“It all starts with AKiTiO” – this slogan rings true for Thunderbolt expansion enclosures. AKiTiO launched the first affordable eGFX, the Node, in Q4 2016. Many of us had our first taste of external graphics by modifying an AKiTiO Thunder2 enclosure. As Thunderbolt 3 technology and eGPU became more popular, other competitors arrived on the scene. One limitation of existing enclosures is their single PCIe slot. Today I’m reviewing the Node Duo. Priced at $370, it’s the first affordable dual PCIe slot Thunderbolt 3 enclosure. AKiTiO is doubling down on the slot count, but is it twice the fun?
|PSU max power||150W|
|GPU max power
|Power delivery (PD)
||60W + 15W|
|TB3 USB-C ports||2|
|Max GPU len (in/cm)
|Updated firmware||33.3 ✔|
|TB3 cable length (cm)||200|
Short and stout is an endearing way to describe the AKiTiO Node Duo. It’s physically fit in a tech ecosystem where thin and light spells sacrifice. A quick way to visualize the Node Duo is to put two Node Lite enclosures side by side. This is what we needed to do in the past to make use of two PCIe peripherals externally via Thunderbolt connections. The AKiTiO Node Duo not only reduces the total cost compared to a dual enclosure setup but also unifies the connection via one Thunderbolt cable and power source. The tradeoff is two x2 PCIe 3.0 slots compared to one x4 slot in a single-slot enclosure.
Similar to the original Node, the Duo is constructed with steel panels. There are two thumb screws at the bottom of the outer enclosure to secure the inner carrier in place. This inner carrier slides forward for internal component access. Due to a max card length of 8.66 inches (220mm), you may only install ITX-sized graphics cards unless a hacksaw or Dremel is involved. I tried pairing the R9 Fury X with the Node Duo, and it was a challenge to find a mounting location for the radiator. I ended up removing the front fascia and enclosure fan so I could attach the radiator in this space.
AKiTiO chose an external AC power adapter for the Node Duo. There are two choices for power output, 150W and 230W. Depending on your needs you may have to use higher-output PSUs to provide sufficient power to your cards. The nice thing is AKiTiO thought this through and laid down the groundwork. There’s a breakaway metal tab at the top left corner in the rear for passthrough of PCIe power cables. Even the power plug for the enclosure board is the commonly used PCIe 6-pin. AKiTiO calls this receptacle the Mini-Fit Jr. power connector.
There’s a 120mm cooling fan mounted in the front. This is similar to the enclosure cooling arrangement found in the original AKiTiO Node. The AKiTiO logo on the front fascia has a clear plastic ring that lights up blue when there’s an active Thunderbolt connection. The rear I/Os consist of one DisplayPort passthrough, one Thunderbolt 3 port with 15W power delivery and one Thunderbolt 3 port 60W power delivery. This is as feature rich as you can get in a Thunderbolt 3 expansion enclosure. I prefer to distinguish the 60W TB3 port as the upstream port to connect a host computer and the 15W TB3 port as the downstream port. The downstream port can connect display, USB expansion hub, daisy-chain, and other Thunderbolt 3/USB-C peripherals.
The Akitio Node Duo’s Thunderbolt 3 main board and PCIe slot daughter board are neatly laid out. It took less than 15 minutes to disassemble the enclosure to its individual parts. The main board contains all crucial components found in all Thunderbolt 3 enclosures: one Alpine Ridge Thunderbolt 3 controller [JHL6540], two TI83 USB-C controllers [TI83], and one Winbond firmware EEPROM.
Besides hosting up to two PCIe cards, the daughter board facilitates power input from the 12V DC Mini-Fit Jr. power connector. When connecting the standard 150W power adapter, the PCIe slots provide 25W to each card. Using the higher-output 230W power brick raises this slot power to 75W.
Testing & Benchmarks
I tested this AKiTiO Node Duo with a wide range of Thunderbolt host computers. In one test I was able to connect a 2016 MacBook Pro 15″ to 4 eGPUs in macOS 10.14 Mojave thanks to the second Thunderbolt 3 port of this Node Duo and its sibling Node Pro. Keep in mind non-Thunderbolt 3 Macs do not have native eGPU support in macOS. Our community provides solutions to get around Apple’s restriction. From the factory the AKiTiO Node Duo comes with Thunderbolt firmware version 33.3. Power Delivery is set at 60W through the bottom Thunderbolt 3 port.
An obvious performance disadvantage for external graphics use is that bandwidth for each eGPU is cut in half. In real world use, this is not as clear cut. Computing tasks don’t lose much performance from my observation. When I ran two RX 580 eGPUs together, Luxmark tests showed very good scaling. The majority of software in both macOS and Windows has yet to optimize and take advantage of multiple, external GPUs. The dual eGPU setup works better in macOS where both eGPUs functioned without issue. When I attempted booting into Windows with the dual RX 580 eGPUs, I encountered the dreaded error 12 due to lack of resources. We would likely need DSDT modifications in order to enable multiple eGPUs in Boot Camp. CrossFire is not possible because it requires at least x4 connection per card. Nvidia SLI is also a no-go with x8 connection requirement and an SLI bridge.
While dual eGPU setup is of high interest, there are other intriguing possibilities as well. To prepare for this review, I gathered a number PCIe expansion cards. The first card I used is the Gigabyte GC-Alpine-Ridge Thunderbolt 3 add-in card for Thunderbolt 3 monitor output test. This AIC when paired with an eGPU inside the Node Duo would make it possible to power a Thunderbolt 3 monitor such as the LG UltraFine 5K display.
Currently the only eGFX with TB3 monitor output is the Blackmagic eGPU. For many, the built-in Radeon Pro 580 of this eGPU is not powerful enough. We now have a capable alternative in a dual PCIe slot enclosure. The crucial component is the Thunderbolt 3 add-in card. The TB3 AIC converts DisplayPort output from the external GPU to provide Thunderbolt 3 monitor output. For this test I installed an HP OEM ITX RX 480 4GB GPU in the first slot and the GC-Alpine-Ridge in the second slot. Here’s a quick summary of what I did to verify Thunderbolt 3/USB-C eGPU monitor output in this setup.
The other expansion cards I have on hand are 10GbE, M.2 SSD adapter, and sound card. The x2 PCIe slots have more than adequate bandwidth to handle these cards. This is the AKiTiO Node Duo’s most appealing feature. At any given time you can swap the cards to adapt to your needs. I’ve tried a number of combinations with one eGPU. The possibilities are endless. For example, in gaming mode I paired a Razer Blade Stealth to the Node Duo hosting an eGPU + sound card. Talk about visual and aural overload! These were the configurations I tested. Please share with us what other configurations you’re able to build with the AKiTiO Node Duo.
- Gigabyte Alpine Ridge AIC + GPU for External Graphics + TB3 Monitor Output
- Asus Essence STX II Sound Card + GPU for External Graphics + DAC & AMP
- Aquantia AQtion 10G Pro NIC + GPU for External Graphics + 10Gbps Ethernet
- WD Blue SSD & M.2 PCIe Adapter + GPU for External Graphics + SSD
Be warned the standard 150W power brick may not power your graphics card. The upgraded 230W power brick is a better choice for one eGPU + a low-power card such as 10GbE. If you’re venturing into dual eGPU setup with this Node Duo enclosure, you’d definitely need to use a more powerful PSU. I used an Enermax Revolution 650W SFX PSU and a couple of PCIe Y splitters during my testings. The only modification I performed was to jump-start the PSU by shorting the 24-pin cable. AKiTiO made this process easy by matching its main board power plug to a PCIe power connector. There’s also an existing opening for the passthrough of a power cable .
During my testing of different PCIe components for this Node Duo review, I discovered Thunderbolt 3 can work on some AMD systems. I tried the newly released Gigabyte GC-TITAN-RIDGE add-in card with an X399 Threadripper 1950x system as well as AM4 Ryzen 5 2400G and was able to use Thunderbolt 3. While there’s no official certification for Thunderbolt 3 on non-Intel systems, I believe it will happen soon. The hardware and software pieces are seemingly ready.
AKiTiO has continuously pushed for wider adoption of Thunderbolt 3 technology by being the first to bring innovative, affordable solutions to the market. During initial release the Node Duo comes with a 2m Thunderbolt 3 cable. This is a $60 value and makes the $370 MSRP price even more appealing. The AKiTiO Node Duo caters to true eGPU enthusiasts. It provides unmatched flexibility compared to other enclosures. While the dual slots run at x2 speed, the endless possibilities of this configuration are well worth the tradeoff.