Best Thunderbolt 3 eGPU enclosures for macOS

Posted:
in General Discussion edited September 2020
On Friday, Blackmagic announced it has discontinued their Vega 56-powered Thunderbolt 3 eGPU Pro. However, there are excellent -- and upgradeable -- options, that won't break the bank.

Sonnet's eGFX Breakaway Box 650
Sonnet's eGFX Breakaway Box 650


Blackmagic's eGPU line was excellent. It was quiet, and probably the most Apple-like of all the options. While the Radeon RX580-based version is still available, the higher-end Vega 56 model has only been canceled because of the discontinuation of the chipset that sat at the core of that particular model.

But, if you're in the market for an eGPU, there are options. AppleInsider recommends building your own.

What is an eGPU

Since the release of the Thunderbolt specification a decade ago, there has been discussion and work on using an external enclosure of some sort, with a PCI-E GPU card. For years, solutions relied on an assortment of hacks to work properly, and were hamstrung by bandwidth limitations.

That (mostly) changed when High Sierra arrived. An addition of the technology to High Sierra the spring following its release allowed AMD video card users to buy an enclosure for the card, and connect it to a Mac to get a boost to the chipsets included on any given Thunderbolt 3 machine.

Who will benefit from an eGPU

Benefits vary, depending greatly on the workload. Anything reliant on video frame rate will see a benefit. Additionally, there is some benefit to some video transcoding loads -- but not all of them.

As an added bonus, the eGPU keeps the heat generated by graphics processing out of the small Mac Mini and MacBook Pro. While this varies a great deal depending on workload, in our testing, a Mac mini with an eGPU connected to a 4K display will maintain higher processor "turbo" speeds for longer, and will run cooler in periods of low load.

This all said, you won't quite get full speed out of a PCI-E video card. So, if you've got a Mac Pro, don't bother with an eGPU. Just get the cabling kit for your video card, and use one of the PCI-E slots in the Mac Pro instead for maximum benefit.

And, if you want to delve deeper, or hit a snag, there is a giant community devoted to the technology at egpu.io.

eGPU enclosure with PCI-E video card, or all-in-one eGPU

There are eGPU enclosures with built-in cards, like the Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Puck series. While we've suggested them in the past, at this time, it's hard to recommend them. Time marches on, and so do graphics chipsets.

There's a reason that the Vega 56 chipset for the higher-end Blackmagic eGPU Pro isn't made anymore -- it's been eclipsed by two newer releases. The Radeon VII plus Radeon 5600 and 5700 families have been released since the Blackmagic eGPU Pro, and either of which can be slotted into an enclosure.

The best eGPU enclosures for Mac

Based on our own experience with testing and daily use extending into 2020, we have two families of eGPU enclosures that we like the most, as of April 2020.
  • Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Box
  • Razer Core X and Razer Core Chroma

Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Box 650

Sonnet wasn't first to market with an eGPU case, but they were the first one anointed by Apple. Sonnet's eGFX Breakaway Box was used to demonstrate the technology at the 2017 WWDC, and a special version was included in Apple's bundle that was sold to developers to get them on-board with the technology.

Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Box 650 Thunderbolt 3 eGPU
Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Box 650 Thunderbolt 3 eGPU


There are several Sonnet eGPU enclosures now, but the best one is the Sonnet 650 with the beefier power supply and support for 100W of charging power to a host computer -- crucial to support full charging speeds in the 16-inch MacBook Pro. The Sonnet 650, like the Razer, can take the cards that demand the most power like the Radeon VII.

The Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Box 650 retails for $299.

Razer Core X

The Razer Core X is the first of Razer's Core eGPU lineup to feature Mac support. A tool-less drawer-style slide and lock mechanism is used to install the graphics card into the PCIe slot, secured with a single thumbscrew, with the enclosure capable of accommodating physically larger "3 slot-wide" cards. Perforated sides and cooling fans are also employed to keep the card and the chassis as cool as possible.

The enclosure supports 375 watts of power to GPU operation and 87W to the connected MacBook Pro.

The Razer Core X retails for $299 and is available at B&H Photo.

Razer Core X Chroma

The Core X Chroma has the same basic design as its predecessor, consisting of a black aluminum enclosure with a side window. It features lighting effects to illuminate the graphics card and the front, but this time using Razer's Chroma lighting system capable of producing 16.8 million colors.

Razer Core X Chroma Thunderbolt 3 eGPU
Razer Core X Chroma Thunderbolt 3 eGPU


Inside, the 650-Watt power supply used has been switched out for a 700-Watt version, enabling it to handle graphics cards with power requirements of up to 500 Watts. Power delivery is also provided to a connected MacBook Pro using the Thunderbolt 3 connection, at up to 100 Watts.

As well as Thunderbolt 3, the enclosure also offers Gigabit Ethernet connectivity, and four USB 3.1 Type-A connections.

The Razer Core X Chroma retails for $399.

What video cards can be used in an eGPU on macOS Catalina

Regretfully, there is no way to use an Nvidia card on macOS Catalina, for reasons too complicated to enumerate here -- but we have done so elsewhere. There is a wide array of AMD cards available, at a variety of price points.

Apple says the following cards can be used in an eGPU. Prices vary a great deal, with the RX 470 retailing for about $110, and the Radeon Pro WX 9100 selling for about $1500. And, don't forget cabling -- the 18-inch Thunderbolt 3 cable that ships with the eGPU enclosure is too short to be practical in most installations.

AppleInsider is presently using a Vega 64, Radeon VII, and RX 5700XT in eGPU enclosures from a variety of manufacturers, including the two listed here.

How to use your own eGPU with a USB-C display

Until relatively recently, it's been impossible to connect a USB-C display to a video card in a discrete eGPU enclosure. A bidirectional USB Type-C to DisplayPort Cable solves this particular problem, with the 6-foot nylon-braided cable having a USB Type-C connection on one end and DisplayPort on the other.

Given that this cable is bi-directional, any given eGPU enclosure that holds a video card with a DisplayPort connection -- effectively all of them -- can accelerate a USB-C display. And, if you were pressed, this can also allow an older monitor that uses DisplayPort 1.4 to be connected to a USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 connection directly, without needing an adapter.

The cable is compliant with DisplayPort 1.4 and VESA DisplayPort Alternate Mode 1.0a, allowing it to provide video at a resolution of up to 4K at 60Hz. The bidirectional conversion itself is performed between the HPD signal and Power Delivery VDM integral to the cable.

Monoprice is selling the Bidirectional USB Type-C to DisplayPort Cable for $29.99, in black.

Comments

  • Reply 1 of 17
    cloudycloudy Posts: 1member
    I suspect the reason why Blackmagic no longer sells their eGPUs is because of low sales. I would have gladly bought one or the eGPU solution you listed if Apple supported Nvidia cards and their drivers in MacOS. Unfortunately as your story outlined Apple is choosing to not support Nvidia. This is unacceptable and means I will soon have to buy a PC (which I'm obviously not excited about). Apple has deprecated support for OpenGL, doesn't support CUDA, and that means if you want to use popular software like Blender it's as if your high powered machine has no GPU. That's crazy.  Decisions like this are driving video professional away from Apple hardware.
  • Reply 2 of 17
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 6,259administrator
    cloudy said:
    I suspect the reason why Blackmagic no longer sells their eGPUs is because of low sales. I would have gladly bought one or the eGPU solution you listed if Apple supported Nvidia cards and their drivers in MacOS. Unfortunately as your story outlined Apple is choosing to not support Nvidia. This is unacceptable and means I will soon have to buy a PC (which I'm obviously not excited about). Apple has deprecated support for OpenGL, doesn't support CUDA, and that means if you want to use popular software like Blender it's as if your high powered machine has no GPU. That's crazy.  Decisions like this are driving video professional away from Apple hardware.
    They still the RX580 version.
  • Reply 3 of 17
    crowleycrowley Posts: 8,728member
    cloudy said:
    I suspect the reason why Blackmagic no longer sells their eGPUs is because of low sales
    I can't imagine why anyone would sell such an expensive and limited solution.

    Razer Core X with Vega 56 user here.
  • Reply 4 of 17
    jjojjo Posts: 4member
    Even though I use it in Windows not macos I can vouch for the Sonnet. I've had a Breakaway Box 550 with an RTX 2070 for a year and it's rock solid. Use it with a Gram 17 I bought around the same time. It detects reliably. No matter how many times I unplug it and plug it back in, sleep, power cycle, it always disconnects and reconnects rock sold. I'd have zero problems recommending then to a macos user with an AMD card. 
    jdiamond
  • Reply 5 of 17
    I have a Sonnet 650 with a reputable RX580 inside, hooked to a maxed 2019 13” MacBook Pro. Before Catalina, everything worked perfectly, but after the upgrade (and I waited for a .3 release) it was a random mess — the computer wouldn’t boot if connected to the eGPU at startup, many programs wouldn’t see the eGPU unless started in clamshell mode and even after seeing it wouldn’t use it, there were freezes that would only occur with the eGPU... Only after the latest .4 update things seem to have gotten back to normal, so something like 6 months after the Catalina launch. Admittedly, most pros are not fast to upgrade the OS on a mission-critical machine, but I wanted the new functionality on a computer that’s mixed personal and work use and I figured something as basic and so well officially supported by Apple MUST work from the beginning. Wrong. So I will be forever paranoid with the current setup. I really like the combination of good portability on the road paired with great power at home, but I guess I will go for a fully integrated 16” at upgrade time. Unless Apple releases a 14” with discrete GPU.
    edited April 2020 jdiamonddysamoriacgWerks
  • Reply 6 of 17
    PylonsPylons Posts: 32member
    Thanks for the article! I've been following the eGPU scene quite a bit but have yet to make a purchase. Currently leaning towards the Razer Core X because it's widely available through regular retail channels also outside the US. An eGPU is a great way to make any Mac a lot more upgradable and future-proof. My worry however is that Apple may not be taking eGPUs seriously enough, for example taking long time to fix stability issues like ones mentioned by ShapeshiftingFish. For more reading I can also recommend taking a look at the Buyer's Guide at eGPU.io, https://egpu.io/best-egpu-buyers-guide They also have a large community (as already mentioned in the article) with lots of helpful users in the forums.
    jdiamonddysamoria
  • Reply 7 of 17
    I agree with some other posters here: the biggest issue is the ongoing feud with Nvidia. There was a time Mac was the goto machine for the creative industry, but they gave it up for the lucrative iPhone (not a mistake, just a valid business strategy). But when they saw their Halo Effect dim, they did not do what was critical: get back to Nvidia. 

    Their AMD exclusive has worked against them badly, none of my core design apps take advantage of AMD GPU’s (After Effects, Premiere, C4D), so there’s no need for an eGPU. I have a 2018 iMac Pro w/ Vegas 64, and I’ve never seen any advantage of the power. 

    Please Apple, eat some crow. Give us Nvidia support. I know other things are “afoot,” (Metal for AMD, and ARM CPU’s), but if you really want to give us a reason to invest in a 2020 Mac Pro, key us load that bastard with RTX-Ultra-SuperClocked-Uber-2080 cards. Please.
    jdiamondentropys
  • Reply 8 of 17
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 6,259administrator
    AniMill said:
    I agree with some other posters here: the biggest issue is the ongoing feud with Nvidia. There was a time Mac was the goto machine for the creative industry, but they gave it up for the lucrative iPhone (not a mistake, just a valid business strategy). But when they saw their Halo Effect dim, they did not do what was critical: get back to Nvidia. 

    Their AMD exclusive has worked against them badly, none of my core design apps take advantage of AMD GPU’s (After Effects, Premiere, C4D), so there’s no need for an eGPU. I have a 2018 iMac Pro w/ Vegas 64, and I’ve never seen any advantage of the power. 

    Please Apple, eat some crow. Give us Nvidia support. I know other things are “afoot,” (Metal for AMD, and ARM CPU’s), but if you really want to give us a reason to invest in a 2020 Mac Pro, key us load that bastard with RTX-Ultra-SuperClocked-Uber-2080 cards. Please.
    https://appleinsider.com/articles/19/04/07/new-adobe-creative-cloud-video-editing-applications-now-dramatically-boosted-by-egpu
  • Reply 9 of 17
    keithwkeithw Posts: 57member
    I bought the Blackmagic Pro just so I could use the Apple 6k monitor with my iMac Pro (in full 6k mode.) Unless I’m wrong, there are no other standard video cards that have a Thunderbolt 3 output.  
    jdiamondcgWerks
  • Reply 10 of 17
    jdiamondjdiamond Posts: 101member
    The worst part of Apple's focus on Metal is it means the Mac loses a lot of cross platform games because it doesn't support a cross platform graphics API and they can't afford to write an entirely different engine just for the Mac. Maybe someone can write an OpenGL compatibility library in Metal? I get that Vulkan is supposed to replace OpenGL, but it's a mess right now - it's the Itanium of standards.
    dysamoriacgWerks
  • Reply 11 of 17
    cloudy said:
    I suspect the reason why Blackmagic no longer sells their eGPUs is because of low sales. I would have gladly bought one or the eGPU solution you listed if Apple supported Nvidia cards and their drivers in MacOS. Unfortunately as your story outlined Apple is choosing to not support Nvidia. This is unacceptable and means I will soon have to buy a PC (which I'm obviously not excited about). Apple has deprecated support for OpenGL, doesn't support CUDA, and that means if you want to use popular software like Blender it's as if your high powered machine has no GPU. That's crazy.  Decisions like this are driving video professional away from Apple hardware.
    A bit misinformed on a few things here. Firstly...Blackmagic are no longer selling their Vega 56 based eGPU because AMD are no longer producing the Vega 56 chipset. As has been point out already...they are still producing the woefully underpowered RX580 model. The situation with nVidia is like most disputes in live...is far more nuanced than telling Apple to get it’s finger out. It’s a two sided story with some great articles online regarding it. As far as software like Blender...I would also include Maya here...their performance can be majorly boosted by using available AMD Pro-Render software which recognises all available GPUs including external graphics boxes...some performance benchmarks here... https://barefeats.com/akitio-node-titan-egpu-and-pro-macs.html . I use DaVinci Resolve on my 2028 Mac Mini with 64GB of Ram and two Radeon VIIs inside two Razer Core Xs for major performance gains as Resolve is written to take advantage of multiple GPUs...so I don’t accept the argument that Apple is driving video artist’s away from the platform. Sure...an affordable Mac Pro would be the best solution for a lot of people...and I would love to see that but Apple is still a guid platform for creatives. Now...if Adobe would get their fingers out... 😁
    fastasleep
  • Reply 12 of 17
    jdiamond said:
    The worst part of Apple's focus on Metal is it means the Mac loses a lot of cross platform games because it doesn't support a cross platform graphics API and they can't afford to write an entirely different engine just for the Mac. Maybe someone can write an OpenGL compatibility library in Metal? I get that Vulkan is supposed to replace OpenGL, but it's a mess right now - it's the Itanium of standards.
    Apple should focus on Metal, it's a better library anyway. A lot of games are made using a commercial engine (epic, unity) and they offer Metal support. And there is a (free) library that maps Vulkan to Metal quite transparently, so there is no excuse for developers to not use that. Except for unit sales, and that's why you won't see a lot of games. Also, who in their right mind will pay the same amount of money on the GPU case as on the GPU itself? Add a few 100 more and you have a pretty decent gaming pc capable of running everything. So you roll a hackintosh withen opencore and get both and more, for less.
    dysamoria
  • Reply 13 of 17
    dysamoriadysamoria Posts: 3,429member
    I still see these things as offering a half-baked solution for Apple selling machines that are designed as thermally-incompetent for hot & long-term/heavy GPU/CPU workflows.

    Can you game on these in Windows, or does bootcamp still not support eGPU?

    I don’t want to buy a newer Mac AND build a new PC. I hate PCs and swore I’d never do it again. If I have to boot to Windows on a Mac for [non-hardcore] gaming, so be it, but the hardware has to actually survive this. I’ve already lost a MacBook Pro to thermal design stupidity (gaming & 3D rendering, and bad design by Apple & nVidia, killed it).

    What I really want is a proper full size machine, but Apple doesn’t think anyone but Hollywood FX houses and plutocrats need them, so they charge three times as much as they used to for such power-user machines, obnoxiously pricing hobbyists out of the market. These eGPU devices aren’t made by Apple. They seem like they’re barely supported by Apple, as shown by what people suffer when the OS is “upgraded”. It’s a half-assed solution to compensate for not selling the right machine for people who need it.
    cgWerks
  • Reply 14 of 17
    rain22rain22 Posts: 132member
    The days of creative professionals using Mac’s has been crashing for years. Our agency bought new iMacs last year and will most likely end a 27 year run with them. The value just isn’t there anymore and you need to be smoking crack to believe Apple cares about the industry - and will support it in the future. 

    Bring back value - discard the glued-down / special hex nut - wallet sucking proprietary obsolescence and maybe designers will come back. 

    When $700 coasters roll out before an industry screaming for an X Mac - you know it’s game over. 
    Pylons
  • Reply 15 of 17
    cgWerkscgWerks Posts: 2,720member
    cloudy said:
    I suspect the reason why Blackmagic no longer sells their eGPUs is because of low sales. ...
    They still the RX580 version.
    Yeah, I sure hope this is only because of AMD discontinuing that particular chipset, and we'll see another update of their 'pro' eGPU!

    Awesome article BTW. Thanks for commenting about the quiet nature of the Blackmagic, which is why I went that direction. Could you comment on the sound levels with these kind of reviews though (some measurement would be great!). Comparison with the Blackmagic in that regard would be even better, as the BM is effectively silent (though not technically). I can't hear mine, even under full load, unless I'm in a super-quiet room and know what I'm listening for.

    crowley said:
    cloudy said:
    I suspect the reason why Blackmagic no longer sells their eGPUs is because of low sales
    I can't imagine why anyone would sell such an expensive and limited solution.
    Razer Core X with Vega 56 user here.
    Noise, especially under load. Or, maybe they just want something they hope will be best supported and that they don't have to monkey with.

    ... Before Catalina, everything worked perfectly, but after the upgrade (and I waited for a .3 release) it was a random mess — the computer wouldn’t boot if connected to the eGPU at startup, many programs wouldn’t see the eGPU unless started in clamshell mode and even after seeing it wouldn’t use it, there were freezes that would only occur with the eGPU... Only after the latest .4 update things seem to have gotten back to normal, so something like 6 months after the Catalina launch. ...
    Yeah, I now (and have for the last several versions) wait 6mo to 1yr before upgrading MacOS. I used to jump on them within the first week or two back in the day. This is especially true if you're using more specialized hardware or many of the pro apps. I'm starting to think... maybe one of these days, but then I still hear a story here or there, and figure I'll wait a few more months.

    AniMill said:
    ... Their AMD exclusive has worked against them badly, none of my core design apps take advantage of AMD GPU’s (After Effects, Premiere, C4D), so there’s no need for an eGPU. I have a 2018 iMac Pro w/ Vegas 64, and I’ve never seen any advantage of the power.
    C4D doesn't do any thing with AMD cards? I'm not a C4D user, but I'm surprised to hear that.

    kaithefilmgeek said:
    A bit misinformed on a few things here. Firstly...Blackmagic are no longer selling their Vega 56 based eGPU because AMD are no longer producing the Vega 56 chipset. As has been point out already...they are still producing the woefully underpowered RX580 model. ...
    I'd like to see the non-pro BM model updated, but I'm curious what it would be updated to? While the 580 isn't new anymore, is there a replacement (in the price range) that would give huge benefits?

    As I was telling someone on another forum the other day, be sure to seek out some benchmarks (as real-world as possible... the kind of apps you're intending to use) before deciding on a GPU. While the 580 isn't going to compete with the higher end cards, it is a HUGE leap over the iGPUs in many Macs. Then, you'll get another X% by taking the step up to the higher-end, but at considerable cost.

    dysamoria said:
    I still see these things as offering a half-baked solution for Apple selling machines that are designed as thermally-incompetent for hot & long-term/heavy GPU/CPU workflows.

    Can you game on these in Windows, or does bootcamp still not support eGPU?

    I don’t want to buy a newer Mac AND build a new PC. I hate PCs and swore I’d never do it again. If I have to boot to Windows on a Mac for [non-hardcore] gaming, so be it, but the hardware has to actually survive this. I’ve already lost a MacBook Pro to thermal design stupidity (gaming & 3D rendering, and bad design by Apple & nVidia, killed it).

    What I really want is a proper full size machine, but Apple doesn’t think anyone but Hollywood FX houses and plutocrats need them, so they charge three times as much as they used to for such power-user machines, obnoxiously pricing hobbyists out of the market. These eGPU devices aren’t made by Apple. They seem like they’re barely supported by Apple, as shown by what people suffer when the OS is “upgraded”. It’s a half-assed solution to compensate for not selling the right machine for people who need it.
    Yeah, I hear you. The best Apple has right now, besides the Mac Pro, is the mini or maybe a MBP 16" (assuming the thermals are enough better). But, they aren't ideal solutions.

    That said, I'm pretty happy with my mini and Blackmagic eGPU. I got the i7 mini, and just use Turbo Boost Switcher Pro to cut the turbo off, which makes it run much more reasonably most of the time. Also, with the T2, I can do most video encoding I've needed to do without working it too hard. My impression is that it will probably hold up pretty well (compared to my past MBP experiences, which have been similar to yours. I've killed/damaged a couple of them in the past).

    re: Bootcamp - well, it's complicated. I got mine working in Bootcamp, but it certainly wasn't plug-n-play. And, I'm scared of major updates to Windows. I'm on 1809 right now, but am hoping everything is OK with the next version before M$ forces it. I'd like to do another entire re-install at some point on the latest Windows to see if everything is easier now.

    To be honest, though, Windows (once I got it working properly) has been more stable than MacOS. It hasn't crashed once, but MacOS has frozen up a couple of times (though that was in early 2019, and hasn't happened since).

    rain22 said:
    When $700 coasters roll out before an industry screaming for an X Mac - you know it’s game over. 
    I think there are a couple of industries going on here. The people the new Mac Pro is aimed at seem to love it, and have no issue paying for it. But, agree, there are a LOT of professionals that would sure like something in-between.
  • Reply 16 of 17
    cgWerks said:

    As I was telling someone on another forum the other day, be sure to seek out some benchmarks (as real-world as possible... the kind of apps you're intending to use) before deciding on a GPU. While the 580 isn't going to compete with the higher end cards, it is a HUGE leap over the iGPUs in many Macs. Then, you'll get another X% by taking the step up to the higher-end, but at considerable cost.
    This I would like to know, too. Is there a newer gpu which is better and replaces the rx t80?

    Does it still make sense to purchase a Razer Core X with a RX580 or is it stupid to invest money in the 580?

    I have a MacBook Pro late 2016 with 8gb ram and r480 graphics card with a 4g. I am looking in getting the Razer core with an RX580 8 gb ram, so that I can do some WoW gaming and also some to give some boost to my Final Cut Pro editings.


    Thanks!
    edited September 2020
  • Reply 17 of 17
    cgWerkscgWerks Posts: 2,720member
    vladix said:
    cgWerks said:

    As I was telling someone on another forum the other day, be sure to seek out some benchmarks (as real-world as possible... the kind of apps you're intending to use) before deciding on a GPU. While the 580 isn't going to compete with the higher end cards, it is a HUGE leap over the iGPUs in many Macs. Then, you'll get another X% by taking the step up to the higher-end, but at considerable cost.
    This I would like to know, too. Is there a newer gpu which is better and replaces the rx t80?

    Does it still make sense to purchase a Razer Core X with a RX580 or is it stupid to invest money in the 580?

    I have a MacBook Pro late 2016 with 8gb ram and r480 graphics card with a 4g. I am looking in getting the Razer core with an RX580 8 gb ram, so that I can do some WoW gaming and also some to give some boost to my Final Cut Pro editings.


    Thanks!
    I'm not sure. You'd have to find benchmarks comparing the cards you're considering (and what you're coming from). The main point, though, was that the RX580 isn't a bad card. It is just a kind of base dedicated GPU these days, which is a big step up from integrated graphics. Also, depending on the task/goal, certain cards do better than others.  You can find a lot of various testing here, but you'd have to search through various articles trying to find what is relevant: https://barefeats.com

    Isn't that a dedicated GPU you already have?

    But, one thing to keep in mind, is that running an eGPU will off-load that from the one internal to your laptop, which will make it run cooler (and likely leave more headroom for CPU performance).
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