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Gigabyte's Aorus GTX 1070 Gaming Box external graphics card reviewed

Plug it in, plug it in

The recent rise of Thunderbolt 3 ports and external graphics enclosures to go with them has cracked a door to an intoxicating vision of the future: a world where gamers carry thin-and-light notebooks without power-hungry discrete graphics chips inside to class or work. Once they're back at their desks, those same folks plug in a single cable from an external graphics enclosure and get all of the pixel-pushing power of a desktop graphics card. That's the dream, anyway. The reality of Thunderbolt 3 and external graphics is a lot more complex.

A while back, Gigabyte offered to let us take a step into this vision of the future with its Aorus GTX 1070 Gaming Box, a pint-size powerhouse of an external graphics enclosure. We happily obliged. Despite measuring just 8.3" long by 3.7" wide by 6.4" deep and weighing in at about five pounds (2.4 kg), the Gaming Box contains a desktop GeForce GTX 1070 that's paired with a small-yet-highly-efficient 450W power supply. One can get this entire package for $569 right now, or about a $120 premium over a bare GTX 1070 card. Given the usually-exorbitant prices of empty Thunderbolt 3 external-graphics enclosures like Razer's $500 Core v2 and Akitio's $300 Node, that's a pretty striking value to start with (so long as you're willing to sacrifice expansion capacity down the road).

As its name suggests, the Gaming Box is not a complicated piece of hardware. It's a crinkle-coated steel box with mesh sides and just enough of a PCB inside to support a physical PCIe x16 slot for the graphics card and the ports to the outside world. Two 40-mm fans in front of the power supply help move waste heat from the graphics card, while another tiny fan draws outside air over the internals of the PSU itself.

Gigabyte claims the power supply in this unit, a custom model from reputable maker Enhance, would rate 80 Plus Gold if it were submitted for certification. Without that badge, we can only go by the company's own "greater than 90%" efficiency figure. Foam gaskets around the air intake for the PSU and the exhaust sides of the fans might be an attempt to avoid cross-contaminating the power supply intake with hot exhaust, though it's equally possible the foam is just a sound- and vibration-deadening measure.

Because this is 2017, a strip of RGB LEDs under the graphics card provides a bit of extra visual flair to the Gaming Box. Gigabyte's Aorus Gaming Engine software should allow control of these blinkenlights. Try as I might, though, I was never able to establish control over those LEDs even with multiple software and firmware updates. While I wish I could tweak those lights, the default rainbow cycling mode is inoffensive enough and provides a visual cue that the box is powered on. Hopefully this stubbornness is simply a characteristic of my particular sample and not a broader issue.

On top of its pixel-pushing ambitions, the Gaming Box has what it takes to serve as a basic docking station. To start with, its Thunderbolt 3 port can send up to 100W of charging power to USB Power Delivery 3.0-compliant laptops. Despite Thunderbolt 3's ability to transport USB 3.1 Gen 2 signals, all of the USB ports on the Gaming Box are good old USB 3.0. That's probably more than sufficient for the mice, keyboards, or network adapters that might end up connected to this box as a docking station. The three blue ports on this box are the only ones that actually provide data connectivity—the orange port is for power only. Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0-compliant devices can enjoy a faster top-up from this orange port than devices without. With its peripheral connectivity and charging-dock powers, the Gaming Box's $120 premium over a bare GTX 1070 seems like a great value.

For folks who want to take both their laptop and the Gaming Box on the go, Gigabyte includes a nicely-padded carrying case that's discreetly embroidered with the Aorus logo. The case has just enough room for the Gaming Box and its cabling across all of its pockets, so don't expect it to turn into your go-bag for LAN parties or the like. Still, the carrying case is a nice extra for an accessory that could conceivably hit the road with the laptops it's poised to augment.