What is an External GPU and Why Did It Die?

Patrick_Yu
edited January 22 in PC Tech

The External Graphics Processing Unit (eGPU) emerged as a revolutionary technology in the realm of personal computing, offering a novel solution to enhance the graphics performance of laptops and other portable devices. This concept promised to bridge the gap between the portability of laptops and the high-end performance of desktop PCs. However, despite the initial excitement and promise, eGPUs have seen a decline in popularity and market presence. This in-depth article explores the journey of eGPUs, from their conception to the reasons behind their gradual fall from grace. 

What is an external GPU? 

An External Graphics Processing Unit (eGPU) is a device that allows users to connect a desktop-level graphics card to a laptop or other portable computer through a high-speed interface, typically Thunderbolt. Emerging around 2013 with the advancement of Thunderbolt 2 and gaining more traction with Thunderbolt 3 in 2016, eGPUs significantly enhanced the graphics performance of laptops. The technical core of eGPUs lies in their ability to provide a high-bandwidth connection, essential for fast data transfer between the laptop's CPU and the external GPU, which is crucial for optimal graphics performance. While Thunderbolt 2 laid the groundwork, Thunderbolt 3's higher bandwidth and USB-C compatibility greatly improved data transfer speeds and reduced latency, though it still faced limitations compared to direct PCIe connections in desktops. These advancements marked a notable step in merging the portability of laptops with the powerful graphics capabilities of desktop computers.

The peak of eGPU popularity 

Initially, eGPUs were met with considerable excitement, especially among gamers, video editors, and professionals who required advanced graphics capabilities but still valued the portability of laptops. 

The period following the launch of Thunderbolt 3 was the golden age of eGPUs. The market witnessed a surge in consumer interest and product development. These devices promised to transform the landscape of portable computing, offering a solution to the longstanding issue of upgradable graphics in laptops. Gamers and professionals alike were drawn to the prospect of supercharging their laptops with the latest desktop GPUs, foreseeing a future where the power and portability of computing could coexist seamlessly. 

However, over time, various technical limitations and the rapid improvement of integrated and dedicated laptop GPUs impacted their popularity and market presence. 

What caused the decline of eGPUs? 

eGPUs faced several challenges that hindered their widespread adoption. Here are the five main reasons why eGPUs went out of style: 

  1. Advancements in Laptop GPUs: One of the primary reasons for the dwindling interest in eGPUs is the significant improvement in the graphics capabilities of laptops themselves. Modern gaming laptops and professional workstations now come equipped with high-end GPUs that offer performance levels close to desktop counterparts. This reduces the need for an external solution to boost graphics performance. Additionally, as the technology market continues to evolve, consumer preferences shift towards more integrated and convenient solutions. The market's preference for sleeker, more portable laptops with powerful, integrated GPUs has diminished the demand for bulkier, external eGPU hardware. 
  2. Technical Limitations and Performance Issues: Despite advancements, eGPUs still face inherent technical limitations. The bandwidth provided by interfaces like Thunderbolt 3, while impressive, falls short of the direct PCIe connections in desktops, leading to potential bottlenecks and reduced performance efficiency. This discrepancy often results in eGPUs not delivering the expected boost in performance, especially in high-end gaming and professional applications.
  3. Cost and Convenience: eGPUs are often seen as a less cost-effective solution. The cost of the external enclosure, in addition to the price of a high-end graphics card, can be substantial. Furthermore, the setup is less convenient compared to an integrated system. The added bulkiness and the requirement for an external power source also detract from the portability aspect of laptops. 
  4. Compatibility and User Experience: eGPUs often require specific hardware and software configurations for optimal performance, which can lead to compatibility issues. The user experience can be impacted by these compatibility challenges, as well as by the additional setup and maintenance required for an eGPU system. 
  5. The Rise of Cloud Gaming: Cloud gaming services like NVIDIA GeForce Now and Game Pass Ultimate played a significant role in reducing the demand for external GPUs (eGPUs). These cloud gaming platforms offer high-end gaming experiences by streaming games directly from powerful servers to a wide range of devices, including those with limited graphics capabilities. This means that users no longer need to invest in costly hardware upgrades like eGPUs to play the latest games with high-quality graphics. These services have essentially democratized access to high-end gaming, making the need for personal hardware upgrades like eGPUs less relevant for the average consumer.

Niche appeal and specialized applications 

Despite these challenges, eGPUs found a niche in certain specialized applications. For professionals in fields such as video editing, 3D rendering, and data science, the additional graphics horsepower provided by eGPUs remained valuable. Interestingly, eGPUs also proved to be efficient for cryptocurrency mining, offering substantial processing power without a significant drop in performance. However, for the broader consumer market, including gamers and general users, the benefits of eGPUs were overshadowed by the advancements and convenience of powerful laptops. 

The future outlook for eGPUs 

The future of eGPUs is uncertain. Technological advancements like Thunderbolt 5 offer potential improvements in bandwidth and performance, but whether these will be sufficient to revive interest in eGPUs remains to be seen. The market has shifted towards more integrated solutions, and the role of eGPUs in future computing landscapes is unclear. It is possible that new innovations and changes in user requirements could lead to a resurgence of eGPUs (Intel certainly believes so), but as of now, they remain a solution with a specific, limited appeal. 

Conclusion 

The rise and fall of eGPUs is a compelling narrative in the history of computer technology, illustrating the challenges of balancing innovation, practicality, and user needs. eGPUs offered a glimpse into a future where high-performance computing could be both portable and flexible. However, their decline serves as a reminder of the dynamic nature of technology and the constantly evolving landscape of consumer preferences and requirements. As the world of computing continues to advance, the legacy of eGPUs will be remembered for their ambitious vision and the insights gained from their successes and limitations.

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Patrick Yu is a Senior Project Manager at Level Interactive and has 8 years of experience writing business, legal, lifestyle, gaming, and technology articles. He is a significant contributor to Acer Corner and is currently based in Taipei, Taiwan.

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