Best external graphics cards (eGPUs) for Mac
External GPU for Mac Apple’s new-found love for VR and AR means it has introduced support for external graphics cards into macOS at last. We round up the best eGPUs for the Mac Welcome to our guide to Mac eGPUs. In this article we explain the advantages of using an external graphics card with your Mac or MacBook, and round up the best buying options currently available.
Why do we need eGPUs?
Macs are often criticised for being overpriced and underpowered – especially when it comes to the kind of graphics performance that is needed for the latest 3D games, or for professional video-editing and animation software. But, in the past couple of years, Apple has started to recognise that Macs need a bit of a graphics boost in order to tackle tasks such as virtual reality and augmented reality. Apple has also announced a gaming subscription service that’s due to arrive later this year – which suggests that it’s finally waking up to the Mac games scene at last – and there are rumours that it’s developing a VR headset that will require plenty of 3D graphics power to run properly.
External Graphics Card for Mac Air
But, unfortunately, many Macs and MacBook models still rely on ‘integrated graphics’ to handle graphics, video and animation work. An integrated graphics processor is a small graphics chip that is actually part of the Mac’s main processor (CPU) – rather than having a ‘dedicated’ graphics card (or GPU – ‘graphics processing unit’), which is a completely separate graphics card 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 later this year).
Recognising that this lack of internal expansion is a real weakness, Apple has come up with a different solution – one that is only possible now that the latest Macs and MacBook models all have super-fast Thunderbolt 3 ports. If you’ve got a Mac with Thunderbolt 3 that is running High Sierra or the latest Mojave version of the macOS, then you can now connect your Mac to an eGPU – or ‘external GPU’ – that allows you to have a powerful new graphics card that sits outside the Mac.
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. You can then simply insert your new graphics card into the expansion slot inside the enclosure, and then connect the 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 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 £250/$300 just to buy the empty enclosure on its own, and then add the cost of your new graphics card on top. The process of installing the graphics card can be a little daunting as well – especially for Mac users who haven’t come across eGPU technology before.
There are a few eGPUs that are sold with a graphics card already installed inside, such as the Blackmagic eGPU and Sonnet Puck that we review here. These are more expensive than ‘unpopulated’ enclosures, but they’re very quick and easy to install, and give you an instant ‘plug and play’ upgrade that doesn’t involve any work with a screwdriver. However, the graphics card is fixed inside the enclosure, so you can’t replace it and upgrade to an even faster graphics card in the future.
Which graphics cards are compatible with eGPUs?
In order to use an eGPU, you’ll need a fairly new Mac that has Thunderbolt 3 ports that can be used to physically connect the external enclosure to your Mac. Apple recommends that you have Mojave running on your Mac, but it is also possible to use an eGPU with Thunderbolt 3 Macs that are running the older High Sierra (although it has to be version 10.13.4 or later).
The choice of graphics card can be tricky, though. 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.
You should also remember that the high-end Radeon Pro and Vega graphics cards require a lot of power, so you should always check with the manufacturer of your eGPU enclosure to make sure that its internal power supply is suitable for the graphics card that you plan to use (most manufacturers do have this info on their web site, along with a list of compatible graphics cards).
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 generally 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 big-name PC manufacturers make their own eGPUs, such as the Asus and Razer enclosures that we review here. There are also specialist companies, such as Sonnet and Blackmagic, 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 year or so. In the meantime, here’s our round-up of the best eGPU enclosures that can turn your Mac into a real graphics powerhouse.
1. Best all-rounder for gaming, graphics and design: Razer Core X
Compatible graphics cards: Any AMD/nVidia GPU, requiring up to 500W power supply
The gaming gurus at Razer have always been good at supporting Macs – despite the fact that Apple has traditionally turned its nose up at gaming on the Mac – and its Core range of eGPU enclosures has been Mac-compatible for quite a long time.
The current Core X model isn’t admittedly terribly exciting to look at, simply consisting of a large, black metal box. And, at 230mm high, 165mm wide and 370mm deep, it will need plenty of desk space if you want to sit it beside your Mac (especially as Razer’s Thunderbolt cable is only 0.5m long, so you’ll have to buy a longer cable if you want to move the Core X down on to the floor).
Even so, the Core X is actually quite well designed, and also one of the most affordable eGPU enclosures currently available, costing just £260/$300 when bought on its own without a graphics card. Apple doesn’t support nVidia’s GeForce graphics cards on macOS, but the Core X will work with a wide range of AMD cards when used with a Mac, from the low-cost RX 470 up to the professional-level Radeon Pro and Vega cards. The sheer size of the Core X also means that it has room for a large internal power supply, which can drive even the most powerful graphics cards and still charge up a laptop at the same time.
It’s easy to set up and use as well, with a simple handle on the back of the unit that allows you to pull the case open and quickly install your graphics card without having to worry about too many nuts and bolts.
The low price means that the Core X doesn’t offer any additional features, though. There’s just a single Thunderbolt 3 port on the back that lets you connect the Core X to your Mac, but no other ports or connectors at all (and the video connectors for external monitors will be part of the graphics card that you supply yourself).
But the Core X gets the basics right, with its simple setup allowing us to quickly install our own Radeon RX 570 graphics card and give our Mac mini an impressive and affordable upgrade.
Razer is all about gaming so we started with our Batman test, and saw the Mac mini leap from a barely adequate 25fps with its standard integrated graphics to a fast and responsive 68fps. It’s also worth pointing out that the Radeon graphics card allowed us to activate additional graphics options – such as MSAA (multi-sample anti-aliasing) – that aren’t normally available with the Mac mini’s integrated graphics. This means that your games will look better as well as simply running faster.
The Core X can handle more serious work as well, with the Unigine Valley graphics test leaping from 5.7fps to 34fps with the Core X and our Radeon card, while the high-tier Aztec test in GFXBench saw a 6X increase, from 14.5fps to 88.5fps.
Those performance levels will vary, depending on your choice of graphics card, but the low cost of the Core X means that you’ll have more money left over to spend on a really good graphics card. And, if you do want something a little more versatile, then Razer has just announced a new model called the Core X Chroma, which will cost £380/$400 and provide additional USB and Ethernet ports, as well as some eye-candy lighting effects for the gaming brigade.
2. Best for high-end video, 3D graphics and VR: Blackmagic eGPU Pro
Compatible graphics cards: Radeon Pro 580 or RX Vega 56 (pre-installed)
Blackmagic Design has a long background in the professional video market, developing software such as DaVinci Resolve and Fusion for editing and special effects work. Its two eGPU products were primarily developed for use with Resolve and Fusion, but Apple seems to have adopted Blackmagic as its recommended eGPU upgrade for use with a wide range of professional graphics, video and virtual-reality tools.
Prices start at £599/$699 for the standard Blackmagic eGPU, which is sold with a Radeon Pro 580 graphics card already fitted inside it. However, its new eGPU Pro steps right up to a professional-level Radeon RX Vega 56 with 8GB of video memory. It costs a thumping £1,199/$1,199, but provides the sort of performance you’d expect from a top-of-the-range iMac or iMac Pro.
The two models look virtually identical, housed in an imposing metal tower that stands a full 295mm high – but only 177mm wide and deep, so it doesn’t actually take up much desk space when you sit it beside your Mac. The design looks great, but it’s practical too, as it funnels hot air upwards and away from the internal graphics card in order to keep it cool when you need to run heavy-duty 3D graphics or video software (or even some games).
The built-in graphics card means that installing the Blackmagic eGPU Pro is very simple – just plug in the power cable, and then use the included Thunderbolt cable to connect it to your Mac. There are two Thunderbolt 3 ports on the back of the unit – with one being used to connect to your Mac – and both HDMI and DisplayPort connectors as well, which will allow you to run three separate monitors all at the same. The eGPU Pro also has a USB hub built-in as well, with four USB 3.0 ports for connecting peripherals and accessories.
The eGPU Pro that we review here might be overkill for many people, but it delivers the goods for professional users who need really high-end performance. The integrated graphics in our Mac mini could only manage 5.7fps with the Unigine Valley benchmark, but the eGPU Pro stormed ahead with a 10X performance increase to 57fps. In contrast, the less expensive Radeon RX 570 cards used in our other tests typically managed around 35fps.
We saw the same 10X performance increase with the high-tier Aztec test in GFXBench. The Mac mini’s integrated graphics could only manage 14.5fps on this test, but plugging in the eGPU Pro allowed it to hit a full 145fps. And while we wouldn’t recommend the expensive eGPU Pro for gaming, it was able to boost the Mac mini’s performance with our Batman game from 25fps to 99fps even on the game’s highest graphics settings.
The only disadvantage with the Blackmagic eGPUs is that the graphics cards are fixed inside the case, and don’t allow you to remove them and replace them in the future – as you can do if you buy an empty enclosure such as the Asus XG Station Pro or the Razer Core X.
3. Best for laptop users, at home or in the office: Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Puck
Compatible graphics cards: AMD Radeon RX 570 (pre-installed)
Sonnet was one of the first companies to support Macs with its eGFX Breakaway Box a couple of years ago. There are several Breakaway Boxes in Sonnet’s current range – available with or without a graphics card, as you prefer – and they still make a good option for desktop Macs that need a graphics boost for video or 3D work.
However, Sonnet has also come up with the Puck, which is the first portable eGPU we’ve come across, and is ideal for use with laptops or a Mac mini. The Puck includes a built-in graphics card, but measures just 51mm high, 152mm wide and 130mm deep. It’s small enough to carry around in a backpack or briefcase, so you can easily carry it to a friend’s house for an evening of gaming, or take it into your office if you need to give your work laptop a boost every now and then.
We have to point out that the external power supply that goes along with the Puck is almost as big and heavy as the Puck itself, so it’s not quite as super-portable as Sonnet’s publicity photos suggest. Even so, having the option of carrying the Puck from one location to another will appeal to a lot of people – it’s a great upgrade for the 13in MacBook Pro, which only uses integrated graphics, or as a compact companion for the new Mac mini.
There are two versions of the Puck available at the moment, with prices starting at £456/$399 for a model with a Radeon RX 560 graphics card. However, we tested the more powerful model, which has a Radeon RX 570 and costs £648/$499. Using a built-in graphics card means the Puck is really easy to set up and use, as you just have to plug in that bulky power supply, and then use the bundled cable to connect the Puck to a Thunderbolt 3 port on your Mac.
The compact design of the Puck means you can easily sit it on your desk alongside your Mac, or perhaps buy one of Sonnet’s mounting brackets (£58/$59) to attach it to the back of your monitor. It’s also small enough to stack on top of a Mac mini, giving you a compact little powerhouse for gaming, graphics or video editing. The only thing to watch out for here is that there are three large air-vents on the front and sides of the Puck, so you do need to leave a bit of free space for ventilation.
The Radeon RX 570 in our review unit provides a good upgrade for Macs that only have integrated graphics. Connecting it to our Mac mini boosted gaming performance from just 25fps on our Batman test to a healthy 65fps, although at this price we’d have liked the Puck to provide 8GB of video memory rather than its standard 4GB. It can handle design and graphics work too, boosting the Unigine Valley test from just 5.7fps to 32fps, and the higher-tier Aztec test in GFXBench from 14.5fps to a very respectable 80fps.
The only minor oddity is that the Puck has one HDMI and three DisplayPort interfaces that allow you to connect up to four separate monitors. There can’t be many people who need four monitors, and we wouldn’t have minded swapping one or two of those video interfaces for some extra USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt ports instead. And, of course, the graphics card inside the Puck can’t be replaced or upgraded in the future.
But if space is at a premium at home or in your office, or you need a portable graphics upgrade that can easily be moved from one location to another, then the Puck is hard to beat.
4. Best for creative and professional users: Asus XG Station Pro
Compatible graphics cards: Radeon RX 570 and RX 580, and Radeon Pro WX7100
Asus is one of the top manufacturers of Windows PCs, and it has a division called Republic Of Gamers (RoG) that specialises in gaming gear. The first version of the XG Station was released as part of the RoG range a few years ago, and it’s a real beast – built like a tank and festooned with glowing lights to tempt gaming fans.
Mac users, however, tend to prefer elegant eye-candy, so Asus recently launched the XG Station Pro, a more streamlined eGPU enclosure aimed at professional and creative users. And although the two companies are rivals in the PC arena, Asus has worked with Apple to ensure that the XG Station Pro is certified fully compatible with macOS on Macs that have Thunderbolt 3.
Asus has also chosen a smart shade of ‘space grey’ for the aluminium chassis of the enclosure, ensuring that it will look very smart and professional alongside a Mac in your office. The XG Station Pro is slimmer than rivals such as the Razer Core X, measuring just 109mm wide, so it won’t take up too much space on your desk.
There’s a single Thunderbolt 3 port on the back for connecting to your Mac, along with one USB 3.1 port, and we were also pleased to see that the Thunderbolt cable provided by Asus is 1.5m long, making it easy to move the unit around while you set it up on your desk.
The slimline enclosure still has enough room for a full-length graphics card – going up to a Radeon Pro WX7100 for Mac users – and two powerful fans to keep the card cool. It doesn’t have room for an internal power supply, though, so you have to plug it into an external power ‘brick’ – although you can at least put that down on the floor to keep it out of the way.
We were a little disappointed by the installation process, which proved a bit more complicated than we would have liked. The XG Station Pro is sold ‘unpopulated’ – without a graphics card – and installing your own graphics card involves removing and replacing multiple screws and metal plates as you open up the case and then put it back together again. That might be a bit intimidating for people who haven’t tried to install a graphics card into an eGPU enclosure before, and the simple pull-out handle of Razer’s Core X is much easier to use. And, of course, the Sonnet and BlackMagic eGPUs include a pre-installed graphics card for people who prefer a really simple ‘plug and play’ upgrade.
Fortunately, the XG Station Pro performed very well once we’d installed our Radeon RX 570 graphics card, boosting the meagre 5.7fps of our Mac mini to a more respectable 35fps when running the demanding Unigine Valley tests. And while the Mac mini could only manage 14.5fps with the high-tier Aztec test in GFXBench the XG Station Pro cruised ahead at a smooth 90fps.
This pro device can turn its hand to a spot of off-duty gaming as well – lifting the Mac Mini’s performance from just 25fps in Batman: Arkham Asylum to a speedy 67fps, even on the game’s ‘extreme’ graphics settings.
As you might expect, those scores are similar to those of the Razer Core X when used with the same graphics cards. However, the XG Station Pro is more expensive than its Razer rival, with a UK price around £420 from Scan (which is also higher than its US price of $330, from Amazon or B&H Foto) so you’re paying a bit extra for that elegant, slimline design.