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CES 2012: Hands-On with MSI's External Thunderbolt Laptop GPU

By Matthew Braga

The GUS II, which stands for Graphics Upgrade Shell, does exactly as the name implies. But there's a catch.

With its renewed interest in ultrabooks—undoubtedly the CES buzzword of 2012—Intel is promising some serious graphical heft. But there’s only some many pixels and polygons a machine of that size can produce. Not everyone wants to choose between power and portability, however, and MSI might have found a way for us to have our cake and eat it too,

The GUS II, which stands for Graphics Upgrade Shell, does exactly as the name implies. The chassis accepts AMD and Nvidia cards, and connects to a Mac or PC via Thunderbolt port. But there's a catch.

MSI demoed the GUS II on a Windows Bootcamped MacBook Pro. This is one of the few machines currently available with Thunderbolt ports, but that’s obviously about to change. The model we saw was running an ATI Radeon 6700, and was being used to power an external display. Thankfully, the GUS II is being sold as a chassis only, which gives end users the choice of AMD or Nvidia cards.

But not just any card will work. MSI says the PCI Express x16 slot can support up to 150 watts of discrete graphics power, which limits the device to just one 6-pin connector. MSI didn't rule out supporting two pin cards in a later hardware revision, though that won't necessarily mean more powerful cards. The bottleneck here is Thunderbolt, which at 10 Gbps, only has enough throughput for 4x PCI Express speeds.

Of course, for all this to work, MSI needs both ATI and Nvidia to cooperate. It's unsure whether either vendor is on board are to produce functional drivers, and even then, the breadth of support for both companies’ line of cards remans to be seen. The GUS II will be released sometime around June—so we should have more details on availability and pricing then.