Friday, November 07, 2014

The Alienware Graphics Amplifier: Finally, desktop quality graphics on your laptop


The Alienware 13 laptop — announced this morning — will go down in history as the first ever laptop allowed into the vaulted, blustery, and mythical halls of True PC Gaming. While the laptop itself is just an upgraded version of the Alienware 14, it has a new peripheral that will blow your mind: the Alienware Graphics Amplifier, an external enclosure that allows you to attach a full-length desktop graphics card — such as the Nvidia GTX 980 or Radeon HD R9 295X2 — to your laptop. The price of desktop-like performance on your laptop, though, is steep: The Amplifier itself, without a graphics card, is $300 — and, sadly, it (currently) only works with the Alienware 13 laptop.

As you probably know, if you want real performance — for gaming, video editing, 3D rendering, compiling — you need to use a desktop PC. Laptops are certainly okay for most tasks, but in some scenarios they just can’t keep up with desktops. There are myriad reasons for why this is the case, but primarily it all comes down to heat: The more computing power you use, the more heat your computer produces — and laptops, despite heroic measures in heatsink and fan design, just can’t dissipate enough heat.

One solution, of course, is to increase the total volume of the laptop, so that you can incorporate larger fans and heatsinks, or perhaps even water cooling. The laws of physics won’t be so easily tricked, though: To get desktop-class performance from your laptop, you need to make it as big as a desktop — and unless you’re built like a brick outhouse or have access to some kind of powered exoskeleton, that’s probably not a good idea. Thus, a more workable solution is to increase the size/volume of the laptop with a peripheral — a peripheral that can be plugged in when you need more thermal headroom (and thus more processing power), and disconnected when you actually need a laptop-sized laptop.

Alienware Graphics Amplifier, with the case removed

The proprietary connector for the Alienware Graphics Amplifier

Enter the Alienware Graphics Amplifier, which is essentially just an external enclosure with a 460-watt PSU and full-length dual-width PCI Express x16 graphics card slot. The Amplifier will take any standard Nvidia or AMD graphics card up to 375W TDP. The PSU has all the necessary 6- and 8-pin power connectors for beefier GPUs. The black box, which is about 7 inches (18 cm) square and 16 inches (40 cm) long, connects to an Alienware laptop via a proprietary cable (which we believe is a combination of PCIe and USB). Currently, the Alienware 13 is the only laptop that can connect to the Amplifier, but presumably future revisions of the larger Alienware 14, 17, and 18 laptops will also have an Amplifier port.

When the Amplifier is plugged in, it bypasses the Alienware 13′s on-board GPU (the GTX 860M) completely. Unplugging the Amplifier and rebooting the laptop reverts back to the on-board GPU. Our sister site PC Mag has a few more details of the Alienware Graphics Amplifier, but it seems no one has had proper hands-on time to review the device yet. Alienware’s own figures (below) paint a very rosy picture — and to be honest, we have no reason to doubt the figures. With the exception of CPU-limited games (which are rare), the Amplifier really should give you desktop-like performance.

Alienware Graphics Amplifier performance (Alienware figures)

External graphics for laptops isn’t an entirely new thing, incidentally. If you reach way back in time, there were actually ExpressCard (PC Card/PCMCIA) graphics card enclosures — and then, of course, with Apple/Intel Thunderbolt there were a smattering of enclosures as well (including a delightful DIY solution for the MacBook Air). As far as we’re aware, though, this is the first time that an OEM has attempted to bring external laptop graphics to the masses. The $300 price tag on the Graphics Amplifier might seem extortionate — especially as you have to spend another $200+ to get a decent graphics card — but it’s a lot cheaper than the commercial/enterprise Thunderbolt enclosures currently on the market.

The question now, of course, is whether Alienware (Dell) will open up the Graphics Amplifier to other laptop makers. The connector is apparently some combination of USB and PCIe — which, as long as Dell has stuck to the standards, should be easy enough for other companies to implement. Having an Amplifier at home that you can plug your Alienware laptop into would be nice — but it would be even nicer if your school or office had a bunch of Amplifiers that worked with any laptop (or desktop!) that you could borrow when you need a bit of extra GPU juice.

Personally, I’m thinking an Alienware 13 plus Graphics Amplifier would be almost perfect for LAN parties… Hmm…

Source: ExtremeTech

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