The Best External Graphics Cards & Adapters in 2020

Although external graphics cards evolved to their current point due to cryptocurrency mining, that is not what they are used for today. The advance in connectivity made a huge benefit for productivity and advanced design, as well as situational benefits for gamers.

Only a few years ago, and the external graphics card was something you would use only in specific situations such as high-scale rendering. Now, they are a viable option for designers, educators, and marketing experts to significantly increase their capabilities.

With an external GPU or an adapter, you can extend the capabilities of your PC, tablet, or even a mobile device. This will allow you to use advanced features without the need to buy a whole new set of hardware.

Additionally, the external GPU doesn’t need to be dedicated to one device. You can share such a system with multiple computers that will use it when they need, lowering overall costs.

For gaming, some benefits will come from having a more powerful GPU. But, these benefits are situational and are most viable in gaming/productivity hybrid rigs and not dedicated gaming PCs.

GPU Sold Separately

In most cases, external graphics cards will consist of an adapter, a dedicated case for the GPU, and the graphics chip or card that can be changed. Because of the price and options for the latter, these items will in most cases be sold separately.

 In a few instances, you might find that there is a GPU included in the device. This will usually be in cases where the goal is very specific or bound to a certain brand. Otherwise, it is better to have your pick when it comes to the graphics card. 

Finally, the benefit of a two-part external card is that you can always use the components inside to build another PC, or use GPUs from other computers to share via the external card.

The Best External GPU 2020: Our Picks

ProductTypeLightingOur Rating
Sonnet eGFXExternal chassisN/A4.7
Razer Core XExternal chassisN/A4.9
PowerColor Mini Pro RX570Mini External ChassisN/A4.6
Lenovo USA ThinkPadEnclosed dedicated deviceN/A4.5
Laptop External Independent Video Card DockPCI-E AdapterN/A4.3
Akitio T3N2AA0002Y00U Node DuoExternal chassisN/A4.7
ASUS ROG-XG-Station-2External chassisLED4.6

Sonnet eGFX

  • Type: External chassis
  • Size: 17.01 x 11.46 x 10.83 inches
  • Power: 550w total / supports 375w GPU
  • Color: Black Metallic
  • Lighting: No
  • Connectivity: PCIe/ Thunderbolt 3, USB3c
  • No. of Fans: 4+
  • GPU Inside: N/A

The Sonnet breakaway box might be considered the standard when it comes to external GPU systems. It is a nice, wide chassis with a lot of room for fans and cooling that can take in any type of GPU.

The internal power for the smaller model is 550 watts, which is enough for everything short of the most power-hungry cards. Combined with the ample cooling, it is ideal for something like the Nvidia 1080 Ti, which is still one of the best cards on the market.

Size-wise it is not compact and you will want to have a dedicated place for this unit. Ideally, you will want it as low as possible to use most of the temperature difference in the room.

Finally, it does include a Thunderbolt 3 connector and nature support for Linux, macOS, and Windows, making it somewhat of a plug-n-play model. This makes it easy to use even for those who are completely unfamiliar with hardware or tech.

Pros

  • Excellent connections
  • Good power and cooling
  • Solid dust-prevention

Cons

  • Not portable
  • Not easy to change cards

Our Rating: 4.7/5

Razer Core X

  • Type: External chassis
  • Size: 9.06 x 14.74 x 6.62 inches
  • Power: 700w total / supports 375w GPU
  • Color: Black Matte
  • Lighting: No
  • Connectivity: Display Port /PCIe/ Thunderbolt 3, USB3c
  • No. of Fans: 4+
  • GPU Inside: N/A

Razer is known for going beyond what is optimal and making products willing to sacrifice power and price for just a bit more of an edge. The Razer Core X external graphics cards unit is no different and offers some of the best specs on the market, but for a slight hike in price.

The design is very streamlined, pulling cool air from the front and pushing it to the side and back. It also uses a lot of the benefits of high-end video cards and their own fans, making a synergy when it comes to airflow.

Power capabilities are some of the best on the market, with 700 watts available altogether. And, while the box will say that it allows only 375w for the GPU, this is only because of the regular charge on high-end models.

If you want to overclock the card and have the necessary fans to do it, it should be fairly easy.

Finally, even though the connectivity allows for Thunderbolt 3, making it good for rendering, this model is more inclined towards gaming and amplifying outputs from laptop GPUs.

Pros

  • Amazing power output
  • Excellent connections
  • Good cooling options
  • Visually appealing design

Cons

  • Limited compatibility
  • Unbalanced value

Our Rating: 4.9/5

PowerColor Mini Pro RX570

  • Type: Mini External Chassis
  • Size: 8.5 x 6.1 x 2.7 inches
  • Power: 300W
  • Color: Black Metalic
  • Lighting: No
  • Connectivity: Thunderbolt 3 / USB-A 3.0 & 1 Gigabit Ethernet LAN port
  • No. of Fans: 3+
  • GPU Inside: AMD Radeon RX 570

This PowerColor external graphics card adapter is made for the AMD Radeon RX570, which is the high-mid level GPU from the last generation and still viable in 95% of all desktops.

This card is solid when it comes to gaming, especially at 1080p, and gives good frame rates and visuals without expending a lot of thermal watts. And, when it comes to business, it is more than enough for anything that you might need.

The device in its entirety is made to assist laptops and smaller devices do the job that would be impossible at their power levels. And even with only 300W of power, it is more than enough to make your laptop behave like a desktop.

For rendering and image processing there are faster models, but not as these levels of price and portability. The chassis of this model is relatively compact and can be carried inside a backpack or larger case.

There is a thunderbolt connection, as well as LAN and USB ports on the device, making it possible to connect to any brand and model of laptop. The internal firmware will allow for a seamless connection with Windows, macOS, and Linux.

Pros

  • Solid power output
  • Good connections
  • Excellent cooling options
  • GPU included

Cons

  • Chassis is a dust-magnet
  • Generally noisy

Our Rating: 4.6/5

Lenovo USA ThinkPad

  • Type: Enclosed dedicated device
  • Size: 8.66 x 3.15 x 1.18 inches
  • Power: 135W
  • Color: Gray with a red base
  • Lighting: No
  • Connectivity: Thunderbolt 3 gen. 2/ HDMI, Display Port, USB-C, USB 3.1, RJ-45
  • No. of Fans: 1 (Internal) 
  • GPU Inside: Lenovo Business GPU

There is a noticeable demand for external graphics cards that are not for high-end rendering and processing, but rather just used to amplify the capabilities of the existing device. This is exactly what this GPU adapter does for Lenovo laptops.

The idea behind the adapter is simple; you plug your Thunderbolt 3 into the dock and connect larger screens up to 4K to the back end. The ThinkPad adapter will then amplify the existing image to the new resolution.

Business users, including design and marketing professionals, will find a great use for such a device because they will be able to show their projects and products to the best of their advantage, without the need to carry a lot of gear.

For gaming and rendering, this item simply doesn’t have a lot of power. It will still work faster than the laptop’s native GPU, but not as fast as some other options that are similarly priced.

The main advantage of this one is portability, as it is the size of a power adapter and can be easily carried in the laptop case.

Pros

  • Slim design
  • Easy to connect
  • Very portable
  • A lot of connection options

Cons

  • Dedicated Lenovo device/ might not work on other models
  • Not powerful

Our Rating: 4.5/5

Laptop External Independent Video Card Dock

  • Type: PCI-E Adapter
  • Size: 7.09 x 4.33 x 1.97 inches
  • Power: 220W
  • Color: Transparent gray and black
  • Lighting: No
  • Connectivity: 6-pin, 8-pin, HDMI, USB, 12V DC, PCI-E 16X
  • No. of Fans: 0 
  • GPU Inside: N/A

In the most basic terms, this is a PCI-E adapter that uses the power from the motherboard or other external supply to amplify the graphics output of any device. It is different from most other products because it is focused on GPU computing above any other goal.

Additionally, it doesn’t even need to be used with a GPU. Technically, you can connect any device that uses a PCI-E slot to connect to the rest of your setup, as if it is directly on your motherboard.

But, there are limits to the connectivity of this device, making it less than viable in some other situations. Because of these restrictions, this item is better for those already knowledgeable about hardware and tech, as there will be some tinkering with the BIOS required.

But, if you know your way around the cables and wiring, this is a cheap and effective way to significantly increase the number of flops your PC can create, without the need to buy and connect serial motherboards for the same effect.

Pros

  • Slim design
  • Very portable
  • Adaptable and possible to customize

Cons

  • Needs tech experience and knowledge to install and use
  • Not as powerful as other options

Our Rating: 4.3/5

Akitio T3N2AA0002Y00U Node Duo

  • Type: External chassis
  • Size: 16.6 x 11.5 x 8.2 inches
  • Power: 150W
  • Color: Gray metallic
  • Lighting: No
  • Connectivity: 2x PCIe & PCI Express/ 2x Thunderbolt 3/6-pin/ Display Port
  • No. of Fans: 3+
  • GPU Inside: N/A

This seems like a device made by industrial designers for industrial designers. It is fairly large and somewhat heavy, but it can take up two dedicated GPU cards inside the PCI slots inside, and cool them quite effectively.

The connectivity on the back is made so that not only can you connect your laptop to use the external graphics cards, but to charge the laptop if needed with a 60-watt adapter.

It also has two Thunderbolt 3 adapters that can work in sync, providing even more data bandwidth if needed. For those who need large 3D models or images rendered quickly, this is probably the only way to go.

When it comes to gaming and similar uses, there are better options that can even be more portable. But, if you can push enough juice, you will be able to use any card.

The 6-pin connector at the bottom will only allow for 150 watts of power, which is not a lot. But, there is a breakaway spot in the corner where you can use the access to bring more power to the system if you need it.

Pros

  • Nice futuristic design
  • Good connectivity
  • Handles for carrying
  • Excellent cooling capabilities
  • Easy access and customization

Cons

  • Low native power
  • Almost the size of a PC tower

Our Rating: 4.7/5

ASUS ROG-XG-Station-2

  • Type: External chassis
  • Size: 6.2 x 10.9 x 18 inches
  • Power: 600W
  • Color: Black
  • Lighting: LED
  • Connectivity: PCIe & PCI Express/ 2x Thunderbolt 3
  • No. of Fans: 3+
  • GPU Inside: N/A

For reasonable users, one question will permeate the thought of purchasing this product: ‘’Why don’t you just make a gaming PC?’’

This external graphics card adapter is great and has most of the features you might find in a full PC tower. But, this level of overkill to only have one slot for a single GPU removes the main reason why you would even want an external GPU system in the first place.

The only imaginable scenario where this would be a reasonable choice is that you have multiple people who would game using this external GPU system, who all have gaming laptops and play from the same location, but at different times. 

If you are someone who really prefers to game on a laptop, and budgeting is not something you concern yourself with, you will be happy to have this product, especially if you plug in something like the Nvidia 2080 Ti inside to enhance your experience.

But, if you don’t already have the Asus ROG laptop or something of that grade, there are better ways to use your money towards results and not aesthetics.

Pros

  • Looks amazing
  • Fun open and close system
  • Good cooling options
  • Excellent connectivity
  • Easy access and customization

Cons

  • The chassis is the size of a PC mid-tower
  • Limited real-world uses
  • Price of a mid-range gaming PC

Our Rating: 4.6/5

Quick Buyer’s Guide for External Graphics Cards & Adapters

Generally, if you know how to pick out a good GPU it will be easy to find the right adapter or external unit for it. But, even if you are a novice it could be hard to know what type of device you might need.

The primary requirement for your external graphics cards and their adapters is that they can house the GPU that you need. This includes the slots, such as the PCI, as well as the power and cooling needed for the card.

Although thermal budgets are not crucial to calculate for consumer products, it is important to keep the temperatures as close to optimal as possible. Thankfully, this will mostly include air cooling and won’t require you to install a water-cooling or Peltier system.

A much more important issue with external graphics cards is the connectivity. You will need something that will transfer all of the processed graphics data in the GPU to your main device.

A PCIe 1.1 connector will allow for 8 GB/s connections, which is needed for the more powerful graphics cards. Because you don’t have an open PCIe slot on the outside of your device, you will need something like the Thunderbolt 3 with 5 GB/s bandwidths to use most of that data.

Thankfully, most users won’t require more than a USB 3.1 standard with 10Gbps (1.25 GB/s) which is currently quite common in modern devices. That way you will use the most of your card from the external GPU drive.

Where are External Graphics Cards Useful?

Technically speaking, you can use external graphics cards in all of the same places where you would use the ones installed inside the PC. But the question is, would they work better in those situations than they would if you were to simply install them to the main motherboard?

One of the primary places where people use external graphics cards is for cryptocurrency mining. Regretfully, aside from very specific situations and crypto products, this action will probably lose you more money than you would gain.

For crypto, the money you will spend on power and cooling will usually drain your budget more than the mined currency would make. This is why serious productions moved to the industrial scale and are no longer viable for small individual production aside from being a hobby.

But, external graphics cards are essential to other businesses, especially when it comes to co-working and marketing, as well as creative and industrial design. Using a dedicated external GPU to render images and models from multiple devices is a very useful and cost-efficient solution.

In a larger collective, you can use a single powerful GPU to render designs quickly, without the need for each person to have their dedicated GPU that will go idle for most of the time.

Finally, you can use the external graphics card to surpass the capabilities of your native device. For instance, you can show a 4K or 8K video from a device that would otherwise only have a native 1080p resolution.

Are External GPUs Ideal for Gaming? 

Ideal? No.

Viable? Maybe.

The only imaginable scenario where you would want to have an external GPU for your gaming needs is if you have a business laptop that you need to keep portable but also have an advanced gaming station at home to plug in that laptop.

This way, you can combine the utility of a portable device with the strength of a dedicated gaming PC for a reduced overall price. But, this will come with the sacrifices in some important fields such as keyboard positioning and screen real estate.

Ideally, you would want more people to use that strong peripheral rig at different times. In that case, the benefits will wildly surpass any of the downsides for all parties using it.

Transportation and Utility

Although the design of external graphics card adapters will usually allow for easy transport, they are not meant to be portable as a general rule. You will use the external GPU chassis in all of the same places where you would use the full PC unit.

Some adapters, especially those meant for presentations, will be much smaller and easier to move. In some cases, you will be able to carry this adapter in your laptop bag. But, they will still need their own power outlet.

The advantage is that once set, the external GPU drive can be used by multiple devices without any major adjustments. Aside from PCs and laptops, this can also include tablet computers and even some smartphones.

This surge in utility for mobile devices will mean a lot for a productive environment. Individually, it will serve those who prefer to draw, paint, design, or animate on a more portable device, and only later render it with powerful hardware.

What to Look for in an External Graphics Card Adapter?

There are five main aspects when it comes to picking out an external graphics card unit or adapter. How important will each point be will depend on your individual requirements, but having more will almost always be better.

Fortunately, the quality of all devices has risen in the last few years and the prices have dropped. This has made some of the more advanced models quite accessible for the average consumer and viable in different settings.

In some cases, you will simply go for more power and better connectivity, allowing you to use premium graphics cards for rendering or gaming. In other situations, you might want something more compact and portable, because you don’t know where you will need it.

Always make sure to know what you are looking for and what you are willing to sacrifice to get it. Even though there are very good models, you might end up with something good objectively but not suitable for your specific circumstances.

#1 Connectivity

This is probably the most important feature when it comes to external GPU units. Even if the internal connections and power allow for stronger cards, lacking outbound connectivity to use those cards can severely reduce their utility.

Ideally, you will want both your device and the external unit to have something as close as possible to the PCIe port. Currently, only advanced Thunderbolt and USB connections can even get close.

But, for many mid-range cards, such strong ports are not necessary. You might only need a regular USB connection to get the data stream width that you need.

Also, if external graphics cards are used for amplifying video reproduction, you might not need as much bandwidth between your device and the GPU. Simply having enough to stream towards the unit would be enough in this case.

#2 External Power & Surge Protection

 How much power will depend on the type of GPU you want to use. 

Having more power is always better and that is generally why you want an external GPU in the first place. But, you may not need to buy something to support a professional gamer-grade graphics card if you only want to amplify the picture of your device.

For rendering and demanding tasks, you will want something with at least 500 watts of power. These units will be able to support large cards that take up to 375W of electricity, as well as all of the cooling that goes with it.

But smaller and more discrete devices don’t need to be as powerful. A business GPU can only use around 125W and doesn’t need a lot of temperature regulation. It will still need a regular power outlet and its own connection but can be the size of an adapter.

Finally, all external GPU units need to have surge protection installed in them. This is as much for the external graphics cards as it is for the devices connected to them. You will need to make sure that no power is returning to the mobile device, including the laptop.

#3 Cooling

Cooling is often disregarded as something that simply goes with computers. Those unfamiliar with hardware often don’t realize that temperatures are the main concern when it comes to computing, including external and mobile units.

In most cases, an external GPU will use the same system of air cooling as it would use inside a PC. Because you will want to use any GPU, the surrounding cooling system needs to be slightly better than what would you find in a custom made PC.

Ideally, you will want to have a steady stream from the lung room (the place where the computers are set) to the inside of the case, pushing the hot air back.

A smart idea is to look for designs where cool air is pulled from the bottom and pushed upwards, because that would be working downstream. But, in that case, you will need to take precautions to prevent dust.

There are also options for water cooling or Peltier electromagnetic cooling systems. For external GPUs, especially for consumer models, these would be unreasonably expensive and not as viable as simple fans with good induction and dispersion.

Thankfully, we have AC units now that can keep the room at a comfortable 72 °F, allowing the GPU that prefers to work at around 95°F easy to keep that temp.

#4 Dust Prevention

With modern devices and designs, keeping dust away from your external graphics cards shouldn’t be a huge issue, but it will be relevant. Keeping dust away will reduce the maintenance and prolong the life of the device and the components inside.

The best way to prevent dust build up is to keep the chassis enclosed and the fans covered with dust-proof nets. This will allow the air to flow unrestricted but will stop most of the dust from entering.

These coverings should be wiped frequently. As soon as you see any dust collecting on the edges, simply use a cloth to remove it.

But, this will not stop dust from collecting on the inside over time, especially in models with stronger air cooling. Because of the electrical discharge caused by heat on the syncs, dust will always collect there the most.

Generally, you will want to open your device once every three or so months and vacuum and wipe everything inside. Just make sure to let it dry completely before plugging anything back in.

#5 Size

Although size will depend on your desire to carry the device around, there are some external GPU systems where you will simply need to go big. Large cards are not only bigger as a rule, but also need more space for fans and cooling.

For business-oriented external graphics cards, it is possible to have something you can carry around. But, if you want to have something like the Nvidia 2080 Ti as your card you will need a way to power it and cool it off.

On the other hand, you can use an external adapter that will simply consist of a connector and power source for the card. Adapters are small and portable and use only a bit more space than the GPU itself. But, this is not a good option for larger and more powerful GPU units.

Conclusion

External graphics cards are a widely misunderstood piece of tech, as they are marketed often for things where they wouldn’t be a logical choice.

You can indeed game or mine cryptocurrency with these cards, but there are much better choices for these purposes if you want to have optimal results. Unless these choices are unavailable, or you have some other reason why you wouldn’t want them, going external is not ideal.

These units excel in business and design areas where you will usually use a much smaller device for your everyday tasks and use an external GPU when you need extra power. 

Rendering images, videos, or 3D models is multiple times faster on a dedicated GPU with its own power than anything you might find in a laptop or a mobile device. Also, it can improve the image cast by your device to a larger screen.

Finally, as the prices are dropping this may be a good time for many to make a compromise between the power of a PC and portability of mobile devices, taking on the best of both worlds with almost no sacrifice in utility and cost.