Tech Upgrade?

My "daily driver" machine is up for a refresh, my XPS 13 is almost 3 years old. Since I got it the world has changed significantly. When I got it I was;

  1. Working in an office, taking regular holidays, so mobility was important
  2. Crippled, unable to do much more than lie down, so having a small machine I could chuck on my lap was key

The XPS ticked all the boxes. The eGPU was, in retrospect, not such a good idea. I now do 90% of my gaming on the Switch, and the laptop is used for productivity/video editing etc. The eGPU had a whiny fan, so I didn't really use it, and ultimately it's been "filed" away.

In a post-covid world the XPS now spends most of it's time plugged into my desk setup (which was bought as my back started to improve, and sitting in an office chair was the best thing I could do). This relies heavily on Thunderbolt 3...the laptop sits on a stand, and then a single cable provides power and links it into a CalDigit TB3 hub, which allows me to have a nice clean desk while also running multiple webcams, microphones, a 2Tb HDD and the display output to the 35" UltraWide monitor. It's a setup that really works for me...when I want to move the laptop it's a single cable to connect/unconnect.

With the new "mainly work from home" world upon us (well, for me at least), I now have a tech-upgrade quandry. I was looking at the new Intel gen11 laptops announced yesterday, and started working out a list of what I'd like/need.

1) Portability - this was number 1 3 years ago, however I think it's now less important. The XPS13 is still a very capable laptop, and I replaced the battery in February, so it's proabably good as a thin-n-light for the next 3 years at least for productivity work. The only time I test it is video rendering and big Excel work.

2) Thunderbolt connectivity - my desk ecosystem is very reliant on the single-cable ability of this...and very frustratingly AMD-based machines have not adpoted it (even though Intel have open-sourced the standard).

3) While I probably wouldn't use an RTX card for gaming too much, some of the features they support would be super-useful. I recently won a company-wide award for demonstrating how a remote presentation on Teams/Zoom (pick video-conferencing softare here) can be made more compelling and engaging by using some tech (long story short, I've recommended that we set up some green-screen studios in our offices...sales and training are super-keen after I did a presentation to the board called "How to be more like Carol Kirkwood"). Rendering out video using an NVENC hardware-encoder would also be super-useful for both streaming/presenting and video rendering.

4) Acoustics - this has gone way up in the requirements. If there is one thing I don't miss about offices, it's the constant air-con whine. The XPS is a very quiet machine, and I don't really want to introduce a noisy box into my pleasant, calm working environment.

In a normal world, the answer would be easy.

"Pete, buy an AMD desktop with an RTX 3060/3070 and a Thunderbolt add-in card, then slap some big slow fans in there, or get an AIO water cooler to keep it quiet"

Which would absolutely make sense. If I could buy at RRP then I could get a very powerful machine for significantly less than a thin-n-light laptop with a dGPU, and then use the XPS13 as a mobile machine. The crazy world that we currently have means that the desktop may be more expensive than a laptop...and this will probably continue into 2022.

My gut feel is to hold off and get a desktop when the prices return to somewhere near normal. I don't need bleeding-edge hardware, and the XPS is "good enough" for now.


You may have already thought about it, but you do have an option that could allow you to dodge the current GPU price craziness.

You still have a perfectly good gaming card hiding away in your eGPU enclosure, waiting to be set free!
See this Tom's Hardware article on harvesting enclosure cards
A GTX1080 is still a solid 1080p gaming card (I still run a GTX1070 for my gaming and VR).
The article does point out they have oversized coolers which you may want\need to replace, but that could be a good excuse for a quieter cooler project.

This gives you the option to upgrade everything else and then pick up a suitable GPU when prices stabilise.

However, if what you have now is working just fine, and the RTX features are the main thing you are after; waiting would be the sensible option.

Bigger Rob's picture

I had thought about die-casng it, but it doesn't have the Broadcast features. I could probably just re-plug it into the TB3 hub and try and hide it somewhere quiet (I have a 1m active TB3 cable). I was thinking about using the 1080 to replace the 760ti Rob donates that died, but I got a 1660 for a decent price instead which is probably acoustically quieter as well.

babychaos's picture

Still looking, and somewhat gone off building my own desktop. The prices for desktop components right now are terrible, and I don't think they are going to improve in the near future. I'm more and more coming over to the fact that I may have to move away from Thunderbolt...which is a shame. I did a list of everything currently plugged in;

  • 2Tb HDD (USB3)
  • Webcam (USB-C)
  • Keyboard and Mouse (USB3 x 2)
  • Monitor (HDMI or DP)
  • Microphone (USB3)
  • Wide-angle Camera (USB2)
  • Ethernet
  • +power delivery (100w)

I can get most of this via USB-C using a replacement dock, which adds ~£200 onto the "cost" of the laptop, but it does open up my choices.

The 2 on my radar are;
1) Asus Zephyrus G14 - comes with a 5800 CPU and 3060 (80w max) GPU in a 1.7kg frame, and a FHD 120Hz screen.
2) Razer Blade 14 - comes with a 5900 CPU and a 3060 (100w max), or for more wonga a 3070 and a QHD (1440p) screen. Slightly heavier at 1.75kg. There is a 3080 model, but it's remarkably expensive, and (IMHO) not worth it.

I have always liked Razers laptops...never quite enough to pay the premium of getting one, but they consistently review well, and look mean. I have ~£300 of Amazon vouchers, so can (roughly) get the 3070/QHD model for the price of the 3060/FHD one. I still have to pay the £200 docking tax, but it is bonus time (which is why I'm normally buying laptops around now). One benefit the Razers have is that they are available to buy! Another big benefit of the Razer is that it has a webcam with Windows Hello (which I've had for 3 years now, and not sure I could live without it).

Looking at benchmarks, the 3070 is approximately (based on Timespy scores) 20X more powerful than my current XPS13 when 3D stuff is being thrown around. The processors are a world apart (the XPS has a 4core/8thread i7, compared to the 8core/16thread AMD beast, which also has a lower power draw). The XPS is lighter (1.25kg), but 500g is not that much. The XPS has a 4k screen, however I nearly always run in 1080p resolution to preserve battery life, and make sure UI's are readale as not all of them scale! It's a significant upgrade, and feels like 3 years worth of future-proofing.

What I'd really like is for a 32GB memory version, and (ideally) a taller 16:10 screen...neither of the 14" front-runners offer that though.

//added about an hour later - Razer Blade 14 3070 model ordered.

babychaos's picture

NIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIICE! I could read your convincing yourself during that post :D

brainwipe's picture

Yes, that was pretty much the mornings internal conversation.

If I'm ever in the office with a super-important meeting, I can turn on full unicorn rainbow vomit mode to be taken _really_ seriously.

babychaos's picture

I've had a few Razer laptops over the years my current one is a 2070 based 14" FHD Razer from a few years back (think I got it for my Aus/Nz trip) and I've always found them to be well made and reliable the downside being they're expensive. It used to be in terms of power to weight ratio they couldn't be beat being the lightest slimmest gaming laptops on the market although more outfits have gotten into that area in intervening years so there are a lot of good options these days.

Components these days are getting ridiculously expensive and hard to get partly due to all those crypto miners driving up prices and partly due to the current semiconductor shortages. I was surprised to see the other day Tom's Hardware one of the old school pc building and component review sites recommending going prebuild just because of availability and price issues. You or I can't get a 30 series graphics card for less than double or triple the price plus a lengthy wait but Dell or Razer are getting first dibs. Now it looks like those same crypto people are going to move into taking all the SSD's as well as all the graphics cards :S

Evilmatt's picture

I did spec up a desktop, using an RTX3060 from Scan (who are selling them as part of bundles with CPU's...their cost is above MSRP, but below scalper-ville pricing). Taking into acount that laptop parts are typically about 20-30% lower performance than the same named desktop part (3070 laptop to 3070 desktop, 5900 desktop to 5900 laptop etc etc), the pricing came in pretty similar (about £2000 for a upper-middle end machine, which is where I tend to aim for a 3-4 year relevance lifespan). I just find that laptops have more useable longevity (if less upgradability), as a 3year-old laptop has far more uses than a 3 year old desktop. I still use my 6 year old Cyberpower machine as a DVR (screencapping video feeds to store on Plex, for example). The XPS will be useful for years to come as an extra screen, a travel machine etc etc. It's had it's battery replaced, so is good for 10-11 hours at a time, and (probably unlike the Razer) it can happily charge from a 30w USB-C connector. I just miss the grunt sometimes which hopefully the Razer will have in buckets.

babychaos's picture

Well that was fast...installing stuff now.

babychaos's picture

Bloody hell that was fast. I'm currently saving up for some replacement bits. Not because mine (Beaker) is especially slow but Bunsen (Felix's) is a little long in the tooth and struggles on some games. His GFX card isn't too bad but the rest of it needs work. I'll prolly mostly make a new one for me and hand me down the bits.

brainwipe's picture

So first round of benchmarks are done. I probably won't swap over to using it as my daily driver until next week, as I need to go through various installs/setups etc.

Initial Impressions - it's really well built. One of my worries was that after having had the XPS13 (which is well known for being a really quality build) another laptop may feel a bit cheap and naff. Not the case, the Razer is a solid bit of kit, with a full metal chassis and virtually no flex. It's surprisingly dense, and feels heavier than only 500g more than the XPS. The size feels portable/carryable, which is what I was looking for. It's a little fatter than the XPS, but the footprint is about the same.

A matt screen, large touchpad and decent keyboard. The RGB is suitably violent, though you can easily tone it down. With the RGB off it looks a fairly sensible box, with very little gamer aesthetic. I've not had a chance to see what day-to-day battery life is, though I did do some benchmarking on battery, and noted before/after charge states. I checked last night, and it will accept charge from a 65w USB-C wall adapter, though it will complain that it would like more please, and it will not engage full rager power mode unless a full power adapter is connected (which I think is 230W, but may be wrong on that).

Benchmarks - holy fuck.
So I've run 2 with "Boost" mode enabled via Synapse (mild OC in places, and cooling on full), and another on Battery (where you don't get any options). These were both to the 1440p/165Hz screen, not to an external one. I would expect a ~10% performance increase for external screens as the built-in one is accessed via the on-board Radeon graphics, and that introduces a PCI-bottleneck. This wouldn't affect the physics scores, which have (literally) blown everything I've owned previously out of the water. You would really want to be wearing headphones when gaming in this mode, and people near you will dislike you (more). The temperatures did not get much above 80'C though, while the XPS was regularly hitting 99'C when I benchmarked it.

The Firestrike Ultra scores (where rendering is at 4K) are not as stand-out as the 1080p Firestrike (compared to the XPS with a desktop eGPU, and the ZwiftBox desktop), and I guess this is where internal bandwidth limitations hit a laptop. The Blade has a 1440p screen, and my main monitor is also 1440p (only a bit wider), and I definitely think this is where the "sweet spot" for this hardware combo is.

The on-battery results are less impressive, however during these tests it was basically silent, with neither no fans, or very low RPM spin. The tone of the fan noise is a lower pitch than the XPS...a hum rather than a scream (as I type this I have both on, either side of me...the XPS has it's fans spinning right now, and I can clearly hear them as they are a higher pitch. The Blade is silent). The battery benchmarks took the battery charge from full to 81% (it took about 20-25 minutes), with screen brightness at 50%.

I've added Port Royal to the benchmark suite, as ray-tracing is now a thing...not much use now, but will be useful in ~3 years time when I upgrade again.

Looking at 3DMark comparisons, this thing is holding it's own against 2080-equipped Desktop rigs, being within 10% of their score (using 3D Marks "2020 Gaming Rig" target score).


Fire Strike

Fire Strike Ultra

Time Spy

Port Royal

The MSI 1488 n/a n/a n/a
The Fang 6612 1721 n/a n/a
on mains
1140 280 467 n/a
XPS13 + eGPU
Internal screen
10501 4385 5200 n/a
XPS13 + eGPU
to the TV
12899 4609 5488 n/a
ZwiftBox 8403 2144 2560 n/a
1660 Upgrade
11206 2851 5118 n/a
Blade 14
Boost Mode
21590 6320 9659 5118
Blade 14
5714 1475 2471 1353

Progression comparison of the 5 machines in "fair" competition (plugged in, using internal screen where applicable)

babychaos's picture