GoRite’s VGA NUC Lid

I know what you’re thinking; really? Another lid?  I just can help myself. Ever since I started playing with GoRite’s NUC lids I’ve been fascinated by the variety they offer.  So far the lids have hit several nails on multiple heads. Today I’m looking at the VGA lid for 5th and 6th generation NUCs.

This lid was a little hard for me to get excited about, because it’s solving a problem I don’t have: the need for a VGA connector on a NUC. That’s never been an issue for me. Who buys a NUC expecting anything but the newest tech? I suppose there’s a market out there for people who really want a NUC but have a monitor that only has a VGA connector on it. I can see that. But It doesn’t seem like it would be a huge number of users.

When Just Two Won’t Do

The real market for this lid is multiple displays.  These days I go with a dual display, partly because it doesn’t crowd my desk, and partly because I have two monitors at work, and it’s nice to be able to have the same setup at home.  Dual displays aren’t as exotic as they used to be…they’re actually fairly common.  Triple displays are a little rarer, partly because of cost, partly because of a lack of desk space. I know people who use triple displays. Heck, I even had a triple display on a PC years ago, until my wife got me to admit it looked embarrassing in our family room . I can still hear her: “What, are you landing the space shuttle in here?”

space-center-693264_1280
Well, maybe…

I get the appeal. All that extra real estate can come in handy. Plus, VGA-only monitors can be found relatively cheap these days; you can find a high-resolution one new or gently used for not very much cash. So adding a third monitor to your setup with VGA can be a good budget solution.

If you want three displays on a NUC, it IS possible on some models right out of the gate. Several NUCs include a miniDisplayPort connection, and in theory you can take advantage of daisy-chaining to get a third monitor going. But DisplayPort monitors that can do that tend to be a little on the pricier side, as do DisplayPort hubs. So what are the other options?  You could go with a USB-to-VGA adapter, which will get you that third display, but then you end up with another dongle hanging off the back of your NUC. Not pretty or portable.

And then there’s this lid from GoRite.  It’s essentially a USB-to-VGA adapter hidden inside an attractive lid, and it attaches to the USB header on your motherboard.  If you’ve got a NUC that’s one port short of your ideal setup, this might be an option.  Let’s take a look.

Installation

“Oh brother, he’s doing another installation video, isn’t he?”  Wait! Don’t leave! I have a reason this time!  I’m installing the lid on a NUC5i3RYH, a 5th gen NUC.  The lid comes with the 6th gen cable already attached, but there’s an adapter you need to attach for a 5th gen NUC, and I wanted you to see it. (Plus I like making videos. There’s that too.)

If you’ve read any of my previous GoRite reviews, you’ve seen me do this before. It’s a simple process that’s more or less the same for most of their feature lids. Depending on which lid you’re installing it can be fast and easy or…well not so much.  In the case of the VGA lid, it’s pretty easy.

  1. Remove the original lid
    1. For 5th gen NUCs, attach the adapter cable
  2. Thread the cable through the opening on the NUC
  3. Connect the cable to the header on the motherboard
  4. Snap on the lid

Fun with Drivers

After installing the lid I attached a mini DisplayPort to HDMI cable and connected it to one monitor, then I attached a VGA cable to the lid’s port and connected it to the second monitor. I booted into Windows (Windows 10, 32-bit) and went straight to device manager.  I immediately saw the adapter listed, not under Display Adapters, but under its own heading of “Trigger USB Graphic Family”:

VGA_lid_Device Manager 1
Hey, whatever works, right?

Next I went to my graphics settings to extend my display to the new device. That’s when I noticed the first sign of trouble:

display drivers 1

No second display listed. Hmmm…that’s weird. I went back to device manager to confirm the new adapter was working:

device manager 2
Looks fine here.

Everything seemed to be in order. Then it occurred to me I might need to be a little more basic and enable the device in the Windows display properties first, instead of the Intel driver. So I headed there, and:

display drivers 2
Well this sucks.

I went through the usual troubleshooting: tried different cables, different monitors, multiple reboots, attempting to update the drivers, etc. Still nothing. Did I get a dud?

Finally (probably should have thought of it sooner, I decided to uninstall the drivers completely and let Windows re-detect them. After uninstalling in Device Manager and scanning for new hardware a new installer dialog popped up:

trigger install 1

So I accepted the license agreement, clicked next a couple of times, and let it reboot the system.  After the reboot, the second adapter came on without me having to do anything.  Instant dual monitor extended desktop. Woohoo!  A look at my installed apps revealed what had been missing:

trigger install 2

Now, why Windows didn’t install this when it installed the drivers in the first place, or why it didn’t install it when I tried to update them, I don’t know. Annoying, sure, but nothing new with Windows.  Just something to keep in mind if you get the lid; Microsoft might make you work for it.

Performance

Here’s where things got interesting for me. This was my first time working with USB-to-VGA so I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of performance. After all, this is a USB 2.0 adapter, so it should…well, kinda suck…shouldn’t it?

The picture quality itself was excellent. Nice, sharp icons, no blurring or after-images.  I played around with a few things to see if I could notice a lag. I watched some videos, mirrored the display, changed resolutions (the lid’s adapter goes up to 1920 X 1200, but the monitor I was using maxes out at 1080). Everything was quick and responsive. No lag that I could detect.

I downloaded Passmark’s Performance Test tool to see if that showed me anything new. I’ve always been more interested in real-world performance than benchmark numbers, but I still wanted to see some numbers.  I started by running the 2d and 3d tests on the on-board graphics.  Once I had those numbers, tried to run them on the lid’s graphics but found there wasn’t an option to do that, so I mirrored the displays and ran them again.

Everything seemed good, but as the tests went on I was able to pick up on a very slight lag on the VGA monitor. It wasn’t much, but it was there.

Then I moved on to the 3d tests.  This is where I noticed a definite lag on the VGA monitor. On the more complex 3d tests, video on the VGA monitor was a bit jerky and dragged slightly behind the mini DisplayPort monitor. So clearly a gaming adapter it isn’t. No surprise there.

I’m not going to include any screenshots from the tool because I don’t have permission to do that, and some companies are funny about screenshots. But to put things into perspective, the 3d Graphics Mark result for the on-board Intel graphics (using the default display drivers) was 608. Not the greatest score, but workable.  Running the same test with the mirrored display (bringing things down to the lid’s level), the score dropped to 526.  It’s hard to gauge exactly what the numbers mean, but I’m pretty sure higher is better.

Triple Display Testing

Moving on to some real world testing, I went ahead and dragged an extra monitor out to my desk to set up the triple display experience.  It was a tight fit, but I managed it:

20160818_184829
The mood lighting helps with eye strain.

The VGA lid is running the far right monitor in the setup above.  I tried some web browsing on multiple monitors, played some Youtube videos, and generally poked around. I found everything worked well together. Videos on the VGA monitor weren’t quite as smooth as the other displays, and text was just a tad less sharp, but overall it was fully functional.  The display extended to all three by default, but I also tried mirroring the primary (center) monitor to the VGA, and that worked exactly as it should.

One thing to keep in mind with a USB video adapter is that it’s going to put a load on your CPU.  GoRite mentions on their website that a faster processor is recommended for multiple displays, and that makes sense. I wanted to see just how much of a load I was looking at, so I downloaded a (royalty free) 1080p video and played it on each monitor while watching the CPU. I picked a clip from Vidsplay.com, a short video of some shore birds running around. I ran the video on each monitor with nothing else running (except Task Manager).

CPU load miniHDMI
Here the cute little birds are running around on the mini HDMI connection.
CPU load miniDP
And here they are on the mini DisplayPort.
CPU load VGA
Lastly, I set them loose on the VGA display.

As you can see, running on the VGA monitor added roughly 20-25% load on the CPU.  That’s nothing to sneeze at. On slower CPUs (again, for this test I used an i3) a 25% load can be significant.  It’s not necessarily a deal-breaker, but you want to be aware of it going in.

VGA as the Only Display

I decided to get a little crazy and disable the mini DisplayPort adapter in the graphics settings, just to see if the lid could run as my only display.  The answer is: sort of. After unplugging the on-board connection and rebooting I didn’t get a bios screen or a Windows logo…nothing at all until the desktop popped up. This is to be expected, since it needs the Windows drivers to fire up.  Once at the desktop everything looked normal, until I attempted to re-enable the on-board graphics. When I tried to open display properties, it opened off the screen. It was there, but I had no way of getting to it, as though the on-board adapter still had its own second display running.  So I plugged it back in and immediately got this:

Driver crash

I repeated my steps a few times just to make sure, and this happened every time. So, VGA as your only display? No way. (see what I did there?)  It works, but you have a phantom desktop where things open up and you can’t access them.

 

Conclusions

So what are you getting here? You’re getting a solid USB to VGA adapter, with good 2d performance, in a very nice package. It’s got excellent graphics, a high resolution, and performance that will do you just fine for productivity. Plus, you get to add a third display to your setup without sacrificing on the look of your NUC. If you take your NUC with you, there’s no dongle to worry about (I’ve busted more than one off the back of my systems).

What aren’t you getting? You’re not getting an adapter you’d want to use for gaming.   I doubt that’s really the market for this lid anyway, but it needs to be said. You’re also not getting an adapter you can use as the sole display. Again, probably not a lot of people thinking of trying that, but still worth noting. I’ve read more than one account recently of people who’ve fried their on-board video due to a power surge/lightning strike. So it’s possible someone could be looking for a single display solution.

The CPU can be concerning, especially if you’re running on a slower CPU.  As with anything, have the right expectations.  If you’re looking to do graphics-intensive work, then this isn’t the solution you’re looking for. But if you’re itchin’ to go all uber-geek with a triple display on your NUC without shelling out the cash for a DisplayPort hub, or if you’ve already got a VGA-only monitor just collecting dust, then this lid might just be the one for you.

 

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