It seems like just yesterday that the old “new gaming beast” made it’s way into Complaints HQ. The MSI Nightblade really is a great system. The best Small Form Factor you can get at this time, with it’s extremely good build quality, great aesthetics, and ability to handle a full GTX980Ti. It seemed perfect for the microscopic apartment I now find myself in, and in many ways it was, but in more ways, a laptop is still a much better lifestyle fit. With no room for a monitor, any desktop PC I run has to be tethered to a TV. A living room PC for gaming is tough for a few logistical reasons (getting a keyboard across the room, for one), but when you are in a shared space, timesharing your main monitor is the real issue. That said, the original motivation for building a new desktop rig was the desktop GPU level muscle needed for the forthcoming VR explosion. If only there was a way to get desktop GPU horsepower in a laptop. Hmmmmm….
Enter the titular “something weird”! Yes indeed, that is a Dell Alienware 15R2 which, by itself, is a lot less than super interesting, but in combination with that weird giant box next to it, becomes very interesting indeed. So what is that giant box? Behold the Graphics Amplifier!
If you’ve been paying attention you’ve probably noticed that external connection standards have been pushing up against PCI-E bandwidth. USB-C gives you 10Gb/s per lane while Thunderbolt 2 gives you 20Gb/s (bi-directional) per lane. For those who have forgotten, PCI-E 3.0 is 8Gb/s per lane. So a single Thunderbolt 2 channel is PCI-E 3.0 2x. With all of this cable attached bandwidth, you can see how suddenly a “GPU in a box” doesn’t seem so crazy and may even start to become a commodity. So which fancy new connection bus does the Alienware part use? Trick question. Answer is none.
In this case though, that’s actually a good thing. Why? Because the proprietary connection in the GA is actually PCI-E 3.0 x4. That’s 4GB/s bandwidth or a whopping 32Gb/s. Basically two full Thunderbolt 2 channels in one cable. x4 might not sound like a lot, but it is. PCI-E x4 is PCI-E x8. There is a “must have xMAX!!!” mentality in PC gaming in general, but this topic was beaten to death last generation. All professional testing found that once you are at 4GB/s plus bandwidth (PCI-E 2.0 x8 and above), you are no longer bandwidth bottlenecked at current levels of GPU RAM utilization. Will this prove true? We’ll see later in the testing!
It’s worth noting that Asus, MSI and Razer are also doing outboard GPU boxes these days. So why Alienware? The quick comparison table below tells an interesting tale:
|Bus||Thunderbolt 3||Thunderbolt 2 (x2)||Proprietary (docking station)||Proprietary|
Depth: 14.34″ Width: 8.09″
|USB 3 ports||4||NA||4||4|
|Price||499||2000 (only bundled with laptop)||299|
A few things jump out right away. One is that these solutions have all bet on a 450W PSU being enough. Considering only a single GPU is being powered, this is a safe bet. Design wise, there are some big differences. The Alienware GA is a bit lower and narrower than the MSI dock, but dimensionally similar, whereas the Razer is smaller all around. The Asus hasn’t been released yet, but we know the design is similar to ROG cases and size wise appears to stack up close to the MSI and AW solutions.
The MSI is interesting because it provides full bandwidth, but it is also a full docking station and is bundled with the laptop. To me this made the MSI a non-starter. The Asus, again, isn’t yet available, but also features a vertical design (tower) which, while nice, doesn’t work for my space. The Razer is a tough call. I like the design a lot, but it’s a bit pricey at $200 more than the AW which didn’t seem worth it just to have the system portability afforded by Thunderbolt 3.
OK well that covers the “what” and “why” of this latest upgrade. Before we move on to setup and testing, some more unboxing eye candy!