Can I upgrade a laptop graphics card?


A few years ago, when I was traveling around a lot while freelancing, I bought myself a fancy MSI gaming laptop. 

I loved the idea that I could play my favourite PC games anywhere in the world. Whether sipping sangria next to a hotel pool in Spain or spinning around in an RV, I could pull out my Laptop and game the day away. 

However, as time slid by my MSI’s Nvidia 1660 ti graphics card aged and slowed.

So that got me thinking, would it be possible to upgrade my laptops graphics card? 

Can I upgrade my laptop’s graphics card? In most cases, no, you can not upgrade a laptop’s graphics card. Laptops graphics cards are either part of the CPU SOC or the graphics card is soldered onto the motherboard and can not be removed. It is possible to use an external graphics card with some laptops, but performance is usually massively reduced. This makes buying a new laptop a more financially sensible upgrade. 

Now you know that, in general, it’s not easy to upgrade a laptop’s GPU. Looks like I’m gonna be stuck with my aging 1660 ti for a little while longer. However, is it really impossible for all modern laptops to upgrade their graphics cards? 

And what about this external GPU thing I was talking about? I know I said performance was massively reduced. But could that really be a viable upgrade option? 

In the next sections I’ll answer the following questions and more: 

  • Can I replace the graphics card in my laptop? 
  • Can I use an external desktop graphics card with a laptop? 
  • Should i buy a new gaming laptop or upgrade to a desktop Gaming PC? 

Ok, that’s a lot to get through. I better get started instead of rambling on and… 

Can you upgrade a laptop’s graphics card? 

Sadly, there are currently no modern laptops available that have an upgradable graphics card. Though there was an experiment with an Alienware Laptop a few years ago, that idea was abandoned due to a lack of market interest. 

So, no, you can’t upgrade your laptop’s GPU.

But why is that? 

Let me explain…

SOC (system on a chip) GPUs

The vast majority of laptops have integrated graphics, which means the graphics card or GPU (graphics processing unit) is part of the CPU. 

This is known as a SOC or system on a chip. A good example of a SOC is an Intel i5-10600k. This SOC has both a CPU and GPU etched into the same piece of silicon, on a single chip. Hence the name, system on a chip. 

The are few reasons why these SOCs are so popular for laptops.

  1. They take up much less space than a system with a separate CPU and GPU
  2. Cooling solutions are smaller and simpler which means they are cheaper to make 
  3. Integrating the CPU and GPU together means than the laptop can be slimmer and lighter
  4. Integrating the CPU and GPU together means the laptop uses less electricity

Soldered GPUs

If the laptop contains a more powerful GPU, say a RTX 3080 mobile edition, the GPU will be physically too big to integrate with the CPU in a SOC configuration. In that case, the GPU will be directly soldered onto the motherboard.

This is unlike a desktop GPU which comes soldered onto their own PCB board that slots into a motherboard’s PCIe slot. 

Again. The main reasons why a powerful GPU will be soldered onto a motherboard instead of attached using PCIe card system are: 

  1. Soldering the GPU on to the motherboard saves space which means thinner laptops
  2. Cooling solutions are again simplified which saves money
  3. Integrating the GPU onto the motherboard means the manufacturer can place GOPu wherever they want in order to serve their particular laptop’s design 

Sadly, modularity, such as what you’d find in a desktop PC, comes at the cost of space. If you want really thin laptops, then modularity has to be sacrificed.

And the market has spoken: we want slender and sleek laptops. And if the price of an ever shrinking waistline is trading in modularity and upgradability for SOC and soldering, then we have voted yes with our wallets, millions of times.

Upgradable Laptop Graphics cards 

Some (and I mean very very few) older laptops did manage to squeeze in a removable and hence upgradeable graphics card. 

But these Laptop GPUs are not like the RGB adorned slabs of plastic and metal you’d find in a desktop gaming PC. 

Instead, Laptop graphics cards look more large square shaped RAM sticks. 

Though these can, in theory anyway, be removed and replaced in older laptops, it’s next to impossible to find replacements. It is not that companies couldn’t make the upgrades to fit inside older Laptops. There’s no market for it. 

People who wanted upgradeability bought a desktop PC. 

People who wanted mobility bought laptops and sacrificed upgradability. Then, every few years when frame rates start to plummet, Laptop gamers trade in their old laptop and buy a new one. Such is the circle of a laptop’s life. 

There’s another problem with upgradable laptops GPUs: 

There’s was no universal form factor: 

Yes, they use the universal PCI express interface. But that’s where universal connectivnes’s ends and complete formfactor chaos begins.

The actual physical size and shape of the graphics cards differ from vendor to vendor. Every manufacturer’s laptop GPU cards were different sizes and shapes.

But what about an external GPU? Could that be the answer? 

Can you use an external GPU to upgrade a gaming laptop? 

It is possible to use a desktop GPU with some laptops. 

However, I do not recommend you upgrade your laptop with an external GPU. 

Why? 

You get very, very poor price vs performance. 

Let me explain why. 

To use an external GPU with a gaming laptop you need to connect that GPU to the laptop using an external connection. This is the main hurdle that pretty much eliminates the potential of using an external GPU with a laptop before we even start. 

A GPU has to be connected to a laptop using a thunderbolt 3 connection. This limits the connection speed between laptop and GPU to 40 Gb/s. That sounds pretty fast right? Not when compared to PCIe 4 which has 16 bi-directional lanes shifting data at speeds reaching 180Gb/s! That is 4.65 times faster than thunderbolt 3. 

Thunderbolt 3 doesn’t offer enough bandwidth to fully saturate a desktop high-end desktop GPU’s abilities. 

This holds true in most tests that I researched. Generally speaking, a graphics card will be between 2 and 4 times slower when used with a thunderbolt port instead of being inserted into a normal motherboard PCI express slot in a desktop computer. 

And that slower transfer is a bottleneck that simply can’t be overcome by computational brute force.

A $2000 dollars RTX 3090 will perform at one quarter to one half of its potential power. All because thunderbolt’s bandwidth isn’t high enough to suttle data back and forth between GPU and laptop quick enough. This effectively turns your $2000 RTX 3090 into a $500 RTX 3060. Ouch!  

For more information on external GPUs, take a look at the YouTube video below. The evidence against external GPUs is damning: 

And that brings me to the final section of this article: should you buy a desktop PC or should you buy a new laptop. Let’s take a look.

Should you buy a Gaming Laptop or a Desktop Gaming PC? 

If you are reading this article, you were probably very interested in the idea of upgrading your existing laptop. But, upgrading your laptop is likely impossible. And buying an external GPU for your Laptop is throwing money straight down the corporate drain for little to no return. 

So what should you do? You want an upgrade, but which direction should you go in? Desktop PC or Laptop? 

Well, it all depends on what hold the most value to you:

Upgradability or portability.

If upgradability is important to you, then a desktop PC is probably the better option. You can exchange every component in a desktop PC to your heart’s content. 

If portability is important to you – for example, you want to use your laptop while on holiday or on a train commute – a laptop is a better choice. Yes, you can’t upgrade the laptop’s GPU. But, you can always trade your laptop in every couple of years and get a hefty reduction on the price of  a new gaming laptop. 

Summary

It would be one of my articles without a handy summary detailing all the main points from the article. Let’s get to it: 

  • Laptop GPUs can’t be upgraded
  • This is because the GPU is either integrated within a SOC with the CPU or the GPU is soldered directly to the motherboard
  • Some older laptops did have upgradable PCI express graphics cards
  • However, there was no standardized shape for the cards so different GPU count fit in different laptops
  • External GPUs can be used with some laptops. 
  • However, their potential power is halved due to limited bandwidth afforded by the Thunderbolt 3 interface 
  • You’d be better off upgrading your laptop by buying a new laptop 
  • Or if upgradability is important to you, upgrade to a desktop PC

Nick Sinclair

Having played games since the golden age of the Commodore 64, Nick finally took the plunge and studied Creative Game Design in university. After 3 years of "Study", Nick co-founded a games company where he soon discovered his true calling: writing about games. 11 years later Nick writes about a tower of topics, but gaming is always stacked neatly at the top.

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