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Razer Core V2 review: This box turned my laptop into a gaming monster

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The Good The Razer Core turns your mild-mannered laptop into a gaming beast, and it's a cinch to set up.

The Bad It's not compatible with many laptops. It's pricy, and doesn't come with a graphics card. Performance varies greatly depending on your laptop and the GPU you insert, and always runs slightly slower than a comparable desktop. The bundled cable is annoyingly short.

The Bottom Line For wealthy gamers, the Razer Core might be a dream come true. For the rest of us, it's worth waiting a little longer.

7.0 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 8

I've been living the two-computer life for too long. A relatively thin, portable laptop for work and a beefy gaming desktop at home. But it doesn't have to be that way.

For the past month, I've been using the Razer Core, a device that can transform a tiny laptop into a powerful gaming desktop PC. You know how Bruce Banner turns into The Incredible Hulk? It's nothing like that.

Here's what it's like: I go to work with an impressively thin laptop under my arm. And when I get home at night, I plug in a single cable which charges the laptop, fires up multiple monitors, adds a mouse and keyboard, connects to wired internet and -- get this -- harnesses the power of a big, badass desktop graphics card. One plug gives me all of that, all at the same time.

razer-core-9550
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Laptop, monitor, keyboard, mouse and GPU not included. 

Josh Miller/CNET

The result is the best of both worlds: a laptop that games like a desktop.

No exaggeration: I've wanted a system like this for years. And now I've tried it, it's hard for me to imagine a future where traditional gaming desktops still exist.

Say hello to the eGPU

The first thing to know about the Razer Core is it costs $500, £470 or AU$750 just for the box. No graphics card, no laptop. You provide those on your own.

But the second thing to know is that the Razer Core isn't alone. It's just one of a new wave of external graphics processing units (eGPUs), including the Asus ROG XG Station, the Aorus Gaming Box, the PowerColor Devil Box, the Sonnet Breakaway Box and the Akitio Node. They're all built on a common standard, which means prices are all but sure to come down.

Intel's Thunderbolt 3 port is that standard. It's the first computer cable designed to provide enough bandwidth (40 gigabits per second), electricity (over 100 watts) and I/O protocols (USB 3.1, DisplayPort, PCI-Express) to power external graphics, monitors, peripherals and your laptop all at the same time, in a plug-and-play design with no need to reboot.

Which means you can be gaming and multitasking across multiple monitors like a powerful desktop PC, then yank a single cord and walk away with a laptop -- something the many, many previous attempts at eGPUs have never really offered.

So that's just what I did.

I pulled the satisfyingly smooth aluminum handle to slide out the Razer Core's GPU tray, undid the thumbscrew, and snapped in a powerful $380+ (£379, AU$679+) Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070 graphics card, PCIe power connectors and all.

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With a big bay and its own dedicated 500-watt power supply, the Core is ready for practically any GPU you care to throw at it -- by which I mean any GPU you can actually afford.

Josh Miller/CNET

I ripped out the cables connecting my mouse, keyboard, router and and twin monitors from my existing desktop PC, and inserted them straight into the Core.

Then, I placed a 13-inch, quad-core Razer Blade Stealth notebook on top of the Core, plugged in the Thunderbolt 3 cable and waited as Nvidia drivers automatically installed themselves and the USB devices sprang to life. And that was it.

One-time setup complete, I took my new PC for a spin. And then, I realized something profound: I could barely tell the difference. A mere laptop felt as fast and capable as the desktop I painstakingly built for myself just a couple years back.

And when I swapped out my GTX 1070 for a $1,200+ (£1,149, AU$1,950) Titan Xp -- one of the fastest graphics cards in the world -- that laptop left my homebuilt desktop in the dust.

How much faster are we talking? Here's some before and after gaming tests:

Average frames per second

Rise of the Tomb Raider (1080p Very High)
6
56
72
99
Rise of the Tomb Raider (4K High)
2
30
37
65
Grand Theft Auto V (1080p Very High)
11
71
93
97
Grand Theft Auto V (4K High)
5
43
64
94

Legend:

Stealth
Stealth + AMD RX 580
Stealth + GTX 1070
Stealth + Titan Xp

Note:

Higher numbers = smoother gameplay. 60+ frames per second is optimal.

If it's this powerful with a Titan, just imagine what it could do with tomorrow's graphics cards.

I even found the Core fast enough to power an HTC Vive for virtual reality games -- though not an Oculus Rift. The Rift needs a lot of low-latency USB ports to work properly, and the ones on the Razer Core aren't quite responsive enough. If you have three or four USB 3.0 ports on your laptop, it could work.

The limits of power

Before you run out and buy a Razer Core, there are a few things you should know. Chief among them that it doesn't work with just any ol' computer.

Not only does your laptop need a Thunderbolt 3 port, it needs one that specifically supports external graphics. Not all of them do, and manufacturers generally don't advertise that. There are a lot of laptops with USB-C ports that aren't necessarily Thunderbolt 3 ports -- even though they look identical -- and there are plenty of Thunderbolt 3 ports that don't support the Core either. Like the one on my homebuilt desktop's Gigabyte motherboard, for instance. 

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