1st August 2018

How to balance performance & convenience

macbook pro

One of the most common conversations we have with clients is trying to balance performance and convenience.

For example, we had an enquiry from a video editor who wanted the portability of a 13” MacBook Pro. However, they were spending up to an hour rendering some of their animated videos on their exiting 13” machine.

A large number of Apple’s portable Mac rely on integrated graphics. Meaning that they rely on having a small graphics chip built into the Mac’s Intel processor. It’s only when you get to the 15” MacBook Pros that you can benefit from having a separate, dedicated graphics card. This works alongside the main processor, CPU, in order to give you far more graphics performance.

In addition, no at present none of the Mac line up have expansion slots to allow you to upgrade the graphics capability at a later date.

The good news is that since March 2018 you’ve been able to do something about it. That solution is that you can attach an external Graphics Processing Unit, eGPU, to your Thunderbolt 3 enabled Macs. Typically, this is an external box or enclosure, that has a PCIe expansion slot allowing you to install a Mac compatible graphics card into it. Connect it to your Mac and hey presto you now have access to far more graphics capability.

You cannot use any old graphics card however, as macOS High Sierra only supports a limited number of AMD cards. These are AMD Radeon RX 470, RX 480, RX 570, RX 580, Radeon Pro WX 7100, AMD Radeon RX Vega 56, AMD Radeon RX Vega 64, Vega Frontier Edition Air, and the Radeon Pro WX 9100.

Depending on which graphics card you desire Apple currently recommend solutions from Sonnet, OWC, Power Colour and Sapphire. The beauty of going off Apple’s list is that you have confidence that the chassis has sufficient power to power your MacBook Pro. Also, Sonnet’s eGFX Breakaway Box was chosen by Apple as its official eGPU for developers last year. So it is probably safe to presume that Sonnet is at the front of the pack when it comes to eGPU technology for Macs.

Other offerings are available from companies like Razor. Although not currently on Apple’s list they do state that they are fully compatible with Thunderbolt 3 Macs.

The advantages of all of these chassis are that they will continue to be upgradable. So, as you require more performance for professional applications, 3D gaming, VR content creation, and alike you can move with the times.

The disadvantage is that they do tend to be rather chunky and rectangular in shape. Yes, they are easily hidden but dare I say it they look rather PC like in their design. Not surprisingly really as the eGPU has really come about from the gaming world which is the domain of the PC.

There is an alternative solution but it too comes with a compromise. When launching the 2018 MacBook Pros Apple also announced an all in one eGPU. Designed by Blackmagic the “Blackmagic eGPU” is a beautiful piece of design. With more than a hint of the Mac Pro about it, it has an elegance that ensures you will want it sat proudly beside your Mac on the desk. It uses the same graphics card that comes with the top of the range 27” iMac, the 8GB Radeon Pro 580.

The team at Sonnet also have the Radeon RX 570 eGFX Breakaway Puck and this is a pint-sized eGPU. Although we have read that due to its small size it needs an external power pack that is almost the same size as the Puck itself.

Either way, both of these all in one solutions look a lot better than the chassis options that we discussed earlier. The only trouble is that neither solution is upgradable and therefore, you are stuck with the graphics card that you buy.

And therein lies the dilemma. Do you go for something that is a beautiful piece of design but has a limited lifespan? Or do you go for functionality with endless options to upgrade? Neither option is cheap. The chassis’s start at £300 plus before the graphics card and the all in one solutions around the £600.

Regardless of which option you prefer the fact that macOS now supports eGPUs does mean that it is easier for pro users to be using a portable Mac and have access to workstation quality graphics and that can only be a good thing.