For years, PC hardware makers have demoed external modules that pair full-sized desktop graphics cards with notebooks. The idea has always been appealing, but no one has turned the concept into a finished product—until now. Dell's new Alienware 13 gaming notebook comes with a Graphics Amplifier sidekick that can accept high-end desktop cards like the GeForce GTX 980.
The Graphics Amplifier has its own PSU, and according to AnandTech, it can accept double-wide cards with TDP ratings up to 375W. GeForces and Radeons are both supported, though the pre-installed options are limited to Nvidia-based offerings right now. The external module is also available sans GPU, so users can add their own card.
In addition to housing a graphics card, the Graphics Amplier has a four-port USB 3.0 hub. USB and PCI Express signals are combined on a single cable that connects to the Alienware 13. That connection is proprietary, and there's no word on how much bandwidth is available. However, it's worth noting that the link can pass display output back to the laptop, removing the need for an external monitor. I believe this is the first external graphics implementation to include such a capability. A reboot is required to activate the external GPU, though.
Even without the amplifier in tow, the Alienware 13 is a pretty formidable system. It pairs a Core i5-4210U processor with a GeForce GTX 860M graphics chip. The base display uses a 1366x768 TN panel, but there are options for IPS units with 1080p and 2560x1440 resolutions. Up to 16GB of RAM and 512GB of M.2-based storage can be added to the machine, which also has a Killer NIC, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, Klipsch speakers, and a 2MP webcam. All of that is wrapped in a 1" chassis that weighs 4.5 lbs.
The Alienware 13 starts at $999, but you'll need to shell out $1149 to get the 1080p display and $1299 for the QHD one. The Graphics Amplifier adds another $270 to the total, and that's without a graphics card installed. You didn't think the first external graphics unit since 2008's ill-fated AMD External Graphics Platform would be cheap, did you?
As much as I dislike the proprietary connection and high asking price, I've gotta give it to Alienware for creating the Graphics Amplifier. Hopefully, this development will encourage other notebook makers to bring similar technology to market, ideally ushering in standardized connectors and lower prices.