For the last several years it has been the dream of more than one DailyTech editor/laptop gamer to see external GPU enclosures to come to the U.S. market. Most laptop buyers are on a two year or more life cycle, and within a year of buying their laptop, their computer is too slow to perform well in the latest crop of games. That leaves the buyers in a year or more of gaming-related agony. An external GPU enclosure could change all that, making your graphically stale laptop fresh again at a lower price.
Support for an external GPU seems very doable, given the PCI Express card and MiniPCI-e card slots that have been on many laptops for years -- so making a full PCI-e pinout (needed for a decent external GPU solution -- one lane ExpressCards aren't sufficient) seems possible. Unfortunately, the push for the technology has inexplicably failed to gain direction since it was first proposed. An NVIDIA-based design from ASUSTek floated around for a couple years, but never saw production.
The drought may finally be over, though. DailyTech was live on hand at a CES 2010 AMD/ATI press event to witness a running demo of an external GPU case which was designed with the help of Acer. According to sources at AMD, the case can run 4000 or 5000 Mobility Radeon products. The demoed unit was running with a high end 5000 series Mobility reference card based on the AMD's brand new Juniper (5000 Mobility Radeon family) GPU.
The external GPU was attached via PCI Express 2.0 (8-lanes in the current form) to an Acer Ferrari laptop. The laptop was the new model in the line that was just released last month. Like the old Ferrari laptop from Acer, which featured an AMD Radeon X1270 card, the graphics built-in graphics proved underwhelming, only offering a slightly improved AMD 3200 HD. That's not exactly what you'd expect from a piece of hardware branded with one of the premium names in racing.
Such worries, though, may soon be a thing of the past, though, if the demo was any indication. Thanks to the external GPU, the Ferrari was boosted to muscle car status, running Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. on three screens. The external GPU box features a DVI connection, three display port adapters, HDMI out, two USB ports and an external power connector with a 35W adapter. The game ran silky smooth on a three monitor setup. The inclusion of multi-monitor support via Eyefinity might help to justify the need to have a really power external GPU like the higher end of the 5000 Mobility Radeon series.
A similar design from Fujitsu-Siemens (the GraphicBooster product for the Amilo notebook line) was introduced in Europe last year, which contained an ATI Mobility Radeon HD 3870 graphics card.
Ultimately, it'd be nice to see a solution that the user could upgrade, but that will likely be difficult to do, due to factors like changing power envelopes. For now we'd take whatever external graphics solution we can get. We're hoping that more than one OEM chooses 2010 for a U.S. launch of a Mobility external GPU solution; that would be truly great news for laptop gamers.