Computer building and repair Archive

External or portable USB storage devices–what is the difference

Article

USB portable hard disk

An example of a portable hard disk

Portable vs external hard drive: Which one to buy | Gadgets Now

My Comments

The type of outboard storage devices is becoming differentiated in to two distinct classes – a desktop-grade “external” device and a smaller “portable” device.

Typically, a desktop-grade “external” hard disk or enclosure will house a 3.5” or larger desktop-grade storage device intended for installation in a traditional desktop computer or a server. As well, they will have their own power supply that could be provided using integrated electronics or a power brick like what you would use for a laptop computer. Better designs may offer their own USB hub that will allow you to connect more USB devices to your computer or other functions or some will even be multiple-disk RAID setups. This class of device also extends to external graphics modules or USB expansion

On the other hand, a portable hard disk or enclosure will house a 2.5” or smaller storage device and be powered from the host computer via its USB port. Here, they are being optimised for use on the road and the hard disks will implement data-protection measures to factor the unpredictable nature of this use. These units will typically be more expensive “per gigabyte” compared to the desktop-grade units.

Hard-disk-based devices will use a 3.5” drive spinning at 7200rpm for external units or a 2.5” drive spinning at 5400rpm for portable units. It is assumed that the higher-speed drives will offer better data-access performance over the lower-speed devices. There are solid-state-storage devices being released as outboard storage devices, primarily for portable use most of these devices will be more expensive per gigabyte than portable hard disks.

The desktop-grade “external” devices may be a better solution if you intend to have the device staying at one location all the time. This could be to cater towards extra storage for a desktop or laptop computer where you intend to use the data at home or the workplace, to expand a NAS’s storage capacity or to connect to a router for use as a baseline NAS.

On the other hand, the portable devices can be useful if it is very likely that you will take your data with you or move the device around. This could be to: use as external backup or offload storage for your laptop computer; to store a disk full of confidential data in a locked filing cabinet and only connect the disk to your computer on an “as-needed” basis; create a “grab and run” backup of critical data; or to have a large amount of data that could be used on other computers.

What is worth noting is that the portable devices will be designed to be able to handle unpredictable storage environments where there is a likelihood of increased movement. This is while desktop “external” hard disks are primarily useful for a normally-sessile usage environment.

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The trends affecting personal-computer graphics infrastructure

Article

AMD Ryzen CPUs with integrated Vega graphics are great for budget-friendly PC gaming | Windows Central

My Comments

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 Intel 8th Generation CPU at QT Melbourne hotel

Highly-portable computers of the same ilk as the Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 will end up with highly-capable graphics infrastructure

A major change that will affect personal-computer graphics subsystems is that those subsystems that have a highly-capable graphics processor “wired-in” on the motherboard will be offering affordable graphics performance for games and multimedia.

One of the reasons is that graphics subsystems that are delivered as an expansion card are becoming very pricey, even ethereally expensive, thanks to the Bitcoin gold rush. This is because the GPUs (graphics processors) on the expansion cards are being used simply as dedicated computational processors that are for mining Bitcoin. This situation is placing higher-performance graphics out of the reach of most home and business computer users who want to benefit from this feature for work or play.

But the reality is that we will be asking our computers’ graphics infrastructure to realise images that have a resolution of 4K or more with high colour depths and dynamic range on at least one screen. There will even be the reality that everyone will be dabbling in games or advanced graphics work at some point in their computing lives and even expecting a highly-portable or highly-compact computer to perform this job.

Integrated graphics processors as powerful as economy discrete graphics infrastructure

One of the directions Intel is taking is to design their own integrated graphics processors that use the host computer’s main RAM memory but have these able to serve with the equivalent performance of a baseline dedicated graphics processor that uses its own memory. It is also taking advantage of the fact that most recent computers are being loaded with at least 4Gb system RAM, if not 8Gb or 16Gb. This is to support power economy when a laptop is powered by its own battery, but these processors can even support some casual gaming or graphics tasks.

Discrete graphics processors on the same chip die as the computer’s main processor

Intel Corporation is introducing the 8th Gen Intel Core processor with Radeon RX Vega M Graphics in January 2018. It is packed with features and performance crafted for gamers, content creators and fans of virtual and mixed reality. (Credit: Walden Kirsch/Intel Corporation)

This Intel CPU+GPU chipset will be the kind of graphics infrastructure for portable or compact enthusiast-grade or multimedia-grade computers

Another direction that Intel and AMD are taking is to integrate a discrete graphics subsystem on the same chip die (piece of silicon) as the CPU i.e. the computer’s central “brain” to provide “enthusiast-class” or “multimedia-class” graphics in a relatively compact form factor. It is also about not yielding extra heat nor about drawing on too much power. These features are making it appeal towards laptops, all-in-one computers and low-profile desktops such as the ultra-small “Next Unit of Computing” or consumer / small-business desktop computers, where it is desirable to have silent operation and highly-compact housings.

Both CPU vendors are implementing AMD’s Radeon Vega graphics technology on the same die as some of their CPU designs.

Interest in separate-chip discrete graphics infrastructure

Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming laptop

The Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming laptop – the kind of computer that will maintain traditional soldered-on discrete graphics infrastructure

There is still an interest in discrete graphics infrastructure that uses its own silicon but soldered to the motherboard. NVIDIA and AMD, especially the former, are offering this kind of infrastructure as a high-performance option for gaming laptops and compact high-performance desktop systems; along with high-performance motherboards for own-build high-performance computer projects such as “gaming rigs”. The latter case would typify a situation where one would build the computer with one of these motherboards but install a newer better-performing graphics card at a later date.

Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Puck integrated-chipset external graphics module press picture courtesy of Sonnet Systems

Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Puck integrated-chipset external graphics module – the way to go for ultraportables

This same option is also being offered as part of the external graphics modules that are being facilitated thanks to the Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C interface. The appeal of these modules is that a highly-portable or highly-compact computer can benefit from better graphics at a later date thanks to one plugging in one of these modules. Portable-computer users can benefit from the idea of working with high-performance graphics where they use it most but keep the computer lightweight when on the road.

Graphics processor selection in the operating system

For those computers that implement multiple graphics processors, Microsoft making it easier to determine which graphics processor an application is to use with the view of allowing the user to select whether the application should work in a performance or power-economy mode. This feature is destined for the next major iteration of Windows 10.

Here, it avoids the issues associated with NVIDIA Optimus and similar multi-GPU-management technologies where this feature is managed with an awkward user interface. They are even making sure that a user who runs external graphics modules has that same level of control as one who is running a system with two graphics processors on the motherboard.

What I see now is an effort by the computer-hardware industry to make graphics infrastructure for highly-compact or highly-portable computers offer similar levels of performance to baseline or mid-tier graphics infrastructure available to traditional desktop computer setups.

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Microsoft to improve user experience and battery runtime for mobile gaming

Article – From the horse’s mouth

Candy Crush Saga gameplay screen Android

Microsoft researching how games like Candy Crush Saga can work with full enjoyment but not demanding much power

Microsoft Research

RAVEN: Reducing Power Consumption of Mobile Games without Compromising User Experience (Blog Post)

My Comments

A common frustration that we all face when we play video games on a laptop, tablet or smartphone is that these devices run out of battery power after a relatively short amount of playing time. It doesn’t matter whether we use a mobile-optimised graphics infrastructure like what the iPad or our smartphones are equipped with, or a desktop-grade graphics infrastructure like the discrete or integrated graphics chipsets that laptops are kitted out with.

What typically happens in gameplay is that the graphics infrastructure paints multiple frames to create the illusion of movement. But most games tend to show static images for a long time, usually while we are planning the next move in the game. In a lot of cases, some of these situations may use a relatively small area where animation takes place be it to show a move taking place or to show a “barberpole” animation which is a looping animation that exists for effect when no activity takes place.

Microsoft is working on an approach for “painting” the interaction screens in a game so as to avoid the CPU and graphics infrastructure devoting too much effort towards this task. This is a goal to allow a game to be played without consuming too much power and takes advantage of human visual perception for scaling frames needed to make an animation. There is also the concept of predictability for interpreting subsequent animations.

But a lot of the theory behind the research is very similar to how most video-compression codecs and techniques work. Here, these codecs use a “base” frame that acts as a reference and data that describes the animation that takes place relative to that base frame. Then during playback or reception, the software reconstructs the subsequent frames to make the animations that we see.

The research is mainly about an energy-efficient approach to measuring these perceptual differences during interactive gameplay based on the luminance component of a video image. Here, the luminance component of a video image would be equivalent to what you would have seen on a black-and-white TV. This therefore can be assessed without needing to place heavy power demands on the computer’s processing infrastructure.

The knowledge can then be used for designing graphics-handling software for games that are to be played on battery-powered devices, or to allow a “dual-power” approach for Windows, MacOS and Linux games. This is where a game can show a detailed animation with high performance on a laptop connected to AC power but allow it not to show that detailed animation while the computer is on battery power.

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Windows to fully manage multiple graphics processor setups

Article – From the horse’s mouth

Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming laptop

The Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming laptop – the process of selecting which graphics processor  an app or game should use in this Optimus-equipped laptop will soon be managed by Windows 10

Microsoft

Announcing Windows 10 Insider Preview Build 17093 for PC (Windows Experience Blog)

Previous Coverage

What is a GPU all about?

My Comments

Over the last few years, an increasing number of laptop-computer manufacturers worked with graphics-card vendors to implement dual-graphics-processor setups in their portable computing products.

This offered a function that works in a similar manner to the “performance / economy” or “sports mode” switch present in an increasing number of cars. Here, the transmission can be set to give the car sports-like performance or to allow it work more efficiently, typically by determining when the transmission changes gear in relation to the engine’s RPM. NVIDIA markets this function as Optimus while AMD markets it as Dynamic Switchable Graphics.

Sony VAIO S Series ultraportable STAMINA-SPEED switch

Sony VAIO S Series – equipped with dual graphics with an easy-to-use operating-mode switch

Initially Sony implemented a hardware switch to select the graphics processor on their VAIO S Series that I previously reviewed but you manage this function through a control app offered by NVIDIA or AMD depending on the discrete graphics chipset installed. From my experience, these programs can be very confusing to operating especially if you want to allow particular software to run in high-performance or economy mode, or simply override these settings.

Intel Corporation is introducing the 8th Gen Intel Core processor with Radeon RX Vega M Graphics in January 2018. It is packed with features and performance crafted for gamers, content creators and fans of virtual and mixed reality. (Credit: Walden Kirsch/Intel Corporation)

This Intel CPU+GPU chipset will be the reason Microsoft will be providing operating-system management of multiple graphics processors

Microsoft have now integrated in to a preview build of the next iteration of Windows 10 the ability to manage these settings using the operating system’s interface. This setup also applies to desktop systems equipped with two discrete GPUs such as a baseline graphics card and a performance-focused graphics card; or systems connected to an external graphics module. It can cater towards a situation where a computer is equipped with two built-in graphics processors and an external graphics module, a situation that can be made real with Intel’s new CPU+discrete GPU system-on-chip or a gaming laptop with a regular games-grade GPU, when computers with this kind of hardware also have Thunderbolt 3 ports.

Akitio Node Thunderbolt 3 "card cage" external graphics module - press image courtesy of Akitio

.. as will external graphics modules like this Akitio Node Thunderbolt 3 “card cage” external graphics module

The user experience requires you to select a program, be it a Classic (traditional Windows desktop) app or a Universal (Windows Store) app, then choose whether to let the system choose the GPU to use, or to use the GPU offering the highest performance, or the GPU that is the most economical. Here, it could cater for the external graphics modules or systems with three graphics processors by choosing the one with the most horsepower, typically the graphics processor in an external graphics module.

There is the ability for an application or game to choose the graphics processor to work with and this management ability won’t override that choice.  The ability to choose the graphics processor for a program to work with on the basis of whether it is power-saving or higher-performance makes it feasible to work with setups where you may connect or disconnect GPUs on a whim such as when you use external graphics modules.

What users may eventually want is to allow Windows to select the graphics processor for an application based on the kind of power source the host computer is using. Here, such an option could allow an app to use high-performance graphics like a discrete graphics chipset while the computer is running from AC power, but use a power-conserving graphics setup while running on batteries.

Other goals that may be seen would include the ability for Windows to manipulate multiple graphics processors to optimise for higher graphics and system performance for particular situations. This could range from using an integrated graphics processor in a setup using a discrete or external graphics processor for its graphics needs to improve performance for supplementary tasks to allocating GPUs to particular display clusters.

At least Microsoft has started on the idea of “baking in” multiple-graphics-processor management into Windows 10 rather than relying on software supplied by graphics-processor vendors to do the job.

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Sonnet shows up a highly-portable external graphics module

Articles

Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Puck integrated-chipset external graphics module press picture courtesy of Sonnet Systems

Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Puck integrated-chipset external graphics module – the way to go for ultraportables

This Little Box Can Make Even the Junkiest Laptop a Gaming PC | Gizmodo

From the horse’s mouth

Sonnet

eGFX Breakaway Puck (Product Page, Press Release)

My Comments

Increasingly there has been the rise of external graphics modules that connect to your laptop or small-form-factor desktop computer via its Thunderbolt 3 port. This has allowed this class of computer to benefit from better graphics hardware even though they don’t have the ability for you to fit a graphics card in them. Similarly, they would appeal to users who have an ultraportable computer and mainly want the advanced graphics in a particular environment like home or office but don’t care about it on the road.

A highly-portable approach to giving the Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake and its ilk discrete graphics

But most of these devices have come in the form of a “card-cage” which houses a desktop-grade graphics card, which is all and well if you are thinking of using gaming-grade or workstation-grade desktop graphics hardware. As well, these “card-cage” units would take up a lot of space, something that may not be beneficial with cramped desktop or entertainment-unit spaces.

Acer previously issued one of these external graphics modules which has an integrated NVIDIA graphics chipset but Sonnet has now come to the fore with the eGFX Breakaway Puck that uses integrated AMD Radeon graphics silicon. This device is sold as two different models with one equipped with the AMD Radeon RX560 GPU and another with the better-performing Radeon RX570 GPU.

The Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Puck can be stuffed in to a backpack’s pocket this making it appeal to users who are likely to be travelling more. As well, they offer a VESA-compliant bracket so that this external graphics module can be mounted on a display stand or arm for those of us who want as much space on the desktop as possible.

Connectivity for external displays is in the form of 3 DisplayPort outlets and 1 HDMI 2.0b outlet to cater for multi-monitor setups. It also exploits the Power Delivery standard to supply up to 45W of power to the host computer which can mean that you don’t need to use the computer’s charger to power the host computer.

There could be some improvements regarding connectivity like having another Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C port for connection to other peripherals, something that can be of concern with ultraportables that use very few connections. But I would see this opening up the idea for similarly-sized integrated-chipset external graphics modules both as highly-portable “add-ons” for laptop computers or to create “building-block” approaches to small-form-factor “NUC-style” desktop computer setups.

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WD cracks the 14 Terabyte barrier for a standard desktop hard disk

Article HGST UltraStar HS14 14Tb hard disk press image courtesy of Western Digital

Western Digital 14TB hard drive sets storage record | CNet

From the horse’s mouth

HGST by Western Digital

Ultrastar HS14 14Tb hard disk

Product Page

Press Release

My Comments

Western Digital had broken the record for data stored on a 3.5” hard disk by offering the HGST by WD UltraStar HS14 hard disk.

This 3.5” hard disk is capable of storing 14Tb of data and has been seen as a significant increase in data-density for disk-based mechanical data storage. It implements HelioSeal construction technology which yields a hermetically-sealed enclosure filled with helium that leads to thinner disks which also permit reduced cost, cooling requirements and power consumption.

At the moment, this hard disk is being pitched at heavy-duty enterprise, cloud and data-center computing applications rather than regular desktop or small-NAS applications. In this use case, I see that these ultra-high-capacity hard disks earn their keep would be localised data-processing applications where non-volatile secondary storage is an important part of the equation.

Such situations would include content-distribution networks such as the Netflix application or edge / fog computing applications where data has to be processed and held locally. Here, such applications that are dependent on relatively-small devices that can be installed close to where the data is created or consumed like telephone exchanges, street cabinets, or telecommunications rooms.

I would expect that this level of data-density will impact other hard disks and devices based on these hard disks. For example, applying it to the 2.5” hard-disk form factor could see these hard disks approaching 8Tb or more yielding highly capacious compact storage devices. Or that this same storage capacity is made available for hard drives that suit regular desktop computers and NAS units.

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NVIDIA offers external graphics module support for their Quadro workstation graphics cards

Articles

Razer Blade gaming Ultrabook connected to Razer Core external graphics module - press picture courtesy of Razer

NVIDIA allows you to turn a high-performance Ultrabook like the Razer Blade in to a mobile workstation when you plant a Quadro graphics card in an external graphics module like the Razer Core

Nvidia rolls out external GPU support for Nvidia Quadro | CNet

NVIDIA External GPUs Bring New Creative Power to Millions of Artists and Designers | MarketWired

From the horse’s mouth

NVIDIA

Press Release

My Comments

Over the last year, there has been a slow trickle of external graphics modules that “soup up” the graphics capabilities of computers like laptops, all-in-ones and highly-compact desktops by using outboard graphics processors. Typically these devices connect to the host computer using a Thunderbolt 3 connection which provides a bandwidth equivalent to the PCI Express expansion-card standard used for desktop computers.

At the moment, this approach for improving a computer system’s graphics abilities has been focused towards gaming-grade graphics cards and chipsets, which has left people who want workstation-grade graphics performance in the lurch.

But NVIDIA has answered this problem by providing a driver update for their TITAN X and Quadro workstation graphics cards. This allows Windows to work with these cards even if they are installed in a “card-cage” external graphics module rather than on the host computer’s motherboard.

Not just that, NVIDIA are to start allowing external-graphics-module manufacturers to tender their products for certification so that they are proven by NVIDIA to allow these cards to work reliably to optimum performance. This may be different to the context of a certified workstation where all the components in that particular computer are certified by Autodesk and similar software vendors to work reliably and perform at their best with their CAD or similar software.

What is being pitched in this context is a “thin-and-light” laptop of the Dell XPS 13 kind (including the 2-in-1 variant);  an “all-in-one” desktop computer like the HP Envy 34 Curved All-In-One or an ultra-compact “next unit of computing” unit like the Intel Skull Canyon being able to do workstation-class tasks with the kind of graphics card that best suits this computing requirement.

The question that some workstation users will then raise is whether the computer’s main processor and RAM are up to these tasks even though a workstation-grade graphics card is added on; and then consider this approach unsatisfactory even though the host computer has a lot of RAM and / or runs with a Core i7 CPU. But something like a gaming laptop that uses a gaming-calibre graphics chipset may benefit from the Quadro in an external graphics “card cage” module when this system is destined to do a lot of video editing, CAD or animation work.

Personally, I see the concept of the Quadro workstation graphics chipset in an external graphics module as a way to allow hobbyists and small-time professionals to slowly put their foot in the door of high-performance workstation computing.

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Investing in an external graphics module for your laptop

Razer Blade gaming Ultrabook connected to Razer Core external graphics module - press picture courtesy of Razer

Razer Blade gaming Ultrabook connected to Razer Core external graphics module

Just lately, as more premium and performance-grade laptops are being equipped with a Thunderbolt 3 connection, the external graphics modules, also known as graphics docks or graphics docking stations, are starting to trickle out on to the market as a performance-boosting accessory for these computers.

The Thunderbolt 3 connection, which uses the USB Type-C plug and socket, is able to provide a throughput similar to a PCI-Express card bus and has put forward a method of improving a laptop’s, all-in-one’s or small-form-factor computer’s graphics ability. This is being facilitated using the external graphics modules or docks that house graphics processors in the external boxes and link these to the host computer using the above connection. What it will mean is that these computers can benefit from desktop-grade or performance-grade graphics without the need to heavily modify them and, in the case of portable computers, can allow for “performance” graphics to be enjoyed at home or in the office while you have battery-conserving baseline graphics on the road,

Acer Aspire Switch 12S convertible 2-in-1 - press picture courtesy of Microsoft

Acer Aspire Switch 12S convertible 2-in-1 – can benefit from better graphics thanks to Thunderbolt 3 and an external graphics module

The devices come in two classes:

  • Integrated graphics chipset (Acer Graphics Dock) – devices of this class have a hardwired graphics chipset similar to what is implemented in an all-in-one or small-form-factor computer.
  • Card cage (Razer Core, Akitio Node) – These devices are simply a housing where you can install a PCI-Express desktop graphics card of your choice. They have a power supply and interface circuitry to present the desktop graphics card to the host computer via a Thunderbolt 3 connection.

What will they offer?

Akitio Node Thunderbolt 3 "card cage" external graphics module - press image courtesy of Akitio

Akitio Node Thunderbolt 3 “card cage” external graphics module

All these devices will have their own video outputs but will yield what the high-performance graphics chipset provides through the host computer’s integral screen, the video outputs integrated with the host computer as well as their own video outputs. This is in contrast to what used to happen with desktop computers where the video outputs associated with the integrated graphics chipset became useless when you installed a graphics card in these computers.

I have read a few early reviews for the first generation of graphics modules and Thunderbolt-3 laptops. One of these was Acer’s integrated graphics module kitted out with a NVIDIA GTX960M GPU, known to be a modest desktop performer but its mobile equivalent is considered top-shelf for laptop applications. This was ran alongside an Acer TravelMate P658 and an Acer Aspire Switch 12S, with it providing as best as the graphics would allow but highlighting where the weakness was, which was the mobile-optimised Intel Core M processors in the Switch 12S convertible.

Simplified plug-in expansion for all computers

Intel Skull Canyon NUC press picture courtesy of Intel

The Intel Skull Canyon NUC can easily be “hotted up” with better graphics when coupled with an external graphics module

Another example was a manufacturer’s blog post about using their “card-cage” graphics dock with one of the Intel Skull Canyon “Next Unit Of Computing” midget computers which was equipped with the Thunderbolt 3 connection. This showed how the computer increased in graphics performance once teamed with the different graphics cards installed in that “card-cage” module.

It opened up the idea of using an “AV system” approach for enhancing small-form-factor and integrated computers. This is where you connect extra modules to these computers to increase their performance just like you would connect a better CD player or turntable or substitute an existing amplifier for something more powerful or plug in some better speakers if you wanted to improve your hi-fi system’s sound quality.

This usage case would earn its keep with an “all-in-one” computer which has the integrated monitor, the aforementioned “Next Unit Of Computing” midget computers or simply a low-profile desktop computer that wouldn’t accommodate high-performance graphics cards.

Software and performance issues can be a real stumbling block

What I had come across from the material I had read was that as long as the host computer had the latest version of the operating system, the latest BIOS and other firmware to support graphics via Thunderbolt 3, and the latest drivers to support this functionality then it can perform at its best. As well, the weakest link can affect the overall performance of the system, which can apply to various mobile system-on-chip chipsets tuned primarily to run cool and allow for a slim lightweight computer that can run on its own batteries for a long time.

At the moment, this product class is still not mature and there will be issues with compatibility and performance with the various computers and external graphics modules.

As well, not all graphics cards will work with every “card-cage” graphics module. This can be due to high-end desktop graphics cards drawing more current than the graphics module can supply, something that can be of concern with lower-end modules that have weaker power supplies, or software issues associated with cards that aren’t from the popular NVIDIA or AMD games-focused lineups. You may have to check with the graphics module’s vendor or the graphics card’s vendor for newer software or firmware to be assured of this compatibility.

Multiple GPUs – a possible reality

A situation that may have to be investigated as more of these products arrive is the concurrent use of multiple graphics processors in the same computer system no matter the interface or vendor. The ability to daisy-chain 6 Thunderbolt-3 devices on the same Thunderbolt-3 connection, along with premium desktop motherboards sporting this kind of connection along with their PCI-Express expansion slots, will make the concept become attractive and easy to implement. Similarly, some vendors could start offering Thunderbolt-3 expansion cards that plug in to existing motherboards’ PCI-Express expansion slots to give existing desktop PCs this functionality.

Here, the goal would be to allow multiple GPUs from different vendors to work together to increase graphics performance for high-end games or multimedia-production tasks like video transcoding or rendering of video or animation projects. Or it could be about improving the performance and efficiency of a multiple-display setup by allocating particular graphics processors to particular displays, something that would benefit larger setups with many screens and, in some cases, different resolutions.

Highly-portable gaming setups being highlighted as a use case

A usage class that was always put forward for these external graphics modules was the teenage games enthusiast who is studying at senior secondary school and is ready to study at university. Here, the usage case underscored the situation where they could be living in student accommodation like a college dorm / residence hall or be living in a share-house with other students.

The application focuses on the use of a laptop computer that can be taken around the campus but be connected to one of these modules when the student is at their home. I would add to this the ability to carry the graphics module between their room and the main lounge area in their home so that they could play their games on the bigger TV screen in that area. This is due to the device being relatively compact and lightweight compared to most desktop computers.

That same application can cover people who are living in accommodation associated with their job and this is likely to change frequently as they answer different work placements. An example of this would be people whose work is frequently away from home for significant amounts of time like those who work on ships, oil rigs or mines. Here, some of these workers may be using their laptop that they use as part of their work during their shift where applicable such as on a ship’s bridge, but use it as a personal entertainment machine in their cabin or the mess room while they are off-shift.

What could be seen more of these devices

Once the external graphics modules mature as a device class, they could end up moving towards two or three classes of device.

One of these would be the integrated modules with graphics chipsets considered modest for desktop use but premium for laptop use. The expansion abilities that these may offer could be in the form of a few extra USB connections, an SD card reader and / or a higher-grade sound module. Perhaps, they may come with an optical drive of some sort. Some manufacturers may offer integrated modules with higher-performance graphics chipsets along with more connections for those of us who want to pay a premium for extra performance and connectivity. These would be pitched towards people who want that bit more “pep” out of their highly-portable or compact computer that has integrated graphics.

Similarly, it could be feasible to offer larger-screen monitors which have discrete graphics chipsets integrated in them. They could also have the extra USB connections and / or secondary storage options, courting those users who are thinking of a primary workspace for their portable computer while desiring higher-performance graphics.

The card-cage variants could open up a class of device that has room for one or two graphics cards and, perhaps, sound cards or functionality-expansion cards. In some cases, this class of device could also offer connectivity and installation options for user-installable storage devices, along with extra sockets for other peripherals. This class of device could, again, appeal to those of us who want more out of the highly-compact computer they started with or that high-performance laptop rather than using a traditional desktop computer for high-performance computing.

Portable or highly-compact computers as a package

Manufacturers could offer laptops, all-in-one and other highly-compact or highly-portable computers that are part of matched-equipment packages where they offer one or more external graphics modules as a deal-maker option or as part of the package. These could differ by graphics chipset and by functionality such as external-equipment connectivity or integrated fixed or removable storage options.

This is in a similar vein to what has happened in the hi-fi trade since the 1970s where manufacturers were offering matched-equipment packages from their lineup of hi-fi components. Here they were able to allow, for example, multiple packages to have the same tape deck, turntable or CD player while each of the package was differentiated with increasingly-powerful amplifiers or receivers driving speakers that had differing levels of audio performance and cabinet size. It still was feasible to offer better and more capable source components with the more expensive packages or allow such devices to be offered as a way to make the perfect deal.

Conclusion

Expect that as more computers equipped with the Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C connection come on the market the external graphics module will become a simplified method of improving these computers’ graphic performance. It will be seen as a way for allowing highly-compact or highly-portable computers to benefit from high-performance graphics at some point in their life, something that this class of computer wouldn’t be able to normally do.

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What is a GPU all about?

Article

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Ultrabook

The GPU, whether dedicated or integrated is what paints the picture on your computer screen

What Makes A GPU Different From A CPU? | Gizmodo

My Comments

A graphics processing unit or GPU is a special data-processing chipset that effectively “paints” the images that you are to see on your computer screen. This is compared to the central processing unit or CPU which is focused on handling the data that your computer is dealing with at your command and being the system’s “commander” processor.

The idea of a separate processor is to effectively work with the shapes, pixels and colours that constitute what you see on the screen and the highly-sophisticated GPUs handle this using multiple “cores” or unique processors. Another factor worth considering is that video editing, animation and transcoding programs are making use of the GPU to transcode the video material between different formats or rendering an animation or a sequence of shorter video clips in to one longer video clip.

Gaming rig

A “gaming rig” tower desktop computer equipped with high-performance display cards

The higher-performance GPUs, typically offered as display cards that are installed in desktop computers especially “gaming rigs” set up by computer-games enthusiasts, use multiple “cores” or unique processors so they can realise the high-resolution graphics very quickly and responsively. Some of these cards even implement setups like “Crossfire” with the ability to gang two display cards together for increased performance.

Integrated vs dedicated GPUs

Typically the difference between an integrated or dedicated GPU is that a dedicated GPU has its own memory and other resources for “painting” the graphics images while an integrated GPU “borrows” resources like RAM memory from the system’s CPU. As well, a lot of these dedicated GPUs are designed and developed by companies who specialise in that field.

The benefit of a dedicated GPU is that it can turn out the graphics images required by demanding applications like games, video editing, CAD and the like efficiently because its resources are focused on what you see while the CPU and system RAM are focused on working out what is to happen.

Sony VAIO S Series ultraportable STAMINA-SPEED switch

Sony VAIO S Series – equipped with dual graphics with an easy-to-use operating-mode switch

For example, a game needs the use of the CPU to answer the players’ commands, apply the game’s rules and position each of the elements while it needs the GPU to visually represent where everything is. Here, the dedicated GPU can handle how everything is represented without encumbering the CPU’s tasks relating to how the game runs.

The main disadvantage with dedicated GPUs that affects laptops and other portable computers is that they can quickly drain the computer’s battery. This has been answered in a few ways like equipping laptops with integrated and dedicated graphics chipsets and adding logic like NVIDIA’s Optimus to switch between the different chipsets, in a similar vein to how the overdrive or “sports mode” in some cars work. In most cases, this logic engaged the dedicated graphics if the computer was running a graphics-intensive program like a game or video-editing program or was running on external power.

External GPU docks

Alienware high-performance laptop computer with Graphics Amplifier external GPU module

Alienware high-performance laptop computer with Graphics Amplifier external GPU module

A new trend that is starting to appear and benefit laptop-computer users is the “external GPU” dock or module that connects to the laptop computer. These appear in two different forms – a “card cage” like the Alienware Graphics Amplifier where a user can install a desktop graphics card, or a graphics module which has the graphics hardware installed by the manufacturer.

Initially these devices were connected to the host computer using a connection that was proprietary to the manufacturer but now they are implementing the Intel Thunderbolt 3 via USB Type-C connection due to it offering PCI-Express data-transfer bandwidth, thus allowing for increased interchangeability between computers and docks. Most of these implementations will have the ability to send the graphics back to the host computer’s screen or to an external display that is connected directly to the external GPU module.

Alienware Graphics Amplifier expansion module

A graphics expansion module that could option up budget and mainstream laptops

These devices have appealed as a way to “option up” laptop, all-in-one and similar computers for high-performance dedicated graphics. It is more so where you don’t need to have dedicated graphics all the time, rather when you have that laptop or 2-in-1 “back home” and ready to work or play.

Conclusion

The graphics processors or GPUs, whether integrated on a computer’s motherboard, installed on a display card or housed in an external GPU module, are processors that look after “painting” the images you see on your computer’s screen.

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USB Type-C and Thunderbolt 3 make it real for outboard graphics expansion

Article

Here’s The Box That Can Turn a Puny Laptop Into a Graphical Powerhouse | Gizmodo

My Comments

Sony VAIO Z Series and docking station

The Sony VAIO Z Series ultraportable with functionality expanded by an add-on module

There have been some successful attempts at developing outboard expansion modules or docking stations that add discrete graphics or a better discrete-graphics solution to a laptop computer which wouldn’t have internal room for this kind of performance.

One of these was Sony with their VAIO Z Series that I reviewed previously which had an expansion module that housed a Blu-Ray drive and an AMD discrete graphics chipset. This used an Intel “Light Peak” connection (Thunderbolt over USB) between the devices to provide for high data throughput between the host computer and the expansion module.

Another of these was one of the new Alienware gaming laptops that could connect to a so-called “Graphics Amplifier” which was an expansion module for some of the Alienware R2 series gaming laptops that could house one or two PCI-Express graphics cards. This brought forward the idea that a laptop could have desktop gaming-rig performance just by adding on an expansion module.

Alienware Graphics Amplifier expansion module

Alienware Graphics Amplifier expansion module that connects to selected Alienware R2 gaming laptops

Both these solutions implemented manufacturer-specific connection methods which restricted which devices can connect to these “external-graphics” expansion modules.

But the USB 3.1 standard with the Type-C connection allowed the same connection to be used to connect other devices via different logical connection methods like Intel’s Thunderbolt. This was effectively “opened up” as a high-performance connection for expansion modules when Intel launched “Thunderbolt 3” which has throughput equivalent to what happens on a computer’s motherboard.

Alienware gaming laptop

An Alienware gaming laptop that can benefit from the Alienware Graphics Amplifier expansion module

This led to some reference designs being presented at the Intel Developers Forum 2015 for external-graphics docks of the Sony VAIO Z or Alienware Graphics Amplifier ilk that are able to work with laptops that have the USB Type-C and Intel Thunderbolt 3 connection. In their own right, they are expansion modules which add extra connectivity to the laptop but also they give it access to improved discrete graphics chipsets. One of these was modelled on the Alienware Graphics Amplifier by virtue of allowing the use of fully-fledged graphics cards of the kind expected in that tower-style gaming rig.

The equipment that was shown proved the concept that you could use Thunderbolt 3 over a USB 3.1 Type C physical connection to provide an external discrete-graphics solution for an ultraportable laptop computer or similarly-small computer design. This proves that it can be feasible to use these modules for an “at-home” or “at-office” solutions where performance is desirable but allow for a lightweight computer system.

Similarly, a manufacturer could offer a laptop or all-in-one desktop with the integrated graphics but allow their customers to buy a graphics expansion module at a later date should they want something with more graphics acumen. Here, they can simply plug in the graphics expansion module and play rather than opening up the computer to install a graphics card. There is also a reality that as newer graphics chipsets come along, the person can purchase a newer expansion module or, in the case of those units that use PCI-Express desktop cards, install a newer graphics card in to the module to take advantage of these newer designs.

It simply underscores that fact that USB 3.1 Type C opens up the concept of expandability for tablets, laptops, all-in-one and small-profile desktops even further by use of external modules that offer different functions to suit different needs at different times.

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