Can I Upgrade My Laptop Graphics Card?

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If you find that your laptop just doesn’t have enough juice to sustain heavier graphics processing on newer gaming titles and for your professional work, then you may rightly ask “can I upgrade my laptop graphics card?”

Unfortunately, the answer to the question is a no. You cannot upgrade the graphics card inside your laptop. The simple reason for this being that the GPU is soldered onto the board and therefore cannot be removed.

There are several reasons as to why the GPU is soldered onto the motherboard instead of being available as a standalone device. Part of it has to do with portability, the other with manufacturing strategy.

However, fortunately, there are gadgets and devices out there 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 can you upgrade your laptop graphics card or not.

Can I Upgrade My Laptop Graphics Card?

Again, the simple answer to this age old question is a no.

Just as you cannot upgrade a CPU on a laptop, you cannot upgrade a graphics card on a laptop.

Why?

GPU soldered onto the motherboard 2
Shows both CPU and GPU soldered onto the motherboard. Source: GPU soldered onto the motherboard. Besides the GPU chipset itself, all of the supporting electrical components i.e capacitors, VRMs, VRAM and ICs of a particular GPU are soldered to the motherboard as well.

The simple reason being that the graphics card on a laptop is soldered. It cannot be removed and thus cannot be replaced.

You can try unsoldering the GPU as a DIY project on the side if that interests you but know that doing so not only voids any form of warranty for your laptop but also has a very high chance of permanently damaging your current GPU, motherboard or both.

PCIe vs MXM Standard

Both desktops and laptops use the PCIe interface in order to connect High Speed Input Out (HSIO) devices such as graphics card.

This begs the question, if the desktop graphics cards can be replaced, then why can’t you do the same on a laptop.

Basically there was a time when NVIDIA made a push for the MXM interface to be followed which allowed for upgrading the GPUs.

MXM stands for Mobile PCIe Express Module (MXM). This standard aimed to simplify manufacturing and create a uniform upgradeable GPU socket, however, while most of the salient features of the MXM standard are still in use, the upgradeable part is still not implemented.

This is because despite NVIDIA’s push, whether an upgradeable GPU socket is provided in the laptop or not is manufacturer’s decision.

Can You Upgrade Your Laptop Graphics Card 2
 Graphics card that can be removed. Notice the pins om the button allowed the graphics cards to be removed. Source: Eurocom
mxm graphics card
An GTX 980 following MXM standard. It is removable – notice the pins at the button for plugging and unplugging from MXM slot.

Again, the removable aspect of the MXM standard has failed to pick up steam. After all, if users can upgrade their GPUs, then the GPU manufacturer’s i.e NVIDIA and AMD will benefit the most while laptop manufacturers will see no financial gains.

How to Add an External Graphics Card

As far as the internal graphics card go, the answer to the question “can I upgrade my laptop graphics card” is a no. However, you CAN add a newer and a more powerful graphics card externally.

There are three ways to add an external graphics card to your laptop

  1. Mini PCIe to PCIe x16 eGPU Kit – Cheap Slow and Problematic – Not Recommended
  2. M.2 NVMe to PCIe x16 eGPU Kit – Relatively Faster – Problematic – Not Recommended
  3. Thunderbolt 3.0 eGFX Dock – The Expensive but Reliable Method

1. Mini PCIe to PCIe eGPU Kit – Cheap Slow and Problematic – Not Recommended

The first method, which many users out there recommend, is to get a Mini PCIe to x16 kit for installing your graphics.

MIni PCie to x16
Mini PCie to x16

You can find this kit online.

Basically, the kit connects to the Mini PCIe Slot where the wireless card connects inside the laptop on one end. On the other end, you get a full x16 slot where you can install a desktop grade graphics card.

You will need to remove your wireless card for this kit to work.

wireless card laptop remov
Wireless Card in a Laptop

There are plenty of issues with this kind of setup though:

Mini PCIe Slot Only offers a Single PCIe Lane!

One of the biggest issues with this kind of setup is that a mini PCIe slot offers a single PCIe lane.

Just because the kit expands to x16 slot on the other end, does not mean that it would offer the bandwidth of an x16 slot. 

The entire setup would still be limited to the bandwidth of a single PCIe lane.

This is far lower than the ideal requirement of a graphics card. A graphics card ideally requires 16 lanes, but can work on 8 or 4 lanes bandwidth as well.

1 PCIe lane offered by the Mini PCIe slot on the laptop would seriously bottleneck the performance of the installed graphics card.

Also Read:

You Will Need a Desktop Power Supply Unit

In order to power up the graphics card, you will need to procure a Power Supply Unit and that would too need to be placed externally.

PCie Power w
You will need a Power Supply Unit and appropriate PCIe cables for the external graphics card.

You May Need to Fiddle with BIOS and The Graphics Driver

This setup is not plug and play.

Depending upon the brand of laptop you have and the BIOS version it has, the settings may be different.

But essentially, you will need to find settings related to graphics device and also for the LAN.

You need to disable both discrete GPUs, WiFi and Boot to LAN BIOS to avoid any conflict.

You will also need to download the drivers for the graphics card you have installed.

You Will Have no Internal WiFi on Your Laptop

Of course, with the network card removed, you will have no WiFi on your laptop.

Compatibility Issues

Even with all the hard worked involved with making it work, there is still no telling whether this kit will be compatible with your graphics card.

2. M.2 NVMe to PCIe x16 eGPU Kit – Relatively Faster – Problematic – Not Recommended

Another kit very similar to the one above is the M.2 NVMe to PCIe x16 slot kit.

 

External eGPU Kit
External eGPU Kit. M.2 NVMe to x16 kit.
External eGPU kit GPU installed
Desktop Graphics Card installed on an External eGPU kit

It does have some benefits.

It can provide the bandwidth of upto 4 x PCIe lanes because an M.2 slot on a laptop is mostly connected to 4 PCIe lanes.

However, still the bandwidth provided is nowhere close to recommended 16 and 8 lanes for the graphics card.

Do note that the you will need to have an NVMe M.2 slot. This is NOT to be confused with a SATA M.2 slot.

Additional issues include:

  • This kit is more expensive than mini PCIe to x16 kit above
  •  You need to have an NVMe M.2 slot on your laptop – older laptops generally lack one. 
  • There is still the issue of compatibility which you cannot be certain off.

3. Thunderbolt 3.0 eGFX Dock – The Expensive but Reliable Method

The final and the most recommended method is to use a thunderbolt 3.0 eGFX (External Graphics Card) dock.

The biggest plus point of eGFX is that these are generally made by respectable and high end brands and are thus very reliable.

eGFX Razer Core
Razer Core Thunderbolt 3.0 eGFX Dock

Some popular Thunderbolt 3.0 eGFX Docks include:

  • Razer Core
  • PowerColor Devil Box
  • Cooler Master MasterCase EG200
  • Cooler Master MasterCase NC100
  • AKiTiO Node Titan

These often have a built in PSU. However, these too have their drawbacks:

Require a Thunderbolt 3 Port on Laptop

You need to have a Thunderbolt 3.0 port on the laptop.

Unfortunately, at the moment, only high end laptops offer Thunderbolt 3.0 ports. 

They are Expensive

Jus the enclosure itself (with the PSU but without the graphics card installed) can cost you $300-$400 making it an investment that you will need to give second thought to.

Also Read: How to Know if Graphics Card is Compatible With Your Motherboard?

Final Words

So the answer to the question “Can I upgrade my laptop graphics card?” as far as the internal GPU is concerned, is a no.

However, you can add an external graphics card if your budget allows.

We can hope that in the future the modular aspect of the MXM standard will pick up pace and we will finally get replaceable laptop GPUs.

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Author:

Atif Qazi
Atif Qazi is the founder of PCGuide101. He is a digital nomad who loves everything PC. He is a PC builder, tech enthusiast, engineer, and a lover of single player lore-rich RPG games.

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