Some of the best laptops available today feature a dedicated (sometimes called discrete) graphics card (GPU) that can deliver much more performance compared to integrated processor (CPU) graphics. You’ll find a GPU in the majority of high-end gaming laptops, as well as most that are used for development and design work; the extra performance unlocks the ability to use more intensive apps and games, and you can do it all while remaining mobile.
Though a desktop is relatively easy to upgrade, a laptop’s portability comes at the cost of DIY access. You can often upgrade the RAM and storage in a laptop, but upgrading the processor or graphics card isn’t such an easy process. Here’s what you need to know about upgrading the graphics card in a laptop, as well as some workaround solutions for problems you encounter.
Can you upgrade a laptop’s graphics card?
Upgrading a laptop’s internal GPU — like Intel’s integrated Arc or AMD’s Radeon hardware that comes bundled with modern chips — is a non-starter. Integrated GPUs are, well, integrated into the motherboard along with the processor. And since you can’t upgrade a laptop’s processor without completely swapping out the motherboard, the integrated GPU is along for the ride.
Unfortunately, a discrete GPU that has its own VRAM and power profile is still not going to be upgradeable in almost all laptops. Even discrete GPUs come soldered to the board and are designed with a proprietary cooling system that’s built to work with the specific board layout. Have you ever removed the bottom panel of a gaming laptop? What looks like a jumble of wires, ribbons, and heat pipes has actually been carefully arranged to properly fit all the hardware. These laptops aren’t designed with upgrades in mind, and in most cases the easiest way to upgrade your laptop’s GPU is to buy an entirely new laptop.
Are there any laptops with an upgradeable GPU?
Dell’s Alienware Area-51m, a massive gaming laptop with upgradeable graphics, was short-lived. This experiment lasted just one year before Dell unveiled the Alienware Area-51m R2, a refreshed model without any upgradeable parts. The failure resulted in legal action against Dell, and it seemed like the upgradeable gaming laptop dream was over.
However, there is still hope in the form of the Framework Laptop. Framework has been making a name for itself by offering modular 13-inch laptops and Chromebooks with many upgradeable parts. The Framework Laptop 13 is our top pick when it comes to the best upgradeable laptops, but it doesn’t come with the option to configure a discrete GPU.
All hope is not lost. It was announced in March 2023 that Framework is expanding its lineup to include a 16-inch model targeted at gamers. It will come with the usual modules for ports, processor, memory, battery, and more, but it will also come with modular GPUs.
The Framework Laptop 16 still hasn’t officially launched, but pre-orders are open with an expected Q2 2024 release. The DIY edition — the version you can configure yourself from the ground up — is available with up to an AMD Ryzen 9 7940HS CPU, 64GB of DDR5-5600 RAM, dual M.2 SSDs (up to 6TB storage total), and a discrete AMD Radeon RX 7700S GPU. This GPU is swappable, though you will have to buy a compatible module from Framework. Any standard desktop GPU isn’t going to work with the laptop.
Beyond the Framework Laptop, your only real option for adding more graphics power to your laptop is through an external GPU.
What about an external GPU (eGPU)?
External GPUs are a modern (but expensive) workaround to the laptop graphics issue. Say you bought a laptop with a killer CPU but a wimpy or non-existent discrete GPU. There’s no room (or method) inside the laptop for a GPU upgrade, but you don’t want to let the rest of the laptop go to waste.
An external GPU enclosure is built to hold a standalone desktop graphics card — even the best graphics cards — and most connect to your laptop with Thunderbolt 3 or Thunderbolt 4. Some, however, have a proprietary connection to be used with only one brand of laptop, as is the case with the ASUS ROG XG Mobile Unit.
Thunderbolt 5 was announced late-2023, and it’s going to be popping up in laptops released this year. With double the transfer speed and much better bi-directional bandwidth compared to Thunderbolt 4, Thunderbolt 5 could be what sends eGPUs into the mainstream.
The main downside to an eGPU is that it hampers a laptop’s mobility. It’s more difficult to carry a laptop and an eGPU with you, and you’ll most often be leaving the enclosure at home. Still, it’s a handy way to have access to high-performance hardware, reserving lighter games or tasks that can run on the laptop’s internal hardware for when you’re on the go. This applies primarily to gaming laptops, but it can also come in handy if you’re switching fields and don’t want to shell out for one of the best programming laptops or one of the best creators laptops.
The eGPU market is currently sort of stagnating, but that could change as connecting technology advances. Nevertheless, there are a lot of different enclosures out there with different cooling systems, designs, and added features (like a laptop stand). We’ve collected all the best external GPU enclosures in one spot to make buying as easy as possible.
And if you’d like to skip the issues that come with upgrading a laptop, you can always build your own PC and keep it up-to-date as needed. You can always pick up a cheap laptop with a strong Wi-Fi card (or even Ethernet port) and use Windows 11’s Remote Desktop feature for access even when you’re away from your desk.
Razer Core X Chroma
Razer’s Core X Chroma is our top pick when it comes to eGPUs. It’s stylish with customizable RGB lighting, it works with modern GPUs, and it has its own row of ports (with USB-A and Ethernet). It connects with Thunderbolt and has its own 700W PSU to power your favorite discrete GPU.