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Gaming With the HP OMEN Accelerator EGPU

One of the hottest topics in the laptop-gaming world right now might be the rise of External Graphics Processing Units, or EGPUs.

EGPUs work by taking a mainstream PCIe x16 graphics card, and utilizing that GPU’s processing power to enhance your laptop’s capabilities. This is done by leveraging Intel’s Thunderbolt 3 (TB3) technology, which can transmit graphical and rendering data back and forth from the laptop to the EGPU’s enclosure in the blink of an eye. EGPUs take the possibility of upgrading newer laptops with more graphical processing power and bring it squarely into the realm of reality.

The HP OMEN Accelerator fits in this second category, and goes a long way toward proving the viability of the EGPU segment as a whole.

EGPU Overview

It’s important to note that no EGPU will work without a Thunderbolt 3 capable laptop. TB3 can deliver up to 40GBps over a single cable, and also supports DisplayPort 1.2 and PCI Express standards. No other comparable non-network wired data transfer technology is currently available on the mainstream market. This means that older laptops will not work with any EGPU, so make sure your laptop is up to spec if this product is of interest to you.

Right now EGPUs come in many different shapes and sizes (which in turn lead to different levels of portability) and have a diverse range of unique features. However, all EGPUs can be broadly placed in one of two categories.

The first are enclosures that actually lack the “GPU” part of EGPU; these come with a Thunderbolt 3 controller and a power supply, but the buyer must obtain and install a graphics card on their own. The second category consists of “ready to go” EGPUs, which come with a pre-installed graphics card. These offer a little less flexibility (say, if the enclosure you want doesn’t include they GPU you want) but do away with all of the hassle of installation.

One Device, Two Lives

What really separates the Accelerator from the rest of the pack are its capabilities beyond being just an external graphics card. HP’s offering also rolls in the versatility of a full laptop docking station. The Accelerator has a plethora of ports, including four USB, a USB-C port, the Thunderbolt 3 port, and an ethernet jack. Of course, this doesn’t include any of the video connections from the installed GPU.

In practice, this configuration makes it extremely easy to get a whole lot more out your laptop. Simply set your system down on your desk, plug in the single TB3 cable, and the OMEN Accelerator gives you the same capabilities of a midrange gaming PC. You get the power of the installed graphics card, to which you can connect additional monitors. Anything hooked up to the various USB ports will show up on the laptop. It isn’t even necessary to plug in the laptop’s charging cable, since it will charge via the TB3 cable once it’s connected.

With the render power coming from the EGPU, I got a significantly improved set of results.

The Omen Accelerator also doubles as an external storage device. The housing has space for a 2.5” drive, meaning you can install an SSD or even a laptop-sized hard drive. HP offers up to a 1TB HDD, which is what our review specimen came with. And of course, TB3 keeps transfer times reasonable, even with larger files.

As we mentioned, the Accelerator has an ethernet port built in. During my testing, I found this worked pretty much flawlessly. Even if I was on WiFi, once I connected my laptop to the Accelerator the wired connection would take over, and easily provided just as much bandwidth as you’d expect from any other wired ethernet connection.

Cable Woes

My biggest gripe with the Accelerator isn’t really with the Accelerator itself, but the Thunderbolt 3 cable it comes with. TB3 cables come in to varieties: active and non-active. There are some substantial technical differences between the two, but for the sake of brevity, understand that active TB3 cables can be substantially longer than non-active cables.

Unfortunately, the Omen Accelerator comes with a non-active cable, which is about a foot and a half long. It’s not that a cable that short is impossible to use, it just means you might have to orient the Accelerator at an angle where you can’t appreciate some of the lightning elements, or seriously rearrange your desk. A cable that short can make it a little bit difficult to actually hook your laptop, depending how much space you have. Luckily, longer active TB3 cables are not hard to come by.

If you’re a professional or a student who works on a laptop all day, owning the Omen Accelerator is a little like being Batman; you can use your laptop for work all day, and at night, you can do far more exciting things.

Gaming, a Wire Away

The docking features are definitely a nice touch, but there are plenty of quality docks out there. If you’re interested in the Omen Accelerator, it’s probably because you want to sink your teeth into some games. Luckily for you, this EGPU delivers on that front as well.

While working on this article, I used a HP Spectre 13 notebook. This laptop has almost nothing but Thunderbolt 3 connections, so it made for an excellent companion to the Accelerator. The main thing I wanted to see was how well the laptop performed when hooked up to the EGPU versus its standalone performance, as a way of determining how much of a boost the Omen Accelerator could offer.

For reference, the laptop used in all of the benchmarks has an Intel Core i7 7500U @2.70Mhz, with 8GB of DDR3 RAM, and a Samsung PM951 SSD. The Accelerator itself came with a pre-installed Nvidia GTX 1070, though HP offers other options.

Benchmarks

The first test was a baseline benchmark off of the laptop’s integrated Intel HD Graphics 620:

(click picture to expand)

The Spectre 13 was not built or intended to be a gaming laptop, rather more of an ultra-light traveling companion. With that in mind, these results are in line with what we expected.

I hooked-up the Omen Accelerator and ran the same benchmark again. (I also adjusted the Windows GUI scale, as some on screen text was hard to read. This explains the size disparity of these images, but does not impact the results.) With the render power coming from the EGPU, I got a significantly improved set of results:

(click picture to expand)

As always, I like to see how benchmarks stack-up against real world usage, so I played several rounds of Overwatch, and got some interesting results.

For my first round of testing, I played the game up on a secondary monitor, a BenQ Zowie XL2430, hooked up to the video ports on the EGPU. The monitor is rated for a 144Mhz refresh rate, and I was curious to see if using an external monitor (versus the laptop’s built in monitor) would have a noticeable effect on performance or framerate.

Obviously I got the best performance on the lowest settings. On the “Low” preset, the handful of games I played had a range of 60 to 190 FPS, with an average of about 60 FPS. Fortunately, Overwatch is optimized well, and looks good with any graphics settings.

Switching to the “Ultra” preset, the overall range dropped to 50-120 FPS, but still had an average of around 60.

Once I felt (or rather, my editor told me) that I had gotten enough games in on the external monitor, I disconnected it and got ready to test my hypothesis. It turns out there was something to the idea, as there was a noticeable difference. Again on “Ultra,” the FPS ranged from 50-90, but the average was higher, at around 75. I saw the best overall framerates on “Low” settings, with an FPS range of 60 to 160, but an average of 80.

(Note for the mathematicians: The “averages” in the preceding paragraphs, and throughout most of this article, do not represent any sort of calculated mean, but rather more of a ‘perceived mode’, which means I am mostly referring to approximate framerates I observed most commonly under a variety of in-game conditions.)

Overall, we saw higher averages on the built in monitor, but the highest possible frame rate was observed on the external monitor. This likely has to do with how and where data was transmitted. In this configuration, all of that rendering effort is sent to the external monitor instead of back to the laptop, which means there is less back and forth transmission over the TB3 cable.

It’s worth repeating that the external monitor had refresh rate of 144MHz, compared to 60MHz of the laptop’s screen, and this discrepancy could have also played a small role.

In terms of the overall experience, there’s a lot to be said in favor of using an external monitor. I’m a solidly mediocre Overwatch player in the first place, but I felt that I did significantly worse on the smaller laptop screen. Better players and/or players who already do most of their gaming on small-screen laptops might suffer less.

It must be mentioned that one of the major bottlenecks of EGPUs has to do with the limits of Thunderbolt 3. TB3 is only capable of transmitting over 4 PCIe lanes, whereas graphics cards ordinarily use 16 lanes. Since each lane equates to portion of bandwidth available to the PCI bus, using a graphics card over TB3 does prevent use of all of a GPU’s power.

PCI lanes aside, however, it’s incredible how much of a boost an EGPU can provide for a suitable laptop. For comparison, trying to run Overwatch on the same machine, without the benefit of the Omen Accelerator, was far less satisfying.

Even on the lowest settings, frame rates maxed out in the mid 30’s, and on higher settings the game became more or less unplayable. More concerning, the laptop’s CPU got much, much hotter when tasked with that level of graphical processing.

Trying to game without the Accelerator made me appreciate it even more.

Edgy, But Not in the Bad Way

So we’ve established the Accelerator, when paired with a high-end GPU, will help your games look better on screen. It’s also pretty good looking on the outside, too.

The Accelerator has the same general aesthetic as everything else in the OMEN lineup. It’s angular at every opportunity, with black with some red accents, (including a few lighting elements,) and some plexiglass windows to see the internal components. It more or less says “I’m from the future, and I’m also really, really dangerous,” or, “Jon Connor, come with me if you want to live!”

Like the OMEN X gaming pc, the Accelerator is too dynamic to sit flat on a surface. It rests on an edge of the case, supported by legs that run down each side, and overall just looks like it was something that Skynet thought up instead of HP.

It’s definitely one of the bulkier and heavier EGPUs on the market. The diagonal orientation means it’s going to have a larger footprint, and although the exterior is made of plastics, the interior is full of steel supports and structural elements. Of course, the Accelerator isn’t meant to travel, and the size and weight seem like an acceptable tradeoff when you consider how many features HP has packed into it.

Getting inside the case is very easy. There’s one catch on the edge of the case opposite the side with the window. Pulling the catch lets you swing the top half of the enclosure off like a door. One the door is off, you can see all the internals, including the cooling fan and some of the other airflow vents, as well as the GPU, controller board, storage drive, and the power supply.

Many EGPU’s use a proprietary, non-standard power supply, because in most cases they’re only worried about supplying power to a graphics card and a connected laptop. The Accelerator features a full-size ATX spec power supply unit. It’s made by HP and is 80 Bronze rated, and is also non-modular. Still, it does the job.

Better yet, even though the 1070 requires supplementary power from an 8-pin cable, HP built the Accelerator’s PSU with an additional 6-pin connection for even thirstier cards. This was probably done to simplify the manufacturing supply chain, but it’s usually better to have something and not need it that need it and not have it.

One other internal feature I really really appreciated: the GPU itself is held in by a single screw and a standard PCIe-slot catch. This makes it very easy to upgrade the Omen Accelerator with another GPU. You know, in fifteen years, when Nvidia 10 series GPUS finally become irrelevant.

Extra GUI

HP also went through the trouble of creating a management interface for the Accelerator, which is really the cherry on top.

Some other EGPU’s have a conflict with laptops with built-in graphics cards: They won’t actually use the EGPU unless the internal GPU is disabled by diving deep into some Windows system settings. HP simplified the whole process with its software for the OMEN Accelerator, which runs down in the task tray. Open it up, and you are able to choose which GPU the system will utilize with the click of the mouse.

The Network booster is a handy little option for monitoring network activity. Better yet, it’s a powerful tool that can govern traffic priority on a per-application basis everything that passes through the Accelerator’s network interface.

Duality Defined

The HP OMEN Accelerator serves as a way to transform any TB3 enabled laptop into a powerhouse PC after a long day away from home. Attaching one cable gives you access to all of your peripherals, external monitors and storage, a wired network, and tons of additional graphical rendering power.

Defined by a sleek, intimidating appearance, the Accelerator's black and red scheme add an air of excitement to any surface, and make your games more exciting by syncing up your laptop to a high-end gaming GPU.

Despite some size and weight considerations, and some inherent limitations of Thunderbolt 3, the OMEN Accelerator is jam packed with features that put it into the top tier of EGPU’s on the market.

The HP OMEN Accelerator enclosure is available on Newegg now