What is a Graphics Amplifier?
Graphics amplifiers are useful pieces of technology that allows users the ability to externally connect a powerful Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) to their computer system. Externally connecting a GPU can be used to increase the power of your current PC. The ideal graphics amp is as easy as any plug and play USB product and will have universal connectivity via the current industry standard PCI Express slots.
This technology is revolutionary and if priced and marketed correctly, could have completely upset the gaming laptop market. However, as of September 2017, there are only 3 major manufacturers producing their own brand of graphics amps, and sadly, I’m disappointed with all of them.
Graphics Amplification Notebooks, such as Dell’s Alienware, allows users to upgrade the power of their laptop whenever they want. These graphics amps are separate enclosures that connect directly into the laptop’s PCI-e controller and only work with Alienware laptops, matching the aesthetic of the brand. From a hardware perspective, we see that being connected directly to a laptop’s PCI Express controller should offer uncompromised performance, which is great for whatever high-end GPU and USB accessories you attach. Although this is a well-made product, it won’t sell well because people buy Alienware laptops for prestige and the assurance that they won’t have to upgrade them.
Most Alienware laptops also come with desktop-level graphics cards installed today, making this 2-year-old product seem redundant. Though Alienware was the first company to publicise this technology, their initial launch was expensive and limited, resulting in low demand and sales.
MSI is another company that created a brand of graphics amplifiers which were met with similar, if not worse fate: failure. The MSI Gaming Dock was designed to work with only one laptop: the MSI GS30 Shadow Notebook. Comparatively, MSI’s sales performed worse than Dell’s but they did make progress in the design aspect. The MSI amp includes a hard drive bay and uses a separate docking platform. The cable system seems better, allowing users to use both the laptop’s screen and keyboard, however, MSI believes that no one would want to use their laptop in this manner, removing the integrated GPU. MSI is making some assumptions here about who this product is for and I believe that this product could have sold well among college students and professionals who have a strong gaming habit at home but use their laptop for low-intensity productivity tasks such as taking notes, sending emails, or browsing the web. The idea was that you’d bring your sleek, light laptop home and effectively turn it into a full-blown desktop at your will.
Razer is the most successful company in this niche market because their product was able to integrate and effectively utilize the advances in USB architecture. USB-C was designed to offer more bandwidth, meaning graphics amplifiers could deliver on graphics processing bonuses, USB hub reliability, and additional storage options. The Razer Core is designed for compatibility within the brand of Razer laptops and easily done through the universal USB-C port.
The most important reason behind Razer’s success in this market is their product’s ability to be used with any PC running a USB-C port, making this a true universal graphics amplifier. The Razer Core has been thoroughly tested with other manufacturers’ computers and has shown the same increase in graphics processing power as it does on Razer’s own products.
Razer is the newest member of the graphics amp market and does a great job despite it being a dying product.
Does this Niche Product Have To Die?
I don’t think so.
If Dell wanted to reboot their graphics amplifier product and add USB-C connectivity, storage options, and keep price near the level of their original Alienware product then they can disrupt the entire PC gaming market.
Whenever Dell does something in the computer hardware industry, it’s important for everyone to take note due to Dell’s massive reach and supply chains. This means that when Dell decides to start selling AMD CPUs in any of their products, they’re buying them in bulk in the thousands. So if Dell were to strip their graphics amplifier unit of the Alienware branding and make it accessible to any line of laptops without an integrated GPU, they would offer real performance gains to the entire population of XPS and Inspiron laptop users.
It isn’t likely that Dell will do this because it would involve making the graphics amplifier a universal accessory to any computer with a modern USB-C port. As we saw in the first iteration, Dell is very keen on the idea of excluding markets outside their ecosystem. Dell needs to eat the frog and realize the value and market potential of offering this product to people who need graphics processing units the most.
Will Graphic Amplifiers Disrupt the PC Hardware Market? … No.
The reason Dell would never do this is that they are able to charge a premium on the pre-installed GPUs in their gaming computer brands. GPUs are very expensive and if Dell were to upcharge at even 5% of a GPU’s value, that number would add up very, very quickly. If the Dell-made Graphics Amplifier 2.0 was accessible via a universal port, then people wouldn’t buy premade gaming computers from Dell. If people aren’t doing that, then Dell isn’t able to upcharge the price of a pre-installed graphics card and profit.
This is why a product, so revolutionary, will never be perfected, and companies don’t want to cannibalize the Gaming Laptop Market. If Dell was willing to put money into these external graphics amps, then millions of consumers with relatively weak hardware will have less to spend and a faster buy into PC gaming. This technology should be available to the consumer because it will expand the external GPU market and give people the option to get the extra life and use out of their machines. Dell could always sell the device with a pre-installed GPU and gain some more profit but this would take away from the freedoms that the device is truly made for.
A great example of external graphics amplifiers done right and cost-effectively is the Gigabyte Aorus. This product sells for $570 and includes a $440 graphics card. The difference of $130 is the true price of the hardware enclosure and includes a very small upcharge on the fully-fledged graphics card that is included. Comparatively, a graphics card of this quality found in a gaming laptop would have a total cost greater than the price of an ultrabook and The Gigabyte Aorus combined.