It was about Dell keeping strong with an ultraportable laptop computer that has the features you need while offering value for money. This model uses a 16:10 aspect-ratio screen and two Thunderbolt 4 ports, following on from the approach they had about having the “right mix” of features to get the job done. Infact the use of two Thunderbolt 3 ports in recent iterations of this model which also equate to USB-C with DisplayPort alt and Power Delivery functionality allowed for a slim chassis but can he connected to Thunderbolt 3 or USB-C peripherals and docks including those that can supply power to the computer.
But Dell just lately launched the XPS 13 9305 which has a 16:9 aspect-ratio screen with Full HD resolution (for Australasian users). This would have a larger bezel under the screen with the Dell brand on it. It also gains an extra USB-C port with Power Delivery and DisplayPort alt functionality. It also comes through as a more lightweight version of the XPS 13 laptop. The use of a 16:9 aspect-ratio screen for this model of laptop allows Dell to use cheaper commonly-available display panels rather than a custom design for the screen, thus lowering the computer’s cost.
The goal with this model is to offer a “foot-in-the-door” model to what the XPS 13 “portable-typewriter-sized” ultraportable laptop is all about. Of course, you still had the same Intel Tiger Lake silicon including the Xe integrated graphics along with the Thunderbolt 4 ports. Here, Dell is keeping an a feature combination that I see ideal for mainstream laptop computers i.e. up-to-date Intel integrated graphics and Thunderbolt 3 or 4 ports.
It would mean that you can consider the use of an external graphics module if you want more out of the graphics performance, but a significant number of popular games can be played to an acceptable standard using that silicon and the Full HD screen.
What is happening is that Dell is offering a range of 13” ultraportable computers under the XPS 13 banner and with the right mix of features in the basic design but providing different types for different price points. It also shows that Dell with still keep investing in the traditional “regular” computer which was its bedrock, enforcing value for money for their products.
Due to us having to stay home more due to the COVID-19 coronavirus plague, we have had to rely on online services for our work, education and social life.
What this has meant is a stronger interest in the use of desktop and laptop regular computers that have more powerful silicon and run desktop operating systems. These purchases are justified more due to increased usage of these systems and a longer lifespan that they typically have. Let’s not forget that these computers typically have or are able to be connected to larger screens and better input devices suited for long usage sessions. As well, the money that people have saved by not going out or travelling is financing the purchase of these systems.
Short supply early in the pandemic
This high demand for newer computers has caused problems in the supply of these computers due to factories in China that supply parts or subassemblies for these systems shutting down during the first few months of this pandemic. Another factor that slowed down the supply of thee computers was the logistics associated with their parts being limited due to various restrictions on the transport modes and ports / airports to limit the spread of the virus. But once it became a known quantity and factories were able to adapt to the bug in a prophylactic manner, the backlog of computer orders was able to be fulfilled by the major vendors.
The steady rise of Chrome OS as a viable alternative
Google’s Chrome OS is coming to the fore in this context due to schools and workplaces implementing Chromebooks as a viable computing platform. This is due to it having a limited third-party software base, although it can run Android software, and its support for a secure computing environment. But even these machines are becoming more capable with them acquiring faster silicon and more memory.
But could this mean that more software providers, especially games studios, will have to write software for the Chromebook? Similarly will there be requirements to create software development environments that target many platforms including Chrome OS at once?
Laptops still hold their ground with ever-increasing computing power
There is a strong interest in the portable form factors like laptops because of their innate flexibility. As I have mentioned before when raising the issue of whether to buy a desktop or laptop computer in this era, this could suit household members who don’t have a dedicated workspace and end up using the dining table; people who prefer to use the computer to suit seasonal needs like outside or by the fire.
It is leading towards a significant trend for increased computing power in these computers, especially the ultraportable units like Ultrabooks or MacBook Air units. Around September, this meant the arrival of Intel’s Tiger Lake silicon with the Xe graphics infrastructure. Here the Xe integrated graphics processors were on a par with low-tier mobile dedicated graphics processors and could offer elementary games-grade graphics performance with a Full HD screen.
This has come about because the computer industry has found that over the past year that it is increasingly justifiable to invest in regular-computer platforms. That is thanks to these units being able to last and be relevant for the long term. It also has been underscored over the past ten years with laptops, all-in-ones and low-profile desktop computers being found to exhibit real computing power for primary workday use.
Continual post-pandemic interest in the regular computer
There is doubt whether the demand for regular computers will last long as more of us return to work or school. It may not be an issue for laptop users if your workplace or educational institution implements “bring-your-own-device” policies or they have bought the device for you to use during your tenure with them, and you are able to take your computer between there and back.
Similarly, some pundits may be seeing the increased and continual interest in remote working with this maintaining a need for the regular computer. This may be enforced by offices being required to work at reduced capacity to avoid the risk of contagion until we are sure this pandemic is totally under control. It is also along with businesses looking towards downsizing their office premises or moving away from inner-urban areas due to the reduced need for on-site staff.
Here, this could evolve towards the use of local “third places” like libraries and cafes as alternative workspaces with, perhaps, interest in local flexible shared-working facilities. Similarly, hotels are seeing renewed interest in offering their guestrooms for day use and pitching this towards remote workers. These will continue to exist as an alternative to working from home, especially where one wants to avoid home distractions.
This may be also augmented by a desire to “move away from the city” and only visit there for regular but infrequent workplace meetups, as those pundits in the real-estate game are underscoring. Here, you would have to have a decent Internet connection and a decent computer at your new country house to be able to work from there.
Again these will be about maintaining interest in the regular computer, especially laptop computers.
This is due to them being conducive for long working sessions thanks to properly-sized hardware keyboards and larger screens that these computers have. As well, most of these units will also appeal for use beyond work like playing powerful rich games, doing further learning or supporting entertainment needs.
Here, the laptop will maintain its space for those of us who like flexible working whether at or away from home.
Intel has just premiered a design for a white-label laptop that implements their Tiger Lake silicon.
This computer, which is a mainstream productivity laptop and known as the NUC M15, is intended to be offered by small-time manufacturers and retailer or distributor private labels. Intel previously offered a white-label laptop design in the form of the XPG Xenix 15 gaming laptop.
This will use what is expected of a Tiger Lake laptop and will be used as a machine for smaller operators to have Intel Evo-certified products in their lineup. This means it will come with 11th Generation Core i5 or i7 CPUs, Xe integrated graphics, Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5 and Thunderbolt 4 as part of the feature set.
The small-time manufacturer or retail / distributor private label can be in a position to compete with larger manufacturers like HP, Dell, Lenovo, Acer and Microsoft. But there should be the ability to vary the design to suit particular needs. It is also seen as a way for these kind of manufacturers to have Intel Evo-certified laptop products in their lineups.
A question that can come about is whether this is seen as a fertile ground for a small-time partner manufacturer or private label to use this as the basis for a bespoke design. It is especially where there are small-time manufacturers who focus on equipment for specialist use cases. An example of this could be a manufacturer whose niche is a highly-ruggedised computer setup.
But could these systems also be about “working out” a Tiger-Lake-based reference design for a mass-market laptop product. The machines that I am thinking of are similar to HP Pavilion or Dell Inspiron product ranges for ordinary households, HP Probook or Dell Vostro product ranges for small-business consumers, or HP Elitebooks, Acer Travelmates and Dell Latitudes for enterprise users. These are usually with 15” screens, have average graphics expectations and aren’t necessarily thin and light.
It may be a step to see decent performance and battery life available for laptop users no matter the class of portable computer they are working with, thanks to Intel’s latest iteration in its persistent innovation for this type of computer device.
Acer is about to offer 14” laptop computers focused towards the business community that use Intel’s Tiger Lake silicon with Xe graphics. These come primarily in the form of the TravelMate P4 clamshell laptop and the TravelMate Spin P4 convertible laptop. The latter model is intended to snap at the heels of Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Yoga convertible business laptop.
.. also in a convertible 2-in-1 form as the Acer TravelMate Spin P4
Both these computers have as a baseline option, Thunderbolt 4 connectivity along with other business-grade connectivity requirements. For wireless connectivity, they will have Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5 as standard. But there is the ability to have them specified with an LTE mobile broadband modem that uses eSIM service authentication.
As far as graphics go, these computers will use the Intel Xe integrated graphics processors that can do the job for 1080p gaming or for basic content creation tasks. There is the option for users to specify an NVIDIA MX350 mobile discrete graphics processor if they want a bit more graphics “pep”. Of course that will have the NVIDIA Optimus automatic graphics-processor switchover so the Intel Xe integrated GPU can work as a highly-capable “lean-burn” option for battery use. But, as I have mentioned before, these have a Thunderbolt 4 connection which will offer connectivity to external graphics modules as another path to improve your computer’s graphics performance.
Both computers are designed to be highly-durable and comply with MIL-STD-810G durability standards. There is also essential security security features including the TPM 2.0 security processor which works in a discrete form, fingerprint reader and camera fit for Windows Hello facial recognition. The camera even has a privacy shutter so you aren’t easily spied upon.
The TravelMate P4 will start from USD$899 or EUR€899 while the TravelMate Spin P4 will start from USD$999.99 or EUR€999. But with Acer’s TravelMate business computer range like with the Lenovo ThinkPad / ThinkCentre business computer range, they don’t focus it necessarily towards particular business use cases, be it the small-business operator or freelancer who manages the computer by themselves as their own “axe”, or an enterprise who buys and manages a large fleet of computers for staff to use.
With Acer offering these TravelMate business laptops that run the Intel Tiger Lake silicon with highly-capable Xe graphics processors, it could really define what is expected on the outset for an all-round computer. It means being able to do some advanced graphics tasks like modest gameplay or basic photo and video editing. These business laptops could also be a sign of things to come for mainstream consumer laptop product ranges.
Acer has now refreshed most of their Intel-powered laptop lineup with Intel’s Tiger Lake silicon and is about to put these new computers on the market.
One of the benefits associated with this new silicon is the Intel Iris Xe integrated graphics processors which are as capable as baseline mobile discrete graphics silicon. This means that it could do “all-round” graphics tasks like photo rendering or even Full HD gaming quite easily and is considered credible for integrated graphics silicon.
Acer Spin 5 and its stablemate Spin 3 also have the same kind of integrated graphics and connectivity as the Swift 3x
The Acer Swift 3x ultraportable clamshell laptop that has a maximum ask for US$900 or EUR€850 also impresses me further. That is something that holds true of Spin 5 and Spin 3 2-in-1 laptops with the Spin 5 available for USD$999.99 or EUR€1099. That is while the Spin 3 will be available for USD$849.99 or EUR€899.
The Aspire 5 is available with Intel Tiger Lake silicon but also with NVIDIA GeForce MX450 discrete GPU as an option. But the question that will arise is what relevance will the GeForce MX graphics processor have in the face of Intel’s Xe integrated graphics which has similar, if not slightly better, performance chops.
I would rather that Acer offers an Aspire 5 mainstream clamshell laptop with the Intel Tiger Lake Core i7 CPU, Xe integrated graphics and at least one Thunderbolt 4 port. Here, it would be about something that can do most graphics work including Full-HD gaming but offer an “after-the-fact” upgrade path for better graphics through the use of an external graphics module that has better-performing graphics silicon inside.
But Acer are showing some reasonably-priced laptops that use decent integrated graphics that could appeal to most users who want some performance out of their computer graphics. It could be seen as the way to go when it comes to portable computers that can do what most people want them to do.
The Dell XPS 13 range of ultraportable laptops and 2-in-1 computers has over the last few years been seen as the “top of the pack” for that class of computer. Here, it has been about delivering the right mix of features, functionality and build quality for the price with this being reflected through the different generations of that computer.
In this case, there was an emphasis on the quality aspect of the Tiger Lake silicon refresh for the Dell XPS 13 series. This was about a faster range of CPUs, the availability of integrated graphics silicon that is on a par with baseline mobile discrete graphics silicon, and the use of Thunderbolt 4 connectivity which is a reliability and connectivity improvement on that specification. Here, this graphics improvement was about combining an ultraportable computer design with graphics processing technology that isn’t a wimp.
Even as a 2-in-1 that has been engineered to work with higher-power processors nut not overheat
The computers will have a thinner lighter design with the 2-in-1 variant having improved thermal design to cater towards the use of more powerful processing silicon. But that variant will be limited to the Intel Core i7-1165G7 as the most powerful CPU that can be specified. It will have the smallest integrated camera ever which clocks in at 2.25mm. The XPS 13 traditional laptop variant will use an edge-to-edge keyboard and achieve a 91.5% screen-to-body ratio.
XPS 13 computers that are specified with the 4K UHD+ display will have the display being certified for HDR and Dolby Vision use. But computers specified with the Full HD screen will have a battery runtime rated for 19 hours. The question with this is whether this can be about 19 hours with a mixture of activities ranging from Web browsing, word processing, viewing video content and playing a game like Civilization 6 on that long flight or roadtrip.
These computers will normally be delivered with Windows 10 but Dell is offering the XPS 13 traditional clamshell laptop as a “Developer Edition” variant. Here, this will be preloaded with Ubuntu 18 Linux, which will please software tinkerers and open-source computing advocates.
The minimum prices for Australian users are AUD$2999 for the 2-in-1 variant and AUD$2499 for the clamshell variamt. It will be interesting to see what the press reviews will come up with when the review units start to appear – whether they underscore Dell’s commitment to keeping the right mix of features, functionality, build quality and price for these computers.
Gateway, initially known as Gateway 2000, was a computer brand associated with affordable DOS/Windows personal computer packages that conveyed an increasing amount of value for money. This meant that you could get something decent and reliable for a price you wouldn’t quibble about.
Here, this company assembled the computers within the USA and sold them through bricks-and-mortar computer stores through a significant number of cities in North America. It is similar to how Radio Shack operated around the world through the 1970s and 1980s where you could get a decent piece of equipment at an affordable price. This happened from the mid 1990s to the early 2000s but they were known for a particular brand identity.
This identity was conveyed in the products’ packaging using spots associated with some dairy-cow breeds, relating to the company kicking off in rural America. As well, they ran multi-page ads in the various American computer magazines which effectively told a story and set a scene that related to American life through the years while advertising the various computer specials.
But it was taken over by Acer and subsequently extinguished. Bow Gateway has made a comeback to the USA market with a range of Windows laptops and Android tablets being sold at affordable prices.
Gateway equipment will end up being sold through Walmart, as part of the brand’s original vision to sell through a bricks-and-mortar storefront. It is very similar to how some of the consumer-electronics brands we have loved and reminisce about like AWA or Rank Arena are being sold – exclusively through particular big-box discount-store chains. Some people see this approach of bringing hack these classic brands, often associated with decent value-for-money goods, as a way for retailers to evoke nostalgia that surrounds them. This kind of brand comeback occurs during hard times as people seek comfort in the nostalgia of prior brands
In other countries for example, Aldi is doing something very similar by selling some computers and consumer electronics equipment through their discount supermarkets under their own Medion or Tevion brands.
The Windows-powered laptop range offered by Gateway will use Intel or AMD CPU and NVIDIA RTX graphics horsepower and be available at the different performance classes expected of today’s laptops. There will also be mobile-platform tablets that run Android in Gateway’s product line.
For example, their Ultra Thin series of laptop computers starts at USD$200 for a machine kitted out with a 11.6” Full HD screen, and an AMD A4 processor at least.. Here, a decent machine would set you back around US$500 and give you an Intel Core i5 current-spec CPU, 16Gb RAM and 256Gb SSD storage, 14.1” Full HD screen and an HD webcam. The most expensive option would be a multimedia laptop for US$999 having a 15.6” screen and performance specifications for gaming and content creation. This one even has NVIDIA RTX 2060 GPU for its graphics infrastructure.
This return to form by Gateway is being seen as viable due to reinvigorated market interest in regular computers especially laptops, and mobile-platform tablets being used at home. This is due to COVID-19 driving us more to work, run our businesses or study from home and we are relying on these devices for these activities including the many Zoom calls we make.
This will open up a stronger interest in second-tier brands including retailers’ private labels and distributor-exclusive labels stepping up to the plate when it comes to offering value-priced open-platform computing equipment for consumers.
As I have previously reported, computer-equipment manufacturers are waking up to the realisation that prosumers and content creators are a market segment to address. This group of users was heavily courted by Apple with the MacOS platform but Windows-based computer vendors are answering this need as a significant amount of advanced content-creation and content-presentation software is being written for or ported to Windows 10.
Here, the vendors are shoehorning computer specifications for some of their performance-focused computers towards the kind of independent content creator or content presenter who seeks their own work and manages their own IT. This can range from hobbyists to those of us who create online content to supplement other activities towards small-time professionals who get work “by the job”. It can also appeal to small-time organisations who create or present content but don’t necessarily have their own IT departments or have the same kind of IT department that big corporations have.
Lenovo answered this market with a range of prosumer computers in the form of the Creator Series which encompassed two laptops and a traditional tower-style desktop. Now Dell is coming up to the plate with their Creator Edition computer packages. Here, this approach is to have computers that are specifiied for content creation or content presentation but aren’t workstation-class machines identified with a distinct “Creator Edition” logo.
The first of these are the Creator Edition variants of the latest Dell XPS 17 desktop-replacement laptop. These have, for their horsepower, an Intel Core i7-10875H CPU and a discrete GPU in the form of the NVIDIA GeForce RTX-2060 with 6Gb display memory, based on the NVIDIA Max-Q mobile graphics approach. This will run RTX Studio graphics drivers that are tuned for content-professional use and will be part of the RTX Studio program that NVIDIA runs for content professionals.
The display used in these packages is a 17” 4K UHD touch display that is rated for 100% Adobe RGB colour accuracy. The storage capacity on these computers is 1 Terabyte in the form of a solid-state disk. The only difference between the two packages is that the cheaper variant will run with 16Gb system RAM and the premium variant having 32Gb system RAM.
Dell is also offering a Creator Edition variant of its XPS-branded desktop computer products. This will be in the form of a traditional tower-style desktop computer but is equipped with the latest Intel Core i9 CPU, NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2070 Super graphics card and able to be specced with RAM up to 64Gb and storage of up to 2Tb. It has all the expandability of a traditional form-factor desktop computer, something that would come in handy for project studios where special audio and video interface cards come in to play.
What is being shown up here is that computer manufacturers are recognising the content-creator and prosumer market segment who wants affordable but decent hardware that can do the job. It will be interesting to see who else of the large computer manufacturers will come up to the plate and have a product range courting the content creators and prosumers.
A problem with laptop design is that you can’t effectively mix the idea of a portable aesthetically-pleasing computer with a performance-focused design. It is still the Holy Grail of laptop design to combine these aspects in one machine.
This comes down to the requirement to provide enough power to the computer’s main processors – the central processing unit and the graphics processor for them to work your data and “paint” your screen. In some applications, the graphics processor is tasked with performing supplementary processing activities like rendering or transcoding edited video files or calculating statistics. As well there is the need to remove waste heat generated by the processing silicon so it can perform to expectation even when working hard.
As well, there is the proper full-size full-function keyboard on this gaming laptop
What typically happens is that a lightweight highly-portable computer won’t be engineered for anything beyond everyday computing tasks. This is while a performance-focused computer fit for gaming, photo-video editing or CAD will be a heavier and thicker machine that doesn’t look as aesthetically pleasing as the lightweight. Some of these computers even convey the look equivalent to an American or Australian muscle-car of the 1970s but most convey a look very similar to medium or large family cars that appeared at the end of the 20th century.
Lenovo is getting close to this Holy Grail by designing a 15” gaming laptop that is slimmer and lighter than typical gaming or other high-performance laptops of the same screen size. This laptop, know as the Legion Slim 7i, has had a significant amount of hardware and firmware engineering to achieve this goal of combining portability and performance.
It will use 10th-generation Intel Core i-series CPU silicon and NVIDIA max-Q graphics silicon, with the latter known to avoid yielding too much waste heat for mobile use. But even the max-Q graphics silicon cannot handle excess waste heat and the Intel Core silicon will underperform if there is too much of that heat.
Lenovo is implementing Dynamic Boost technology to steer power to the graphics processor where needed during graphics-intensive tasks like fast-paced gaming. It is augmented by NVIDIA’s Advanced Optimus technology that allows for task-appropriate graphics processor switching – whether to work with Intel integrated graphics for everyday computing as a “lean-burn” approach or to work the NVIDIA GPU for graphics-intense activity.
There is also ColdFront 2.0 hardware-and-software-based thermal engineering which is about increasing airflow within the computer while under load. There are small perforations above the keyboard to allow the computer to draw in air for cooling along with a many-bladed fan that comes in when needed to move the air across three heat pipes.
The Legion Slim 7i gaming laptop will have the full-sized keyboard with a numeric keypad and media keys. This will have a feel similar to a desktop mechanical keyboard. There is a 71 watt-hour battery in the computer which could last up to 7.75 hours.
The baseline variant will weigh in at 2 kilograms and cost $1329. But it can be specced up to Intel Core i9 CPU and NVIDIA RTX2060 Max Q graphics silicon. It can also have at the maximum 32Gb of current-spec RAM and 2Tb of NVMe solid-state storage. The screens are available either as a 4K UHD 60Hz display, a Full HD 144Hz display or a Full HD 60 Hz display.
For connectivity, these units offer Thunderbolt 3 which means access to external graphics modules, along with Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5 support. You may have to consider using a USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 dock with an Ethernet connection if you are considering low-latency game-friendly Ethernet or HomePlug powerline network technology.
The Lenovo Legion Slim 7i gaming laptop is expected to be on the market by November this year in the USA at least. Personally, I could see this as a push towards performance being about beauty as well as grunt.
The Dell XPS 13 series of ultraportable computers uses a combination of Intel integrated graphics and Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports
Increasingly, laptop users want to make sure their computers earn their keep for computing activities that are performed away from their home or office. But they also want the ability to do some computer activities that demand more from these machines like playing advanced games or editing photos and videos.
What is this about?
Integrated graphics infrastructure like the Intel UHD and Iris Plus GPUs allows your laptop computers to run for a long time on their own batteries. It is thanks to the infrastructure using the system RAM to “paint” the images you see on the screen, along with being optimised for low-power mobile use. This is more so if the computer is equipped with a screen resolution of not more than the equivalent of Full HD (1080p) which also doesn’t put much strain on the computer’s battery capacity.
They may be seen as being suitable for day-to-day computing tasks like Web browsing, email or word-processing or lightweight multimedia and gaming activities while on the road. Even some games developers are working on capable playable video games that are optimised to run on integrated graphics infrastructure so you can play them on modest computer equipment or to while away a long journey.
There are some “everyday-use” laptop computers that are equipped with a discrete graphics processor along with the integrated graphics, with the host computer implementing automatic GPU-switching for energy efficiency. Typically the graphics processor doesn’t really offer much for performance-grade computing because it is a modest mobile-grade unit but may provide some “pep” for some games and multimedia tasks.
Thunderbolt 3 connection on a Dell XPS 13 2-in-1
But if your laptop has at least oneThunderbolt 3 USB-C port along with the integrated graphics infrastructure, it will open up another option. Here, you could use an external graphics module, also known as an eGPU unit, to add high-performance dedicated graphics to your computer while you are at home or the office. As well, these devices provide charging power for your laptop which, in most cases, would relegate the laptop’s supplied AC adaptor as an “on-the-road” or secondary charging option.
A use case often cited for this kind of setup is a university student who is studying on campus and wants to use the laptop in the library to do their studies or take notes during classes. They then want to head home, whether it is at student accommodation like a dorm / residence hall on the campus, an apartment or house that is shared by a group of students, or their parents’ home where it is within a short affordable commute from the campus. The use case typifies the idea of the computer being able to support gaming as a rest-and-recreation activity at home after all of what they need to do is done.
Razer Core external graphics module with Razer Blade gaming laptop
Here, the idea is to use the external graphics module with the computer and a large-screen monitor have the graphics power come in to play during a video game. As well, if the external graphics module is portable enough, it may be about connecting the laptop to a large-screen TV installed in a common lounge area at their accommodation on an ad-hoc basis so they benefit from that large screen when playing a game or watching multimedia content.
The advantage in this use case would be to have the computer affordable enough for a student at their current point in life thanks to it not being kitted out with a dedicated graphics processor that may be seen as being hopeless. But the student can save towards an external graphics module of their choice and get that at a later time when they see fit. In some cases, it may be about using a “fit-for-purpose” graphics card like an NVIDIA Quadro with the eGPU if they maintain interest in that architecture or multimedia course.
It also extends to business users and multimedia producers who prefer to use a highly-portable laptop “on the road” but use an external graphics module “at base” for those activities that need extra graphics power. Examples of these include to render video projects or to play a more-demanding game as part of rest and relaxation.
Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Puck integrated-chipset external graphics module – the way to go for ultraportables
There are a few small external graphics modules that are provided with a soldered-in graphics processor chip. These units, like the Sonnet Breakaway Puck, are small enough to pack in your laptop bag, briefcase or backpack and can be seen as an opportunity to provide “improved graphics performance” when near AC power. There will be some limitations with these devices like a graphics processor that is modest by “desktop gaming rig” or “certified workstation” standards; or having reduced connectivity for extra peripherals. But they will put a bit of “pep” in to your laptop’s graphics performance at least.
Some of these small external graphics modules would have come about as a way to dodge the “crypto gold rush” where traditional desktop-grade graphics cards were very scarce and expensive. This was due to them being used as part of cryptocurrency mining rigs to facilitate the “mining” of Bitcoin or Ethereum during that “gold rush”. The idea behind these external graphics modules was to offer enhanced graphics performance for those of us who wanted to play games or engage in multimedia editing rather than mine Bitcoin.
Who is heading down this path?
At the moment, most computer manufacturers are configuring a significant number of Intel-powered ultraportable computers along these lines i.e. with Intel integrated graphics and at least one Thunderbolt 3 port. A good example of this are the recent iterations of the Dell XPS 13 (purchase here) and some of the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 family like the ThinkPad X1 Carbon.
Of course some of the computer manufacturers are also offering laptop configurations with modest-spec discrete graphics silicon along with the integrated-graphics silicon and a Thunderbolt 3 port. This is typically pitched towards premium 15” computers including some slimline systems but these graphics processors may not put up much when it comes to graphics performance. In this case, they are most likely to be equivalent in performance to a current-spec baseline desktop graphics card.
The Thunderbolt 3 port on these systems would be about using something like a “card-cage” external graphics module with a high-performance desktop-grade graphics card to get more out of your games or advanced applications.
Trends affecting this configuration
The upcoming USB4 specification is meant to be able to bring Thunderbolt 3 capability to non-Intel silicon thanks to Intel assigning the intellectual property associated with Thunderbolt 3 to the USB Implementers Forum.
As well, Intel has put forward the next iteration of the Thunderbolt specification in the form of Thunderbolt 4. It is more of an evolutionary revision in relationship to USB4 and Thunderbolt 3 and will be part of their next iteration of their Core silicon. But it is also intended to be backwards compatible with these prior standards and uses the USB-C connector.
What can be done to further legitimise Thunderbolt 3 / USB4 and integrated graphics as a valid laptop configuration?
What needs to happen is that the use case for external graphics modules needs to be demonstrated with USB4 and subsequent technology. As well, this kind of setup needs to appear on AMD-equipped computers as well as devices that use silicon based on ARM microarchitecture, along with Intel-based devices.
Personally, I would like to see the Thunderbolt 3 or USB4 technology being made available to more of the popularly-priced laptops made available to householders and small businesses. It would be with an ideal to allow the computer’s user to upgrade towards better graphics at a later date by purchasing an external graphics module.
This is in addition to a wide range of external graphics modules available for these computers with some capable units being offered at affordable price points. I would also like to see more of the likes of the Lenovo Legion BoostStation “card-cage” external graphics module that have the ability for users to install storage devices like hard disks or solid-state drives in addition to the graphics card. Here, these would please those of us who want extra “offload” storage or a “scratch disk” just for use at their workspace. They would also help people who are moving from the traditional desktop computer to a workspace centred around a laptop.
The validity of a laptop computer being equipped with a Thunderbolt 3 or similar port and an integrated graphics chipset is to be recognised. This is more so where the viability of improving on one of these systems using an external graphics module that has a fit-for-purpose dedicated graphics chipset can be considered.
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