Sonnet Radeon RX570 eGFX Breakaway Puck

Since starting my journey with USB Type-C and Thunderbolt 3 there have been two things I’ve wanted to try out; an external GPU, and a portable external GPU.

Sonnet cover both of these bases with their eGFX products, but in this article I’ll be taking a look at their portable GPU since they are, as far as I know, the first company to convert my dream of a compact, portable, laptop-upgrading eGPU into a product.

Sonnet dub their portable GPU the “Breakaway Puck” and it comes in two flavours: the Radeon RX570 and the Radeon RX560. Both occupy the same sized enclosure which is roughly 15x13x5cm in size, not quite fitting into my vision of an ultra-slimline portable setup but certainly demonstrating that a larger enclosure- despite a small tradeoff in portability- is a much better choice for what is typically a very hot component.

But let’s not jump then gun!

Unboxing the Sonnet RX570 eGPU

The Sonnet eGPU was actually loaned to me for review by Holdan, a relatively local company specialising in broadcast and video. As you might imagine, the idea of Thunderbolt GPUs meshes well with the rest of their stock in trade since shooting video is inevitably followed by editing and post production. If you happen to be wanting to do this on the go with- for example- a Dell XPS 13 then you may find your GPU a little wanting.

As such, unboxing the Sonnet Breakaway Puck was a rather unique experience since it was shipped not in its original packaging, but in a foam-lined plastic hard-case typically used for sending samples to other companies for evaluation.

Inside the case came, of course, the GPU itself and also a surprisingly large power supply (in retrospect I shouldn’t have been that surprised) and the necessary Thunderbolt cable to connect it to a host computer.

The spartan contents of this package reflect the fairly straight-forward setup of the GPU. It was pretty easy, although I had some hiccups convincing the XPS13 in particular to actually use the GPU.

First impressions

The Sonnet eGPU makes a strong first impression. It’s encased within a tidy, matte black aluminium enclosure that- save for a wonderfully subtly backlit Sonnet logo -has nothing superfluous. And let me emphasise the “subtly” there, because blue glaring LEDs are almost a curse upon electronics. Sonnet, however, have managed to craft a soft blue glow that’s not distracting or blinding, it’s tastefully done!

The back of the GPU sports a wonderfully generous three full-sized DisplayPort connectors and a single full-sized HDMI port connector. This is sufficient for connecting the four displays you would expect an external GPU to support. I regrettably have not managed to rally enough displays to see just how far I can push this- combined with the internal GPUs of the host computers- yet.

Also on the back is the USB Type-C port for the Thunderbolt 3 connection, and a fairly significant power connector which, unlike a barrel jack, actually has a really nice latching mechanism to prevent the cable ever accidentally pulling or falling out. Incidentally simply pulling the power or yanking the Thunderbolt cable while the GPU is running wont be looked upon kindly by your running operating system, but it wasn’t nearly as fatal as I’d imagined.

The power supply is a little less aesthetically impressive since it needs to pack the capability to deliver a consistent 220W. This makes it pretty hefty, but admittedly it’s still fairly portable. While I compare the 220W Sonnet supply to my 165W Razer Blade power supply, this comparison is actually quite unfair. While the Razer supply can rely upon aggressive power management and the laptop battery itself to provide relief during peak power requirements, the Sonnet supply needs to deliver its 220W punch pretty consistently and can’t rely upon the host computer to realise when performance demands might outstrip the power supplies ability to keep up. Additionally, the Sonnet eGPU can deliver power to the host computer and will happily power a Dell XPS 13 while gaming. Tidy!

Setting up and firing it up

Setup couldn’t be easier. Hook up the power supply, connect the GPU via the single Thunderbolt 3 cable to a host computer, and fire it up. Incidentally the RX570 version of the Sonnet Breakaway Puck comes with a whopping 220W power supply which is not only sufficient for powering the GPU itself, but also for powering the attached computer – if it’s a laptop. In fact Sonnet count on the fact the GPU will replace your laptop charger to gain some additional portability and offset the large size of both the GPU and power supply. This single-cable concept is really the crux of what I love about the controversial USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 port.

I tested the Sonnet eGPU first with a Dell XPS 13, and then subsequently with a Zotac ZBOX MI553. Both of these systems have relatively timid integrated GPUs as part of their Intel CPUs, and both systems benefited immensely from the external GPU. While the XPS 13 would power and charge from the eGPU, the MI553 would not- but that’s okay, I wouldn’t expect this from what’s effectively a desktop computer.

First up, the XPS 13 popped up a New Thunderbolt Devices Have Been Detected message when the eGPU was connected.

Since Thunderbolt 3 effectively connects peripherals directly to the PCIe bus of your computer, there are some security concerns involved. This dialog makes sure you’re aware of the device being connected and make a sensible decision about when to trust it. In the case of the eGPU I know I’m going to be hot-plugging it whenever I land on the desk, so I picked “Always Connect” from the menu.

Once connected I let Windows 10 figure out the drivers and install whatever it deemed fit. This actually took about half an hour- which may be a compound effect of the large size of graphic drivers these days, plus the fact I might have been additionally hastily installing a game via Steam 😉

Once the drivers were installed, getting the GPU up and running wasn’t quite as straight forward as I’d expected. I had hoped that Windows 10 would just “Do The Right Thing”, but it had a little trouble understanding what “The Right Thing” was at first. While I could get the GPU to accelerate a game played on a screen attached to it, it wasn’t working with the XPS 13s built-in display.

A quick delve into Windows “Power & Sleep Settings” revealed the culprit. I had to delve into “Additional Settings”, configure the power profile by “Chang(e/ing) advanced power settings” and tweaking the global setting for “Switchable Dynamic Graphics” to “Maximize Performance.” While I’m fairly certain there’s a sensible way to get the Radeon drivers to accomplish this on an application-by-application basis, I delved into them for a half hour or so with little success. Let’s face it; my last Radeon card was a 9700 and I’ve been either an Apple or GeForce user ever since so I’m a little rusty on that front!

Once switched over, however, I went from ~10FPS to ~120FPS as I switched from the Dell’s woefully inadequate graphics over to the RX570 which seemed about on par with the GTX1060 in my own Razer Blade laptop.

Premier Pro

Premier Pro was a trickier beast. It seems to have some troubles with Radeon switchable graphics – at least with the Zotac MI553 – and absolutely refused to allow me to pick OpenCL accelerated graphics – even if I ensured “adobe premier pro.exe” and “GPUSniffer.exe” were both set to “High Performance” in Radeon Additional Settings. That is until I applied a registry tweak to disable OpenCL on the integrated GPU. This is a pain, but a simple change involving a tweak to the “IntelOpenCL64.dll” entry in “HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Khronos\OpenCL\Vendors\”. Setting this entry from 0 to 1 seemed to do the trick, though, and didn’t require disabling or otherwise messing with the internal GPU.

While it was neck and neck between the external RX570 and the integrated Intel HD Graphics 630 – 29 seconds vs 33 seconds – for my very simple 30-second-long video export test, these was at least a difference. I was able to confirm that the RX570 was being used by disabling the Intel GPU and experimenting with the registry settings. Larger and more complicated video projects would no-doubt benefit more significantly- basic video encoding is usually pretty well catered for by GPUs, but more sophisticated effects will benefit considerably more. Even this 4 second speed boost would add up over longer videos.

Is it worth it?

I’m not going to run benchmarks or give you numbers here, you can get those elsewhere. While raw numbers and objective tests are useful, what really matters is the subjective difference between- for example- an XPS 13 with and without an external GPU. To put it bluntly the difference is phenomenal, but is the raw power afforded by the RX570 worth the whopping £700-£800 price tag?

In my case; no. Since I’ve already opted for a laptop with a discrete GPU built right in and sacrificed a lot of portability and sanity to go this route. The RX570 punches very close to my integrated 1060 GPU.

If you happen to own a Dell XPS13, however, and are potentially in the market for a £200-£300 graphics dock for a multi monitor setup then adding a beefy GPU on top of this isn’t a bad move. Whether you’re looking to accelerate Premier Pro or transform the XPS13 into an very capable gaming machine you’ll find this eGPU to be an extremely compact and quiet way to accomplish this.

And I mean quiet. Comparing a similar gameplay experience between my Razer Blade 1060 and an XPS 13 coupled with the Sonnet eGPU is enlightening. While my Razer Blade sounds like it’s trying to lift off and fly around the room, the XPS 13 + Sonnet eGPU combo is much, much quieter. This is par for the course, if you think about it. The external GPU enclosure has more room for a bigger heatsink, and a much bigger dedicated fan not to mention the added benefit of vents on three of its four sides and additional ventilation on top. An external GPU will have better airflow, better cooling and better thermals allowing it to run faster, quieter. It will also have a better, more consistent power supply, allowing it to run full-pelt at all times. If I ever needed any proof that an integrated discrete laptop GPU was a poor choice… well this is it.

While an XPS 13 and an external GPU could easily run you up in excess of £2000 you’ve got the best of many worlds. A compact, lightweight and svelte laptop for travelling and holidays when you simply don’t need that raw GPU power, and a punchy GPU at home or the office for serious work, serious gaming, and multiple-monitor setups. You can also upgrade your GPU, something that’s not normally possible in a laptop, swapping one external GPU setup for another with (assuming you’re using the same brand of GPU) plug and play simplicity. While the prices are still a little high (no doubt in part due to the crypto currency goldrush and the limited market for external GPUs), I feel this kind of setup represents the best future for portable computing- at least until everything is so powerful and compact that it doesn’t matter anymore.

Overall

With the Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Puck being so compact, portable enough, and significantly quieter than an internal discrete GPU I’m actually keen to make this kind of combination my next laptop upgrade. I think the prices need to drop to make the combo truly competitive, but the flexibility of such a setup is a powerful motivator. If you’re hot desking at home with another avid gamer or videographer you can even share the same GPU (and of course attached monitors), not something that can be said for most setups!

While graphics performance is fantastic, what I missed from the eGFX Breakaway Puck was USB ports. Given the reports of USB simply not working on the Razer Core I’m not surprised that Sonnet opted for the simple – do one thing and do it well – approach here, but I would certainly have appreciated somewhere to connect a regular mouse and keyboard at the very least. The watchword of this product is portability, though, and I suspect it’s assumed that if you’re out in the field with this external GPU attached then you’re not likely to be using a monitor, mouse and keyboard. That’s okay, Sonnet’s market here is predominately on the go video and CAD professionals who need that extra grunt. If you’re a casual/moderate gamer, though, I think you’ll find an XPS13 + Sonnet eGPU combo pretty capable. If you’re in the market for a gaming laptop- well, I’d recommend you to consider this instead for a quieter, less thermally compromised setup that you’ll actually be able to upgrade in future.