gadg-et-oid [gaj-it-oid]


1. having the characteristics or form of a gadget;
resembling a mechanical contrivance or device.

Zotac AMP Box Mini Thunderbolt 3 PCI Enclosure

I spent around two months test Driving The Zotac AMP Box Mini. Read on to find out what devices I tested, how they fared and why you might want to consider this enclosure for a one-cable dock setup with your shiny new Thunderbolt 3/USB Type-C laptop.

Thunderbolt 3 and USB Type-C are the future, there’s no doubt about that. Whether you embrace the adapter hell we have to face at the moment, or you hold on staunchly to a USB-A endowed laptop it’s inevitable that a steady, obsessive focus on slim, compact, appliance-like laptops is going to squeeze USB-A right out of the picture.

If you have a laptop with a USB Type-C port you may not even know what to do with it, but you might be interested to know that it’s a gateway to expansions and accessories you might never have a thought a laptop would support.

Enter the Zotac AMP Box Mini. The smaller sibling of Zotac’s full-sized AMP Box external GPU enclosure the “Mini” AMP Box is designed to enclose a PCI-E device of your choosing and let you plug it into your laptop via a single, svelte USB-C cable. Well, technically it’s actually using Thunderbolt 3- a USB-C alt mode- but for the sake of brevity I’ll gloss over the technical nuances in this article since… well despite USB-C being a “standard” it’s managed to be rather more complicated than it first appears.

External GPU being larger than the PC is lulzy but dang this thing is quiet! Really want an eGPU for my laptop now 🙁 @ZOTAC_UK

— Phil Howard (@Gadgetoid) June 2, 2018

The AMP Box Mini, despite its name, is not especially Mini and will actually fit and even support a compact, low power GPU even though it’s not strictly marketed as a GPU enclosure. If you’re looking for a super cost effective eGPU- though- and don’t mind that it wont charge your laptop, and don’t mind that it’ll run- at most- a GTX1060 then I’ve run it in this configuration weeks and it works great.

Anyway I’m jumping ahead of the curve a little here. The AMP Box Mini was originally poised to be an eGPU enclosure- it said as much on the box I received. Due to being coupled with a relatively low-wattage power supply and being too small to accommodate full-length GPUs, however, Zotac seem to have repositioned it as a more professional external PCI-E enclosure. This means you might be looking at it to connect a high-speed external SSD to your laptop, or perhaps an external HDMI capture card, an ASIC Miner, or a half-length FPGA board. Suffice to say the possibilities are interesting and, if your workflow necessitates such a PCI-E card, it may allow you to switch from a behemoth desktop of old to a modern portable laptop.

During my time with the AMP Box Mini I spent a majority of it testing a compact GTX 1060, but also used an Intensity Pro 4k – a single channel HDMI capture card -, and a Samsung Evo SSD mounted in a StarTech PCI-E to M.2 adapter.

So far I’ve tested:
a @STARTECHdotCOM M.2 adaptor with @samsung 970 EVO.
a Blackmagic Intensity Pro 4K
and a GeForce GTX1060 in this @ZOTAC_UK AMP BOX MINI. They were all pretty much plug and play, it took me only minutes to swap a new device in. Great for pro use with a Dell XPS

— Phil Howard (@Gadgetoid) May 31, 2018

One thing I immediately noticed when mounting the SSD in particular was that the AMP Box Mini is spacious. Generously so. Fitting a small M.2 SSD results in a hilarious disparity in size. The tiny, tiny SSD- even when mounted on the StarTech adapter- is absolutely dwarfed by the enclosure and you may feel that something smaller and more purpose-built would be preferable. But wait- many, many PCI-E devices, SSDs and GPUs in particular, are hot-pluggable and I took great joy in hot swapping devices in the AMP Box Mini to switch between different tests.

Left: @ZOTAC_UK MI553 with a Core i5, 16GB RAM and my dusty old test SSD.

Right: @ZOTAC_UK AMP BOX MINI with GeForce GTX1060.

Thunderbolt 3, let’s see what kind of punch you pack!

(Also I should probably activate Windows)

— Phil Howard (@Gadgetoid) May 31, 2018

The Intensity Pro 4k was rather less dwarfed by the enclosure, but was still considerably smaller. I had no problem capturing HDMI video from a SNES Classic Mini although it was clear that the Intensity Pro 4k software had no concept of a PCI-E device connected over Thunderbolt 3- while it successfully flashed a firmware update to the card, it finished with a “You must power down your computer”. This I thought odd, since I was on a laptop at the time. Fortunately it clicked that the card probably needed a cold boot in order to load the latest firmware and I shut the enclosure down accordingly. While I suspect most PCI-E cards will work, I’d venture that you might need to be watchful of instances like this with more complex devices.

Your choice of PCI-E card is limited by size and power requirements- the AMP Box Mini ships with a 180W power supply and as a general ballpark the 4 USB ports on the front should have around 20W reserved (5v * 1A * 4) for whatever peripherals you might connect. This leaves 160W for supplying the installed card and also for powering/charging the connected laptop. Since you should expect 45W to 65W (Power delivery tops out at 100W) that leaves between 95 and 115W for the GPU. Since the GTX 1060 requires 120W you might immediately notice a problem here- and indeed that’s why the AMP Box Mini doesn’t claim to be an eGPU enclosure even though it’ll happily run a GTX 1060. With 120W eaten by the GPU there simply isn’t enough juice left over to power an attached laptop and, indeed, when I connected a Dell XPS 13 it did not charge.

Those 4 USB ports I casually mentioned? Both the Zotac AMP Box and AMP Box mini sport USB ports and that’s a Good Thing for using these enclosures as docks. You can connect a monitor, mouse, keyboard and still have a port spare to charge your phone through just one single USB Type-C cable. There are a few cheaper eGPU enclosures on the market with no USB ports whatsoever but unless you have USB ports on your laptop and don’t mind cable spaghetti they’re really not a graceful solution. I’m really, really keen on the idea of a single cable dock setup and something like a Zotac AMP Box Mini with two monitors, a mouse and keyboard connected that I could dock an XPS 13 with would be my ideal setup. I hate cable spaghetti. On a similar note I’d love an upright dock for the XPS 13, too.

As someone who doesn’t own a traditional desktop PC, and who is ardently in favour of small, compact, lifestyle computers the AMP Box Mini opened up whole new possibilities for interfacing with PCI-E devices that were previously unavailable to me. Incidentally I’m testing the Zotac ZBOX MI553 which sports a USB-C port and could also take advantage of the AMP Box mini to endow it with a PCI-E port which it otherwise only has in the form of an M.2 slot. The AMP Box is somewhat larger than the MI553 though, which is fittingly hilarious.

Left: @ZOTAC_UK MI553 with a Core i5, 16GB RAM and my dusty old test SSD.

Right: @ZOTAC_UK AMP BOX MINI with GeForce GTX1060.

Thunderbolt 3, let’s see what kind of punch you pack!

(Also I should probably activate Windows)

— Phil Howard (@Gadgetoid) May 31, 2018

The AMP Box mini, as you might imagine, contains mostly air. It’s a fairly robust aluminium case with a large top lid which is secured with easy access thumb screws. It’s exceptionally well ventilated, which is another clue that GPUs might have been the forefront of its design considertions. The AMP Box Mini kit includes a right-angle adaptor that connects to the bottom-mounted PCI-E slot and repeats a second slot in line with the rear, double-height PCI slot that- again- alludes to GPU support. If you’re mounting something small, entirely enclosed and with no ports – such as an SSD – you can omit the adapter and simply plug it right into the PCI-E slot, but if you’re mounting an HDMI capture card it’s essential to break out the HDMI ports to the back of the enclosure.

Rather frustratingly all four of the USB ports are on the front of the AMP Box mini. This makes it moderately less compelling than its bigger sibling for a single-cable dock setup, since having both your mouse and keyboard routed out of the front of the box is untidy and awkward. It’s handy for occasional USB devices, dongles and phone charging though. I’d have liked to see two on the back and two on the front, which is the setup I believe the full-sized AMP Box opts for.

While large, the AMP Box mini is a tight squeeze for even a mini-series GPU. I found it tricky to route the 6-pin power cable from the GPU to the AMP Box mini PCB, but managed in the end. Oh and the existence of that 6-pin power cable is probably another clear sign of the enclosures original intent- but it’s also potentially useful for more power hungry PCI-E cards though I struggle to find a good example other than GPUs!

TFW you realise you forgot the 6-pin power cable… @ZOTAC_UK

— Phil Howard (@Gadgetoid) May 31, 2018

The supplied 19v, 180W power supply is bulky, as you would expect, but not outrageously slow.

Overall the AMP Box mini is the perfect budget conscious eGPU/dock solution. It’s not even close to being cheap, specially not when you factor in the GPU, but if you’re a modest gamer who doesn’t need anything much punchier than a GTX 1060 then you can expect to pay around £500 for the combination of enclosure and GPU. This transforms a humble Dell XPS 13 into a capable gaming machine that should blaze through most titles at 1080p. It will run a G-Sync display too- so pair it with a 144Hz, G-Sync capable, 1080p display and you’ll have a best of both worlds setup.

The USB ports on the AMP Box mini make it a better proposition than the Razer Core X if you’re not looking at a GTX 1070 or 1080. It’s just a shame that you will still need to plug in your laptop power supply when running a GPU- I wonder if hooking up a beefier power supply would fix this, or if the AMP Box Mini simply can’t pull enough juice through its power input stage to solve this foible.

Oh, and it worked great with Linux, too 😉

A @dell XPS 13 9370 running Ubuntu 18.04 and hooked up to a @ZOTAC_UK external GPU enclosure with a GTX 1060- this is basically my ideal system setup. Shame it’s all loaner gear 🙁

— Phil Howard (@Gadgetoid) July 6, 2018

Allowing me to turbo-boost cifar10 training on a Dell Precision 5520.

As a rough TLDR using a @ZOTAC_UK external Thunderbolt 3 PCI-E enclosure with a GTX 1060 on this maxed out @Dell Precision 5520 speeds up cifar10 training about 10x.

— Phil Howard (@Gadgetoid) June 14, 2018

Saturday, September 8th, 2018, Computer Gaming, Mini Computers, Personal Computing, USB Type-C and Thunderbolt 3.