Video: Should you get an eGPU for your new 2018 Mac mini?

Posted:
in Current Mac Hardware edited February 16
The 2018 Mac mini is a welcome refresh to the compact Mac product line, but the Intel graphics are weak. AppleInsider examines whether it is worth the extra expense of adding an external GPU to the Mac mini.




In a previous comparison where the 2018 Mac Mini was put against the iMac 5K, it was decided the Mac mini is a great option for users who don't really need best-in-class graphical performance, such as for photo editing and other intensive media tasks. The Mac Mini doesn't pack a dedicated graphics card, and it definitely lags behind the iMac 5K which is supplied with a Radeon Pro GPU.





However, the Mac Mini does sport four Thunderbolt 3 ports, which means there is the opportunity of hooking up an eGPU, an external enclosure that houses a graphics card.

The actual setup process for the eGPU on the Mac mini is relatively straightforward, regardless of whether it is a separately bought graphics card and enclosure or a premade unit. If bought separately, insert the graphics card into the enclosure's PCI-e slot and insert the power connectors into the card. Plug your monitor into the card, then plug the enclosure into an outlet and connect it to the Mac mini's Thunderbolt 3 port.

Once connected, macOS should instantly recognize the eGPU and automatically start using it for graphics rendering.

Price comparisons

For the purposes of this test, a powerful $400 Radeon RX Vega 64 graphics card will be attached to the Mac mini using a $250 Sonnet 550-Watt eGPU enclosure via Thunderbolt 3. It is worth noting the enclosure is also capable of providing 87 Watts of power delivery, allowing it to recharge a connected MacBook for those interested in giving their portable Mac more graphical grunt.

The Mac mini next to the Sonnet eGPU enclosure
The Mac mini next to the Sonnet eGPU enclosure


The Mac mini in this case is upgraded with an Intel Core i7 processor and 512 gigabytes of storage. Instead of upgrading the RAM to 32 gigabytes for $600 through Apple, a 32-gigabyte upgrade kit was acquired for the far cheaper cost of $200. Following a memory swap, the total cost of the Mac mini in this case is approximately $1,700.

The price of the Vega 64 eGPU brings the entire boosted Mac mini setup to $2,350, excluding the monitor and peripherals. Add these extras on, and you're getting quite close to the cost of a similar-specification iMac 5K.

  • The AMD Radeon RX Vega 64
  • Installing a graphics card in an enclosure is relatively simple to accomplish


Just on comparative specifications, those switching from PC to Mac or upgrading from an earlier Mac mini model are likely to have their own mouse, keyboard, monitor, and in the case of the PC user, potentially even an AMD graphics card to add to an empty eGPU enclosure. In this sort of situation, opting for the Mac mini is probably going to offer the better overall value for money.

In the event you don't need all of the power offered by the Vega 64, an alternative option is to acquire a $200 RX 580 graphics card and combine it with the $200 350-Watt Sonnet eGPU enclosure. Going for these cheaper options brings the overall cost down to $2,100, saving $250.

The eGPU enclosure is a considerable investment in terms of desk space
The eGPU enclosure is a considerable investment in terms of desk space


Realistically, you can also save a good amount of cash on the Mac mini by opting for a smaller storage capacity, using less RAM, or maybe just going with the i5 processor instead of the i7 if you don't need that much processing power.

Performance

The main downside to using an eGPU is that it isn't as efficient as using an internal graphics card. The Thunderbolt 3 for a variety of reasons can shave off some performance compared to a native PCI-E connection, or a built-in version.

As part of the testing, the Radeon RX Vega 64 eGPU was put against the discrete Radeon Pro 580 in the iMac 5K and the Vega 56 installed in the iMac Pro. Both discrete cards are less powerful than the Vega 64 in the eGPU, but benefit from a wider data path than the Thunderbolt 3 eGPU.

Looking at raw performance in Geekbench 4's Metal test, the Mac Mini with Vega 64 scored similarly to the iMac Pro with the Vega 56 card, but quite a bit less than the iMac Pro with the same Vega 64 GPU. More importantly, the Mac mini using the eGPU achieves a score over six times greater than without the enclosure.



Synthetic benchmarks are a decent approximation of everyday tasking, but aren't a good indicator of specific performance on every given task. AppleInsider has its own real-world tests involving video editing in Final Cut Pro X. The tests also provide more variation in terms of load sharing, with some elements relying more on the processor than the eGPU, which can have more of a bearing on the final scores.

Starting with the BruceX Final Cut Pro benchmark, the Mac mini with the eGPU is right up there with the iMac Pro, and is even faster than the iMac 5K. Compared to the Mac mini by itself, there is a considerable performance increase with the external card.




In a test for stabilizing a 20-second 4K clip, the eGPU-equipped Mac mini is actually slower than both the iMac Pro and the iMac 5K, but again is still a marked improvement over the Mac mini alone, running approximately 3.5 times faster. The slowness despite having a more powerful card is likely down to the inefficiencies of using an externally-located graphics card.




In another video test exporting a 5 minute 4K project, the Vega 64 helps the Mac mini finish over twice as fast as a stock model, but it's unfortunately still slower than the iMacs. This is somewhat surprising as the Mac mini's processor and eGPU are both more powerful than what is offered in a top-of-the-line iMac 5K.




Moving on to a 5 minute 4.5K RED RAW project, the Mac mini actually outperforms the iMac 5K, as the Red RAW codec is extremely processor intensive rather relying than eGPU-based processing. Since the Mac mini's processor is faster, it finishes quicker than the iMac 5K.




In the last test, exporting a 60p Canon Raw Lite project, the Mac mini is yet again slower than the other two, because it is a less processor-intensive task, and more of GPU-bound one. However, it was able to play back the project at 52 frames per second compared to only 45 on the iMac 5K. The iMac Pro played back at the full 60 frames per second.



The result dropped down to around 22 frames per second in the Canon Raw project when the display was plugged directly into the Mac mini, instead of into the eGPU. Treat this as a warning that, if you ever use an eGPU, make sure the monitor is plugged directly into the enclosure.


A mixed result

If you already own a 2018 Mac mini, getting an eGPU can really boost graphics performance compared to the stock specification, but graphical power is your primary differentiator between the Mac Mini and the iMac 5K, just go with the iMac. It performed better in almost every test put to all of the models, even though the processor and graphics card aren't as powerful as the Mac mini's processor and the eGPU's graphics card. There is also the benefit of having a beautiful 5K display to use at the same time and minimal desk usage due to being an all-in-one unit.

Throughout, the iMac Pro showed itself to be a viable alternative to both of the other Macs, passing with decent results in all of the tests. It may not necessarily offer the cost savings of a Mac mini with an eGPU, but it is certainly an option for those looking for reliable performance.

Where to buy

Shoppers looking for the lowest prices on Apple's 2018 Mac mini can save $50 to $100 on every configuration with coupon discounts and/or instant rebates at Apple authorized resellers. Prices start at $749, with select retailers collecting sales tax in select states only. Sonnet's eGFX Breakaway Box eGPU enclosure is also on sale with prices starting at $199 at Amazon, while an AMD RX 580 graphics card can be found for $179.99 after a $20 rebate.

Meanwhile, current iMac 5Ks are up to $200 off, with prices starting at $1,599.
«1

Comments

  • Reply 1 of 33
    macxpressmacxpress Posts: 4,761member
    I bought an eGPU for my 2018 Mac mini. I have a Razer Core X with a Vega 56 graphics card. About $630 total for everything. It works natively with both macOS and Windows (Bootcamp). It was fully plug n' play and I'm very happy with it. I game with it in Windows (and sometimes in macOS) and it performs quite well. 
    edited February 16 chiaracerhomie3bigpicsStrangeDaysdavenmuthuk_vanalingam
  • Reply 2 of 33
    I think this demonstrates the need for a modular Mac Pro.
    mobirdentropyszeus423davgregGeorgeBMacbigpicsmuthuk_vanalingamcmka~+
  • Reply 3 of 33
    I think this demonstrates the need for a modular Mac Pro.
    Which is exactly what they said they were going to be releasing sometime this year, so Apple agrees.
    StrangeDays
  • Reply 4 of 33
    macxpressmacxpress Posts: 4,761member
    AF_Hitt said:
    I think this demonstrates the need for a modular Mac Pro.
    Which is exactly what they said they were going to be releasing sometime this year, so Apple agrees.
    I bet it won't be as modular as some think. 
    boboliciousentropyszeus423racerhomie3GeorgeBMacStrangeDaysfastasleep
  • Reply 5 of 33
    ...I understand from a fly on the wall that anecdotally the vega 20 is much faster and quieter (heat) in the i9 mbp than the 560, and so coulda/woulda/shoulda this be qualified as a BTO option for a true 'mini' workstation ? If not why not ?

    Has Apple run out of 'up-selling' gas for the iPhone, and are they pushing the limits in all areas 'for the rest of us' ?

    edited February 16 cmka~+
  • Reply 6 of 33
    sflocalsflocal Posts: 4,431member
    I own the 2018 Mac mini.  I knew going in that the graphics performance was going to suck.  I have it attached to two Apple TB2 monitors at the office.  The 6-core i7 is a beast.  I just wished Apple went that one extra inch and install a decent discreet GPU.  It doesn't even need to be the latest, and greatest, but just something that would work well within the mini's thermal constraints and provide anything better than what Intel offers.  I already had the monitors and didn't want to invest in an iMac, especially since they haven't been updated recently.

    I hope someone makes an eGPU housing that mimics the size and shape of the Mac mini.  Something I can stack on top of it.  These giant eGPU enclosures are interesting, but too big both physically and aesthetically for me to have an interest in it.

    I have a suspicion that the next version of the Mac mini will have an AMD GPU. 
    edited February 16 aegeanbageljoeymacplusplus
  • Reply 7 of 33
    sflocal said:
    I own the 2018 Mac mini.  I knew going in that the graphics performance was going to suck.  I have it attached to two Apple TB2 monitors at the office.  The 6-core i7 is a beast.  I just wished Apple went that one extra inch and install a decent discreet GPU.  It doesn't even need to be the latest, and greatest, but just something that would work well within the mini's thermal constraints and provide anything better than what Intel offers.  I already had the monitors and didn't want to invest in an iMac, especially since they haven't been updated recently.

    I hope someone makes an eGPU housing that mimics the size and shape of the Mac mini.  Something I can stack on top of it.  These giant eGPU enclosures are interesting, but too big both physically and aesthetically for me to have an interest in it.

    I have a suspicion that the next version of the Mac mini will have an AMD GPU. 
    This is the reason I didn't get the mac mini despite anticipating it. I was hoping for a larger redesigned enclosure which would of enabled better thermal performance so that they could of put in a decent discreet GPU. I didn't expect this after Apple ignored the mac mini for 4 years and also raising the price significantly for this updated mac mini. I expected more from a company of Apple's size and technical ability in which macOS computers are one of their core products.
    muthuk_vanalingam
  • Reply 8 of 33
    I own both 2018 Mac mini (maxed out) along with LG 5K Ultrafine display, and iMac Pro (base). I bought both machines for different purposes, mini as my new upgraded media server and IMac Pro as my main desktop computer for everything else. 

    Attaching anything external is not my cup of tea, and that's was the reason that I maxed out on mini. And these external GPU is definitely a big no for me regardless.  
    edited February 16 bryankd
  • Reply 9 of 33
    mcdavemcdave Posts: 1,094member
    Maybe create a Mac-on-a-card, like the old Radius Rocket.  Might be a good way of introducing their own silicon too.  Perhaps that’s why no more reporting of unit sales.
  • Reply 10 of 33
    entropysentropys Posts: 1,560member
    We have started the process of building a PC, mid range gamer set up with AMD ryzen 7 and Vega 64 blower. First non Mac I have ever set up apart from master entropy’s HP Spectre for school. To be honest, the price of an iMac would not be that different once you try to match the screen, except that you have to pay ludicrous mark ups for storage on the iMac which does not make macs look good price wise.  We have of course, not even tried to match the screen and have gone for a 2K job, and saved about a K, because it is for master entropy and teh gamez.

    We will see how it goes.  Yet it is a pretty big chink in our otherwise Apple gear household. Literally and figuratively.
    edited February 16 muthuk_vanalingam
  • Reply 11 of 33
    aegean said:
    I own both 2018 Mac mini (maxed out) along with LG 5K Ultrafine display, and iMac Pro (base). I bought both machines for different purposes, mini as my new upgraded media server and IMac Pro as my main desktop computer for everything else. 

    Attaching anything external is not my cup of tea, and that's was the reason that I maxed out on mini. And these external GPU is definitely a big no for me regardless.  
    I also purchased the maxed out 2018 Mac min and was looking forward to purchase the LG 5K Ultrafine display, until I read the recent Apple Insider review. Have you experienced the issues the article talked about, and can you run the display in its full resolution? Thanks for any light you can shed on the matter!
  • Reply 12 of 33
    sflocalsflocal Posts: 4,431member
    mike54 said:
    sflocal said:
    I own the 2018 Mac mini.  I knew going in that the graphics performance was going to suck.  I have it attached to two Apple TB2 monitors at the office.  The 6-core i7 is a beast.  I just wished Apple went that one extra inch and install a decent discreet GPU.  It doesn't even need to be the latest, and greatest, but just something that would work well within the mini's thermal constraints and provide anything better than what Intel offers.  I already had the monitors and didn't want to invest in an iMac, especially since they haven't been updated recently.

    I hope someone makes an eGPU housing that mimics the size and shape of the Mac mini.  Something I can stack on top of it.  These giant eGPU enclosures are interesting, but too big both physically and aesthetically for me to have an interest in it.

    I have a suspicion that the next version of the Mac mini will have an AMD GPU. 
    This is the reason I didn't get the mac mini despite anticipating it. I was hoping for a larger redesigned enclosure which would of enabled better thermal performance so that they could of put in a decent discreet GPU. I didn't expect this after Apple ignored the mac mini for 4 years and also raising the price significantly for this updated mac mini. I expected more from a company of Apple's size and technical ability in which macOS computers are one of their core products.
    Don't get me wrong.  My Mini was destined for the office and the most intense work it will do is to run the occasional Windows 10 Virtual Machine (Via VMWare Fusion) or the occasional Excel spreadsheets.  It's primarily for software coding.  Nothing more so graphics performance is not a priority.

    I bought the 6-core i7, with 16GB RAM and 1TB SSD.  Perfectly happy for what I bought it for.  My beef is that the Mini ran me about $2K which is still (imho) a bit pricey and for that kind of money, it should have put in a GPU.
    GeorgeBMac
  • Reply 13 of 33
    sflocalsflocal Posts: 4,431member

    bryankd said:
    aegean said:
    I own both 2018 Mac mini (maxed out) along with LG 5K Ultrafine display, and iMac Pro (base). I bought both machines for different purposes, mini as my new upgraded media server and IMac Pro as my main desktop computer for everything else. 

    Attaching anything external is not my cup of tea, and that's was the reason that I maxed out on mini. And these external GPU is definitely a big no for me regardless.  
    I also purchased the maxed out 2018 Mac min and was looking forward to purchase the LG 5K Ultrafine display, until I read the recent Apple Insider review. Have you experienced the issues the article talked about, and can you run the display in its full resolution? Thanks for any light you can shed on the matter!
    My understanding is that the recent 5K display that was tested had some wonky screen ratio.  It's not the regular LG 5K monitor that Apple recommends.  This particular monitor could in theory work with a proper display driver, but that's up to Apple.
  • Reply 14 of 33
    Discreet GPUs are the 1st thing that fails in modern laptops. I am actually glad that Apple only uses them in few of their laptops & desktops.External GPUs are the way to go.
  • Reply 15 of 33
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 4,199administrator
    sflocal said:

    bryankd said:
    aegean said:
    I own both 2018 Mac mini (maxed out) along with LG 5K Ultrafine display, and iMac Pro (base). I bought both machines for different purposes, mini as my new upgraded media server and IMac Pro as my main desktop computer for everything else. 

    Attaching anything external is not my cup of tea, and that's was the reason that I maxed out on mini. And these external GPU is definitely a big no for me regardless.  
    I also purchased the maxed out 2018 Mac min and was looking forward to purchase the LG 5K Ultrafine display, until I read the recent Apple Insider review. Have you experienced the issues the article talked about, and can you run the display in its full resolution? Thanks for any light you can shed on the matter!
    My understanding is that the recent 5K display that was tested had some wonky screen ratio.  It's not the regular LG 5K monitor that Apple recommends.  This particular monitor could in theory work with a proper display driver, but that's up to Apple.
    This is correct. The recent LG review was a strange screen ratio. The “original” 5K is fine.
    edited February 17
  • Reply 16 of 33
    tvleavitttvleavitt Posts: 2unconfirmed, member
    Just make sure you buy an AMD GPU, because it sure looks like Nvidia isn't going to be releasing Mojave compatible drivers anytime soon. Fortunately, though the used enclosure I bought came with a 1050 TI, I just happened to have a PC with dead video card available to pop it into. I'm now trying to figure out what the highest performance bus powered half-length GPU is... it's sure looking like a Radeon 560 ITX 4GB. Not the most powerful thing in the world, but it looks like it fits the power and size constraints, and is probably overkill for a unsupported TB2 enclosure attached to an older TB2 only Mac any way.
  • Reply 17 of 33
    I think this demonstrates the need for a modular Mac Pro.
    Or a BTO Mac mini with a discrete GPU.
    If H-P can do it, Apple should be able to, but the skinny form factor would have to go.

    I own the new mini, but Apple really dropped the ball by stubbornly putting form ahead of function. The similarly priced H-P can scale from an i3- i7 and to Xeon CPUs, can easily add memory or storage without tools and also can be set up with integrated or discrete GPU's.

    What is not mentioned by AI is that some of us do not want an all in one. For some that is a preference and for others it is a security requirement.
    muthuk_vanalingam
  • Reply 18 of 33
    Should you pay too much for an eGPU after you've paid too much for a Mac Mini? Kidding aside, I'm really really curious at what price point the Mac Pro will be introduced. Also curious about GPU support given that Nvidia now seems to permanently put in the naughty corner despite superior TDP and compute performance.
  • Reply 19 of 33
    macxpressmacxpress Posts: 4,761member
    michelb76 said:
    Should you pay too much for an eGPU after you've paid too much for a Mac Mini? Kidding aside, I'm really really curious at what price point the Mac Pro will be introduced. Also curious about GPU support given that Nvidia now seems to permanently put in the naughty corner despite superior TDP and compute performance.
    I bet it will start at around $3999-4999. I can't see it being a cheap Professional Mac. And then we can hear all of the whining comparisons on how you can get an iMac Pro for the same price. High-end Professional Workstations aren't for everyone and they generally aren't cheap. Where I work, we have sometimes $12,000 workstations sitting under the desk if the positions warrants it. I believe this is why Apple has the iMac Pro...for those that need a little more power than a standard iMac, but don't necessarily need the power of a Mac Pro. If you're buying a Mac Pro strictly so you can change out parts then you're buying it for all the wrong reasons. 
    edited February 17 fastasleep
  • Reply 20 of 33
    macxpressmacxpress Posts: 4,761member

    davgreg said:
    I think this demonstrates the need for a modular Mac Pro.
    Or a BTO Mac mini with a discrete GPU.
    If H-P can do it, Apple should be able to, but the skinny form factor would have to go.

    I own the new mini, but Apple really dropped the ball by stubbornly putting form ahead of function. The similarly priced H-P can scale from an i3- i7 and to Xeon CPUs, can easily add memory or storage without tools and also can be set up with integrated or discrete GPU's.

    What is not mentioned by AI is that some of us do not want an all in one. For some that is a preference and for others it is a security requirement.

    Okay, but how much does it continuously throttle under heavy load? How loud is it with 2 fans inside it? And yes, this all does make a difference in the end. Also that doesn't even have Thunderbolt 3 so you're locked into what video card it comes with. IMO, thats really no different than getting an iMac or Mac mini. I'd much rather get a Mac mini with an eGPU so you can change out the video card when necessary. 
    edited February 17
Sign In or Register to comment.