in depth: Alienware, MSI and Origin weigh in on the age of upgradable laptops

by Kevin Lee on March 3, 2015

in depth: Alienware, MSI and Origin weigh in on the age of upgradable laptops

Upping the game

Unlike desktops, notebooks are notorious for being disposable. Buying a notebook usually comes with the expectation you’ll toss after a few years in favor of something newer, complete with a faster processor, beefier graphics card or more storage. But as this year’s crop of gaming laptops shows, this throw-it-away mentality isn’t necessarily the case anymore.

Just look at MSI, which will replace mobile graphics cards on its bulkiest gaming laptops after a user has owned the machine for some time. Meanwhile, Origin has fitted its latest EON15-X and EON17-X gaming laptops with desktop processors, complete with a socketed connection for easily swappable components. In the last few months, we’ve seen two GPU boxes from Alienware and MSI that allow hardware tweakers to plug in a desktop graphics card, potentially opening up their system to years of upgrades.

upgradable laptops

Easy upgradability has been a hallmark of desktop computers, but now it’s starting to spill over to gaming laptops. To get a handle on this more modular movement, we talked to the top notebook manufacturers about the advantages of an upgradable laptop and why it hasn’t come to more consumer machines – yet.

Under the hood

The MSI GT80 Titan is better known as one of the most insane gaming laptops thanks to its built-in mechanical keyboard, but hardcore PC gamers are equally drawn to its simple upgradability. Undo two screws and the entire front top pops off, giving you access to the flash storage, memory, hard drive and optical drive.

What’s more, users can send their laptop back to MSI for a hot new graphics card. Typically servicing your laptop means fixing a problem, but for the last few years the Taiwanese computer maker has offered GPU upgrades for users who want to keep their systems up to date.

MSI’s Clifford Chun told TechRadar that a lot of users buy new laptops when the next generation of graphics cards comes out. However, with this upgrade path, users keep using their machines for longer and stretching their dollars in the process.

upgradable laptops

"That way they’re not spending $2,000 for one year, they’re actually spending it for three years or longer," Chun said.

Rather than permanently soldering the graphics card to the laptops logic board, MSI has employed an MXM card connection that it can easily unplug and replace.

"It’s very easy to just pull out the fan [and] the thermal modules and the MXM card will just slide out, letting you put in a new one," Chun said.

Putting the desktop in laptop

MSI isn’t the only company to offer MXM card-based GPU upgrades. Origin provides the same service and now it’s taking the modular concept of laptops to an even higher level with a desktop processor inside its latest EON15-X and EON17-X gaming machines.

upgradable laptops

Origin Marketing Manager Eddy Piedra said it’s exactly the same CPU you would find in a full-size desktop from the part to the LGA 1150 socket it plugs into. This in turn means the processor is not soldered to the motherboard, allowing users to send their laptop back to the manufacturer for an easy processor replacement.

Piedra explained that the desktop processor is more beneficial for users who edit video and use other processor-heavy pro applications. At the same time, the beefier CPU is useful for games with lots of artificial intelligence-driven characters such as Elder Scrolls Skyrim and Civilization V.

There are more advantages than just performance as Piedra told us: "the [Intel] 4790K processor is half the price of the extreme mobile processor, so just overall the system is cheaper to begin with and we have really good overclocking abilities [too]."

upgradable laptops

This isn’t the first time Origin has made a gaming laptop with a desktop processor humming inside. Three years ago, the boutique computer maker came out with an EON17-X, based on the Clevo P570WM, rocking an Intel Sandy Bridge processor.

"On the old unit [it] had a desktop processor and it was an SLI system, so you used to have dual 300-watt AC adapter to power it," Tony Berry, Origin’s mobile product manager, said. "These notebooks now with the single GPU and desktop processor use a 230-watt, really slim AC adapter. It’s kind of crazy how things have changed in just a few years."

Despite running with a desktop processor again, Origin says it’s worked closely with Clevo to develop a compact system. The new EON17-X is 37% thinner and 30% lighter compared to the older model. This is thanks to Origin dumping the optical drive and creating a unified cooling system with one big heat sink for both the CPU and GPU.

More than a laptop

Maxing out graphics

Processors aren’t the only desktop part coming to laptops. Both MSI and Alienware have created GPU boxes that allow you to connect a full-size graphics card to a laptop for the full-on desktop gaming experience.

upgradable laptops

So far the concept has proven sound from our time with the MSI GS30 Shadow with GamingDock. As we discovered during the course of our GS30 Shadow review, pairing the Intel Core i7-powered laptop with a high-end GPU gave us as much performance throughput as a desktop rig.

The only problem is MSI’s system requires users to fully shut down their gaming laptop as well as use an external monitor, keyboard and mouse, all of which turns it into more of a dockable desktop. Alienware, on the other hand, has created a much more flexible system with its Graphics Amplifier, which allows users to push the extra performance from the desktop graphics card directly into the laptop and its built-in display.

As Joe Olmsted, director, Alienware products, told TechRadar, "[Alienware’s] goal was to give [their] customer the full functionally of their notebooks." This includes using the notebook’s LCD screen, keyboard, touch pad and ports while offering even more expandability through the GPU’s own external video ports.

upgradable laptops

Olmsted explained Alienware wanted to produce a solution that helps gamers drive the QHD and 4K screens found on its larger-than-life gaming laptops, such as the Alienware 18. More importantly, it’s a solution that will allow users to extend the life of their mobile gaming rig.

"I personally would want the fastest GPU I could afford and be able to put in virtually any card that comes in the future," Olmsted quipped. As it stands, the Alienware Graphics Amplifier comes with two 375-watt slot cards, which should take anything except the single highest-end card AMD card or the Nvidia Titan Z.

"If my friend just upgraded his gaming desktop to a Nvidia GTX 980 card and gave me his 780 Ti, it would be nice to kick the performance of that Alienware M17x up a notch," he said, giving an example of what the Graphics Amplifier can do for users. Olmstead wasn’t ready to say a desktop graphics bump could extend the life of a gaming notebook by three years, but it could help customers get off the cycle of upgrading their notebooks so quickly.

The long road to mainstream

Of course, there are some downsides to having easily upgradable components. For starters, a soldered connection will always be thinner than any socketed plug or circuit linking together over a bridge. It’s for this reason MXM cards and desktop CPUs are reserved to thicker gaming machines such as Origin’s EON17-X and EON15-X.

upgradable laptops

These are also upgrades you won’t likely see on Ultrabooks or anything less than a gaming machine that stands on the bleeding edge of performance. That said, the here and now is an extremely exciting time for those who already own or are interested in investing in a gaming laptop. Mobile and desktop components have never been closer in performance and it’s a trend that will likely only continue in the near term.

Beyond gaming laptops, notebooks have generally become thinner rather than modular. Take the MacBook Air – it’s is stunningly slim, measuring 0.68 inch (170 mm) thick, but at the cost of irremovable components, including memory that’s fixed to a logic board.

However, experiments like Project Ara have shown smartphones can be modular, which then inspired notebook maker One Laptop Per Child to start designing a hybrid-device of its own. Larger manufacturers have yet to express interest in making upgradable laptops, but for now gamers may have a glimpse of the future.

Originally Posted By TechRadar: All latest Mobile computing news feeds

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