How To Upgrade Laptop’s Graphics Card

Any expert you ask regarding whether you can upgrade your laptop graphics card is bound to reply in the negative, and they would be mostly correct. Most laptops have an integrated graphics card, which comes as a part of the CPU and thus, you won’t be able to upgrade it.

If your laptop has a discrete graphics card, most likely the GPU chip is soldered to the motherboard. You can’t replace or upgrade such a GPU. Thus, in both the above cases, your only hope for a powerful GPU is to look for an external GPU enclosure.

However, do not give up all hope yet. Some laptop manufacturers adhere to the MXM standard and if you happen to have such a laptop, then your laptop’s graphics card is upgradable. We’ll be talking about the MXM GPUs and how to replace/upgrade them in the article below, so stick around.

Why Would You Need to Upgrade Laptop GPU

Although upgrading a laptop GPU is unusual, it is not entirely unheard of. Some users who went through the process of upgrading their laptop GPU listed the following as some of their reasons for the upgrade:

  • You are a gamer who wants a more powerful GPU to run the latest games.
  • You are not ready to upgrade the entire laptop yet.
  • The GPU is bottlenecking the laptop.
  • You want to switch from a professional grade GPU to a mainstream one, or vice-versa.

Upgrading the GPU

When it comes to upgrading a laptop’s GPU, you basically have two options depending upon your laptop’s GPU. These are:

  1. Getting an external GPU enclosure.
  2. Upgrading the MXM Graphics module.

If your laptop has an MXM GPU, you can opt for any of the above two options. If not, then the external GPU enclosure is your only available upgrade path.

External GPU Enclosure

External GPU Enclosure Razer Core X
External GPU Enclosure: Razer Core X. Source: Razer

If your laptop has an integrated graphics, or a discrete GPU that is soldered to the motherboard, and you wish to upgrade the GPU, then you will need to obtain an external GPU enclosure.

These enclosures are like a small PC casing that is designed to house a desktop-grade GPU, and nothing else. They have a PCIe slot to interface with a compatible GPU of your choosing, and they come with their own power supply and cooling fans. 

You will need either a thunderbolt, or alt-mode USB-C support on your laptop to connect and fully utilize the GPU. 

You will need to procure a suitable desktop graphics card and a compatible external enclosure for this upgrade. If you’re unsure regarding GPU and enclosure suitable for your laptop, there are helpful websites that can suggest you a proper eGPU build.

Thereafter, follow the steps below to install your external GPU.

Preparing for eGPU Installation

  1. Open the enclosure panel (read the provided instructions on how to do this).
    Open Back Panel
  2. Install the GPU on the PCIe slot securely, connect the power cables, and fasten the screw.
  3. Close the enclosure panel.
  4. If needed, update your laptop’s BIOS, thunderbolt firmware, and thunderbolt driver.
  5. Download the drivers for the external GPU.

Installing the eGPU

If the eGPU enclosure can connect to the laptop using thunderbolt interface, either via thunderbolt cable or an alt-mode USB-C, then all you need to do is to connect them using a thunderbolt or USB-C cable. 

  1. Connect the laptop to the eGPU enclosure using the thunderbolt or USB-C cable.
  2. Power on the enclosure as well as laptop.
  3. Once Windows loads, click OK when it prompts that a new connection using thunderbolt has been detected.
    New Thunderbolt Devices Have Been Attached
  4. Select Connect always on the drop down menu in the next window, then select Accept.
    Thunderbolt Always Connect
  5. Press Win + R, then type devmgmt.msc to launch the device manager.
  6. Expand Display adapters. If you previously had a discrete GPU, right-click on it and select Disable device.
  7. Right click on the external graphics adapter, then select Update driver.
  8. Select Browse my computer for drivers. Then navigate to the folder where the current drivers are saved.
  9. Wait for the process to complete, then restart the laptop.

If your laptop is a few generations older, then you might not have a thunderbolt or alt-mode USB-C port in your laptop. However, there might be an ExpressCard slot in the laptop. 

If that’s you, then please know that some device manufacturers provide their own external GPU enclosure that can connect to the laptop via an ExpressCard slot. The Asus XG Station is one such example. 

Asus XG Station
Asus XG Station External GPU Enclosure

In such a case, you will need to procure an external casing for the GPU and a compatible graphics card of your choice and follow the installation procedure that came with the e-GPU casing.

Upgrading the MXM Graphics Module

An MXM GTX 1070 Module

If your laptop has a GPU designed with Mobile PCI Express Module (MXM) interconnect standard, then it can be replaced or upgraded. These cards are rectangular shaped add-on cards that connect to the motherboard using an end-connector, similar to how you’d install a RAM module on the laptop.

Most recent mobile GPUs to implement MXM interconnect standard are: NVidia Geforce GTX 965M, 970M, 980M, 980, 1050 mobile, 1050ti mobile, 1060 mobile (Clevo), 1060 mobile (MSI), 1070 mobile (Clevo), 1070 mobile (MSI), 1080 mobile (Clevo), 1080 mobile (MSI GT73VR and GT83), Geforce RTX 2060 mobile (Clevo), 2070 mobile (Clevo), 2080 mobile (Clevo), Radeon RX 480, Radeon R9 M295X, etc.

If your laptop has one of the above GPUs, then you can probably procure a compatible upgrade from the manufacturer. They can also provide you with the instruction for installation to their specific model of device.

If you are replacing your graphics card, you’ll need to identify the type of your current MXM card. This is important for two reasons:

  1. The physical dimension of the card, which your replacement card should be compatible with.
  2. The power draw of the current card, for which the laptop was designed. If you obtain a replacement card with a higher power draw, you will run into stability issues.

For reference, the following are the MXM generations and types:

MXM (1st Gen):
MXM Type Length Width Power Limit GPU Die Size
MXM-I 68 mm 70 mm 18 W 35 mm2 
MXM-II 78 mm 73  mm 35 W 35 mm2 
MXM-III(HE) 100 mm 82 mm 75 W 40 mm2 
MXM 3.0 (2nd Gen)
MXM Type Length Width Power Limit Memory Lanes
MXM-A 70 mm 82 mm 55 W 64/128 bit
MXM-B 105 mm 82  mm 200 W 256 bit

Please obtain a compatible replacement MXM GPU and follow the manufacturer’s guidelines on how to correctly install it. We’ve also outlined the general guideline below as a reference.

  1. Shut down the laptop and unplug it.
  2. Remove the battery and the back panel.
    Remove Battery
  3. Remove the CPU and GPU heatsinks using a suitable screwdriver. They might be stuck due to thermal paste, in which case gently rock them to pry them apart.remove heat sink
  4. Remove the two hex-nuts from the MXM module using a suitable tool. Once this is done, the MXM module should angle slightly upwards.
  5. Pull the old MXM module out of its slot.
  6. Align and install the upgrade MXM module by pressing it gently to the slot, then fasten the hex screws.
  7. Clean the old thermal paste off the heatsinks using 90% isopropyl solution and a clean cloth. Also clean the CPU IHS.
  8. Apply thermal paste to the CPU IHS and GPU die on the MXM module.
    how much thermal paste on cpu
  9. Attach the CPU and GPU heatsinks carefully and fasten the screws.
  10. Attach the laptop’s battery and back panel.
  11. Plug the laptop charger and turn on the laptop.
  12. Launch device manager and install appropriate drivers for the updated GPU.
  13. Restart the laptop.

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