Wed. Nov 29th, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • OCuLink is a cost-effective alternative to Thunderbolt, with significantly cheaper components, making it more accessible to everyone.
  • Gamers and content creators can benefit from OCuLink’s higher bandwidth, resulting in better performance and lower lag for eGPU setups.
  • OCuLink is gaining increasing adoption in consumer devices like the GPD G1, making it a more tempting option for those looking for an eGPU solution.

New ports and connectors are constantly arriving. While some remain obscure, others become mainstream, even essential for certain setups. Enter OCuLink, a standard that’s been skulking around mostly in server rooms for years but is now breaking into consumer spaces.

OCuLink, short for “Optical-Copper Link,” is a peripheral connection standard that allows you to connect PCIe devices using an external cable rather than an internal slot.

OCuLink has been around for nearly a decade, but it’s mostly been hanging out in server spaces. Recently, it’s been sneaking into consumer tech, offering a robust and budget-friendly alternative for connecting external graphics cards to devices like laptops and handheld gaming PCs. Unlike Thunderbolt, OCuLink is virtually an extension of your device’s PCIe slot, boasting a bandwidth of up to 16 GB/s. Yep, that’s much faster than Thunderbolt 4, which caps out at 5 GB/s.

The Cost Factor: A Wallet-Friendly Alternative

OCuLink really shines when it comes to cost-efficiency. The port is an open standard, meaning manufacturers don’t have to fork over licensing fees to implement it in their devices. On the consumer side, this translates to significantly cheaper adapters, docks, and cables—think tens of dollars compared to hundreds for a good Thunderbolt setup. In most cases, you’ll need to supply your power, but the overall expense is generally lower than that of a Thunderbolt setup.

Performance Perks: Why Gamers and Content Creators Should Take Note

For those who live and breathe performance metrics, OCuLink could be a dream come true. Its higher bandwidth capabilities are especially appealing for eGPU setups, offering better frame rates and lower lag. The standard also operates at PCIe x4 speeds, compared to Thunderbolt’s x3.

In layperson’s terms, if you’re striving for top-tier performance from your external graphics card, OCuLink might be the way to go. Thunderbolt 3 and 4 eGPUs are usually harshly limited by bandwidth constraints, often performing worse than discrete internal laptop GPUs, which should, on paper, be much weaker.

The Thunderbolt Argument: Why It’s Not Game Over Yet

Thunderbolt isn’t stepping out of the limelight anytime soon. It still offers benefits like widespread adoption, plug-and-play ease, and a broader ecosystem of compatible devices. Plus, Thunderbolt’s relatively hassle-free setup could be a significant advantage for the less technically inclined. Also, with the announcement of Thunderbolt 5, future laptops and other devices will be equipped with 64Gbps of bandwidth for eGPUs, double that of Thunderbolt 4. This is still slower than OCuLink’s latest version at the time of writing, however, and the next version of OCuLink is likely to push things even further.

The Future Looks Bright: Enter the GPD G1

A GPD G1 dock with three monitors and a GPD handheld computer attached.

The game-changing factor that could tip the scales in favor of OCuLink is its incorporation into newer devices like the GPD G1 GPU dock. This device supports Thunderbolt 4 and OCuLink while offering a built-in power supply, Radeon RX 7600M XT, and multiple ports for versatility. With promising devices like these entering the market, OCuLink’s adoption in the consumer space seems increasingly inevitable. It clearly offers significant advantages for external graphics, so we expect more and more eGPU products to sport both an OCuLink and Thunderbolt port.

OCuLink sounds pretty awesome on paper, but since it’s not as widespread, you probably still need a few good reasons to look for a laptop, small form factor, or handheld computer equipped with this port when you next go shopping for a computing device:

  1. Cost-Effectiveness: Significantly cheaper than Thunderbolt for almost all components.
  2. Higher Bandwidth: A real deal for gamers and content creators needing every ounce of performance.
  3. Increasing Adoption: Newer consumer devices like the GPD G1 or OneDock make OCuLink more accessible.

OCuLink is undoubtedly not a flash in the pan. Its cost-efficiency and superior performance metrics make it a compelling option for those searching for an eGPU solution that won’t break the bank. While Thunderbolt has its merits, especially regarding ease of use and ecosystem, OCuLink is fast becoming a tempting alternative. Keep an eye on this; you might just want the OCuLink option in your next setup.

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By John P.

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