MSI to breathe life back into external laptop graphics

External notebook graphics solutions aren’t foreign to us—we’ve seen several prototypes over the years, and some have even made it to market. They usually involve a desktop-class GPU, an enclosure, and an external PCIe connection to the host notebook. MSI is showing off the latest such contraption at CES this year, and its solution might spur wider adoption. The company’s secret? Thunderbolt.

Hooked up to the MacBook Pro pictured above is MSI’s GUS II prototype. The GUS II is playing host to a Radeon HD 5770, which is rendering the Unigine Heaven demo and driving an external display. MSI says the GUS II enclosure supports double-wide PCI Express x16 graphics cards with power envelopes as large as 150W—the maximum amount of power available from the PCIe slot plus one six-pin power connector. The final product should be “similar” to the one pictured above, MSI tells us.

Pricing and availability are being kept under wraps for now. That might cast doubt over the GUS II’s prospects, especially since Thunderbolt is almost exclusively offered on Apple notebooks right now. However, a little birdie tells us next-gen notebooks based on Intel’s 22-nm Ivy Bridge processors could pull Thunderbolt into the mainstream. If that happens, many notebooks could suddenly gain support for external graphics, which might make the technology more mainstream.

Comments closed
    • Bensam123
    • 8 years ago

    On a different note about buses, it’s interesting why your typical computer network hasn’t started being delegated these tasks along with a boost to speed. As ridiculously crazy as this sounds, it’s pretty much the next logical step to a all in one solution… just skip Tbolt all together. XD

    • Chrispy_
    • 8 years ago

    If this can output the rendered frames back to the laptop then it has some merit.

    It looks like it doesn’t though, otherwise they wouldn’t be using an external display for the demo, right?

    [b<]If I have to carry around a huge box with an external display, it totally defeats the purpose of a laptop in the first place.[/b<] Desktops have been doing better graphics for lower prices since forever, and that isn't ever going to change. [i<]EVER[/i<].

      • willmore
      • 8 years ago

      I see you read my post.

        • Bauxite
        • 8 years ago

        But not mine, denial, not a river in egypt.

        [url<]http://imageshack.us/photo/my-images/853/2560pinternal.jpg/[/url<]

      • Bensam123
      • 8 years ago

      I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t think this is meant to be lugged around with you on your business trips, rather it’s supposed to sit next to your docking station for when you’re not mobile.

        • Chrispy_
        • 8 years ago

        Okay, that’s more reasonable I guess.

        My concern is that the cost of this external GPU box is not dissimilar to the cost of a workstation sans graphics card. It would need to be sub-$200 and software agnostic, otherwise it’d still be more sensible to just knock up a second PC instead of having a turbocharged docking station.

          • Bensam123
          • 8 years ago

          Aye, there are always premiums associated with being mobile though or beefing up something that is mobile. $200 is pretty much the price of a mid range graphics card without the enclosure…

    • willmore
    • 8 years ago

    It’s been years since I’ve used a laptop docking station, so things may have changed. Here’s my memory: You take a slow portable device with little storage, a compromise of a keyboard and the cheapest display they could source and plug it into a box. The box lets you connect a real monitor, keyboard, more storage, etc. You’re stuck with the slow processor.

    Wouldn’t a better solution these days be to just use a desktop system (even a low end processor on a desktop is faster than most laptop chips) and access only the storage from the laptop?

    Older macbooks let you access the HD in the machine over the firewire port as is they were just a HD enclosure. That made sense. Cable your laptop to your desktop and get the much better desktop experience and access to all of your files–without having to do any special ‘sync’ step.

    So, given that background, I don’t see much use for a device like this. Really, how’s this supposed to work? You plug the TB connector into your laptop and an external monitor into the external box. Now, are you going to use the keyboard and trackpad on the laptop with the display? Have you ever tried using an external display with a laptop while using the laptops keyboard/trackpad? It’s akward to say the least.

    Let’s say you close the laptops lid and use an external keyboard and a mouse. Hmm, now you have a very expensive and underperforming desktop. And this brings us back to ‘just get a normal desktop and access the files from your laptop as if it were just a drive enclosure’.

      • End User
      • 8 years ago

      [quote<]Let's say you close the laptops lid and use an external keyboard and a mouse. Hmm, now you have a very expensive and underperforming desktop. And this brings us back to 'just get a normal desktop and access the files from your laptop as if it were just a drive enclosure'.[/quote<] I've no interest in using my MacBook Air as a desktop replacement but for road warriors Thunderbolt is an awesome technology. Current gen Sandy Bridge based laptops are powerful. For many road warriors that is all they need. With Thunderbolt you can connect Thunderbolt/eSATA/FireWire 800/USB 2.0/Gigabit Ethernet/GPU/display via one connector. I'm guessing that USB 3.0 hubs will make an appearance soon. In the meantime you could use a GoFlex device to maintain USB 3.0 compatibility.

        • willmore
        • 8 years ago

        I’m not quite sure how your comments relate to what I’ve said. I really didn’t say much about the usefulness of TB in general. I’m pretty much addressing the idea of using it as a docking connector being a bit silly.

        TB vs USB3.0 is a different arguement entirely.

          • End User
          • 8 years ago

          A current gen Sandy Bridge based laptop, especially one with a SSD, is no slouch. Why buy two systems when one will do. Spend the money planned for the desktop on upgrades for the laptop such as a quad core CPU or bigger SSD.

          TB as a “dock connector” is brilliant as there is no more need for a dock. One cable gives you everything you need.

      • Bensam123
      • 8 years ago

      Processors in laptops generally aren’t that bad off compared to desktops, it’s the rest of the laptop that’s pretty anemic. Unless you’re talking about a netbook or ultrabook, which are useless in their own right.

    • Palek
    • 8 years ago

    How dare they desecrate the [url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gravis_Ultrasound<]GUS[/url<] name?! *Quietly weeps recalling fond memories of GUS bliss*

    • squeeb
    • 8 years ago

    Cool concept..

    But I prefer in all in one solution. Love my M14x.

      • mganai
      • 8 years ago

      All-in-ones are part of the reason why this is a good idea. You actually have an upgrade path for your machine.

    • Anarchist
    • 8 years ago

    I think it will be really awesome if there is a way for a desktop to output to notebook or tablet.

    • Bauxite
    • 8 years ago

    Only 150w and no 6/8 pin connectors on the inside? F— that. Its bound to be pretty expensive too, a couple other companies have shown similar stuff in this market typically north of $500. (also, anything thunderbolt has the taint of apple accessory pricing)

    The DIY market has been tweaking it with expresscard since 2009, its usually only 1 lane but its enough to blow away most laptop graphics. (or non-graphics aka intel-integrated only):
    [url<]http://www.hwtools.net/Adapter/PE4H.html[/url<] [url<]http://forum.notebookreview.com/gaming-software-graphics-cards/418851-diy-egpu-experiences.html[/url<] I built my own last year for a hundred bucks + spare desktop parts. Granted its all laying about in the open, but next step is converting an old shuttle case when I get some useful free time. It works with any handmedown desktop cards (who doesn't have those?) which will be a 5870 on thursday 😉

      • demani
      • 8 years ago

      Sonnet has something coming out, including one that does supply power to the card. So hopefully the competition will have them both push the envelope, and lower prices. Which would be great.

      I do like the idea of taking a nearly portless machine and getting a fully featured dock for it- I had a Selectadock III back in the day and it just rocked for that. Thunderbolt ports just make that a standard thing, rather than relying on a particular manufacturer to produce one.

      Which also points out that this whole thing isn’t a new idea at all.
      Just an improvement on an old one.

    • apertur3
    • 8 years ago

    Why don’t they make this little unit VESA mountable while they’re at it? It would help save a little desktop space by attaching it to the back of a monitor.

      • demani
      • 8 years ago

      That would be great. I would also like to see something like this combined with the Belkin dock. Really, a much more full featured dock.

    • LocalCitizen
    • 8 years ago

    It’s clear the reason to demo on a MacBook because Ivy Bridge notebooks are not yet available. Some Z77m chipset-based books will come with TB (not the disease), even if it’s only in high end, MSI will make sure of it.

    • TheBulletMagnet
    • 8 years ago

    ViDock is coming out with something similar with a 225w power envelope and thunderbolt connection.

    • dpaus
    • 8 years ago

    Wouldn’t a decent USB 3.0 adapter make a lot more sense and have a potential market 100 times bigger?

      • CasbahBoy
      • 8 years ago

      Someone more educated in this please correct me if I’m wrong, but I have a strong feeling that the communication latency involved with USB – especially when translating from PCI-E signals to USB back to PCI-E – would make a USB-based external PCI-E port with a video card inserted into it unusable. Expansion cards of other types might be fine.

        • demani
        • 8 years ago

        That is thing- the advantage of Thunderbolt is that it is natively a PCIe interface- that makes it simpler for the drivers, and makes it so it is simple to pick off the shelf cards without needing as much testing.

      • Farting Bob
      • 8 years ago

      USB would increase latency and be bandwidth limited. GPU’s are designed with 16 lanes of PCIe 2 in mind (and PCIe3 as well now).

      PCIe 2.0 offers 500MB/s per lane for a total of 8GB/s on a 16x slot.
      USB 3 offers a theorhetical 0.625 GB/s bandiwdth, and you’ll be bloody lucky to find anything that goes over 0.5GB/s using it, about the same as 1x PCIe 2.0.

      Try running a mid range or high end GPU on a 1x slot, that’ll be a fun experience for you.

        • demani
        • 8 years ago

        It’s actually not really much of an issue at present- 1x is about 90% of native, and almost no card gets a significant benefit from a 16x slot (over an 8x) at this point.

          • jensend
          • 8 years ago

          Interesting claim re 1x; while I’ve heard that most GPU workloads don’t benefit from more than PCIE 2.0 x4, I was under the impression that nV’s ION2 was seriously hamstrung by Intel’s move of making few enough PCIE lanes available on Pine Trail that nV was forced to only use a single lane; I didn’t think they were getting anywhere near 90% of what they could have done even with that weak of a GPU if they’d had more bandwidth.

          • Bauxite
          • 8 years ago

          Bandwidth isn’t everything.

          USB and PCI-e might sometimes share the same number on a piece of paper, but in real world usage the latency and driver model are vastly different.

          Even though it works fairly well on pci-e x1 1.0 (2.5gbps) a usb 3.0 (5.0gbps) conversion would be terrible.

        • jensend
        • 8 years ago

        You guys are missing the point. He isn’t saying “Use USB3 for external graphics!”, he’s saying “few people care about external graphics, which is why all the previous attempts have flopped; why not add something people will use and care about– a USB3 port– instead?”

        While I sympathize with his point (AXIOM and MXM never took off, and ASUS’s XG Station was a total flop), I don’t think MSI is really in the position of saying “gee, we can either make usb3 adapters or external graphics cards, which shall we do?”

        • Bauxite
        • 8 years ago

        Its a lot more fun than running on the graphics most laptops ship with 🙂

        [url<]http://forum.notebookreview.com/gaming-software-graphics-cards/418851-diy-egpu-experiences.html[/url<]

      • Duck
      • 8 years ago

      No, USB 3 is niche and a dead end. Bandwidth is too low, latency too high, and will destroy performance by eating too many CPU cycles.

      The beauty of thunderbolt is that it pipes PCIe. It’s like, why didn’t anyone think of this sooner??

        • BobbinThreadbare
        • 8 years ago

        I remember reading about external PCIe when they first started coming out with it.

        It’s not a matter of thinking of it, but having the clout to get it implemented.

          • jensend
          • 8 years ago

          Rather, it’s a matter of “the market has tried this several times before, and it’s flopped repeatedly, and nothing is different this time around except Apple’s repetition of their FireWire conceit.”

          Saying USB3 is a dead end is absolutely laughable. Sure, it’s not extremely well-suited for external graphics (2d would be fine, and the latency is considerably better on usb3 than in previous revisions, but 3d would not work marvelously well). But external graphics has flopped time and again (including several attempts based on external PCIE), never managing to get the slightest foothold in the market; to claim external graphics is some huge market while USB3 is a “niche” is completely ridiculous.

          The number of people willing to purchase discrete cards at all is falling precipitously as processor graphics mature, and the people who are willing to purchase external cards for their laptops is vanishingly small. Just because some people here fall into that category doesn’t mean it’s large enough to sustain a market.

            • Duck
            • 8 years ago

            Every new computer built in the last several years has PCIe in it. The number of computers that have USB3 must be negligible by comparison. USB3 is just a stopgap and nothing more.

            USB2 is great. Cheap as chips. Connect your mouse, keyboard, webcam etc. But USB3 is moot just like Firewire. USB3 was pretty irrelevant on release and when (or if) thunderbolt catches on big-time, we can do without USB3 altogether.

            • mganai
            • 8 years ago

            Processor graphics may be getting better, but they’re not enough for serious gaming by any stretch. Plus, you’re stuck with whatever you get. Ask anyone with a laptop or all-in-one, and they’ll tell you that the GPU is the first thing to become a bottleneck.

            You may say that Thunderbolt will flop like everything non-USB, but it has more bandwidth and versatility. USB3 may not necessarily flop, but it isn’t mainstream like USB2, so Thunderbolt has a window of opportunity, and will definitely find a niche with peripherals that can use the extra bandwidth.

            • Chrispy_
            • 8 years ago

            +1

            Finally, some sense amongs the zealots and elitists.

      • macintoshci
      • 8 years ago

      Also Thunderbolt has twice the bandwidth compared to usb 3.0

      USB 3= 5 Gbit/s

      Thunderbolt = 10 Gbit/s

    • derFunkenstein
    • 8 years ago

    I’m confused.

    [quote<]MSI says the GUS II enclosure supports double-wide PCI Express x16 graphics cards with power envelopes as large as 150W—the limit for PCIe cards without separate power connectors.[/quote<] [quote<]Radeon HD 5770[/quote<] The Radeon HD 5770 has an external power connector. Soooooooo...?

      • Farting Bob
      • 8 years ago

      75w is the limit for PCIe i thought? Which is why any card rated over that will come with external power connections.

        • Duck
        • 8 years ago

        Yes and cards that peak at 150W like the 6850 will need 2x 6pin 12v power.

          • Triple Zero
          • 8 years ago

          If a 6850 requires 150W then it only needs one 6-pin connector (75W from PCI-E slot and 75W from connector).

          [url<]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PCI_Express#Power[/url<]

            • Cyril
            • 8 years ago

            Looks like you guys are right. Post updated.

            • Duck
            • 8 years ago

            No because the board layout wouldn’t work out so well and maxing the PCIe slot would be a bad idea (will probably drop a too much voltage, generate some excess heat).

            [url=http://ht4u.net/reviews/2011/amd_radeon_hd_7900_southern_island_test/index22.php<]See here if you don't believe me.[/url<] ~110w under load for the 6850, ~145W for the saffire toxic under furmark load.

    • Sargent Duck
    • 8 years ago

    The idea is good but they killed it out of the box with the MacBook Pro. Other than the select few people on this forum (and other tech forums), who actually games on a MacBook? Everybody that I know that has a MacBook spends all their time at Starbucks…not gaming.

      • Veerappan
      • 8 years ago

      *raises hand* Mac + Steam = Civ5, Portal, a bunch of Humble Indie Bundle games, and whatever else I feel like trying.

      Bootcamp with Windows 7 64-bit also lets me run whatever I want when I’m waiting in the airport, at the parents’ house, or trying to set up a LAN gaming session with friends.

      If I could have a desktop-level discrete card attached to it when I’m at home, my need for a desktop would start to be questionable. Currently my only need for a desktop is gaming (large-ish monitor, KB, mouse are necessary). Then I could just unplug the card and a USB hub, and I could take the machine on the road for whatever the day’s activities are.

      • demani
      • 8 years ago

      How about using it to drive multiple matched monitors? Or using it to support some CAD application? There are plenty of uses for someone with a ThinkPad 430 to want this.

      • End User
      • 8 years ago

      I am not aware of any other shipping laptop that has Thunderbolt. They used what was available. Don’t get so wound up about the Apple hardware. Thunderbolt will be available on non Apple hardware soon enough [url<]http://goo.gl/FjW8L[/url<]

      • mganai
      • 8 years ago

      Lots of people. Portability with computer gaming is more attractive than you may think.

      • ronch
      • 8 years ago

      Plus.. marketing this thing to the Apple/Starbucks crowd could be a real challenge to MSI, given that they all probably have no interest in computer hardware per se (they use their Macs only for Youtube, Facebook and Twitter) and have never even heard of MSI. MSI had better put out a package with FAR MORE BLING to get their attention and set up MSI showrooms right beside Apple stores. And oh yeah, MSI made some silly laptops with Swarovsky crystals not too long ago. They might want to use those on this thing: Apple fanboys and fangurls need something really shiny to blind anyone who smirk and utters ‘fanboy’ at them at Starbucks.

    • puppetworx
    • 8 years ago

    This idea is so good but they killed it out of the box with the weak limitations.

    • lilbuddhaman
    • 8 years ago

    [quote<]Radeon HD 5770 [/quote<] What's the point ?

      • mikehodges2
      • 8 years ago

      They must have broken the budget buying the thunderbolt licences, and a MBP 🙂

      • derFunkenstein
      • 8 years ago

      In laptops this same GPU is known as the Mobility Radeon HD 5850. So for a laptop GPU it’s pretty high-end.

        • willmore
        • 8 years ago

        [quote<]So for a laptop GPU...[/quote<] You can just stop right there and admit the OP was right.

          • End User
          • 8 years ago

          The 5770 is over two years old. One would hope that newer 150W cards will be out soon that will make this breakout box more appealing.

          That being said I believe the 5770 is leaps and bounds beyond Intel GPUs.

    • Aspleme
    • 8 years ago

    I don’t see the point. Capping the device with a power envelope of 150W makes it practically useless. Notebooks can already come with some rather decent graphics solutions. If someone is going to want an external graphics solution, it will be because they want something more powerful than what they can have inside their laptop… not a low power/older card.

      • pedro
      • 8 years ago

      Tech will march on, and pretty soon 150 W will be more than plenty.

        • mganai
        • 8 years ago

        True, but it’s too soon for 150 W to suffice.

      • qhartman
      • 8 years ago

      I’d wager they are targeting two-machine people. People who have a desktop (or desktop replacement laptop) for gaming and a thin & light laptop for actually going on the road. With this, you could conceivably forgo the bigger machine without sacrificing utility.

      • clone
      • 8 years ago

      NoteBooks comes pre packaged costing an arm, leg, and first born when good graphics are on the menu, this feature allows someone to buy an i3 or i5 setup and still pair it up with a great graphics card instead of being bent over the barral and given it but good in the pocket to achieve the same performance this option could offer.

      now someone can go out buy the pre bundled laptop with high end cpu while everything else is stripped down, upgrade the ram to max, swap out the regular slow laptop drive for an SSD and external for capacity setup and then upgrade the graphcs….. almost a desktop and when the parts aren’t needed leave em at home.

      so long as prices aren’t stupid it’s a wonderful idea….. so long as prices aren’t stupid.

      p.s. as I composed this message my eyes kept drifting to the “russian” hottie in the ad on the right side of the screen who’s leaning just so allowing her portions to spill forward.

    • cygnus1
    • 8 years ago

    I wonder if the external GPU output can be piped back into the builtin display of a laptop.

      • Chrispy_
      • 8 years ago

      I’m guessing not.

      It’s an off-the-shelf graphics card in a box. It ONLY exports signal via the output connectors. For it to do otherwise would require AMD/Nvidia to write drivers that pipe rendered frames down the PCI-E bus in a non-crossfire/SLI scenario [b<]AND[/b<] for a similar driver at the laptop end which takes external inputs from a foreign GPU and pipes that through the exisiting IGP. That is one [Fontsize=9999999999]massive[/Fontsize] task, hindered by the sheer number of possible configurations. IMO, this is Just MSI flinging lots of sh*t at the wall and hoping something sticks.

        • Bauxite
        • 8 years ago

        You guessed wrong 🙂

        Its already been done with the DIY expresscard option and nvidia optimus for at least a year now. They wrote the software for switchable graphics and even included compression to help with bandwidth, it writes to the integrated gpu’s frame buffer.

        It has some limitations (main one is it requires intel graphics in a certain configuration) but piping the output from a mid-range nvidia desktop gpu to a laptop LCD can be a pretty good speed boost.

    • Bensam123
    • 8 years ago

    Well MSI found a nice little niche for their product. The fact that it uses TBolt makes it seem like an exceptional solution, preying on all the Mackies that enjoy running after buzzwords and shiny things.

    Honestly I sorta wish solutions like this would become standardized. Like a docking station you can plug your laptop into, which essentially switches it over into a full blown desktop. I talked about something like this on the forums, but that was a couple years ago. I even shopped around for a simple external graphics card and couldn’t find one.

    External PCI-E should become standardized on laptops so this whole area can develop. :l

      • Veerappan
      • 8 years ago

      And rumor says that Thunderbolt will start shipping on Ivy Bridge laptops, so this will probably not be Mac-only for long.

      • demani
      • 8 years ago

      [quote<]External PCI-E should become standardized on laptops so this whole area can develop. :l[/quote<] You mean like Thunderbolt? Or like Expresscard Slots 5 years ago? By next year this will be the standard operating procedure- use your thin and light laptop on the go and plug into the dock, card whatever when at your desk. I wonder if there will be any way to do a video card that passes the video signal back along the Thunderbolt line to connect to a Thunderbolt connected display.

        • Bensam123
        • 8 years ago

        Why not just eliminate the Tbolt part…?

        Tbolt is limited to 10 Gbit a second if memory serves me right. A pci-e x1 3.0 slot comes out at roughly 10 Gbit. That breaks even, but if you add a couple of peripherals into the mix and you can expect some bottlenecking. Adding to this that Tbolt really hasn’t even been thoroughly tested as there are little to few actual peripherals available.

        Tbolt is a competitor for USB3 and Sata, when you match it up against actual buses it can’t hold it’s own weight.

        Express card isn’t docking friendly. Docking would be the slot on the bottom where you just set your laptop into a docking station without having to hook up a bunch of cables and in this case cards.

    • pedro
    • 8 years ago

    I really like the look of these things. If you’re on a 27 inch iMac (as I am) you pretty much have dreadful graphics for anything 3D. That’s fine because I hardly ever game these days. But it’s nice to know that if I choose to, something like this is on offer. Bring ’em on I say.

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