In the interest of making sure you get the best possible value for your peso, we’re morally obligated to say that unfortunately, a dedicated gaming desktop is still the most cost-effective way to run AAA titles at 120Hz on a 4k monitor—the cooling you’ll need to offset that alone makes travel prohibitive. Still, not everyone can stay tied down to a single desk and justify having more than one machine at any given time (smartphones don’t count, even if they’re already perfectly capable machines).
The introduction of external graphics cards (eGPUs) to the market sparked a lot of talk because of how the whole prospect seemed too good to be true. Spoiler alert: It kinda is, because eGPUs do take a bit of a performance hit compared to implementation in proper desktop systems, about 25-35% total per benchmark and actual game performance, based on various users. That might seem like a lot of processing power left on the table, but that’s just because it is.
Even with that in mind, there’s a compelling case to be made for them. First and foremost, the adoption of Thunderbolt 3 connectors in the half-decade since its release means that proprietary standards have effectively been done away with, making jumping through hoops and adaptors a thing of the past now. Most higher-end laptops with appropriate specs can run things from Nvidia’s GTX 1060 (released 2016) to the wunderkid ray tracing 30-series cards currently on backorder everywhere.
Speaking as someone who bought a bulky laptop with a dedicated GPU, I must admit that carrying this thing around didn’t feel any better for my back than a regular compact PC. And, barring the ability to operate away from a power outlet, there wasn’t much more to show for it. Well, other than the fact that it saves you the trouble of carrying a monitor around, too—most good laptops nowadays have vivid and crisp 4k panels that make YouTube and Red Dead Redemption all that much more immersive.
And don’t think that you’re limited to conventional laptops either; 2-in-1 laptop-slash-tablets open the door to a lot of productivity for content creators and gamers alike with the extra inputs and functionality touchscreens. More importantly, extremely efficient modern Ultrabooks can get you hours of heavy use out of an untethered machine when you’re more focused on writing articles or polishing presentations than dismembering Necromorphs, beating Ganon up, or living out the ultimate badass power fantasy via Doomguy.
Pairing a great laptop with an external GPU is a compromise, sure, but once you key it in it’s the best balance of work and play you can get short of having two (or more) computers. And since the GPU is running in relative isolation, there’s a lot more to be done that keeps them running at safe temperatures. Wringing frames out of the latest and greatest cards isn’t a game for the faint of heart or shallow of pockets, but with how well-optimized many games are (and how some of the best games ever are older releases), this is an option that many can comfortably live with.