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It was already known that the Nvidia GeForce GTX 280M was less powerful than the desktop version, because it used the older graphics core (very similar to that of the 9800M GTX+) and not the newer one found in the GTX 280. The guys at Tom’s Hardware have actually measured the difference. Long story short: it is a 40% slower, but click the link if you want to see the difference in several games and settings.
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External graphics cards for laptops have always been interesting: they offer an easy way to upgrade the graphics card, a task that is impossible in most laptops, and they allow to combine a long battery life when traveling with a good graphical performance at home. But the fact is that the success of this devices has been very limited: products such as the Asus XG Station had limited availability and only in Australia, and others like the Magma ExpressBox have an insane pricing (729 USD the cheapest box, and without the actual graphics card!). But I have recently found an interesting alternative: the ViDock 2.
It is a box that houses a desktop graphics card, currently an ATI Radeon HD 4670 (512 MB DDR3), and it is plugged in the ExpressCard slot of the laptop. While the bandwidth of the ExpressCard 2.0 slot is narrower than that of a 16x PCIe slot, I have been told that the performance via the ExpressCard slot is only 7% lower than via the 16x PCIe slot. It seems logical, because the Radeon HD 4670 is a mainstream card that does not need as much bandwidth as high-end cards like a Radeon HD 4890 or a GeForce GTX 285. It has 2 DVI ports and 1 USB so, if you plug a USB hub in, the ViDock 2 becomes a true docking station.
Here you have the demo video:
The price of the ViDock 2 with the ATI Radeon HD 4670 de 512 MB is 309 USD at Xotic PC. What kind of performance do you get for the price? According to the official specifications, a laptop with an Intel Core 2 Duo T7250 (2 GHz) scores 6349 in 3DMark 06 (1280×1024), while a GeForce 9600M GT GDDR3 with a similar processor (Intel Core 2 Duo P7350 2 GHz) scores 5128.
All in all, I think it is a very interesting possibility if you have a light laptop with a weak graphics card as your only computer, because you can enjoy a long battery life when on the move and a good 3D performance at home, but if you need 3D performance on the go and you use a small laptop, you probably do not want to carry this box (in spite of not being a big one). If you have a desktop computer or a laptop with a powerful graphics card (GeForce 9700M GTS, Mobility Radeon HD 4650 or similar) the ViDock 2 is not very worthy, but the possibility of driving multiple monitors is still interesting. It can be a good investment to upgrade an older laptop: while it is relatively expensive, it is much cheaper than a new powerful laptop, if the rest of the components of the laptop are OK and you only need more 3D performance, go for it.
The ViDock 2 seems to have some compatibility problems: under Windows Vista you can only use it if the laptop has ATI graphics, because this operating system can use only single display driver at a time. There is an Nvidia solution in development.