Does Thunderbolt 3 Allow a New Class of Displays?

We have more events to report on this week with the show report from the Retail DSE in Large Display Monitor and with our CeBIT report in both newsletters. We were also at PTE this week and the Wearables Show during the week and we’ll bring you those reports next week. It’s a busy time of year for events!

At CeBIT and with news from around the world, I was thinking about silicon and processors. Part of this was driven by products at CeBIT and the Game Developers Conference (GDC) that have GPUs located away from the CPU. At CeBIT, I spent some time looking at Microsoft’s very sleek looking and desirable (at least until you check the user reviews on Amazon that highlight some bugs) Surface Book, which puts the GPU for the convertible in the ‘base’ of the unit, under the keyboard. That means that it doesn’t come into play if the display alone is used as a tablet, but does if the keyboard is connected.

The GPU is reckoned by those that dig into these things to be a slightly slower clocked Nvidia GT 940M with 1GB of memory, a bit less than the 2GB that would be on an add-in board (AIB). The memory is also a bit slower (GDDR5, compared to DDR3). However, having the GPU does mean that in games, the CPU can run at full speed, whereas with an integrated GPU, the overall power budget would be fixed and the CPU would have to slow down. That should improve performance in game play.

At CeBIT and at the GDC this week, systems were also being shown with GPUs in separate modules. This is not a new idea, as products like this have been around for a while. However, the new ones are different because they use USB-Type C with Thunderbolt ‘Alt Mode’ – a standardised interface – rather than the proprietary architectures seen in the past. AMD has announced an XConnect technology which (fortunately) is standards-based rather than proprietary. Acer had a docking module at CeBIT that operates this way and has an integrated GPU, while Razer has an external box that can support standard Add-in-boards (AIBs) which can be changed.

This kind of architecture can also support external monitors via the GPU in the dock or AIB. It seems to us that this opens up some interesting opportunities for other specialist users as well as games players. It avoids the need for two machines – one desktop connected to the big graphics card and, perhaps, four or six monitors, and a notebook for day by day use away from the screens. With this architecture, gamers or others could use a single notebook and leave the GPU dock back at base.

This development might well solve my current dilemma. I produce videos for our Vimeo channel and the rendering of these can take all my PC power for long times – at least 10X the video length, so if I make a video of a five minute interview, I lose the use of my PC for anything else for 50 minutes or so (and much longer if I do special colour correction or complex processing). That goes away if I have a good GPU. One alternative is to get a PC like the Microsoft Book, or a Lenovo or Dell machine with an integrated GPU. However, these tend to be either less powerful as GPUs or a bit heavy as a notebook. A separate module would be ideal. If I’m going to an event where I want to process video, I take the box; if not, just the notebook.

It’s a wonderful vision, although the reality of finding the right notebook* with Thunderbolt 3 support and drivers for the notebook graphics chip that work with an external box and making sure that those drivers work with the docking station, is bound to be something of a challenge.

However, a second thought was about the possibility for a new class of display product. What about a monitor that is somewhere between an All-in-One and a docking station? It would have a PCI slot (and power supply) for an external graphics adaptor, but would connect to the PC via Thunderbolt? That would mean the user could have a single system that exploited the longer life of the display, but allowing upgrades to the GPU on the typical cycle of every two years or so. This could be an interesting market segment.


I have bought Thinkpads over recent years. As I mentioned last week, my notebook died with a fan error just as I was booting up ready to write my editorial. I cleaned the fan and continued, but once the editorial was done, I called Lenovo as the unit was under warranty. On Monday morning, a technician arrived and in 15 minutes he had replaced the fan and I was working again. So, this week, I’m a fan of Lenovo, although 35 years of PC fun tell me that this can and will change!