If you find that your laptop doesn’t have enough power to sustain the heavier graphics processing on newer gaming titles and for your professional work, you might rightly ask “Can I upgrade my laptop graphics card?”
Unfortunately, the answer to the question is negative. You cannot upgrade the graphics card inside your laptop. The simple reason for this is that the GPU is soldered to the board and therefore cannot be removed.
There are several reasons why a GPU might be soldered on the motherboard rather than as a standalone device. Part of it is about portability, and the other is about manufacturing strategy.
However, fortunately, there are tools and hardware that can allow you to add a desktop GPU as an external graphics card to your laptop.
In the following text, I will talk in detail about whether you can upgrade your laptop graphics card.
Can I upgrade my laptop graphics card?
Again, the simple answer to this age-old question is no.
Just as you can’t upgrade the CPU on a laptop, you can’t upgrade a graphics card on a laptop.
Besides the GPU chipset itself, all of the supporting electrical components, such as capacitors, VRMs, VRAM, and ICs for a specific GPU, are soldered to the motherboard as well.
The simple reason is that the graphics card on the laptop is soldered. It cannot be removed and therefore cannot be replaced.
You can try desoldering the GPU as a DIY project on the side if that interests you but do know that doing so not only voids any form of warranty on your laptop but also has a very high chance of damaging your existing GPU or motherboard or both permanently.
PCIe vs. MXM Standard
Both desktop and laptop computers use the PCIe interface to connect high-speed input (HSIO) devices such as graphics cards.
This begs the question, if desktop graphics cards can be replaced, why can’t you do the same on a laptop.
Basically, there was a time when NVIDIA pushed the MXM interface to follow which allowed GPUs to be upgraded.
MXM stands for Mobile PCIe Express Module (MXM). This standard aims to simplify manufacturing and create an upgradeable GPU socket, however, while most of the notable features of the MXM standard are still in use, the upgradeable part is still not implemented.
This is because despite NVIDIA’s push, whether or not an upgradeable GPU socket is provided in the laptop is the manufacturer’s decision.
Once again, the removable side of the MXM Standard fails to pick up on force. After all, if users can upgrade their GPUs, then the GPU manufacturer, such as NVIDIA and AMD, will benefit the most while laptop manufacturers will not see any financial gain.
How to add an external graphics card
As far as the internal graphics card goes, the answer to the question “Can I upgrade my laptop graphics card” is no. However, you can add a newer, more powerful graphics card externally.
There are three ways to add an external graphics card to your laptop
Mini PCIe to PCIe x16 eGPU Kit – cheap slow and problematic – not recommended
M.2 NVMe to PCIe x16 eGPU Kit – Relatively faster – Has issues – Not recommended
Thunderbolt 3.0 eGFX Dock – The expensive but reliable way
- Mini PCIe to PCIe eGPU Kit –
slow, cheap and problematic – not recommended
The first method, recommended by many users, is to get a Mini PCIe to x16 kit to install your graphics.
Essentially, the kit plugs into a Mini PCIe slot where the wireless card inside the laptop connects on one end. On the other hand, you get a full x16 slot where you can install a desktop-level graphics card.
You will need to remove your wireless card for this combination to work.
There are a lot of issues with this kind of setup though:
Mini PCIe Slot Provides only one PCIe slot!
One of the biggest issues with this type of setup is that a mini PCIe slot provides a single PCIe lane.
Just because the array expands to an x16 slot on the other end doesn’t mean it will save the bandwidth of the x16 slot.
The entire setup will still be limited to the bandwidth of a single PCIe lane.
This is well below the ideal requirements for a graphics card. The graphics card ideally requires 16 lanes, but can operate on either 8 or 4-lane bandwidths as well.
1 PCIe lane provided by the Mini PCIe slot on the laptop would seriously hinder the performance of the installed graphics card.
You will need a desktop power supply
In order to power the graphics card, you will need to purchase a power supply unit which will also need to be placed externally.
You may need to tinker with the BIOS and graphics driver
This setup is not plug-and-play.
Depending on the type of laptop you have and the BIOS version, the settings may vary.
But mainly, you will need to find the settings related to the graphics device and also to the local network.
Need to disable both discrete GPUs, WiFi and Boot to LAN BIOS to avoid any conflicts.
You will also need to download the drivers for the graphics card you have installed.
You will not have internal WiFi on your laptop
Of course, with the network card removed, you won’t have WiFi on your laptop.
Even with all the hard work involved in making it work, there’s still no telling if this kit will be compatible with your graphics card.
- M.2 NVMe to PCIe x16 eGPU Kit –
Relatively faster – Has issues – Not recommended
Another set very similar to the one above is the set of M.2 NVMe to PCIe x16 slots.
It has some benefits.
It can provide up to 4 x PCIe lanes bandwidth because an M.2 slot on a laptop is mostly connected to 4 PCIe lanes.
However, the bandwidth offered is still close to 16 and 8 lanes for a graphics card.
Do note that you will need an NVMe M.2 slot. This should not be confused with the SATA M.2 slot.
Additional issues include:
This kit is more expensive than the mini PCIe x16 kit above
You must have an NVMe M.2 slot on your laptop – older laptops generally lack one.
There is still a compatibility issue that you can’t be sure of.
- Thunderbolt 3.0 eGFX Dock –
An expensive but reliable method
The last and most recommended method is to use a Thunderbolt 3.0 eGFX (external graphics card) dock.
The biggest positive point of eGFX is that it is generally made by well-respected, high-quality brands and is therefore very reliable.
Some popular Thunderbolt 3.0 eGFX bases include:
Devil Powercolor Box
Color Master Mastercase EG200
Cooler Master Case NC100
AKiTiO Titan node
These often have a built in PSU. However, these also have their drawbacks:
Requires Thunderbolt 3 port on the laptop
You must have a Thunderbolt 3.0 port on your laptop.
Unfortunately, at the moment only high-end laptops offer Thunderbolt 3.0 ports.
Jus the same case (with PSU but no graphics card installed) can cost you $300-$400 making it an investment you’ll want to think about again.
So the answer to the question “Can I upgrade my laptop’s graphics card?” As far as the internal GPU is concerned, it is a no.
However, you can add an external graphics card if your budget allows.
We can hope that the modular aspect of the MXM standard increases in the future and that we finally get replaceable laptop GPUs.