Thunderbolt 3 has enabled a number of interesting use-cases that were simply not possible with earlier high-speed external interfaces. The technology allows for four lanes of PCIe 3.0 to become available over a USB Type-C interface, which can be further combined with power, DisplayPort video, and other forms of data. As a result, one of the most prominent use-cases for Thunderbolt 3 has been using it to attach an external GPU. DIY enthusiasts have previously tried this with Thunderbolt 2 enclosures, but, there was no official support from the vendors. This changed with Thunderbolt 3 and the creation of an official eGFX standard.

These days, a number of eGFX enclosures are already available in the market. For today's review we're taking a look at PowerColor's Gaming Station eGFX enclosure and their Radeon RX Vega 56 Nano GPU. Along with looking at the eGFX setup itself, we're also using the chance to take a look at identifying how the performance of the same eGFX solution can vary across systems with different capabilities, to give us an idea of how much the host system influences performance versus GPU or bandwidth bottlenecks.

Introduction

The rise in popularity of Thunderbolt 3 has prompted vendors to create a whole new category of eGFX enclosures. These enclosures connect via a Thunderbolt 3 Type-C interface to the host system. Inside the enclosure, we have space for a GPU (add-in card) with a PCIe 3.0 x16 physical slot (operating at x4). The enclosure also provides support for various peripheral I/O ports with additional bridge chips. An internal PSU is almost always included, along with power cables to support high-end GPUs that require external power inputs.

GPU AICs (add-in cards) used in such eGFX enclosures are termed as eGPUs. AMD even has a marketing tag-line to go along with the usage of their cards as eGPUs - XConnect. The key aspect of eGPUs is the ability of the drivers (and hardware) to support hot-plugging and graceful behavior upon cable disconnection. As much as the responsibility lies with the GPU drivers, the Thunderbolt 3 implementation also affects the user-experience with eGFX solutions. PowerColor is a Taiwanese vendor specialising in AMD GPUs, and as part of AMD's push of XConnect, they have also introduced a number of eGFX enclosures. The Gaming Station, launched in early 2018, is the flagship product in the lineup.

A summary of the key specifications of the Gaming Station is provided in the table below. The dropdown in the third column also provides the corresponding information for other eGFX enclosures.

Comparative eGFX Configurations
Aspect PowerColor Gaming Station
Chassis Dimensions 13.50" x 6.42" x 9.65" 13.50" x 6.42" x 9.65"
Max. GPU Dimensions 12.2" x 1.81" x 6.18" 12.2" x 1.81" x 6.18"
Max. GPU Power 375W 375W
PSU 550W SFX 550W SFX
Cooling Fans 1x 80mm (Chassis)
1x 40mm (PSU)
1x 80mm (Chassis)
1x 40mm (PSU)
Connectivity 1x Thunderbolt 3 (to host)
5x USB 3.0 Type-A
1x Gigabit Ethernet
1x Thunderbolt 3 (to host)
5x USB 3.0 Type-A
1x Gigabit Ethernet
Power Delivery 87W 87W
Shipping Date March 2018 March 2018
Price (in USD, at launch) $300 $300

PowerColor sent us the Gaming Station along with their Radeon RX Vega 56 Nano to test out their eGFX enclosure / eGPU solution. Consumers use eGPUs in a number of different scenarios. The performance also varies correspondingly. The test results presented in the rest of this article were obtained on a number of different systems, as described further down in the article. Prior to that, we have a closer look at the internals of the Gaming Station and analyze its implications.

Product Impressions

The PowerColor Radeon RX Vega 56 Nano is an ultra-compact dual-slot graphics card meant to be used in small form-factor systems (mini-ITX boards). Despite its diminutive size, the card does require external power through a 8-pin + 6-pin connector on top. The board size (170mm x 95mm x 38mm) along with a 10mm length extension for the heat sink and shroud makes it an apt play in the DIY SFF gaming PC space. The card employs a single fan to aid in taking the heat out of the GPU and the finned heat-sink.

The PowerColor Gaming Station, on the other hand, is built to accommodate extremely large GPUs with lengths up to 310mm. For context, triple-fan cards usually come in at 300mm. The above photograph showing the amount of empty space in the Gaming Station after the installation of the Radeon RX Vega 56 Nano brings out this aspect. The gallery below shows the chassis design and internals of the Gaming Station, as well as some photographs of the graphics card.

The Gaming Station has only one fan, which is located on the base towards the front of the chassis. The PSU also has a fan of its own. That said, the chassis is completely perforated on the GPU installation side. This allows for effective cooling from the fan(s) built into the installed graphics card. The gallery also shows a SATA data cable and a 4-pin molex power connector from the PSU. PowerColor doesn't advertise a SATA slot for the product, and it is likely a vestige of the platform used in the first-generation PowerColor Devil Box. It is possible for users to tag on their own molex to SATA power cable adapter and make use of the SATA capabilities. A hard drive is not advisable, as there is no specific location inside the chassis to mount a 2.5" drive.

Opening up the enclosure is a tool-less exercise. The four screws holding the side panels are in the rear of the chassis and can be easily screwed / unscrewed without any tools. However, the GPU's shield needs to be fastened to the chassis using a couple of screws. Two rubber feet (visible in one of the gallery pictures above) can be stuck to the bottom of the enclosure. PowerColor also supplies a 0.5m Thunderbolt 3 cable and an AC power cord along with the enclosure.

Platform Analysis and Bandwidth Implications
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  • piroroadkill - Thursday, February 14, 2019 - link

    I have no idea how manufacturers continue to make external GPU boxes larger than the Dan A4-SFX, which can hold an entire PC. Reply
  • umano - Sunday, February 17, 2019 - link

    I get what you mean, I'd love to build a ghost S1 to acquire video on set and then going back home, plug the eGFX and do the editing/color grade on a proper machine with 2 gpu Reply
  • GNUminex_l_cowsay - Wednesday, February 13, 2019 - link

    Once I saw that the testing was the same GPU with radically different processors, in terms of TDP, it was pretty obvious how the bench marking would turn out. I'd be far more interested in seeing something like different GPUs say RX 560, RX 580, GTX1080ti, the same system connected through internal pcie and then again with eGPU. I don't really care whether such configurations are realistic. I'm just really curious if there are factors like latency and bandwidth involved and how that scales with different levels of GPU performance. Reply
  • BushLin - Wednesday, February 27, 2019 - link

    I would have been happy with just one system tested with the same GPU internally 16x against using the eGPU at 4x. Reply
  • eastcoast_pete - Wednesday, February 13, 2019 - link

    Interesting review, but I missed two points I'd like to know.
    1. Would have loved to see how this enclosure works with any recent, decent NVIDIA card, so a 970 or better/newer. You didn't have one around for that? Doesn't have to be the whole test suite, just some highlights and whether it was any more or less painful to get up and running.
    2. Would have loved to see an internal vs. external dGPU apples-to-apples comparison using the exactly same system with the same CPU, mobo, memory etc. so a true card outside (eGPU) vs. the card(s) inside the PCI-e 8x or 16x slot. Basically, how big is the loss of performance over TB3/4 lanes, all other things being equal? If possible, with the 56 Nano and any NVIDIA card you have lying around. That would have given us a quick heads-up on what to expect.
    Reply
  • sorten - Thursday, February 14, 2019 - link

    Not sure I understand the request for an NVidia card. Have you experienced problems with NVidia cards inside eGPU enclosures? If you're just interested in bandwidth issues, the Vega 56 is going to show that problem much earlier than the 970 given it's 2x performance advantage. Reply
  • eastcoast_pete - Thursday, February 14, 2019 - link

    No, I haven't. But, with eGPUs still being new-ish, just knowing that this enclosure plays nice with at least one NVIDIA card also would be good to know. I agree that the 970 has lower bandwidth demand than the Vega 56. I mentioned it only as a minimum if tested. What would be more interesting would be a 2070 or better, but not many reviewers have a spare 2070 or 2080 sitting around. Reply
  • dave_the_nerd - Wednesday, February 13, 2019 - link

    I really wish more of these eGPU enclosures would come with an internal SATA bay or two and an HDMI port. I want a gaming dock, dagnammit, and I don't need to be carting around my Steam library when I'm out and about. Reply
  • SirKronan - Thursday, February 14, 2019 - link

    I highly recommend the Gigabyte Gaming Box series. They can be had in 1080, 1070, and RX 580 (8GB) varieties. They are small, have 3.0 ports, display ports, and I believe an HDMI port as well. I am extremely happy with mine.

    Do NOT buy a used one on Amazon, regardless of the condition! Only get a new one. I don't think the testing validation is very thorough at all. They plug it in, it lights up, and I imaging they call it good or "like new" when that happens, and resell it. I am 0 for 2 on used eGPUs, but my new RX 580 Gaming Box is excellent. I'm surprised Anand didn't mention them in this article. It addresses some of the minor gripes of most eGPUs - especially their large sizes.
    Reply
  • Fiebre - Wednesday, February 13, 2019 - link

    I'd be really interested to see results with more modern GPUs as well. Reply

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