matters. After Fujitsu Siemens AMILO Xa 3530 based on faster chip, but equipped with a videocard on level more low, has lagged behind from GraphicBooster absolutely slightly.
In DirectX 7/8 test 3DMark 2001 NVIDIA videocards takes the lead. However, here still the processor is very important; therefore Intel based notebooks have appeared ahead here again.
But ATI processors deals shortly with last DirectX versions more effectively. In 3DMark 2006, especially in the Shader Model 3.0 test, GraphicBooster is appeared on the first place.
In Doom 3 NVIDIA showed better results, therefore GraphicBooster it has appeared a little behind. We will notice that Xa 3530 with slower GPU Mobility Radeon HD 3650 has worst result, than the main participant of this review has performed twice better than FSC AMILO Xa 3530.
In Half-Life 2 we used three demos. The first (demo 1) loads the processor more, the second — the processor and a videocard, the third — videocard. In first of two demos GraphicBooster performance is absolutely insignificant. But in the third demo it shows speed almost on 30%.
Today ATI XGP is unique high-end 3D-accelerator in external solution. None of videocards manufacturers still did not used Cabled PCI Express in their products, but AMD has decided to go its own way, focusing the products basically on a mobile segment.
The idea to make from rather low-performance laptop good solution for games is right. If the technology will get big support laptops start to replace desktop PCs more quickly.
But it’s a pity that for today ATI XGP is a bit not complete product. In particular it is a question of support for Cross Display function. It is extremely necessary to realize it, as buying the laptop with an external videocard as a rule there is no plans for purchasing also an external monitor.
We believe that HybridGraphics support becomes the next stage of ATI XGP development. That is the external accelerator will work together with integrated GPU. Well and in most brutal a variant the external videocard (possible with two GPUs) will work in CrossFireX mode together with a discrete videocard of the laptop and its built in GPU. Basically technology CrossFireX allows so flexibility.