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

Macworld - - CONTENTS -

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

Price: £688

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.

Ocu­lus Rift

Son­net eGFX Break­away Box

Razer Core V2

Aki­tio Node

Man­tiz Venus (MZ-02)

Razer Core X

Son­net eGFX Break­away Puck RX 570

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