One of the very interesting looking laptops from MSI is their upcoming GS30, which carries on the thin and light theme of the GS series but extends that down into a 13.3” chassis. The core laptop uses a Crystalwell i7-4870HQ processor, which means it should have decent integrated graphics performance but nothing earth shattering. Along with the Haswell-based CPU comes support for up to 16GB of DDR3L memory, RAID SSD storage, and a 13.3” 1080p anti-glare IPS display. All of that is well and good, but where things get interesting is when we get to the expansion dock.

Similar to the Alienware 13, the GS30 will have support for an expansion dock that supports full size desktop GPUs. MSI says it should work with all desktop GPUs, from lower end models all the way up to GTX 980, and Titan/Z/Black, as well as various AMD GPUs. The dock uses a proprietary connector, and the laptop sits on top of the dock rather than interfacing through a cable. The dock isn’t just for a discrete GPU either, as it supports an additional 3.5” hard drive, Killer Gigabit Ethernet, and it includes two speakers. I’m not convinced about the need for the speakers or networking support, especially considering the laptop already has a Gigabit Ethernet jack, but the additional four USB 3.0 ports certainly don’t hurt.

If you’re curious how MSI is interfacing with all of these extra devices and whether there will be sufficient bandwidth, the answer is that the dock uses a full x16 PCIe 3.0 based connector. That means not only is there plenty of bandwidth, but the discrete GPU will also be able to run at maximum performance. Interestingly, MSI noted that with certain high-end GPUs (e.g. Titan class and above), there may be a minor drop in performance on the laptop unless you also connect the laptops AC adapter. The dock itself comes with a 450W PSU, which should be plenty to run any GPU, HDD, USB peripherals, and still leave sufficient room to power the laptop, but until we can do some actual testing with the final hardware it’s not clear why there would be a need for the added power.

The GS30 Shadow is definitely one of the more interesting laptops we’ve seen, and for those that don’t need to have a ton of gaming power on the go it offers a nice blend of mobility with the option to hook up to a dedicated display and GPU at home for serious gaming. Note also that the GS30 cannot “hot-dock” – you have to power down the system before undocking, or there could be problems. Also, when docked the laptop’s internal display is disabled (for now?) and only an external display connected to the discrete GPU can be used.

Pricing and availability have not been announced yet, but at least the latter should be sooner rather than later. It’s also not clear whether the GS30 Shadow will always be sold as a package that includes the GPU docking bay, or if that will be a separate device. Selling the dock as an accessory would likely make the most sense, as there may be users that don’t care for the dock but otherwise like the GS30 laptop. We’ll have a full review once the laptop and dock are ready for retail customers. This is clearly a shot across the bow of Alienware, and while it’s too early to declare a victor and both offerings have their pros and cons, it’s shaping up to be a very interesting year for laptops.

Source: MSI Notebooks

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  • schizoide - Sunday, January 4, 2015 - link

    The performance gap isn't zero, but it's actually pretty small. Even expresscard eGPU solutions offer vastly improved performance over most mobile GPUs, and expresscard is essentially pci-e 1.0 1x. There have been lots of articles about this, I'm sure you've seen them so I won't go into more detail.

    Expresscard hacked eGPUs work without any "cooperation" from GPU driver developers or Microsoft. Nvidia cards just work, with Optimus. If intel allowed thunderbolt 2.0 eGPU enclosures to be sold, they would work just fine.

    None of the big companies are putting any effort into solving this because they (so far Dell and MSI) see it as a way to differentiate their gaming laptops from the dozens of otherwise nearly identical competitors. They don't see the bigger picture, that they could sell more laptops if they offered greater functionality.

    Of course eGPU enclosures would be a whole new product category, too. With a real standard the chinese would churn them out cheaply, sure. Margins would be tight. But making laptops better at gaming makes the market healthier for everybody... and consumers would love it.
  • SleepyFE - Sunday, January 4, 2015 - link

    You don't really need a new standard. Just a driver to make it work across a few USB cables. After that it's just a case that fits a PSU and a GPU.
  • schizoide - Sunday, January 4, 2015 - link

    I dunno, seems like extending pci-e over USB3 would be a bigger task than agreeing on a new standard plug and protocol. But I'm not an engineer.
  • SleepyFE - Tuesday, January 6, 2015 - link

    No it wouldn't. They can already make DisplayPort signal run on a USB 3.1 cable. The 3.1 has specified how to run other signals through. All it takes now is to make the GPU driver work with it and allow hot plugging.
  • invinciblegod - Wednesday, January 7, 2015 - link

    "All it takes now is to make the GPU driver work with it and allow hot plugging." Lol, all it takes indeed. Hotplugging would require a new version of windows. PCIE has a limit in length because of signal issues so you would either need a very short usb3.1 cable or a special pcie usb3.1 cable with active circuitry like thunderbolt. Why do you think thunderbolt has active cables? Because pcie wouldnt work properly otherwise.
  • SleepyFE - Wednesday, January 7, 2015 - link

    Didn't know about the active cables, but i do know that PCIe is not hotpluggable and Apple solved it with a driver (for external HDD).
    And yes. I would expect the cables bundled with the case to be about half a meter in length. With the case sitting next to your laptop (or behind it) you don't need more. It's not something you would use on the go anyway, since you need an outlet.
  • Anonymous1a - Sunday, January 4, 2015 - link

    What about USB Type C (3.1)? I've been reading on Anandtech that one of the 'alternate modes' is PCIE-Express but I have always wondered, does that mean that Type C can actually act as an interface for external GPUs?
  • schizoide - Sunday, January 4, 2015 - link

    That's an excellent point, the "alternate mode" supports up to 10 GBps on each of 4 lanes with short cables. Unfortunately the alternate mode stuff isn't itself part of the VESA standard, they left it up to each manufacturer to figure that out on their own.

    Also it's unclear if it _really_ looks like just another pci-e device like thunderbolt and expresscards do. If not, GPU drivers would need to support it.

    Maybe the right answer is a standard to extend pci-e over USB 3.1? And then we're all in happy land.

    I just want to buy a macbook air and a $300 eGPU box already, dangit.
  • Anonymous1a - Sunday, January 4, 2015 - link

    That ambiguity is probably the only thing that would keep me from buying this. While the price is obviously also an issue, I am still not sure whether I should buy this, given that in a few months time, Type C laptops will be released and, then, if someone decides to start selling external GPUs using that, I'd be stuck with a proprietary design.

    I'm not very attuned to the technical stuff but since what you say seems to suggest that it is technically/theoretically possible, even if they need drivers, I can't imagine it being too hard. I mean, Nvidia releases drivers for each new game release almost every two weeks! With someone like this, imagine using a Surface Pro with a proper graphics card. If it was done, it would boost not only gaming laptops but also the tablet industry by miles! I'd love that; a Surface Pro for my everyday University work and, when I get home, a full fledged desktop-grade graphics card for games...Man, even thinking about the possibility has me drooling!
  • SirKnobsworth - Monday, January 5, 2015 - link

    It's not four lanes - it's two bi-directional lanes.

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