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

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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.

razer-core-9550
7.0

Razer Core V2

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.

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

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.

Up close with the Razer Core v2

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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 99Rise of the Tomb Raider (4K High) 2 30 37 65Grand Theft Auto V (1080p Very High) 11 71 93 97Grand Theft Auto V (4K High) 5 43 64 94
  • Stealth
  • Stealth + AMD RX 580
  • Stealth + GTX 1070
  • Stealth + Titan Xp
Notes: 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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One of the (very few) differences between the original Razer Core and the v2 model: a second Intel controller chip so USB devices don't impact GPU performance or vice versa.

Josh Miller/CNET

And even if your machine does support it, you may need to update drivers and even your laptop's BIOS before it'll run.

Thankfully, my own personal Dell XPS 15 is one of those computers that merely required some updates, so I was able to run some apples-to-apples comparisons against Razer's own quad-core Blade Stealth. It worked pretty well:

Laptop vs. laptop: Average frames per second


Stealth + GTX 1070XPS 15 + GTX 1070Stealth + Titan XpXPS 15 + Titan Xp
Rise of the Tomb Raider (1080p High) 8373108106
Rise of the Tomb Raider (1080p Very High) 72629995
Rise of the Tomb Raider (4K High) 37356561
Grand Theft Auto V (1080p High) 102115103122
Grand Theft Auto V (1080p Very High) 939597112
Grand Theft Auto V (4K High) 64609493

As you can see in the benchmarks, your choice of laptop can also determine how effective the Razer Core might be.

On the one hand, the Dell XPS 15's 2.8GHz Core i7-7700HQ is slightly more capable than the Razer Blade Stealth's 1.8GHz Core i7-8550U chip, which sometimes made it faster in Grand Theft Auto V, a game that heavily taxes the CPU. Laptops with less capable CPUs, including Razer's own dual-core version of the Blade Stealth, might take a hit. 

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Also know the Core provides 60 watts of power, max -- enough for thinner laptops, but not to game and charge a Dell XPS 15 at the same time. I had to plug in the power adapter too. 

Josh Miller/CNET

On the other hand, the XPS 15 only has two lanes of PCI-Express bandwidth over Thunderbolt 3 instead of the usual 4, which might explain why the Stealth pulls ahead when playing

Razer Core frame rates with and without external monitor


Stealth + GTX 1070, external monitorStealth + GTX 1070, laptop screenPerformance loss
Rise of the Tomb Raider (1080p High) 837213%
Rise of the Tomb Raider (1080p Very High) 725228%
Grand Theft Auto V (1080p High) 1029111%
Grand Theft Auto V (1080p Very High) 938212%





Stealth + RX580, external monitorStealth + RX580, laptop screenPerformance loss
Rise of the Tomb Raider (1080p High) 64615%
Rise of the Tomb Raider (1080p Very High) 564520%
Grand Theft Auto V (1080p High) 78736%
Grand Theft Auto V (1080p Very High) 71667%

Sound confusing? No kidding -- that's why eGPUs aren't ready to be a mass-market product yet.

And no matter how capable your laptop, you won't get the same performance from your GPU as you would just popping it into a desktop PC.

Desktop vs. eGPU average frames per second

Rise of the Tomb Raider (1080p Very High) Desktop (i5-6600K, PCIe x16)Core + Stealth (i7-8550U, PCIe x4)Performance loss
AMD RX 580 735623%
Nvidia GTX 1070 987227%
Nvidia Titan Xp 1499934%




Rise of the Tomb Raider (4K High) Desktop (i5-6600K, PCIe x16)Core + Stealth (i7-8550U, PCIe x4)Performance loss
AMD RX 580 353014%
Nvidia GTX 1070 433714%
Nvidia Titan Xp 776516%




Grand Theft Auto V (4K High) Desktop (i5-6600K, PCIe x16)Core + Stealth (i7-8550U, PCIe x4)Performance loss
AMD RX 580 564323%
Nvidia GTX 1070 796419%
Nvidia Titan Xp 1239424%

Which means if your laptop already has a reasonably powerful GPU inside, like the GTX 1050 inside my Dell XPS 15, you'll need a far more powerful desktop GPU to see a worthwhile performance gain. As you can see, the AMD RX 580 doesn't always cut it:

XPS 15 performance: Average frames per second

Rise of the Tomb Raider (1080p High) 48 63 73 106Rise of the Tomb Raider (1080p Very High) 40 54 62 95Rise of the Tomb Raider (4K High) 15 30 35 61Grand Theft Auto V (1080p High) 90 79 115 122Grand Theft Auto V (1080p Very High) 67 66 95 112Grand Theft Auto V (4K High) 26 43 60 93
  • Onboard GTX 1050
  • RX 580
  • GTX 1070
  • Titan Xp
Notes: Higher numbers are better. 60+ FPS is optimal.

You should know there's also a penalty for using your laptop's built-in screen, too. To get the best performance, you'll want to game on an external monitor connected directly to the Core's GPU.

Razer Core frame rates with and without external monitor


Stealth + GTX 1070, external monitorStealth + GTX 1070, laptop screenPerformance loss
Rise of the Tomb Raider (1080p High) 837213%
Rise of the Tomb Raider (1080p Very High) 725228%
Grand Theft Auto V (1080p High) 1029111%
Grand Theft Auto V (1080p Very High) 938212%





Stealth + RX580, external monitorStealth + RX580, laptop screenPerformance loss
Rise of the Tomb Raider (1080p High) 64615%
Rise of the Tomb Raider (1080p Very High) 564520%
Grand Theft Auto V (1080p High) 78736%
Grand Theft Auto V (1080p Very High) 71667%

I should also mention that while generally, the Core worked without a hitch -- it never failed a benchmark or booted me out in the middle of a game or task -- there were times it failed to keep the GPU connected when I first plugged it in after a long day at work. I'm not sure why, Razer's not sure why, and we're still investigating.

Tomorrow, not today

I can't recommend the Razer Core for most people, or even most PC gamers. Not yet. But that's mostly not Razer's fault.

The company built a high-quality box that does what it promises -- it's awesome -- but the world just hasn't fully embraced Intel's Thunderbolt 3 standard, and there's no guarantee it will. Thunderbolt 3 is proprietary, and requires that manufacturers buy special controller chips from Intel. Not all PC makers want to foot that bill.

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Connecting to an external monitor helps bring out the improvements made with the Core.

Josh Miller/CNET

So what looks like a futureproof computer today might not be, if your next laptop doesn't have the Thunderbolt 3 port you need to use the Core. And without that certainty, $500 is a lot to ask for the box alone.

Besides, if Thunderbolt 3 does spread further, you can probably expect external GPU enclosures to get more affordable. Even if you added the cost of my homebuilt desktop PC's very nice Lian-Li aluminum case, power supply and motherboard, it didn't add up to $500, and neither do some of the competing eGPU enclosures available today. You're paying for Razer's R&D, design and brand.

But Thunderbolt 3 or no, the Razer Core has proven to me that eGPUs could be a force for change. I wonder if they might even come to video game consoles some day. After all, what is an Xbox One X or a PS4 Pro but an existing console with a newer, more powerful GPU?

Today, I don't believe the Core is a must-have, though it's definitely an awesome option if you can afford the whole set. But at this rate, I'll be surprised if I ever build a desktop PC again.

razer-core-9550
7.0

Razer Core V2

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 8Battery 0Support 0