First post, by xjas
So here's a project I've been wanting to get to for a long time. We've been hearing hype for ages that running an external GPU on a laptop is going to be the 'next big thing' for gamers, but you've actually been able to do that for years. Various docks from the late-'90s onward have included PCI slots, albeit often well hidden, and at least some of those have allowed you to use them for a primary video card.
Well, let's give that a shot & see what we can do. Here's what we're going to be doing this with:
^^ a Dell D430 "halftop" and a PD-01x dock. This was my primary PC setup for a long time. Eventually the LCD inverter failed and I removed the built-in display.
It's a Core 2 Duo U7300 (1.2 GHz with an early implementation of Speedstep which idles it down to 800MHz under light loads), 2GB of RAM, and most importantly, a thoroughly un-lovely Intel GMA950 graphics system built into its i945 chipset. No speed demon, in other words; in raw CPU speed it's probably not all that far ahead of a good Pentium 3. (Despite the loss of the display panel, the integrated graphics still works fine; you can use this thing completely normally with an external monitor attached.)
The dock is a super-common Dell model that works with a bunch of different models, including the (barely!) Windows 98-capable Latitude D600. I actually have one of those, but we're not going to use it today because it's perfectly happy doing useful stuff in my office running Linux and I don't feel like messing around with it for this project. Besides, it has an integrated Radeon 9000 on the AGP bus which is likely going to perform better than anything we can do here.
These docks are being tossed out by the boatloads by businesses right now. I have three - two came from a pawn shop for $5 and the third one I found in a dumpster. I also have a Thinkpad X24 with its own PCI dock, but again, that has a contemporary Radeon chip onboard which is just fine for it.
So how about some graphics cards? Here are the contenders, plucked from my stash because I thought they’d be interesting:
In rough chronological order, we have an 8MB ATi Rage LT Pro, an 8MB Voodoo2, a GeForce (4) MX4000 with 64MB, and a 256MB ATi FireMV 2260 from 2009 (Radeon HD3400-equivalent.) Honestly, I'm expecting the GMA950 to blow some of these out of the water, but maybe we can find a good use-case all the same.
Before we begin, though, there's a bit of a problem. We need to modify the dock so that some of the cards will fit. There was a piece of metal that had to be removed and an internal fan that needed to be externalized.
This thing is NOT particularly easy to get apart, although I will give Dell credit for using exactly two different types of screws, one internal and one external, with no variation in length. Suffice to say not all of those screws will be going back in. It's actually built like a tank with a ton of metal shielding.
Thanks to the help of someone whose voice changed during the span of his “tech tips” video career, I was able to get it open. Unfortunately, I couldn't figure out how to get all the way in without doing some manual bending of metal. Fortunately, it all bent back into shape pretty well when I was done.
Note: some cards will fit just fine into this dock without modding. If you're doing this yourself, check first!
For the purposes of this test I think I'll leave it this way; makes swapping cards a ton easier too. I put a piece of white cardboard over the metal power supply & media bay to prevent accidental shorts; you'll see that in pics later.