Thoughts on MXM GPUs

Laptops with removable GPUs!?!?!?

08 Feb 2017
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A desktop PC is very great in terms of customisation and the sheer flexibility that it has. A person who owns a desktop PC could easily replace the parts of it with whatever they want, with just a little bit of compatibility-considerations. With the help of standards that are already the norm for years, this makes a desktop PC’s shelf life to be extended greatly.

 The term “integrated graphics” used in this blog post refers to discrete/dedicated GPUs which are soldered directly on the motherboard.


It is quite irritating when realising that something you have newly bought doesn’t fit into the socket that you intend to stick it into. Imagine ignorantly buying an electronic appliance only to know that when you reached home, the plug is not insertable with the socket that you have. Hence forcing you to find an adapter or some sort that would remedy the issue of sticking the appliance into the freaking socket.

Take yourself back to the good old feature phones days… Remember how it was an issue to charge your Nokia phone at a friend’s that had a Sony Ericsson’s charger? Remember how you can’t use the same headphones with another phone? (cough Nokia’s slightly smaller jack, and SE’s all-in-one pins). Good thing that this issue is now in the past, thanks to the adoption of the USB standards and the proper 3.5mm jack (by the way, 3.5mm is commonly used, not really a standard), we now have no problems in charging our phones with a friend’s charger, or listen to music with the same headphones that you use anything else. You can even transfer files back and forth easily between your smartphone and a PC. Sadly, there is still something on this world that still does proprietary stuff. It’s Apple and their products. Another reason why I hate their products. But we are not going to talk about that.

Now look at/in a desktop PC. Everything inside the CPU rig is well standardised. The boards, the sockets, the pins on stuff, they are all made with compatibility in mind. Most of the time where a particular component is incompatible, it would only because of the different generation for that particular technology. You can always upgrade your RAM, so long that the RAM stick you are going to mount is the same of type (e.g. DDR4). PC not being able to take on latest game franchises? Buy yourself a new GPU and then replace the old one. Yay PCIe! Your PSU suddenly explodes? Worry not, install a new one — This basically means that you can roll on with the same PC for years (future-proofing, just so they say) until a newer technological breakthrough interests you, or the one you are using is becoming obsolete.

That’s the wonder of a desktop PC, the fact that it is modular makes it easy to manage and replace its parts. Its life would be greatly extended because of this single perk.

A younger brethren who falls short

What is something with a clam-like design that can do stuff like a desktop PC would? Tadaa, a laptop. Generally speaking, a laptop is mostly similar to a desktop PC in terms of use, but its main difference between is that portability (duh).

For some (including me), they prefer to have something that can do most of stuff at once, while also being conveniently available at all times. This is where a laptop comes in handy. I can use it and bring it anywhere I wish. I can do my work, assignments with it without any hurdles, I can game on it when I am at my grandparent’s. I can handle this website at a friend’s. I can rely on a single machine for everything I wish to do.

Now, a little bit of my personal story; I was grown up with a desktop PC. It is still at my home, although it is not used anymore. The motherboard was fried because of a thunderstorm. It was a desktop PC that sports a Pentium 4, of which I don’t remember its model, 256MB RAM, 60GB PATA HDD, and ATI integrated graphics. I remember how it performed ultra badly with GTA: San Andreas! The specs hasn’t always been like that, actually. My father upgraded the RAM and the HDD to a larger one. I used the PC a lot, and it contributed so much to my interest on computers. I respect the PC so much. However, my true preference changed when I saw my father bringing home a work laptop. That was the first time I lay sight on a machine which looked interesting. It had a screen attached to it, it had a keyboard, a trackpad, and speakers… Made me amazed that something I like has a portable form-factor! It was a Vaio laptop. After that day, my love towards laptops grows exponentially. I always find myself using the laptop without permission, as the feeling was awesome. The performance was worse than my PC though, but it could be because of the Windows Vista, but I like it anyway! I also often looks at tech magazines which feature laptops.

Fast forward to the recent future, I received my first ever personal laptop from a friend. Managed to repair the screen and bought myself a new charger since the battery was no longer functional. It is sufficient enough for me to do stuff like office-documents and website management, while also only capable to play Counter Strike: Source, which was enough for me as I realise the limitation of my hardware. As time passes, I am started to feel limitted, especially with the slow Intel processor that it has. I managed to replace it and then satisfied with the little performance boost on my game and the overall browsing experience. However, to only able to play CS:S only makes me feel like less of a gamer. I am completely aware that I can’t replace the GPU which is directly soldered on the motherboard. Which made me wonder, why must it be like this? I wondered why there is not any attempt to make GPUs removable for laptop devices.

Wrong, wrong am I

It’s 2017, 2 years since I first own the old Inspiron laptop, I heard about the MXM GPUs for laptops. Initially, I thought this is a new development, to my surprise when I did a little research, it is an initiative since 2004 by Nvidia.

Gists of pros and cons

Since MXM provides a common socket for GPUs, this allows consumers to easily replace their GPU whenever they feel like it, without having to completely replace the whole system (or board), or relying on proprietary vendor to shell out a newer component. In terms of hardware failure, for example if the GPU fails, this would help as the only thing that needs to be done is to replace the faulty GPU with a working, functional one. For laptop designers, designing a laptop would be a less of a hassle as they don’t have to design different graphics implementation for different laptop.

Apart from that, it could reduce cost for both the consumer and the manufacturer alike. Same as the example given above, the manufacturer do not need to manufacture a lot of motherboards and instead produce only the MXM GPU for that particular line of laptops. For consumers, this means they do not need to invest a lot in order to get their laptop fixed as they would only have to spend on a replacement GPU instead of the whole motherboard.

Unfortunately, MXM has multiple versions and may not work interchangably with different laptop models, although, this is not completely impossible. Additionally, an issue of heatsink would be a barrier for a user, since the position of the GPU’s die and other components would be different from card to card. If the manufacturer provides an upgrade kit complete with a new heatsink assembly for the consumers, then this would not be a problem. Otherwise you may need to do DIY heatsink repositioning (yikes!) which could go wrong in many ways!

vBIOS support also plays an important factor. If your BIOS does not support the vBIOS of a particular MXM GPU, this means that the MXM GPU will not work on your system.

We haven’t even touch about MXM GPU availability! Upon some search on popular stores, the availability of MXM GPUs for purchase are very, very low. I only managed to find 6 on newegg and 2 to none for other online shops. This does a huge impact on the idea of upgradability, since you just cannot go around and buy a card of wish for you to use. For repairs, you may need to rely on the customer service to replace it for you. Fortunately, some manufacturers do provide upgrade kits for a set of laptops. If yours doesn’t, then chances to upgrade are close to none.

MXM standards would also limit a laptop designer’s goal to minimise bulk and make use of available space in the laptop, so that a slimmer form-factor is achievable. Laptops are well known for getting slimmer as time passes. The reason for this limitation is because an extra space needs to be spared for the MXM GPU. If a GPU is directly soldered on the motherboard, the difference in the height of the laptop is noticeable.

My thoughts on this

From the looks of it, the momentum that MXM standard has are from the lines of laptops made by Clevo, and Clevo-based laptops, MSI, Alienware by Dell, along with a hefty number of gaming entry laptops. There has been a number of regular(?) laptops with MXM socket, however that was years ago and even so, there were actually a few of them. What I can speculate here would be that the MXM standard is far or impossible for a complete adoption, given of how laptops are made to be slimmer in shape. Fortunately, the death of MXM is not possible, as manufacturers whom produces gaming laptops use such standards on their products.

The dream is still far from reality though, this is because most manufacturers today although ship laptops that have MXM compatibility, most of them do not really offer many upgrade options to the end consumer, but replacements so that broken module could be replaced with a newer one. Add with the low number of available cards for purchase, this makes the situation worse as the consumers have little to no option for a DIY upgrade, and have to rely on the manufacturer to provide an upgrade kit, that is, assuming the manufacturer does so.

Technical limitations would kill the dream too. Since a single MXM GPU may not work for all laptops, either because of different types or no vBIOS support, this greatly bottlenecks the options that a consumer has.

Nightmares aside, I really do hope that this standard is considered by laptop manufacturers, as it is a great idea to level up the playing field between laptops and desktops. I don’t want to provoke a war between desktop vs laptop, in fact, I am aware that desktops perform better than a laptop in many cases. It is just that, I favour laptops because of their portability, but I am saddened with the hardware limitation that I have to accept and content with. If this initiative was adopted by manufacturers years ago, I think the laptop’s current situation would be different drastically, and the laptop gamers community would appreciate the change in norm. Yes, if a manufacturer wants to produce slimmer laptops, they could just go on and slap a GPU right on the motherboard, while also providing laptops with MXM GPU support as a separate line.

If you are wondering if you should buy a laptop with MXM GPU support or not, the choice is really yours, really. If you are looking forward for upgradability, find a product which offers upgrade kits or upgrade support. From my online-search-abouts, MSI seems to be taking the cake on this one. But please make sure for yourself. Otherwise, it might be just better to go on with a normal integrated graphics laptop. If you would like to keep the momentum going and is fine with a slightly thicker laptop, then going for an MXM-compatible laptop is an option, that is, if it is available for sale.

I can’t wait for the day when I can see a large numbers of MXM GPUs available for purchase and easy to install!

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