Should you run an eGPU with the Surface Laptop Studio? You can, but not without some headaches

Surface Laptop Studio Egpu Razer Core
Surface Laptop Studio Egpu Razer Core (Image credit: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central)

One of the cool things about having a lot of technology lying around is trying new setups that push extremes. With Surface Laptop Studio and two Thunderbolt 4 ports, the question of using an external GPU (eGPU) now becomes relevant.

The good news is it technically works, but the bad news is you could also run into issues, especially if you overcomplicate things. None of this applies to Surface Pro 8 (which I'll be doing a separate article on later), but here is what you need to know for now.

Razer Cortex X plus RTX 3080 GPU is wild

The first thing I re-learned about an eGPU is that 40Gbps is a lot, but it does have a ceiling. The ideal setup, which also makes the most sense, is to run an external display from the eGPU. Many people know that if you just run the eGPU without an external display, it needs to send the data back and forth to the Surface Laptop Studio, which reduces performance even more.

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

On the old Razer Core from 2016, you get four USB Type-A ports and an Ethernet. Its age notwithstanding, the Razer Core is tiny, and I like those ports. I tossed an RTX 2080Ti in it, and it worked. But the 500W power supply (375W GPU max power) was not enough to handle a wired mouse, keyboard, microphone, and webcam, some of which had RGB lighting. The result was some stuttering and the OS dropping and reconnecting some of the accessories.

I then swapped it out for the Razer Core X ($400). That has a 650W power supply (500W for GPU), and it could fit my RTX 3080, which was nice. It's also tremendously girthy at more than twice the width of Raze Core (232mm vs. 105mm) and weighs 14.2lbs (6.48kg) without the GPU installed. It's a chonky boi.

The downside with Razer Core X is it has no external ports, which I needed for my accessories.

Enter Kensington's new SD5750T Thunderbolt 4 Surface dock, which is simply delightful — I'll be reviewing this soon as well. I plugged it into the second Thunderbolt 4 port on Surface Laptop Studio, and suddenly I could plug in all my accessories while the Razer Core X handled the GPU and display output.

(Razer also sells the Core X Chroma ($500), which, yes, adds RGB lights, but also brings back those four Type-A ports, Ethernet, and bumps the PSU to 700W.)

Source: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central)

This setup with an eGPU and TB4 dock worked well enough for our recent podcast. It's fast, too, as even with a quad-core CPU, that 3080 makes it a powerful rig.

The issues I had were just minor bugs when I disconnected and reconnected. I've had this problem before with laptops that already have an NVIDIA GPU on board, which is that sometimes the eGPU and the OS get a bit confused loading and unloading drivers.

The point is: For the most part, the setup was working, until my Laptop Studio's internal RTX A2000 GPU got the dreaded exclamation point (!) under Device Manager. I attempted to uninstall and reinstall those drivers, but that is where the real problem began.

Losing all graphics

Upon rebooting to install the NVIDIA display driver, the Surface Laptop Studio effectively blanked out after the Surface logo loaded. I tried a few recovery attempts but opted not to bother with command-line fixes because I had other things to do.

I ended up using a recovery USB and reinstalled Windows 11. Twice.

You see, I tried to do this setup again this morning to see if it was a fluke, and it was not.

Now, is it because I was running a Thunderbolt 4 dock and an eGPU? I don't know. As I said, there were a lot of moving parts here. I'm unsure why Surface Laptop Studio didn't default to the Intel Iris Xe GPU, either.

Of course, I could have micro-managed the GPUs through NVIDIA Control Panel, but to me, this defeats the purpose.

Is an eGPU and Surface Laptop Studio practical?

Source: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central)

The bigger question I have is: Who is even going to try this wild setup? If you bought the Surface Laptop Studio with an RTX 3050 Ti, do you need an eGPU? I mean, sure, it's nice, but it doesn't seem very practical.

You're going to drop $400 on the Razor Core X and at least $1,000 (in today's prices) for an RTX 3070 just to make the upgrade worth it. And may your wallets be deep if you want an RTX 3080 or 3090, which push in the $2,000 to $3,000 ranges due to high demand.

Toss in another $350 if you want an excellent Thunderbolt 4 dock in the event you care about adding wired accessories, too.

Some advanced math also needs to be done as eGPUs can shave off around 20% of performance on that GPU. So an RTX 3070 behaves more like a 3060. You also need to factor in the Surface Laptop Studio's quad-core chip versus a proper desktop one. While Surface Laptop Studio earned 11,265 on 3DMark's Time Spy with an RTX 3080 eGPU, that same RTX 3080, when paired in the HP OMEN 30L and a Core i9-10900K, earned a whopping 16,470.

Source: Harish Jonnalagadda / Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Harish Jonnalagadda / Windows Central)

I don't see this as a sensible use of resources, but that's me.

Now, Surface Pro 8 is different, and so far, it's working quite well (but I need to do much more testing). I think an eGPU case for Surface Pro 8 makes much more sense since that device only has Intel Iris Xe. Even adding a 1080 Ti or something in the 20xx series would be a huge performance bump. I'll be doing a separate article on that, including my setup and experience.

I will say, the Kensington dock, so far, is the "keep it simple, stupid" approach. One cable and everything has been working beautifully on Surface Pro 8 and Surface Laptop Studio. I think for most people using this kind of dock, it's the setup most will go for, and for good reasons: It's much cheaper, easier, and works every time. I can see myself using this as my daily desktop driver, and I plan to do just that.

As far as an eGPU, for me, they still fall into that category of it's so cool!, but very few people get one. A strong argument is made for just getting a darn gaming desktop for $1,400 to $3,500 (depending on the high-end GPU you get). You score more ports, a larger PSU, better thermals, and it's just more straightforward.

What about you? Do you plan on going the route of eGPU, Thunderbolt dock, or risk everything and go for both?

Daniel Rubino

Daniel Rubino is the Editor-in-chief of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been here covering Microsoft since 2007 when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, Microsoft Surface, laptops, next-gen computing, and for some reason, watches. Before all this tech stuff, he worked on a Ph.D. in linguistics and ran the projectors at movie theaters, which has done absolutely nothing for his career.

  • No sane person would use an eGPU with the laptop studio. Nice to see someone try though.
  • Unless that person ordered the base model Laptop Studio without dGPU, and already has an eGPU set up anyway (raises hand)
  • Ah yeah, sorry, in that situation definitely. It was mainly in relation to the article as they were using a SLS with a discrete GPU.
  • Good point! That's a very good use case and I'm sure would work just fine. That's actually a great idea.
  • Looking forward to hearing about your experiences with the Surface Pro 8 and eGPU... The SP8 is the first Surface Pro I've considered buying, thanks to TB4. I'm currently running an old desktop build with a GTX 970... Very painful nowadays, especially on my 34" ultra wide monitor. I also do not currently have a laptop (I sold my Surface Book 2 because it underwhelmed me and I needed a new set of golf clubs). So, here I am in need of a portable device AND a new gaming rig. The only problem is that I cannot afford both another PC build and a separate laptop. What I've seriously contemplated lately is picking up the SP8 along with an eGPU. Seems like the perfect solution for me. Gaming at home, and work and guitar music on the go. I know the cost will definitely add up, but now it's a serious option for me that I wouldn't have even considered in the past.
  • So far, it's been great. I'll get benchmarks and some gaming stats for it. Will take a few days of testing. I'm also doing the SSD upgrade article as I'm bumping this one to 1TB.
  • You probably should look at something with 8 cores if you want to game, 4 cores is not a great idea. Maybe you should look at the Asus RoG X Flow 13, this laptop has costum connector that can deliver 8x lanes of PCIe 3.0 instead of 4x lanes that TB4 can do and it has 8 cores.
  • I suppose It depends, if you already have a egpu unit. Or you need the portability of a laptop with somewhat more powerful graphics later. However, that would have made sense in the pre-pandemic era. Now, it really doesn't given the prices of GPUs is still nuts. Ram, CPU, motherboards on the other hand seem pretty much steady now. Personally, there aren't many laptops that offer flexibility and upgradeability. Only Framework are going for hell for leather on flexibility, upgradeability and repairability. However, as they are a small OEM they don't have Ryzen options yet. So, I'm sticking to a desktop as you can easily swap out parts. Unlike on alaptop you have limited options - especially if the OEM has the soldered ram, cpu and gpu. Not to mention if one the thunderbolt ports for example develops an issue and stops working. If a laptop only has two or three... You become even more limited.
  • This is part of why I still don't get the SLS. The price starts so high, and you're pretty limited on how high you can configure the dGPU. I couldn't imagine wanting to buy it with the 3050Ti and then buying an eGPU, given getting something faster is going to run probably $1,200+ (between buying a card and an enclosure). With just the iGPU, this setup makes more sense, but it's STILL going to be quite pricey on the whole. Regarding the dual-nVidia clunkiness, can you manage this from the BIOS? If it allows, I would see if you can disable the 3050Ti to force the device over to the iGPU and see if it behaves better. Then again, with as shoddy as the drivers were switching between the SB's iGPU and dGPU for some, I'm not sure how much more behaved the system would be anyway.
  • Before the SP8 came out with TB4, I was seeing plenty of online moaners complaining about the SP6 and SP7 not having Thunderbolt and no eGPU support. Not many of those commenters actually went out and bought an eGPU casing and a GPU. It was and still is so much easier and cheaper to buy a gaming laptop or make a gaming desktop with a discrete GPU. If you can splurge for a high end eGPU solution, you're better off buying a high-spec Laptop Studio in the first place. If you're using a SP8 as a mobile 3D workstation, then you're using the wrong tools.
  • The win for me is having a single device that has all my files, applications, accounts, etc. AND all the context of things that I'm working on, wherever I am. For many years prior to the Surface I had a desktop for gaming and serious workloads and a MacBook (polycarbonate & then unibody) for portability and it annoyed me constantly having to copy things back and forth and then get my 'environment' set up and synced between the two before I could start work. When the original Surface Pro arrived I started seriously transitioning to a single device and with the SP3 I went all in. It's been awesome, one device, very portable, and I can pick up whatever I'm doing instantly wherever I am; software development, drawing/digital art, photo & video editing, writing, notetaking/doodling and more. The only thing I wish I had is:
    1. full speed nvme external drives for editing photos, videos, loading VM images, etc.
    2. a bit more power when doing 4k video rendering & heavier video editing
    3. the ability to play a recent-ish game on occasion
    All of those are enabled by TB4 while keeping everything else that I love about the Surface and having a single device
  • Yeah, I will say using Pro 8 with an eGPU is quite a lot of fun and really makes it a unique device to have for those reasons you mention. Throwing in a 1TB SSD and getting the 4G LTE model could really be the single PC I need for my life/work balance.
  • For me the issue has been availability of enclosures and then availability of GPU's. I still want to get one as it will just drastically improve the speed of my pre-vis software (and give me access to better gaming while I'm cooped up in hotels, but then again now that Cloud Streaming is on PC here that is less of an issue), but it's an expense I need to hold off on for now.
  • An Egpu is the only way to go. I had a sp3 I loved and held out for a long time for the new SP to have thunderbolt. I sold all the components but my gpu and hdds to my gaming rig and the sp3. Bought a Lenovo Yoga and the enclosure and haven’t looked back. It’s been fantastic. If I was young and wreck less with my money again I’d sell my Lenovo and get a sp8 without blinking. I understand this article is about the sls. But that device isnt for me. But the sp8 is
  • Hey Dan, I wrote this for you and the WC readers :) Guide to installing a NVIDIA Desktop Graphics eGPU on Surface Laptop Studio Installing the wrong drivers can cause the SLS NVIDIA GPU to crap out and not boot at all, so care must be taken when installing a NVIDIA eGPU so that the 3050 Ti doesn't get configured with the wrong drivers and settings so it will not boot. If you do the wrong thing, you can put your SLS in a state that you literally have to re-install windows.
    To avoid this, use a system restore point in case you make a mistake and follow this guide closely. If you follow this guide your eGPU will work and you can switch back and forth easily between the two GPUs at will and without issue. One rule for this guide... NEVER LET THE NVIDIA installer ACTUALLY install anything... you will do it manually in all cases in this guide. SECTION 1!: BEFORE DOING ANY OF THIS! Create a System Restore point (Hit windows button and type "Create a system restore point"... follow the steps there) If you get the black screen of death, your computer eventually boots into recovery mode and you can choose to restore from that restore point in that menu. SECTION 2: UPDATING YOUR 3050 Ti to the latest Drivers Create a System Restore Point Download NVIDIA drivers RTX 30 series (Notebook) (496.13) Start Installer, let it finish extracting it will create a folder (C:\NVIDIA) Copy the C:\NVIDIA folder and paste it... rename the copy to C:\NVIDIA-Notebook Close the installer... (It will delete all the files in C:\nvidia which is why we copied them into the new folder! Open the device manager, go to display adapters and click on properties on the 3050 ti go to the driver tab and click update driver, Click "Browse for drivers on my computer" Click "Let me pick from a list of available drivers on my computer". Click "Have Disk" option to go to the files in the C:\NVIDIA-Notebook\DisplayDriver\496.13\Win11_Win10-DCH_64\International\Display.Driver folder and select the first 3050 ti laptop option. Once the driver is installed, make sure it is showing in the device manager OK and reboot. SECTION 3:SETTING UP THE NVIDIA eGPU NOW THAT THE 3050 TI is setup on the 496.13 driver, we can now get the driver for the eGPU running on the same version Plug in eGPU and plug it into the SLS Open the device manager, Under Display adapters it will say "Microsoft Basic Display Adapter" Go back to NVIDIA and download the NVIDIA drivers RTX 30 Series NON-NOTEBOOK (496.13) Start this installer and let it extract.. DO NOT Click "agree and continue" While the installer is open find the C:\NVIDIA folder and copy it and paste it rename it to C:\NVIDIA-Desktop Close the NVIDIA installer without letting it run. Go back to the Device manager, go to the properties of the "Microsoft Basic Display Adapter" Go to the driver tab and hit "update driver" Click "browse for drivers on my computer" Click "Let me pick from a list of available drivers on my computer" Click "Have Disk" Navigate to the folder C:\NVIDIA-Desktop\DisplayDriver\496.13\Win11_Win10-DCH_64\International\Display.Driver Choose the right driver for your device here, it will most likely find it automatically rather than having to choose for the eGPU here. You should now see both the 3050 Ti and the additional NVIDIA eGPU on and working in the device manager. Shut down your computer at this point. SECTION 4: Daily Usage eGPU Connection Procedure: While off, plug in eGPU Power on and boot into windows Open device manager and disable the 3050 Ti (not necessary, but it can run choppy if you don't do this) eGPU Disconnect Procedure: Open device manager, re-enable the 3050 Ti Shut down the PC Disconnect the eGPU Reboot into Windows Again, Never let the NVIDIA installer run as it seems to mess up the configuration and you might render your SLS unbootable and it will go into recovery mode... (this is why you create the restore point before messing with this :)) Hope this helps!