To enable your Mac to handle the demands of Virtual Reality (VR) games or Augmented Reality (AR) and work with a VR Headset, an External Graphics Processing Unit (eGPU) is essential. Even if you’re not interested in VR gaming or apps, an eGPU is a modest investment that makes a massive improvement to the performance of your Mac. However, not all eGPUs are compatible with the MacBook Pros or iMacs so you have to be careful which one you choose. So we’ve done the hard work for you and looked at the best eGPUs for Mac users in 2018.
What Is An eGPU?
An eGPU is 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 and Augmented Reality to Mac users. The great thing about an eGPU is that because it’s external, you can leave it at home for gaming or VR use and still enjoy the portability of your MacBook if you want to take it with you somewhere.
eGPUs are not all about gaming though. They can also provide much greater number crunching power when it comes to analyzing data with complex statistical software, forecasting, 3D modelling for CAD design, big data and more.
System Requirements For eGPUs
Unless you’re lucky enough to own one of the latest $4,999 iMac Pros which can handle VR out of the box without the need for an eGPU, you’ll need to make sure your Mac meets some basic minimum requirements. 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.
This means ideally you need a MacBook Pro from 2016 onwards or an iMac from 2017 as they are the only Macs which have Thunderbolt 3 ports. However, with a MacBook Pro from early 2015 or iMac from mid 2015 or later using a Thunderbolt 2 to Thunderbolt 3 adapter, you can also connect an eGPU unit. However to use a VR helmet too, you’ll need a Mac with an Intel Core i5 chip or higher. This is because the best VR headset for Mac that officially supports macOS is the HTC Vive which requires an Intel Core i5 or higher present in 2015 Macs.
The following Macs only have Thunderbolt 2 ports although those made before 2015 do not have the Intel Core i5 chip:
- 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
- Mac Pro (Late 2013)
However, we generally don’t recommend daisy-chaining an eGPU unit via a Thunderbolt adapter. It’s not officially supported in High Sierra or Mojave and you’ll get more reliable performance by using a Mac which already has a Thunderbolt 3 port.
eGPUs & Graphics Cards
The other major thing you’ll need of course is a graphics card to put inside the eGPU unit (unless you buy an all-in-one solution like the excellent portable Sonnet Puck). You have to be careful with this because not all graphics cards are supported by macOS High Sierra and Mojave yet. At the moment, AMD graphics cards based on Polaris are the safest bet which includes the Sapphire Pulse and WX range. In particular, the AMD Radeon Sapphire Nitro works perfectly and is a safe option for Mac users if you want to save yourself compatibility 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.
Another thing to bear in mind is that if you’re using a MacBook Pro, you’ll need to make sure that the eGPU unit can provide enough power to power both the graphics card and charge your Mac. The eGPU chassis needs to provide at least 85 watts of charging power to achieve this. All the eGPU units reviewed in this article all provide enough power to do both but if you choose a different model, double-check this with the manufacturer.
You’ll also need to be running the very latest version of macOS 10.13 High Sierra or macOS 10.14 Mojave so make sure you’ve updated through the App Store. Throughout early 2018, Apple has been slowly updating High Sierra to perform better with eGPUs as initially there were various bugs and stability issues such as having to log in and out of macOS when you connect and disconnect eGPU units.
The 10.13.4 update to High Sierra provided much better support for eGPUs with fixes for connection issues, acceleration for Metal, OpenGL or OpenCL and support for more VR headsets. The beta versions of High Sierra are always at the cutting edge of VR development but you can only install them if you’re a member of the Apple Beta Software Program. Although the beta versions offer enhanced VR support earlier, it’s recommended that you wait for the final releases as beta versions can be unstable and conflict with other apps on your Mac.
macOS Mojave & eGPUs
The latest version of macOS Mojave brings the best eGPU support yet. The biggest improvement is that Mojave allows you to use your MacBook Pro or iMac display as your main monitor. Previously, the full benefits of using an eGPU were only fully realized with an external monitor connected to your Mac. Even better, it also allows you to choose which applications benefit from eGPU acceleration.
Unfortunately, NVIDIA cards still aren’t supported in Mojave and our advice is to stick to AMD for now.
Now you’re better informed, here is our list of the best eGPUs for Mac of 2018 in order of ranking.
There are three things that make the Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Puck Radeon the best eGPU for Mac currently available: convenience, size and Apple endorsement.
Convenience because it’s an all-in-one setup. It’s an eGPU unit with a Radeon RX 570 graphics card built-in – there’s no need to buy and fit a separate graphics card to go in it.
We love the size because it’s the only portable eGPU for Mac on the market. eGPUs are pretty large units and take quite a bit of space on your desk – they’re certainly not designed to be portable. The Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Puck is the exception because at 6x2x5.1 inches, it’s small enough to put in your rucksack or laptop bag and take with you.
Finally, Apple officially endorse both Sonnet’s Puck and Breakaway Box (see review below) as recommended eGPUs for macOS.
Despite it’s size, you don’t need to carry your MacBook Power supply with you either because it can charge your MacBook. The other impressive thing for an eGPU this small is that there are ports three DisplayPorts and one HDMI port meaning you can connect up to four 4K displays.There are two models of the Puck – the Sonnet Puck 560 and Sonnet Puck 570 which have a Radeon 560 and Radeon 570 card inside respectively. The 570 is a few hundred dollars more expensive but is more powerful and worth if it if you don’t want to hassle of upgrading in a few years time as VR apps and games on Mac really take off.
No need to purchase a graphics card – it’s all included
The only portable eGPU for Mac
Connect up to four 4K displays
Power Pack is quite large
The Sonnet eGFX is officially endorsed by Apple to developers so you can safely say that it provides rock solid compatibility with Macs. In fact, Apple are selling the Sonnet eGPU as part of its 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 cheaper on it’s own, the Radeon RX 580 graphics card will set you back several hundred dollars plus you’ll need to purchase the Belkin Thunderbolt Hub However, if you’ve already got a graphics card, it’s cheaper to buy the Sonnet eGFX and Thunderbolt Hub. If you’re not part of the Apple Developer Program though, you can’t take advantage of the Apple deal anyway and have to purchase everything seperately.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 although the latest updates to High Sierra have improved this.
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.
There used to be a few minor bugs with High Sierra such as the device not appearing in the “About This Mac” Menu but these also have been fixed with the latest High Sierra updates. Some Adobe applications don’t appear to utilize the full GPU memory though and this may take longer to fix if Adobe need to issue a fix.
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.
You can watch an interesting setup of a Sonnet Breakaway being used with an HTC Vive Headset to play VR games on High Sierra here. You can also watch here how the Sonnet Breakaway eGPU makes some impressive improvements to 4K video editing on Mac.
Supports Thunderbolt 3
Easy to plug and play graphics card
Also charges your MacBook Pro (only 550W and 650W Models – not the 350W)
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 is based in California and specializes in doing everything in-house designing and creating new Thunderbolt peripherals such as external hard drives for Macs and now eGPUs. 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 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 running Windows in Boot Camp too but as mentioned earlier, there’s really no need to do this now that High Sierra supports a growing number of 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 because of the added 4K monitor support
Extra Thunderbolt 3 port for connecting external monitor
Handle on top rather than at the back
Noisier fans than the Akitio 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. There’s also room for a SATA connector if you want to add an external hard drive to it.
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. Like the Akitio Nose, it also supports both VR gaming in Windows via Boot Camp and macOS 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)
The OWC Mercury Helios FX eGPU works with both AMD and NVIDIA graphics cards. The Helios FX is a good option for video editors as it supports PCIe cards including Red Rocket and AVID Pro Tools for video editors.
It’s quite a big unit and log enough to accept full-sized, double width GPU cards and provides enough power to run both the eGPU and charge your MacBook Pro at the same time.
The OWC Mercury Helios FX is endorsed by Apple to be fully compatible with High Sierra. Although OWC state that it’s fully compatible with NVIDIA cards, Mac users should stick to AMD for now as there are still incompatibility problems with NVIDIA cards and High Sierra.
AVID Pro Tools support
Fully compatible with both AMD and NVIDIA cards
Accepts full length and width GPU cards
Lack of ports
NVIDIA support not much use on Mac at the moment
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.
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 may 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).
You can also see below what an eGPU can do when connected to your Mac.