One of the most effective ways to boost the power and speed of your Mac is to get an eGPU. To ensure that your Mac can handle the demands of Virtual Reality games and apps, an eGPU is essential. Even if you’re not interested in VR gaming or apps, an External Graphics Card Unit is a modest investment that makes a huge improvement to the performance of your Mac. An eGPU is a basically an external unit that houses a powerful graphics card which will allow your MacBook Pro or iMac to deal with graphic intensive applications. Not only this but an eGPU unit turns your humble MacBook into a powerful desktop gaming system or 4K video editing system capable of competing with the very best. Advanced 3D graphics platforms such as NVIDIA CUDA, which are way beyond the capabilities of current Macs, suddenly become accessible with an eGPU. It also means that highly demanding games can be played at maximum resolution on Mac – something that current Macs struggle with or can’t handle. Most exciting of all however, is that eGPUs open-up the world of Virtual Reality to Mac users. However, not all eGPUs are compatible with MacBooks Pros or iMacs so here we take a closer look at the best eGPU for Mac users in 2018.
eGPU For Mac System Requirements
Unless you’re lucky enough to own one of the latest $4,999 iMac Pros which can handle VR out of the box, you’ll need to make sure your Mac meets some basic minimum requirements before getting an eGPU.
- Ideally you will need at least a MacBook Pro from early 2015 or iMac from mid 2015 or later in order for VR to work. This is because the only VR headset for Mac that officially supports macOS is the HTC Vive which requires an Intel Core i5 or higher.
- You’ll need a Thunderbolt 3 or Thunderbolt 2 Port. Thunderbolt 3 allows super fast data transfer speeds of up to 40Gbps. MacBook Pros built from 2016 and certain iMacs from 2017 onwards already have Thunderbolt 3 ports. If you’ve got an older Mac with a Thunderbolt 2 port you’ll also need a Thunderbolt 2 to 3 adapter. The following Macs only have Thunderbolt 2 ports: MacBook Air (13-inch, Early 2015) and later, iMac (21.5-inch, Late 2015), iMac (Retina 4K, 21.5-inch, Late 2015), iMac (Retina 5K, 27-inch, Late 2014) through 2015, Mac mini (Late 2014), MacBook Pro (Retina, 13-inch, Late 2013) through 2015, MacBook Pro (Retina, 15-inch, Late 2013) through 2015 and Mac Pro (Late 2013).
- You’ll need a graphics card to put inside the eGPU unit. You have to be careful with this because not all graphics cards are supported by High Sierra yet. If your Mac has a Thunderbolt 3 or Thunderbolt 2 port then any AMD graphics card will work. In particular, the AMD Radeon Saphire Nitro works perfectly and is a safe option if you want to save yourself headaches. Note that you should think twice before using NVIDIA cards for now as although NVIDIA has updated its graphics cards drivers recently and has issued Pascal drivers for the ultra powerful Titan X Pascal graphics card to work on Mac, there are still some issues with them working with eGPUs on High Sierra. Most users have found more success with AMD cards but as High Sierra is updated and the price of the Titan X comes down, there will be better support.
- You’ll need to be running the very latest version of macOS 10.13 High Sierra so make sure you’ve updated through the App Store. Throughout early 2018, Apple is slowly updating High Sierra to perform better with eGPUs as there are still bugs and stability issues such as having to log in and out of macOS when you connect and disconnect eGPU units. Apple has pledged that by spring 2018, High Sierra will have much better, stable eGPU support. The beta versions of High Sierra are always at the cutting edge of development but you can only install them if you’re a member of the Apple Beta Software Program. Although the beta versions offer better support, it’s recommended that you wait for the final releases as beta versions can be unstable and conflict with other apps on your Mac.
Best eGPU For MacBook Pro & iMac Of 2018
If you’ve got all this, you’re ready to go.
The main requirement Mac users should be looking for in an eGPU is that it supports Thunderbolt 3 as it requires the high data speeds of up to 40Gps that only Thunderbolt 3 connections can deliver to your Mac. As mentioned earlier, if your Mac only has a Thunderbolt 2 port, you can use an adapter to convert it to Thunderbolt 3. However, even if a box supports Thunderbolt 3, there seems to be some eGPUs that work better with Macs than others. There are also some that simply look better with a Mac than others.
With all this in mind, here then are the top eGPUs for Mac that support High Sierra and Thunderbolt 3.
The Sonnet eGFX has been officially endorsed by Apple to developers. In fact, Apple are selling the Sonnet eGPU as part of their External Graphics Development Kit for $599 for those that want to develop VR apps and games on Mac. The kit is only available to members of the Apple Development Program however and includes the Sonnet eGFX Breakway Box, AMD Radeon RX 580 8GB graphics card and Belkin USB-C to 4-port USB-A hub. This is actually a very good deal because although you can buy the Sonnet eGPU from Amazon for less than $250, the Radeon RX 580 graphics card will set you back almost $600 alone plus the Belkin Thunderbolt Hub a little less than $50. However, if you’ve already got a graphics card, it’s cheaper to buy the Sonnet eGFX and Thunderbolt Hub (if you don’t have a Thunderbolt 3 port) direct from Amazon. Either way, if you’re not part of the Apple Developer Program, you can’t buy it from Apple anyway and have to go the Amazon route.What we like about the Sonnet is that it’s extremely quiet. In fact even under extensive use and heavy load we’re yet to hear the fans whir. It comes with its own 350W power supply and the neat thing is that once connected to your Mac via Thunderbolt 3, it actually provides power to your Mac too – useful if you don’t have access to a power supply.
Like most eGPUs, it’s extremely easy to slot in a graphics card and your Mac will automatically detect it when you connect the Thunderbolt cable. If it doesn’t for any reason, try logging in and out of your Mac as High Sierra is still a bit temperamental when it comes to eGPU plug and play.
On the downside, it does feel like a big unit especially if you don’t have much space on your desk. It dwarfs most external drives and it needs to be fairly close to your Mac due to the rather short 0.5m Thunderbolt 3 cable. At the time of writing, there are also minor bugs with High Sierra such as the device not appearing in the About This Mac Menu and some Adobe applications don’t appear to utilize the full GPU memory. These will be ironed out however over the next few months as Apple continues to update High Sierra.
Note that the Sonnet also does not support running Windows through Boot Camp. We don’t recommend this anyway now that High Sierra supports eGPU units but if you are thinking of running Windows on your Mac, bear this in mind.
Supports Thunderbolt 3
Easy to plug and play graphics card
Also charges your MacBook Pro
Size – extremely big if you’ve got a small desk
Thunderbolt cable length (0.5m)
Some bugs with High Sierra but improving
Does not support Boot Camp
The Akitio Node is currently the biggest competitor to the Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Box and retails for around the same price. Akitio are based in California and specialize in doing everything in-house designing and creating new Thunderbolt peripherals. The products are extremely reliable, functional and are quickly gathering a dedicated following.
Like the Sonnet, the Akitio Node is very easy to set up and use with plug and play support for graphics cards. The Akitio Node has a PCIe (x16) slot that will take full-sized and also double-width cards. The Akitio Node also has a built-in power supply which can help if not enough power is getting to your graphics card.
The Akitio Node is pretty quiet although the extra power supply makes it slightly noisier than the Sonnet. On the downside, like the Sonnet it’s also a very big unit and takes up a lot of space on your desk. It’s also quite soft at the front of the unit so be careful when moving it around not to dent it. It does however have a useful carry handle on the back which makes it a bit easier to transport and move around than the Sonnet.
If you want to try installing Windows on your Mac using Boot Camp, the Akitio does support Boot Camp but as mentioned earlier, there’s really no need to do this now that High Sierra supports eGPUs.
Easy to set up and use
Accepts all sizes of graphics card
Includes extra power supply
Supports running through Boot Camp
Power supply makes more noise than Sonnet
Thunderbolt cable length (0.5m)
The main attraction of the Akitio Node Pro is that it has an extra Thunderbolt 3 Dedicated DisplayPort to add another monitor to your display setup. Other than that, there aren’t many differences between it at the standard Akitio Node although it has a metallic finish and a handle on the top rather than on the sides. It’s also a bit noisier than the Akitio Node which in itself is a bit noisier than the Sonnet although nothing that becomes too disturbing or disruptive.
There is a mesh panel which helps dissipate the heat from the fans too. Unless you need an extra monitor, you don’t really need the Akitio Node Pro which retails in the region of around $350 – almost $100 more than the standard version. However, it’s definitely well worth the extra dollars if you’re going to be doing VR video editing.
Extra Thunderbolt 3 port for connecting external monitor
Handle on top rather than at the back
Noisier fans than the Aktio Node
Thunderbolt cable length (0.5m)
The Mantiz Venus is a Thunderbolt 3 compatible eGPU unit with an extra 5 USB 3.0 ports and an Ethernet connection port. It supports both using VR gaming in Windows via Boot Camp and macOS High Sierra.
Setup of the Mantiz Venus is very easy as your Mac will automatically detect and install the necessary drivers to run graphics cards in it. On the downside, the HDMI refresh rate seems to be quite low for VR gaming although it’s not clear if this is an issue with a box or High Sierra. The Mantiz Venus is also almost twice the price of the Akitio Node and Sonnet at just under $400 but will mainly appeal to those that want plenty of USB 3.0 ports.
5 USB 3.0 Ports
Sleek metallic finish
Easy to setup
No carry handle
Thunderbolt cable length (0.5m)
These are currently the best eGPUs for MacBook Pros and iMacs on the market. One common practical problem we noticed with all of them was the length of the Thunderbolt 3 cable that comes with them. Since the manufacturers only provide a 0.5m cable, it means you must have the large units close to your Mac which isn’t always convenient if you haven’t got much space. However, for an extra 50 bucks you can get 2 meter Thunderbolt 3 cables which are definitely worth the investment so that you can store the units on the floor or away from your Mac.
eGPU support in High Sierra is being gradually improved with each new update to macOS 10.13 by Apple and by mid 2018, it’s likely that more eGPUs will be on the market for Mac users to choose from. If we had to pick one, the best eGPU on the market for Mac right now is probably the Sonnet Breakaway because it’s tried and tested by many users now on Mac and hey, Apple endorse it too so it’s always going to better supported on macOS.
You can watch an interesting setup of a Sonnet Breakaway being used with an HTC Vive Headset to play VR games on High Sierra below.
You can also see below how the Sonnet Breakaway eGPU makes some impressive improvements to 4K video editing on Mac.
If you have any questions about these eGPUs or have problems using them with your Mac, let us know in the comments below and we’ll try to help.
If you enjoyed this article, you also be interested in our review of GeForce Now for Mac – NVIDIA’S impressive solution to gaming on Mac (although it doesn’t support VR).