It’s a great solution for people with deep pockets
The idea of slapping a discrete graphics card on a thin and light notebook is not a new one: you can actually do that right now if you have the right tools, moxie and technical know-how, but for many the dream of putting the latest GPU on their skinny notebook has been just that – a dream. But there’s been a few solutions that have cropped up that allow people with enough cash and technical know-how to plug in a graphics card to get the best of both worlds – a skinny notebook during the day, and a kick-ass gaming machine at night. ASUS’ ROG XG Station 2 is one such option, but because of its technical quirks and high price tag, it’s not a solution that’ll work for everybody.
It’s like a mini-desktop for gamers
For what the XG Station 2 does, it’s pretty huge. Easily the size and width of a compact desktop, the ROG XG Station 2 is basically a receptacle for a GPU, and can handle teeny-weeny ones like the GTX 1050 all the way up to the GTX 1080 Ti. It has its own 600W 80 Plus Gold power supply to keep both the notebook that you’re using and the GPU you’re connecting fed and supplied with power.
Just like desktop-bound members of ASUS’ ROG devices, the XG Station 2 sports the same Aztec-inspired design as their desktop PCs. There’s a plasma tube up front that lights up when the device is in operation.
On the back of the XG Station 2 are multiple connections, including the Thunderbolt 3 Type-C connector that is the heart of the system. There’s also 4 additional USB 3.0 ports as well as a Gigabit LAN connector, which doubles the amount of ports that your notebook will probably won’t have.
Opening the XG Station 2 is pretty easy – there’s a latch on the top that opens the device into two halves. Inside, you’ll see the single full length PCI-Express x 16 slot for whatever GPU you want to put in it. There’s two 8-pin connectors inside as well which means you can pretty much use the latest GPUs (GTX 9/10 series and R9/RX and later) including the monstrous NVIDIA GTX 1080 Ti. There’s a large red switch on the base of the device which you turn on when you want to use it.
Setup is a tedious and a little annoying if you don’t have an ASUS notebook
ASUS advertises the XG Station 2 as a plug-and-play device, but in practice it’s anything but. We used it with the ZenBook 3 Deluxe along with ASUS’ own ROG Strix GTX 1080 GPU, and we had to clear some technical hurdles to get it to work properly. For one thing, you’ll have to update your Thunderbolt drivers to the latest ones for it to work. We found the ones for the ZenBook 3 Deluxe easily enough, though other users who don’t have ASUS notebooks has had compatibility issues with the ROG XG Station II as it relates to the Thunderbolt connection.
Also take note that you’ll have to use a separate display to get the XG Station 2 to work, at least with our review unit. If we turned it and the ZenBook 3 Deluxe on, we couldn’t get the display driver to switch from the built-in Intel one to GTX 1080. Plugging in our monitor via DVI and making it our only display seemed to fix that particular issue.
That little niggle means you’ll have to spring for a separate display as well as a discrete GPU and the XG Station 2 itself if you’re looking to use it as your primary gaming machine at home.
It works, but you’re getting performance penalties because of the Thunderbolt 3 connection
So, does the XG Station II deliver its promise of allowing your thin-and-light PC to use an external GPU. Yes, but there are some caveats. Because of the bandwidth limitations of the Thunderbolt 3, the GPU is limited to PCIe 3.0 X4 bandwidth, which means you’re getting hit with hefty performance penalty compared to using the GPU on a fully enabled PCIe x16.
It’s not the fault of ASUS, as most other similar external graphics enclosures are hit with the same penalty, it’s just something that you’ll need to keep in mind when you’re using the device.
To illustrate this, we’re going to be showing you benchmarks from three games that we tested with the ASUS ZenBook 3 Deluxe that we used with the XG Station 2, as well as a typical home gaming rig that used the same GTX 1080 in the external GPU enclosure. Here’s the specs of both machines:
ASUS ZenBook 3 Deluxe UX490 specs:
- Intel Core i7-7500U processor
- Integrated Intel HD Graphics 620
- 16GB of RAM
- 14.0-inch full HD LED backlit panel, 1920 x 1080 resolution
- 1TB PCIE Gen3X4 SSD
PC Testing Rig
- Intel Core i5-6400 processor
- ASUS ROG Strix GTX 1080 GPU
- 8GB of RAM
- 5TB of HDD storage, 256GB of SSD storage (WD Green)
Alright, let’s take a look at the benchmarks. First, the ZenBook 3 Deluxe with the ROG XG Station 2 attached with the ROG Strix GTX 1080 GPU:
Next, the same GPU stuck on the desktop rig:
As you can see on the benchmarks, you are getting hit with a performance penalty when using the GPU, and you’re not really getting the full potential of a GTX 1080 with the XG Station 2 compared to a desktop. Could you get more use out of a lower graphics card like say a GTX 1070 or a GTX 1060 which wouldn’t bottleneck as bad as the GTX 1080? Maybe, but we wouldn’t be surprised if both cards hit the same bottlenecks as we did.
Verdict: It’s a pricey solution to a problem not everyone is willing to deal with
Does ASUS’ XG Station 2 deliver its promise of enabling thin-and-light machines to use external graphics cards? Sure – we’re confident that the ZenBook 3 Deluxe wouldn’t be able to play any of the games we used with our test in any resolution or graphics setting that wouldn’t resemble bullet time in the Matrix. But getting a home gaming setup with the XG Station 2 would be expensive – the dock alone is priced at Php 29,990, and even after buying that you’ll still have to spring for a decent GPU and a monitor if you haven’t already.
But if you’re a gamer with deep pockets and don’t want to splurge on a big, bulky gaming notebook and prefer a more elegant solution at home, then the ASUS ROG XG Station 2 may just be what you’ve been looking for.