To enable your Mac to handle the demands of Virtual Reality (VR) games or Augmented Reality (AR) and work with a VR Headset on your Mac, an External Graphics Processing Unit (eGPU) is essential.
Even if you’re not interested in getting an eGPU to connect a VR headset to your Mac, an external graphics enclosure is a modest investment that makes a massive improvement to the performance of your Mac.
In the past, the only way to upgrade the graphics performance of your Mac was to update the internal graphics card but this isn’t always possible on all Macs and it’s a complicated process.
However, with the advent of super fast Thunderbird 3 connections on Mac and advancements in macOS, you can now connect powerful external graphic upgrades like eGPUs without opening up your Mac.
- Advantages of an eGPU
- Which Macs Work With eGPUs?
- 1. Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Box (Best For MacBook Pro)
- 2. Akitio Node (Best For Mac Mini)
- 3. Mantiz MZ-03 Saturn Pro (Best For Thunderbolt Ports)
- 4. Razor Core X (Best For 4K Displays)
- Best External Graphics Cards For Macs
- Why You Can’t Use NVIDIA Cards With eGPUs On Macs
- What About The Blackmagic eGPU Pro?
- Using a VR Headset & eGPU on a Mac
- eGPUs & Charging Your MacBook
- Thunderbolt Cables For eGPUs
- macOS Catalina & eGPUs
- How To Make Apps Use Your eGPU
Advantages of 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.
Since the arrival of Thunderbolt 3 ports on Mac and the release of macOS High Sierra, Mac users can suddenly super charge the graphics capabilities of their machine with an external graphics unit.
An eGPU unit turns your humble MacBook Pro or MacBook Air 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.
Although there are other innovative gaming solutions like NVIDIA’s GeForce Now, they don’t compare to the advantages of having an eGPU box connected to your Mac.
An eGPU allows you to play graphics intensive games at maximum frame rates just as if you were playing it on a PC – even on older Macs.
Unfortunately, there’s still a lack of VR games on Mac.
In fact, development of VR games has been so slow that the Steam gaming platform recently announced that it is dropping support for VR games on Mac.
This decision will probably be reversed once eGPUs become more widely used and newer Macs become more capable of handling VR out of the box.
It’s also likely that Apple will launch its own VR gaming platform either as part of Apple Arcade or in the Mac App Store.
Just as exciting is the fact that eGPUs open-up the world of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) to Mac users.
Apart from gaming, if you use demanding applications such as graphic design tools, CAD programs or do lots of 4K video editing on your Mac, an eGPU makes a huge difference especially when it comes to rendering images and video.
In summary, the advantages of an eGPU include:
- It can accelerate apps that use Metal, OpenGL, and OpenCL (although unfortunately Apple has depreciated support for OpenGL in the latest versions of macOS).
- It enables you to connect additional external monitors and displays such as powerful 4K monitors to your Mac
- You can use virtual reality headsets plugged into the eGPU
- You can charge your MacBook Pro while using the eGPU although you need to make sure that the enclosure you use to house the graphics card is powerful enough to do this. All of the eGPUs featured in this top list can charge your Mac.
- You can use an eGPU with your MacBook Pro even when the built-in display is closed
Which Macs Work With 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.
Any Mac with a Thunderbolt 3 port running macOS High Sierra 10.13.4 or above can connect to an external graphics processor unit including macOS 10.14 Mojave, 10.15 Catalina and Big Sur.
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.
Specifically, the following Macs have Thunderbolt 3 ports and are definitely compatible with eGPUs:
Mac Pro (T2 Chip, Late 2019)
MacBook Pro (16-inch, T2 Chip, Late 2019)
MacBook Air (13-inch, T2 Chip, Mid 2019)
MacBook Pro (15-inch, T2 Chip, Mid 2019)
MacBook Pro (13-inch, T2 Chip, Mid 2019)
iMac (5K, 27-inch, Early 2019)
iMac (4K, 21-inch, Mid 2019)
MacBook Air (13-inch, T2 Chip, Late 2018)
Mac mini (T2 Chip, Late 2018)
MacBook Pro (15-inch, T2 Chip, Mid 2018)
MacBook Pro (13-inch, T2 Chip, Mid 2018)
iMac Pro (5K, 27-inch, T2 Chip, Late 2017)
iMac (Retina 5K, 27-inch, Mid 2017)
iMac (Retina 4K, 21-inch, Mid 2017)
iMac (21-inch, Mid 2017)
MacBook Pro (15-inch, Mid 2017)
MacBook Pro (13-inch, Mid 2017)
MacBook Pro (15-inch, Late 2016)
MacBook Pro (13-inch, Late 2016)
There are some users that have been able to get eGPU’s working on older Macs via Thunderbolt 2 to 3 adapters but it’s very hit-and-miss and doesn’t work with all eGPUs.
We therefore do not recommend daisy-chaining an eGPU unit via a Thunderbolt 2 to 3 adapter.
Connecting an eGPU via a Thunderbolt adapter is definitely not officially supported in High Sierra, Mojave or Catalina and so our advice is if you haven’t got one, upgrade to a Mac with a Thunderbolt 3 port.
With all this in mind, here is our list of the best eGPU enclosures for Mac of 2020 in order of ranking.
The Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Box is officially endorsed by Apple so you can safely say that it provides rock solid compatibility with Macs.
The Sonnet 650 was in fact the first eGPU to be officially endorsed by Apple back in 2017 when it used it to showcase the possibilities of using an eGPU with a Mac at the Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC).
What we like about the Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Box is that despite being incredibly powerful it’s extremely quiet. In fact even under extensive use and heavy load we’re yet to hear the fans whir.
The demands of 4K video editing for example are immense and the Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Box is definitely our choice as the best eGPU for video editing on Mac because it provides a huge performance boost when using Final Cut.
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.
However, the Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Box is available in a 550 and 650 version and the 650 version delivers full 100W charging power for MacBooks which is important to provide fast charging to the 16 inch MacBook Pro.
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 macOS can still be a bit temperamental when it comes to eGPU plug and play compatibility although the latest versions of Mojave and Catalina 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 releases of Mojave and Catalina.
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 macOS supports eGPU units natively but if you are thinking of running Windows on your Mac, bear this in mind.
Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Box Pricing
The difference between them is the power they can provide.
The more powerful the model, the bigger and more powerful graphics card they can support and the more charging power they provide your MacBook.
The more powerful 650W version supports 375W graphics cards that require up to an additional 100W of peak power (8-pin + 8-pin power connectors).
It also provides up to 87W of power delivery to charge a laptop.
For a more in-depth look, you can check out our full Sonnet Breakaway Box review.
Note that Sonnet make a compact eGPU and graphics card all-in-one box known as the Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Puck but it’s no longer available.
- Extremely quiet
- Supports Thunderbolt 3
- Easy to plug and play graphics card
- Perfect for 4K video editing on Mac using Final Cut
- Provides plenty of battery charge for MacBook Pros (both 550W and 650W Models)
- Size – extremely big if you’ve got a small desk
- Thunderbolt cable length (0.5m)
- Some bugs with High Sierra but improved in Mojave and Catalina
- Does not support Boot Camp
The Akitio Node is currently the biggest competitor to our number one pick 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’re planning on buying an eGPU for gaming, we’d say the Akitio Node is arguably the best eGPU for the Mac Mini as its got punch for high end games but is still technically portable due to the carry handle.
It’s also possible to play Windows only games with the Akitio Node as it supports running Windows in Boot Camp on your Mac.
You can check out our full review of the Akitio Node for a more in depth look.
There’s also the more stylish and slightly more powerful Akitio Node Pro which you may want to check out.
- Easy to set up and use
- Accepts all sizes of graphics card
- Includes extra power supply
- Supports running through Boot Camp for Windows only games
- Power supply makes more noise than Sonnet
- Thunderbolt cable length (0.5m)
The main attraction of the Mantiz MZ-03 Saturn Pro is that it has FOUR Thunderbolt 3 ports which allows you to easily add another monitor to your display setup.
3 of the ports are on the front with one on the back although this does pose a problem with cables coming out of the front of the unit instead of the back if you connect all 3 of them.
There’s also an Ethernet connection so you don’t have to rely on WiFi and even an SATA port.
It’s also one of the sleekest eGPU units we’ve seen with a nice machined aluminum finish and it’s very easy to insert graphics cards thanks to a side panel which pops off without the need for any tools.
The Manitiz MZ-03 Saturn Pro is particularly suitable for video editing on a Mac because of the added Thunderbolt ports for multiple 4K monitor support.
- Four Thunderbolt 3 ports
- Nice metallic finish
- SATA and Ethernet ports
- No tools needed to insert graphic cards
- Thunderbolt cable length (0.5m)
The Razor Core X Thunderbolt 3 external graphics card enclosure is actually optimized for Razor laptops but it works fantastically with Macs.
What we really like about the Razor Core X is the both the styling and ease of installing a graphics card.
The sleek exterior looks like something that could have even been designed by Apple and there are no tools required to slot in a graphics card. All you need is a single thumbscrew.
The Razor Core X isn’t exactly portable but it’s reasonably compact measuring about a foot long, half a foot tall and a few inches wide.
It does however accept bigger 3-slot wide cards and includes an internal 650W power supply which explains why it’s a bit beefy.
It’s also surprisingly quiet. You can just about hear the cooling fan but it’s barely audible and not bothersome with 4 cooling vents to let heat escape.
If you want to utilize multiple 4K displays then the Razor Core X is perfect especially if you pair it with a Radeon AMD Vega 64 or Radeon VII.
You’ll definitely notice that the Razor Core X takes the heavy load from your Mac and performance is generally very impressive whether it’s gaming, video editing, rendering or running 4K monitors.
There’s also the Razor Core X Chroma which is around $100 more as it supports RGB which supports 16.8 million colors. It also has a USB hub and built-in ethernet.
However, unless you need RGB support, there’s no big advantage in getting the Razor Core X Chroma as Macs no longer have an ethernet port and both transfer speeds and the USB hub can be flaky on Macs.
- Looks like an Apple product
- No tools required to slot in graphics card
- Runs multiple 4K displays with ease
- Includes built in 650W power supply
- Fast, quiet performance
- Takes up quite a bit of space
Best External Graphics Cards For Macs
Apart from the graphic unit itself, the 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 portable Sonnet Puck).
You have to be very careful with this because not all external graphics cards are supported by macOS High Sierra, Mojave, Catalina or Big Sur yet.
At the moment, AMD Radeon graphics cards based on Polaris are the safest bet for Mac users which includes the Sapphire Pulse and RX range.
Mac users should think twice before using NVIDIA cards as most aren’t supported on Mac for various reasons (see more on this below).
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 many issues with NVIDIA cards working with eGPUs on macOS especially Catalina.
For the time being, we strongly recommend sticking with AMD cards because until NVIDIA and Apple sort out their differences, the stand-off could go on for quite some time (see more on this here).
There is no official list of graphics cards that are officially supported on Mac but the following definitely work with macOS and simply plug-and-play with no extra drivers required.
Why You Can’t Use NVIDIA Cards With eGPUs On Macs
Unfortunately, NVIDIA graphics cards still aren’t supported in Mojave or Catalina and our advice is to stick to AMD cards for now.
The only NVIDIA graphics card that officially supports Macs is the NVIDIA Titan Xp which is incredibly powerful although it doesn’t come cheap at over $1000.
NVIDIA no longer makes drivers for its graphics cards for the latest versions of macOS.
This is simply because NVIDIA and Apple are competing when it comes to gaming on Mac.
NVIDIA is trying to get a foot hold in the Mac gaming market with its own gaming platform GeForce Now For Mac.
GeForce Now delivers games from NVIDIA’s gaming servers in the Cloud so you don’t need an eGPU to play them. However, it costs $4.99 per month and the selection of games available is still quite limited.
At the moment, possibly because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, subscriptions for GeForce Now For Mac are currently sold out as more people stay at home to play games although NVIDIA claims more capacity will be added soon.
In summary – stay away from any kind of NVIDIA eGPU or graphics card until NVIDIA officially starts supporting macOS again.
What About The Blackmagic eGPU Pro?
You might be wondering why the Blackmagic Design eGPU which until recently, used to be for sale Apple’s website doesn’t make this list.
The main reason is that the Blackmagic eGPU Pro is discontinued because AMD has stopped making the
Radeon RX Vega 56 graphics chip that powered it.
Apple subsequently removed the Blackmagic eGPU Pro from its website in April 2020 and its unclear whether it will return with a new graphics chip at a later date.
However, even when it was available, we didn’t recommend it.
Considering it cost around $1,199 there were too many issues to justify the investment when there are many alternatives to the Blackmagic eGPU Pro reviewed here that offer much better value for money.
Another basic problem was that the Blackmagic eGPU tended to freeze quite a lot and required unplugging and reconnecting again.
This even happened sometimes when doing something as simple as watching a video on YouTube.
In addition, one of the main reasons people get an eGPU is to enhance gaming and the performance of the Blackmagic eGPU was very hit and miss despite the claim of “super smooth gaming”.
It does depend on the game but if you try and play games like Fortnite at its maximum frame rate, it doesn’t always perform well.
When it comes to video editing in apps like Final Cut Pro, the Blackmagic Pro did definitely speed-up rendering but not enough to justify the initial outlay.
Finally, we didn’t like the fact that you couldn’t upgrade the Radeon RX Vega 56 graphics card in the Blackmagic eGPU.
Some of these performance issues could surely have been fixed with an NVIDIA card for example but the lack of Apple support for NVIDIA eGPU graphics cards means that won’t be happening anytime soon.
On the positive side, it was a very quiet eGPU which really fit the Apple aesthetic when it comes to looks.
You’ll also find very many satisfied customers that use it but our take is that the eGPU units featured in our top list offer better performance, reliability and value for money than the Blackmagic eGPU Pro.
All the external graphics enclosures reviewed here are cheaper, upgradeable alternatives to the Blackmagic Pro eGPU.
Using a VR Headset & eGPU on a Mac
To use a VR helmet, you’ll also 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.
Note that the Oculus Rift and Oculus Quest do not work on Mac.
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)
You can however connect more than one eGPU using the multiple Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) ports on your Mac.
You can connect an eGPU while a user is logged in – you don’t have to shut down and restart. Simply use the eGPU menu bar icon to safely disconnect the eGPU such as you would with an external hard drive.
You can also monitor the activity levels of an eGPUs by opening Activity Monitor and then choosing Window > GPU History.
eGPUs & Charging Your MacBook
Another thing to bear in mind is that if you’re using a MacBook, 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, macOS 10.14 Mojave, or macOS 10.15 Catalina so make sure you’ve updated through the App Store.
Thunderbolt Cables For eGPUs
One common practical problem we noticed with all the eGPus reviewed here was the length of the Thunderbolt 3 cable that comes with them.
Since most 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 or want to connect to a Mac-mini.
However, for an extra 50 bucks you can get 2 meter (6 feet) Thunderbolt 3 cables which are definitely worth the investment so that you can store the units on the floor or away from your Mac.
macOS Catalina & eGPUs
Throughout early 2018, Apple slowly updated 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.
Mojave provided much better support for eGPUs with fixes for connection issues, acceleration for Metal, OpenGL or OpenCL and support for more VR headsets.
Catalina didn’t introduce any major changes in eGPU support but did make improvements to performance in terms of better support for Metal 2, app-level optimization and improved internal display acceleration.
The beta versions of macOS 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 brought the best ever eGPU support to Macs and this has been continued in macOS Catalina which has enhanced support for Metal 2.
The biggest improvement is that Mojave and Catalina allow 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.
There are however some teething issues with the new version of macOS Catalina and eGPUs.
eGPUs containing AMD Radeon 570 and 580 graphics cards have been reported to be note working properly by some users although AMD will probably release fixes for these soon.
Some users have found that Catalina is causing these Macs (mainly Mac Minis) to crash and freeze when the eGPU is connected.
This includes our top pick the Sonnet eGFX although it should be noted that not all users are affected and Apple will surely roll out an update to fix any glitches soon.
Overall though, Catalina has brought better app-level optimization, improved internal display acceleration and an eGPU Boot Screen for Mac Minis.
In particular, Catalina has made it much easier to simply plug-and-play with almost all eGPUs.
Catalina now also allows you to select the eGPU to handle all of your monitor graphic card acceleration needs which is far superior to what your Mac’s internal card can deliver to your display.
Unfortunately, not all apps – such as many graphic design packages – support this but Adobe packages such as Photoshop do (see below) and more will surely adopt it as eGPUs become more popular on Mac.
How To Make Apps Use Your eGPU
Some games and apps simply won’t recognize your eGPU by default whatever you try. In these cases, you have to instruct your Mac that you want certain applications to use the eGPU in some cases.
Note that this is only possible in macOS Mojave and above.
To do this, select the app in Finder, right click on it and select the “Get Info” option in the pop up menu. Select the checkbox “Prefer External GPU” and then open the app.
If you have any questions about the eGPUs featured here or have problems using them with your Mac, let us know in the comments below and we’ll try to help.
You can see also see for yourself below what an eGPU can do when connected to your Mac.