Introduction, Design Features
We had mixed success with the last Thunderbolt 3 external graphics-card box we reviewed, the PowerColor Devil BoxAlienware Graphics Amplifier.) The Devil Box worked to some degree with the systems we tested with, but that was the overall problem: “some.” At the time we reviewed it, the Devil Box was certified by PowerColor as compatible with only two notebooks, and our tests found it was spotty or caveat-laden with a few other Thunderbolt 3-equipped laptops we tried.
Another problem with the Devil Box was one of economics. The device itself went for $499, and that was without a graphics card. The price is precisely why we’re excited about the eGPU we’re reviewing here, the Aorus GTX 1070 Gaming Box, from well-known component kingpin Gigabyte. Per its name, it includes an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070 graphics card, but the price is just $599; a bargain relative to the Devil Box, given that a typical GTX 1070 card costs in the mid-$300s.
That’s still a lot of dosh to be able to turn your Thunderbolt 3-equipped notebook into a gaming computer, but it’s a far less expensive way to do it than with the Devil Box or Razer’s Core plus an equivalent video card. As for the competition, the Alienware solution is cheaper (it ships as just a box, no card included) but is compatible with only a few Alienware laptops and uses a proprietary-to-Alienware connection to the host laptop. So it’s essentially irrelevant for most upgraders. And the Razer Core (out of stock, at this writing, from Razer’s online store) usually costs $499, like the Devil Box.
Now, with the arrival of the Aorus unit, all is not perfect in eGPU World. As with the Devil Box, the Gaming Box exhibited inconsistencies with the two notebooks we used for testing. A Toshiba Portege X30-D laptop that we employed, a business model with a strong Core i7 CPU and integrated graphics, was in many ways the ideal test unit; the Gaming Box worked flawlessly with it. However, that wasn’t true of the gaming laptop we tried, the MSI GS63VR Stealth Pro. That notebook already had a dedicated GTX 1070 graphics chip; in order to get the Gaming Box to power its internal display, we had to disable the dedicated GeForce chip.
These kinds of quirks just aren’t obvious when you’re buying an eGPU, making this the kind of product you should buy only from an outlet with an excellent, liberal return policy. But don’t let that curb your enthusiasm. Thunderbolt 3 eGPUs are still a very cool technology, when they work properly.
The model we received for testing was the GV-N1070IXEB-8GD, which contains a Gigabyte-branded GeForce GTX 1070 compact video card (model GV-N1070IXOC-8GD) with 8GB of onboard video memory. The Gaming Box measures 8.3×6.4×3.8 inches, making it compact among devices of its kind. It’s certainly much smaller than the Razer Core, the Alienware Graphics Amplifier, and the PowerColor Devil Box, which are designed to hold full-length graphics cards. This device is just big enough to house a double-wide, Mini-ITX-style graphics card. You can see the Gigabyte-branded GeForce GTX 1070 card through the side grilles in our photos…
The Mini-ITX-format card in the Gaming Box could be viewed as a downside, since it obviously restricts which graphics cards will fit if you want to bump up the card in the future. But in reality, you won’t miss much by not being able to use the biggest and fastest cards on the market. You’ll see in our benchmark test results that the performance of the card takes a hit over the Thunderbolt 3 interface; the size of the hit depends, to an extent, on the laptop in question, but the interface itself and its overhead extracts a certain toll. Thus, using something even more powerful than the GeForce GTX 1070 (such as the new, downsized GeForce GTX 1080 offered by none other than Gigabyte itself, or a future equivalent) may have limited, or at least proportionally downscaled, returns, based on what we’ve seen so far. The power supply inside also may be a limiting factor to future upgrades. (More on that in a moment.)
The Gaming Box is made from black-finished aluminum. It feels sturdy in the hand, although you’ll want to avoid gripping it by its sides. The perforated grilles are flexible and bend easily.
The design has an understated look, but it’s elegant enough. The reflective Aorus logo on the front is classy, if you’ll tuck the box somewhere that only that face is visible…
…while a string of RGB LEDs lines the left-side panel, like so…
Using the included Gigabyte Engine software, you can change the LEDs’ color scheme to just about anything you want, as well as set the lighting pattern to a steady glow, or one of several flashing/fading effects.
Meanwhile, the underside of the chassis is plain. Four rubber feet down there keep the body from sliding around…
A glance at the back, meanwhile, tells you that the Gaming Box can serve as more than just an eGPU. On that face, it has four Type-A USB 3.0 ports clustered near the bottom. They are to the left of the video card’s video outputs and just below the power cord’s socket…
Three of the USB ports are allocated solely for data, while the orange-colored one also provides power for quick-charging mobile devices such as certain smartphones and tablets. With all the USBs, the idea here is that the Gaming Box can serve as a laptop dock or USB hub in addition to a graphics accelerator. You can connect a laptop via Thunderbolt 3 and have it immediately access not only the graphics oomph of the Gaming Box but use any connected peripherals, such as a separate gaming keyboard and mouse. One feature victim to the smaller chassis, though, is drive expansion. Unlike the PowerColor Devil Box, the Aorus box lacks an internal 2.5-inch drive bay for adding a SATA hard drive or SSD to the mix.
For video-out, the GTX 1070 graphics card provides single full-size HDMI and DisplayPort connectors and, oddly enough in a bit of a throwback to earlier times, not one but two DVI-D connectors.
You’ll also find the traditional AC power plug back here, as well as the Thunderbolt 3 connector. The latter provides up to 100 watts of power, allowing the Thunderbolt 3 cable to power your notebook if it doesn’t require more juice than that. The Gaming Box was able to power and charge our test Toshiba Portege X30-D notebook without a problem, while the MSI GS63VR Stealth Pro still needed its external power adapter. One other thing you will note is not here is a second Thunderbolt 3 pass-through port; the Gaming Box will have to lie at the end of any Thunderbolt 3 device chain.
A few screws hold the Gaming Box enclosure together. The top shell slides off to the rear with modest effort. It’s a tight fit on the inside; the compact graphics card sits back-to-back with the rectangular power supply. As you can see below, the chassis is just big enough for the card.
Two tiny fans near the front of the chassis extract air from the inside, pushing it out the power-supply side of the chassis. You can see the fans here, as well as the back of the power supply…
The power supply also has its own fan. The cabling is neatly done. Because the Gaming Box’s innards on both of the broad sides are visible through the mesh on the chassis, this matters.
Aorus includes a carry bag with the Gaming Box that reminds us of an old-school camera bag…
There’s enough room inside for the device itself, plus the power and Thunderbolt 3 cables. The Gaming Box fits securely, thanks to ample padding. The wear-resistant exterior and smooth-gliding zippers were another plus. Given that it’s an included accessory, we can’t complain. It’s better-quality than we expected.
With Windows 10, all you need to do to get the Gaming Box installed is connect it to your notebook via its Thunderbolt 3 cable. You’ll get a prompt asking for your approval for the Thunderbolt 3 device to connect…
It’s then a matter of waiting for the installation to complete. Strangely, there’s no progress bar or other indicator to tell you what’s going on. To figure out when the process finished, we looked at Device Manager in Windows 10, tapping our toes until the GTX 1070 showed up under Display Adapters. This took at least a couple of minutes, likely because Windows was downloading and installing a driver. When you do finally see the GTX 1070 appear under Display Adapters, you need to restart the computer for the Gaming Box to be usable.
The fans in the Gaming Box were audible at any speed, but the noise became obvious only while gaming. The two small fans at the front of the unit make the most noise. Overall, the device is not as loud as some of the larger gaming notebooks we test, but it’s definitely not silent. The amount of noise it produces isn’t likely to disturb a conversation, though. Note that in the Gigabyte Engine software you do get the option to dial back the clocks to engage a Silent mode, but we suspect that most folks willing to fork over the $600 for a solution like this aren’t going to be interested in running it at less than its full potential.
The Gaming Box heats up quite a bit while gaming. The metal outside warms up to the point where you’ll want to avoid touching it. Under normal usage, it’s just lukewarm.
Test System Setup
We used two notebook computers for testing. The first was the Toshiba Portege X30-D, a 13.3-inch business-class notebook that was definitely not designed for gaming. Thanks to the Aorus GTX 1070 Gaming Box, though, it had a change of heart in the course of our testing process. The Portege had an Intel Core i7-7600U dual-core processor, at this writing the fastest of Intel’s 7th Generation 15-watt chips in terms of overall processing power. The notebook was also well-equipped with 16GB of dual-channel RAM. It’s important to note that this notebook had just integrated Intel HD Graphics 620 as its graphics solution (the silicon is built into the CPU), no dedicated graphics card of any kind.
Our second test platform was the MSI GS63VR Stealth Pro we mentioned earlier, a slim 15.6-inch gaming notebook with a built-in GeForce GTX 1070 “Max-Q” graphics chip. Of course, in the real world, you wouldn’t attach a GeForce GTX 1070-equipped laptop to a GTX 1070-based external box; there would be no benefit to that. But we wanted to see how a typical Thunderbolt 3-equipped gaming machine would handle an eGPU.
We initially found this notebook could play games using the Gaming Box only when we connected an external monitor to the Gaming Box. When we tried to play games on the notebook’s built-in display, it always engaged the notebook’s built-in GPU. We saw the same behavior on another GeForce-equipped gaming laptop we tried, the company’s own GeForce GTX 1060-equipped Gigabyte Aero 15. Per Gigabyte’s advice, we disabled the notebook’s built-in GPU using the Windows Device Manager; this allowed the Gaming Box to send data back to the notebook’s display panel over Thunderbolt 3. The thing is, it wasn’t expressly stated anywhere that we had to do this, which highlights the growing pains of Thunderbolt 3 eGPU technology. For the Toshiba notebook, we were able to run our tests on either the notebook’s built-in display panel or an external monitor connected via HDMI, without any further gyrations, as it had just the integrated Intel HD Graphics 620.
Here’s a look at the basic specifications on the two laptops, for reference…
Special note: When we initially tested the Gaming Box on these two laptops, as well as on the Aero 15 we just mentioned, we found the benchmark results were lower than we expected. After a little online research (see this source, for starters), we found out that the Gaming Box, among several other Thunderbolt 3 eGPUs, suffered from a problem that limited the ceiling on the PCI Express bandwidth. We were able to verify ours had this issue using CUDA-Z by looking at the host-to-device (H2D) bandwidth. It doubled to about 2,200 megabits per second after we performed a recent firmware update on the Gaming Box, available from Gigabyte’s support site. All of the benchmark results you’re about to see were done after the firmware update.
As you go through the results to follow, you’ll notice that we included the results for the standard Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070 Founders Edition desktop card for comparative purposes, where applicable. We had already run most of the same tests, at the same settings, on the Founders Edition card in our video-card test bed, which is equipped with a Core i7-7700K CPU and 16GB of RAM. The Founders Edition card is a full-size GeForce GTX 1070 card that is Nvidia’s “official” design; see our full review of that card at the link preceding. We included it to get an idea of a GTX 1070 operating in a “best case” scenario: in a desktop with free and clear PCI Express bandwidth, and a powerful enough CPU to let the GTX 1070 flex its muscle to the full.