The on-demand economy has disrupted many aspects of life. In computing, mobile work drove ultrabooks to become hot sellers. They are not without disadvantages given their limited ports and expandability. Thunderbolt 3 has been a boon in bridging these portable computers to high-performing PCIe components. Released at the end of 2017 and retailing for $360, the AKiTiO Node Pro is a prime example. It’s certified by Intel to be both Windows and macOS compatible as a Thunderbolt 3 PCIe expansion device. It can host all kinds of PCIe components from network cards to highly specialized accelerator cards such as the Red Rocket-X. Although neither tested nor certified for use as an external graphics enclosure, it’s possible to install a GPU in the Node Pro. The distinction from a Thunderbolt 3 eGFX enclosure is that it uses a different firmware and carries an extra Thunderbolt 3 port for daisy-chaining. For a detailed explanation of eGFX vs PCIe expansion, you can read more on Intel’s Thunderbolt blog.
|PSU max power||500W|
|GPU max power||400W|
|Power delivery (PD)||60W x2|
|TB3 USB-C ports||2|
|Ports max bandwidth||10Gbps|
|Size (in/mm, LxWxH)||14.06 x 5.31 x 10.47|
357 x 135 x 266
|Max GPU len (in/cm)||12.59/32.0|
|Updated firmware||23.1 ✔|
|TB3 cable length (cm)||50|
Unlike the AKiTiO Node, the Node Pro has a more athletic profile. It’s taller and slimmer. The construction materials are more premium as well. While the Node was made of sheet metal, AKiTiO used aluminum panels to put together the Node Pro. This results in a much lighter chassis. No tools are needed to open the enclosure and swap cards. There are four thumb screws, two in the top rear to secure the top cover and another two that sit atop the PCIe slot mounting bracket. These thumb screws take a bit of getting used to in order to align them perfectly when securing a PCIe card.
Rear I/O consists of two Thunderbolt 3 ports and one passthrough DisplayPort. It’s a nice touch by the designer to carve out a recess to easily remove the DisplayPort connector. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve struggled with this usability issue in the back of monitors. Atop the enclosure is a retractable handle. It works very slick and makes carrying the AKiTiO Node Pro around a joy. The entire handle assembly is solid metal with spring-loaded pop-up hinges. This addition to the enclosure reminds me of an ammo box, very utilitarian and durable. Drop a Vega card inside this thing and you’ll be packing serious heat.
The power supply in the Node Pro is located under the PCIe slot daughter board. It’s an SFX 500W 12V single-rail unit. This PSU is capable of providing 60W power delivery through the Thunderbolt 3 ports and up to 400W to a power-hungry card. There are three PCIe power cables. One 6-pin cable goes to a female connector on the PCIe slot daughter board. The other two are 6 + 2-pin cables. A snap-in plastic holder by the front of the enclosure can hold these two PCIe power cables in place when not in use. Cooling the power supply is a built-in 80mm fan, positioned to face the bottom of the unit. Placed in front of the PSU is a 92mm cooling fan. This enclosure fan runs at a constant speed due to a 3-pin connector to the daughter board, so there’s more noise than warranted during low-intensity applications. The fans exhaust hot air outside through the raised platform thanks to a set of four substantial rubber feet.
The Thunderbolt 3 main board and daughter board have metal shields. This is a nice touch to protect these fragile components when card swapping. The usability improvements to this AKiTiO Node Pro come at the cost of serviceability. It is harder to replace parts in the Node Pro compared to the Node. For example, removing the power supply requires the entire box and its components come apart. The tools are three screwdrivers: a PH1 Phillips, a T8 Torx, and a T10 Torx. Here’s the component view:
One main difference with eGFX enclosures is in the Thunderbolt 3 controller selection. AKiTiO used a JHL6540 Thunderbolt 3 controller for the Node Pro. The Thunderbolt 3 eGPU enclosures I’ve reviewed so far use the DSL6540 controller instead. As far as eGPU performance goes, the Node Pro may have additional latency due to this JHL6540 controller and dual TB3 port arrangement. I also noticed two TI83 USB-C controllers on the Thunderbolt 3 main board. The Winbond EEPROM is located on the other side of the main board.
Testings & Benchmarks
AKiTiO claims this PCIe enclosure can provide 60W Power Delivery through both Thunderbolt 3 ports. The only way to find out was to hook them up to two TB3 laptops simultaneously. My late 2016 15″ MacBook Pro was able to receive 60W. The other laptop I used concurrently was the early 2018 Razer Blade Stealth which was also able to charge. When used as an external graphics enclosure, the first connected host computer takes priority in using the eGPU. In this mode, it’s also possible to engage the two connected host computers in Thunderbolt networking. Last but not least, I checked the Thunderbolt firmware. The AKiTiO Node Pro comes with version 23.1.
The next step was to test daisy-chain functionality. In order for Thunderbolt 3 eGPU to function properly, it has to be the first device in the chain. Also you may not chain a Thunderbolt external GPU to another external GPU. Doing so will cause the chained eGPU not to work. In Windows you would see this warning message and error 12/yellow-banged on the chained eGPU. There’s no warning message in macOS High Sierra. The chained eGPU would simply not work even though it may show up in System Information » Graphics/Displays tree. Further discussion of this daisy-chain topic takes place here.
Besides external graphics, macOS High Sierra has brought official support for many new high-performance technologies. Two notable features are NVMe flash storage and 10G Ethernet connectivity. It’s now possible to install a NVMe M.2 drive such as the Samsung EVO 960 inside a PCIe enclosure like the AKiTiO Node Pro or inside a Mac computer via an adapter. These flash storage drives have very high speeds and cost less than Apple proprietary drives. Once formatted correctly, they have TRIM support and can boot macOS. Here’s a speed test of a Samsung 256GB EVO 960 inside the Node Pro:
It’s a similar story with 10 Gigabit Ethernet PCIe cards. The iMac Pro has two 10GbE ports that use Aquantia AQC107 chipset. Therefore network interface cards with this same chipset work in macOS 10.13.2 and newer. In my testings these cards are plug-and-play when installed via a Thunderbolt enclosure. The most modern Mac with internal PCIe slots, the Mac Pro tower, has a harder time. There’s PXE boot on most 10GbE cards that cause the Mac Pro to hang at boot. The workaround is to remove PXE boot option by shorting the EEPROM.
Here’s an unorthodox idea for internal display eGPU acceleration. The theory is to use a capture card to feed the eGPU video signal back into the internal display of a laptop or all-in-one computer such as the iMac. The AKiTiO Node Pro seems like an appropriate enclosure to host an Elgato Game Capture HD60 Pro. In order for this setup to work, I needed another TB3 enclosure that hosts the GPU. The AKiTiO Node Pro + HD60 Pro then receives HDMI signal from the eGPU. While this arrangement partially works, it’s neither cost-effective nor elegant.
For eGPU testing, I’m using a Gigabyte AORUS RX 580. The host computers are a late 2016 15″ MacBook Pro and an early 2018 Razer Blade Stealth. 10.13.4 Beta has better external GPU support for Thunderbolt 3 Macs than previous builds. Keep in mind High Sierra native eGPU functionality is for select AMD Radeon cards only. Nvidia eGPU users can try yifanlu’s workaround. The latest Razer Blade Stealth is one of the best performing ultrabooks for external graphics use. It has the holy trinity of quad-core CPU, four PCI lanes over Thunderbolt 3, and GT4 OPI mode. We’re working on an ultrabook buyer’s guide for eGPU enthusiasts that goes in depth to elaborate on these crucial specifications.
|Late 2016 15″ MacBook Pro||Early 2018 Razer Blade Stealth|
AKiTiO has a very good understanding of its customer base. For years our eGPU community has been modifying AKiTiO’s PCIe expansion enclosures such as the Thunder2 and Thunder3 to host external graphics cards. When the AKiTiO Node arrived last year as one of the first certified eGFX solutions, it made eGPU much more accessible. This also brought competing eGPU enclosures from other manufacturers. The Node Pro is in essence the evolution of the most versatile Thunderbolt 3 enclosure we could ask for. It is the jack of all trades when it comes to Thunderbolt 3 PCIe expandability.
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