Best external graphics cards (eGPUs) for Mac
Apple’s new-found love for VR and AR means it has introduced support for external graphics cards into macOS at last. Cliff Joseph rounds up the best eGPUs for the Mac
There have been a lot of rumours flying around about Apple developing some sort of headset or glasses that will bring virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) to the Mac and iOS devices, and Apple’s updates to its ARKit software at WWDC 2018 reinforced the company’s commitment to this new technology. And, also at
WWDC, Apple showed a MacBook Pro using an eGPU – external graphics processing unit – to provide a graphics boost for 3D games and VR.
It’s true that the iPhone and iPad are well-suited to AR, as the popularity of mobile games in recent years means these devices have plenty of graphical horsepower for titles, such as Pokémon Go, that work by superimposing computer graphics and data over images of the real world. (iOS 12 is bringing new AR features to the iPhone and iPad, too.)
But that’s not the case with all Apple products and – as any Mac gamer will tell you – graphics performance has always been something of an Achilles heel for the Mac.
You need a lot of graphics power to run the latest 3D games and VR/AR software, but Apple has
never shown much interest in gaming on the Mac, and many very expensive Mac models still rely on ‘integrated’ graphics – a small graphics chip built into the Mac’s main processor (CPU) – rather than having a completely separate ‘dedicated’ graphics card (or GPU – ‘graphics processing unit’) that works alongside the main CPU in order to give graphics performance a much bigger boost. And, of course, none of the current Mac range has any internal expansion slots that would allow you to install a new GPU in order to upgrade your graphics performance (although Apple has recently been dropping hints about a new ‘modular’ Mac Pro design that is due in around a year’s time).
Budget and upgrade problems
Needless to say, VR and AR games and software need seriously strong graphics performance, too. And, in fact, the VR developers at Oculus once mocked Apple, saying they would bring their Rift headset to the Mac “when Apple releases a good computer”.
Last year, of course, Apple launched the iMac Pro, which is very much aimed at VR developers. However, the least expensive version of the iMac Pro costs almost £5,000, so it’ll be far too expensive for anyone but professionals and developers with a big IT budget.
There is hope for the rest of us, though. When Apple released the iMac Pro, it also announced that it was planning to support ‘external graphics cards’ – or ‘eGPUs’ – with macOS High Sierra, some time
in 2018. And that support finally arrived earlier in March 2018 with the release of macOS 10.13.4.
What’s an eGPU?
As the name suggests, an eGPU is a type of graphics card that gives your Mac a real performance boost for 3D graphics. To be precise, an eGPU actually consists of two components that you normally have to buy separately. The first, of course, is the graphics card itself, also known as a GPU. However, current Mac models don’t have any expansion slots inside them that would allow you to install the GPU into the Mac itself, so you have to install the GPU into an external box – often called an ‘enclosure’ – that sits outside the Mac. The enclosure is just an empty box that contains a PCIe expansion slot, and a power supply for the graphics card, so you simply insert your new graphics card into the expansion slot and then connect the eGPU enclosure to your Mac via one of its Thunderbolt 3 ports. (There are lots of Windows PCs that have Thunderbolt 3 these days too and, in fact, many of the eGPU enclosures that are on sale at the moment are designed by PC manufacturers for their own gaming PCs and laptops.)
What are the advantages of an eGPU?
One great advantage of using an eGPU is that you can have a slimline laptop that you carry with you when you’re out and about, and then plug it into an eGPU when you get back home or back to the office
– instantly turning your lightweight laptop into a heavyweight desktop computer capable of running high-end graphics software or the latest 3D games.
The bad news is that most eGPU enclosures are simply sold as empty boxes – ‘unpopulated’ – with no graphics card inside them. This means you have to budget a minimum of £300 just to buy the empty enclosure on its own, and then add the cost of your new graphics card on top.
Which graphics cards are compatible with eGPUs?
First of all, you’ll need a Mac running High Sierra 10.13.4 or later.
But the choice of graphics card can be tricky too. Most eGPU enclosures have a standard Thunderbolt 3 interface, so they can be connected to any Mac or PC that also has Thunderbolt 3. The PCIe expansion slot inside the enclosure is also a standard component, so it should allow you to insert any graphics card made by AMD or nVidia, the two big companies that dominate the GPU market these days. Unfortunately, High Sierra 10.13.4 currently only works with a limited selection of graphics cards from AMD (you can see the full list of ‘recommended’ graphics cards on Apple’s website at fave.co/2L2XJEw).
• AMD Radeon RX 470 and RX 570
• AMD Radeon RX 480 and RX580
• AMD Radeon Pro WX 7100
• AMD Radeon RX Vega 56
• AMD Radeon RX Vega 64
• AMD Vega Frontier Edition Air
• AMD Radeon Pro WX 9100
You should also remember that the high-end Radeon Pro and Vega graphics cards require a very high power supply, and some eGPU enclosures might not provide enough power to run them properly. However, all the manufacturers of eGPU enclosures provide information about the power supply on their websites, so you can check to see which graphics cards are supported by each enclosure. Sadly, this means that the enormously popular nVidia range of graphics cards is still off limits for Mac users, although hopefully this will change in the future (the brave souls at egpu.io have actually found ways of using nVidia cards with Macs, but this involves some scary hacking).
But if your choice of graphics card is still limited, there’s an increasing range of Thunderbolt 3 eGPU enclosures now available that will work with both Macs and Windows PCs. Several bigname PC manufacturers make their own eGPUs, such as HP and Lenovo, although these still use a standard Thunderbolt 3 interface that should be Mac-compatible (with an AMD graphics card inside, of course). Then there are specialist companies, such as Sonnet, that just focus on making eGPU enclosures and other upgrade products for Macs and PCs.
This technology is still new to the Mac, so hopefully there will be more developments – such
as support for nVidia graphics cards – to come in the next few months. In the meantime, here’s our round-up of the best eGPU enclosures that can turn your Mac into a real graphics powerhouse.
1. Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Box
Price: £315 Available from: fave.co/2O0hquL
Compatible graphics cards: Any AMD/nVidia GPU, requiring up to 375W power supply
Sonnet’s eGFX Breakaway Box was Apple’s ‘official’ eGPU for its developer program while it was beta-testing eGPU support in High Sierra, so it’s no surprise that it’s still one of the most popular eGPU products for the Mac. Sonnet also has a long history of producing upgrade products for Macs, so this will very much be the ‘safe’ option for Mac users who aren’t too familiar with this new technology.
Prices for the Breakaway Box start at around £320 for a model with a 350W power supply, but there are other models with an upgraded power supply (£348) for really high-end graphics cards. The Developer Edition provided through Apple’s Developer Program did include a Radeon RX580 graphics card, but the standard versions of the Breakaway Box sold by Sonnet are empty, so you’ll need to provide your own card.
The Breakaway Box includes a single PCIe expansion slot and the enclosure is large enough to house most full-size graphics cards from AMD or nVidia (although, of course, Apple’s own guidelines currently recommend using AMD cards only). It connects to your Mac via a Thunderbolt 3 interface, and if you’re using a laptop the Thunderbolt interface can even charge the laptop at the same time. Before macOS 10.13.4 arrived, Sonnet said the Breakaway Box would also work with older Macs that have Thunderbolt 2. Unfortunately, Apple has now removed that option, so you can currently only use an eGPU such as this with newer Thunderbolt 3 models.
2. Razer Core V2
Price: £470 Available from: fave.co/2Lu1KOF
Compatible graphics cards: Any AMD/nVidia GPU, requiring up to 375W power supply
The Core V2 is primarily designed for use with Razer’s own range of Windows-based gaming
laptops, but the current V2 model uses a standard Thunderbolt 3 port, so it’ll work with Macs as long as you’re using a compatible AMD graphics card. The company’s background in gaming also means that it has lots of experience working with graphics cards from both AMD and nVidia – although, of course, Apple is currently still only recommending AMD cards for use with Macs.
And if you’re a frustrated Mac gamer (is there any other type?), then the Core V2 might just be your idea of gaming heaven.
It’s expensive, at close to £500 even before you budget for your GPU, but Razer brings all its gaming expertise and experience with high-end graphics cards to the Core V2. The machine-tooled
metal case looks a lot more attractive than most of its rivals, with a smart metal grille on the front, and perforated side panel for cooling – which also smoulders with subdued lighting while you’re getting into some gaming action. The Core V2 can even sync with the fancy lighting effects that you get from some of Razer’s gaming mice and keyboards, many of which are Mac-compatible, too.
Looks aside, the V2 has a 500W power supply and is large enough to house most full-length graphics cards. Throw in four USB 3 ports, and an Ethernet port that allows the enclosure to act as a hub for your MacBook laptop, and the Core V2 will appeal to both gamers and professional users alike.
3. Akitio Node
Price: £320 Available from: fave.co/2NZ39yc
Compatible graphics cards: AMD Radeon RX570,
RX580, WX7100 (Mac only; nVidia GPUs also
supported on Windows 10)
Akitio makes a number of external enclosures that use Thunderbolt 3 to connect to a Mac or PC, but many of these are designed for devices such as external sound cards or high-performance storage systems, and they don’t have the power or cooling systems required for high-end graphics cards, so be careful to make sure that the model you’re looking at does actually work with graphics cards.
The main option for eGPU use at the moment is the Akitio Node, which costs about £320; but, like
most enclosures, it doesn’t include a graphics card so you’ll still have to budget for the GPU on top. The design of the Node is straightforward – it’s just a big black metal box with a single internal PCIe expansion slot and power supply, and a Thunderbolt 3 port on the back for connecting to a Mac or PC.
There’s also a model called the Node Pro (whose price hasn’t yet been announced), which has a second Thunderbolt 3 port and a DisplayPort connector for an additional monitor, which could be very useful if you want to use it in an office as a hub for a laptop with limited connectivity. But watch out for the more compact Node Lite, as that’s not designed for use with an eGPU.
The Node itself also has a relatively modest power supply – around 400W – so it’s not compatible with as many graphics cards as some of its rivals, and currently only supports the AMD
Radeon RX570, RX580 and WX7100 on the Mac.
4. Mantiz Venus (MZ-02)
Price: £440 Available from: fave.co/2O1pPOf
Compatible graphics cards: Any AMD/nVidia GPU, requiring up to 375W power supply
It’s only recently become available here in the UK, but the Mantiz Venus has already proved popular with many Mac users in the US. Because it’s so new, the Venus is quite expensive for UK buyers – around £440, compared to just $389 in the US, and that’s without paying for the graphics card on top – but hopefully the price will come down soon.
The Venus enclosure is a bit on the bulky side, standing 215mm high, 163mm wide and 330mm deep. However, it does pack in lots of extra features that will help it to earn its keep, especially if you want to use it with a laptop that
has limited connectivity. In fact, while it’s perfectly capable of providing a graphics boost for gaming, the Mantiz seems to put more emphasis on productivity and office use.
As well as the standard PCIe expansion slot, the Venus includes a 550W power supply, which should be powerful enough for most high-end graphics cards, as well as being able to charge up a laptop at the same time. The bulky enclosure even provides room for a SATA connector for a hard drive or SSD that you can use to add some extra storage to your Mac.
The Venus uses Thunderbolt 3 to connect to a Mac or PC, but also includes no less than five USB 3 ports – two on the front and three round the back – along with an Ethernet port, which will be handy for laptop users who need Ethernet for their office network.
5. Razer Core X
Price: £259 Available from: fave.co/2LqXNKl
Compatible graphics cards: Any AMD/nVidia GPU, requiring up to 500W power supply
Razer’s Core V2 is a bit over-the-top, with its flashing lights and other gaming features. It’s also one of the most expensive eGPU enclosures currently available, so the company has recently released the new Core X, which at just £260 turns out to be one of the cheapest (although, of course, you do have to provide the graphics card yourself).
The Core X looks very similar to the Core V2, but the lower price means it’s a bit more basic. It doesn’t have the Ethernet or USB ports of the V2 model – or the glowing gaming lights either – although its single Thunderbolt 3 port can be used to power your laptop at the same time as handling all your gaming and graphics applications.
The Core X is very much designed as a graphics upgrade for laptops, and it’s powerful enough to really provide desktop levels of performance. The bulky black box isn’t much to look at, but it’s large enough to house even the largest ‘3-slot’ graphics cards from both AMD and nVidia, and its beefy 650W internal power supply can run highend graphics cards that require up to 500W, with some extra power left over to charge your laptop at the same time.
6. Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Puck RX 570
Available from: fave.co/2L9heeY
Compatible graphics cards: AMD Radeon RX 570 (pre-installed)
We’ve really been looking forward to this one. Sonnet’s eGFX Breakaway Box was chosen by Apple as its ‘official’ eGPU for developers in 2017, so Sonnet is at the front of the pack when it comes to eGPU technology for Macs. The Breakaway Box works well but, like most eGPU enclosures, it’s pretty big and bulky, so Sonnet decided to produce the Puck as a more portable alternative.
It’s by far the smallest eGPU enclosure we’ve seen, measuring 152.4mm wide, 130mm deep and 51mm tall, which means it’s small enough to fit into a backpack or briefcase alongside your laptop. And, along with its Thunderbolt 3 interface, the Puck also includes three DisplayPort connectors and an HDMI interface, which makes it ideal for anyone who needs a multi-monitor setup in their office.
Most eGPU enclosures are sold ‘unpopulated’ – without a graphics card inside them – but the Puck is one of the few eGPUs that comes with a graphics card already installed (and non-replaceable). There are two versions of the Puck currently available, with either a Radeon RX 560 or RX 570, but Mac users need to remember that it’s only the RX 570 that is currently compatible with Macs.
That’s a shame, as the RX 570 version of the Puck is fairly expensive, at around £690. There’s
one other drawback as well, as the compact design of the Puck means that it needs an external power supply – which is almost as big and heavy as the Puck itself. Even so, the Puck is still a marvel of compact engineering, and well worth considering if you have a laptop that needs a bit of extra graphics horsepower every now and then.
Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Box
Razer Core V2
Mantiz Venus (MZ-02)
Razer Core X
Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Puck RX 570