EGPUS boost Mac game per­for­mance, but lim­i­ta­tions abound

Lim­i­ta­tions and over-spe­cific re­quire­ments keep Mac ex­ter­nal GPU sup­port from great­ness.

Macworld (USA) - - Contents - BY LEIF JOHN­SON

Folks with more cod­ing knowl­edge than I have (and a greater will­ing­ness to po­ten­tially brick a $2,400 ma­chine) have been hook­ing up ex­ter­nal graph­ics cards to Macs for years, but the sup­port now comes bun­dled into macos 10.13.4 High Sierra. In lay­man’s terms, Ap­ple of­fi­cially sup­ports some graph­ics cards that you’d nor­mally only find in a bulky PC tower—so long as you have a sep­a­rate ex­ter­nal chas­sis to stick them in and a Mac with Thun­der­bolt 3.

I hoped EGPU sup­port would be

rev­o­lu­tion­ary. Be­yond that, I hoped it’d al­low me to break with PCS en­tirely, as I re­ally only use them for gam­ing these days. Any­one who watches Ap­ple Ar­cade ( go. mac­world.com/apac) knows I’ve been a lit­tle frus­trated with the cur­rent state of Mac gam­ing, and an ex­ter­nal graph­ics card struck me as an easy way to cir­cum­vent the lim­i­ta­tions of Ap­ple’s built-in pro­ces­sors.

In some ways, it is. On the last show ( go.mac­world.com/aep6) I took an AMD Radeon RX 580 graph­ics card and slipped it in a spare EGPU chas­sis loaned from the folks at Pc­world, and I watched in awe as the re­cently re­leased port of Rise of the Tomb Raider sud­denly looked the way it was sup­posed to on my 2017 15-inch Mac­book Pro. Once ev­ery­thing was on the ta­ble, setup only took around five min­utes.

That’s the abridged ver­sion. Yes, it works. Though in prac­tice, EGPU sup­port is cur­rently lit­tle more than an ex­pen­sive nov­elty.

STAY WITHIN THE LINES

Let’s fo­cus on the best part first. Once I slipped my Radeon RX 580 into an Aki­tio Node Pro ( go.mac­world.com/amnp) chas­sis and tight­ened the screws, all I re­ally needed to do was plug the Thun­der­bolt 3 ca­ble into my Mac­book Pro. Within sec­onds, an icon re­sem­bling a pro­ces­sor popped up on the Mac’s top menu bar, show­ing that the Radeon RX 580 was, in fact, work­ing. (Get­ting it to work with games takes a few more steps,

but more on that later.) Even bet­ter, I didn’t even have to restart. Ap­ple prides it­self on el­e­gant sim­plic­ity, and in this case Steve Jobs’s fa­vorite old say­ing re­mains true: It just works.

It works, that is, so long as you have the right ma­te­ri­als. You can only pull this off with­out any tech­ni­cal trick­ery so long as you’re us­ing a Mac­book or imac with Thun­der­bolt 3 sup­port, which means you’re lim­ited to us­ing lap­tops dat­ing from 2016 and imacs dat­ing from mid-2017. This is a bit of a bum­mer, but Thun­der­bolt 3 sup­ports data trans­fers of up to 40Gbps, while Thun­der­bolt 2 sup­ports 20Gbps.

Un­for­tu­nately, that lim­i­ta­tion likely knocks a lot of users out of the game right there. For those of you who can play with that kind of power, though, let’s move on to the sup­ported cards. Here you’ll find your gam­ing am­bi­tions fur­ther thwarted by

Ap­ple’s lack of di­rect sup­port for Nvidia cards. It makes some sense con­sid­er­ing that AMD makes most of the graph­ics cards found in con­tem­po­rary Macs, but it’s an­other low blow in a gam­ing en­vi­ron­ment where Nvidia cards win moun­tains of ac­co­lades.

If you’re won­der­ing, I tried us­ing Nvidia cards, but there’s no built-in driver sup­port. I plopped an Nvidia Geforce GTX 1060 into the EGPU chas­sis, con­nected it, booted, and nada. The lit­tle pro­ces­sor icon didn’t show up. It just didn’t work. I also tried us­ing Nvidia’s web driver ( go. mac­world.com/nvwd) that’s par­tially de­signed with macos in mind, think­ing I’d hit on a way to make it work. But nope.

The Nvidia tool­bar icon showed up, but the card it­self never worked. Per­haps a dif­fer­ent chas­sis would have helped.

In fact, Ap­ple specif­i­cally out­lines which chas­sis you’ll need for each card, so be sure to look over the as­so­ci­ated sup­port page ( go.mac­world.com/egmc). The Cu­per­tino com­pany is es­pe­cially fond of the $449 650W Son­net EGFX Break­away Box ( go.mac­world.com/snbb), which works for ev­ery avail­able card rang­ing from com­par­a­tively weak Radeon RX 470 to the blaz­ingly fast Radeon Pro WX 9100. (You can also buy a 350w Son­net box that’s bun­dled with a ver­sion of the RX 580 [ go.

mac­world.com/550w] I used.)

There’s ap­par­ently some wig­gle room with the chas­sis. Ap­ple doesn’t of­fi­cially rec­om­mend the Aki­tio Node Pro chas­sis I used, but it worked beau­ti­fully for our pur­poses. For safety, though, I’d rec­om­mend stick­ing with what Ap­ple tells you to stick with.

PO­ETRY IN MO­TION

All this ef­fort feels kind of worth it once you see the re­sults in mo­tion. Hooked up to the Radeon RX 580 in its chas­sis, Rise of the Tomb Raider soared from the 24 frames per sec­ond it strug­gled to reach on the Mac­book Pro’s built-in graph­ics to a far more sat­is­fy­ing 57 frames or more.

This wowed me in our bench­mark­ing tests we ran us­ing Rottr’s built-in tool, but the dif­fer­ences were stark and un­miss­able in ac­tion. Granted, it wasn’t al­ways per­fect: I’d some­times see brief freezes in the ac­tion, which I in­ter­preted as the in­evitable de­lay in­volved in get­ting sig­nals from a re­mote GPU rather than one that’s jacked straight into the moth­er­board.

But watch­ing Lara Croft jump from snowy ledges and sneak through desert pas­sages felt nat­u­ral and fluid with the bet­ter graph­ics card (and bet­ter frame rates). And this was only with the Radeon RX 580, a $401 card ( go.mac­world.com/ axrx) we had on hand here. I’m al­most cer­tain I’d be blown away with the re­sults on a $950 Radeon RX Vega 64 ( go. mac­world.com/rdrx), but we cur­rently don’t have one.

Yet here’s an­other caveat. Shortly af­ter this ar­ti­cle went live on our web­site, Feral In­ter­ac­tive con­tacted me to let me know it doesn’t sup­port EGPUS in any of its games at the mo­ment, although the stu­dio is cur­rently test­ing com­bi­na­tions of cards and

GPUS. Even­tu­ally Feral will make an an­nounce­ment re­gard­ing of­fi­cial sup­port. I’ve asked for fur­ther clar­i­fi­ca­tion, but Feral’s state­ment must re­fer to op­ti­mized sup­port, as the bench­mark tests and gen­eral game­play showed clear im­prove­ments when us­ing the EGPU. The warn­ing fas­ci­nates me. It sug­gests you may still have trou­ble with cer­tain made-for-mac ap­pli­ca­tions even though Ap­ple ap­pears to have de­signed EGPU sup­port in such a way that of­fi­cial sup­port shouldn’t mat­ter.

I ran bench­marks us­ing both Unig­ine and Cinebench with the set­tings cranked to Ul­tra, and as you can see on the pre­vi­ous page, Unig­ine saw a mas­sive im­prove­ment with the Opengl API. The new card still wasn’t strong enough to push me past 60 frames per sec­ond, though, and the Cinebench re­sults re­veal why: In some re­spects, the Radeon RX

580 is only a tad more pow­er­ful than my built-in Radeon Pro 555 (see be­low).

Some­times, in fact, bench­marks would pro­duce al­most iden­ti­cal re­sults for some tests and then the RX 580 would soar far ahead with oth­ers. When I tested Ap­ple’s own Metal API with Gfxbench, for in­stance, both ver­sions of the T-rex test pro­duced frame rates of 59 fps. With Gfxbench’s Man­hat­tan 3.1 test, though, the RX 580’s 60fps soundly trounced the 555’s 33.8.

In the games them­selves, that ex­tra oomph was more than enough to see some clear im­prove­ments. I also tried our EGPU setup with World of War­craft and El­der Scrolls On­line and was happy to find my­self safely push­ing the graph­ics qual­ity to heights I’d never been able to reach on my Mac­book Pro’s dis­crete card. I’ve also seen re­ports of EGPUS caus­ing some crashes in some games, but I was for­tu­nate to never see one my­self. Even with these is­sues, though, it oc­ca­sion­ally made my Mac­book Pro feel like a new ma­chine.

THE VALUE OF AN EGPU

Again, though, it’s only kind of worth it. I’m not re­ally con­vinced it’s worth around $700 to pick up the chas­sis and the card we used, but that as­sess­ment could change with bet­ter (and more ex­pen­sive) equip­ment.

For that mat­ter, the po­ten­tial costs don’t end there. Ex­ter­nal GPUS usu­ally don’t ac­tu­ally power the na­tive dis­plays un­less a de­vel­oper specif­i­cally al­lows it, mean­ing you can’t ex­pect to jack one into your Mac­book Pro and see the magic hap­pen right there on the Retina screen. In­stead, you’ll have to

hook up an ex­ter­nal dis­play, so that’s an­other $160 or so you’re prob­a­bly look­ing at. We got the best per­for­mance out of our EGPU when we closed the lid on my Mac­book Pro, which means you’ll likely need an­other key­board to in­ter­act with your game if you’re on a lap­top. There goes an­other $50 or so. And since Mac­books typ­i­cally don’t have a ton of stor­age space, you may even need a 1TB ex­ter­nal hard drive to even host the games. Con­ser­va­tively, that’s an­other $55. And heck, if you don’t have a $60 gamepad, toss one of those in there as well.

So con­grat­u­la­tions, yes, your Mac­book can run games bet­ter now, but you’ve po­ten­tially spent around $1,000 to get it to that point. Not only that, but you’ve had to sacri­fice your (ide­ally) Zen-like Mac setup for a desk where wires snake across the now-clut­tered sur­face. If this is the point you want to ar­rive at, you’d prob­a­bly just be bet­ter off slap­ping down the cash for an imac Pro or at least a 5K imac. (And for what it’s worth, Mac­world staff writer Ja­son Cross re­ported that he was get­ting bet­ter than 60 fps when he ran Rise of the Tomb Raider on his ma­chine with­out any EGPU magic.)

WHO WOULD DO THIS TO THEM­SELVES?

I’ve spent all my time dis­cussing EGPUS in the con­text of games. But that isn’t what Ap­ple orig­i­nally had in mind. In­stead,

EGPUS are a way for de­vel­op­ers to har­ness more power across mul­ti­ple dis­plays with rapid re­fresh rates while us­ing graph­i­cally de­mand­ing apps like Blender ( go.mac­world. com/bldr; which was clearly com­pat­i­ble with our EGPU). In ad­di­tion, the ex­tra power makes it eas­ier to edit 360-de­gree vir­tual re­al­ity projects, as it’s pos­si­ble to do the cod­ing on the Mac proper and see the re­sults with an HTC Vive on an ex­ter­nal mon­i­tor. Ap­ple even lets you hook up mul­ti­ple EGPUS if you wish.

Weirdly, Fi­nal Cut Pro X ap­par­ently doesn’t use ex­ter­nal cards to help with ren­der­ing, but there’s a clear ad­van­tage to

us­ing an EGPU for any­one work­ing in 3D mod­el­ing. Be­yond that, EGPUS pro­vide a way to keep the pow­er­ful imac Pro com­par­a­tively up-to-date once it gets past its prime since its parts can’t be switched out as they can with a PC tower.

But what about folks who just want to play games? I could still see this be­ing an at­trac­tive op­tion for some­one who does al­most all of his or her other work on a Mac­book but still likes to play the oc­ca­sional high-bud­get game. For most of the day, our hy­po­thet­i­cal GPU en­thu­si­ast could tote their Mac­book to the cof­fee shop or what­ever, where it would do al­most all of the tasks it needs to do with com­pe­tence and style. But when they want to lose them­selves in a graph­i­cally in­ten­sive game for a while, this setup al­lows them to take that same lap­top and briefly trans­form it into some­thing even more pow­er­ful. I ad­mit even I find the idea at­trac­tive on some level.

For that mat­ter, for those of you who are still in­ter­ested in vir­tual re­al­ity, it fi­nally makes the HTC Vive a work­able op­tion on less ex­pen­sive Mac prod­ucts.

But for ev­ery­one else, it’s a has­sle, and the fea­ture some­times feels as though it’s still in beta. You can’t use EGPUS in Win­dows through Boot Camp, for in­stance, which means that tak­ing ad­van­tage of an Nvidia card through that means is still out of the ques­tion. (This feels like a par­tic­u­larly low blow.) Again, you have to hook up an ex­ter­nal mon­i­tor to even see the ef­fects from the new card. And even if you’re okay with all that, you’re still stuck with the same rel­a­tively small li­brary of

Mac games, many of which weren’t graph­i­cally de­mand­ing enough to war­rant at­tach­ing an EGPU in the first place.

I’m hop­ing EGPU sup­port is but a work in progress, and that Ap­ple can smooth out the is­sues in fu­ture up­dates. (Judg­ing by how Ap­ple has been drag­ging its feet with what seems like rel­a­tively sim­ple Home­pod patches, I wouldn’t count on them com­ing soon. On the other hand, of­fi­cial EGPU sup­port came out ex­actly when Ap­ple said it would.) Right now, the ser­vice is but a strong foun­da­tion of what it could be, and dur­ing this week’s ( go.mac­world. com/apns) pod­cast we spec­u­lated that Ap­ple’s ex­per­i­ments here may be re­lated to the sup­posed mod­u­lar up­grades in the up­com­ing new Mac Pro. In­deed, the more I think about it, the more I be­lieve EGPU sup­port would be per­fect for a new Mac mini, but who knows when we’ll see one of those.

If you’re will­ing to deal with some lim­i­ta­tions and po­ten­tially high costs, EGPUS do en­hance the Mac gam­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. But you may find that work­ing around those lim­i­ta­tions is not worth the ef­fort. ■

And don’t for­get: You’ll prob­a­bly need an ex­ter­nal hard drive, too.

In some ways, the Radeon RX 580 is only slightly more pow­er­ful than my built-in Radeon Pro 555.

Bench­marks from a 15-inch 2017 Mac­book Pro us­ing Unig­ine’s Bench­mark Val­ley on Ul­tra (fullscreen), both with the EGPU and with­out.

It’s no dif­fer­ent from dis­con­nect­ing a drive.

Hon­estly, putting the graph­ics card in the chas­sis was the most dif­fi­cult part of the process, and that took maybe three min­utes.

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