AKiTiO Node Review & The State of Thunderbolt 3 eGPU

Inside of AKiTiO Node Thunderbolt 3 graphics expansion box

Let me start this AKiTiO Node review by getting one thing out there first. Intel needs to stop crippling its Thunderbolt implementation and let eGPU go mainstream. Every major computer manufacturer has shown its commitment to USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 connectivity. CES 2017 brought an onslaught of external graphics card solutions. People want them and will pay for them. Intel has no excuse.

As earlier reports pointed out, the AKiTiO Node TB3 board has the Texas Instrument TPS65983 (TI83) USB-C controller with Thunderbolt 3 support. Interestingly Apple’s first Thunderbolt 3 Mac, the Late 2016 MacBook Pro, only supports this TI83 controller. Older Thunderbolt 3 enclosures with the TI82 controller such as Razer Core, AKiTiO Thunder3, and Plugable TB3 docks do not have official support in macOS 10.12 Sierra. This is a software limitation Apple uses to restrict the implementation of external graphics cards on macOS.

AKiTiO Node Thunderbolt 3 board with Texas Instrument TPS65983 (TI83)

I’ve been using this AKiTiO Node with a Late 2016 13″ non-touchbar MacBook Pro. It’s an awesome setup…in Windows 10 that is. As soon as I installed Windows 10 through Bootcamp, the system immediately detected the eGPU and prompted me to install the appropriate drivers (for a GTX 980 Ti Hybrid). After a restart the MacBook Pro was up and running with a fully functional GTX 980 Ti Thunderbolt 3 eGPU. Nvidia Optimus was running to power the MacBook Pro’s internal display, all benchmark software and games were able to make use of the GTX 980 Ti without a fuss. It was beautiful.

It’s another story in macOS. Even though the TI83 is compatible with the Late 2016 MacBook Pro and macOS recognizes the Thunderbolt 3 connection, there is a software block to prevent detection of the external graphics card. Many are working to come up with a solution.

1/10/17 Update: I was searching for additional documentation and firmware information on Texas Instrument TPS65983 controller and found a firmware update for the Node. The AKiTiO Node with its v1.0.0.3 B1-23+3.6.1 version is now working in macOS. I’ve tried it with the Late 2016 13″ and 15″ MacBook Pro and they both work. The only modification is automate-eGPU script from Goalque. Here’s a quick video of the setup in action.

As far as the hardware itself, the only downside I’ve noticed with the Node is the PSU’s fan. It’s louder than it should be and in all honesty isn’t needed. I disconnected the PSU fan (warning: you’ll void the warranty with this mod), and this eGPU is very quiet during operation now.

All component view AKiTiO Node review

You may have seen unboxing photos from an earlier AKiTiO Node post. The enclosure is bigger than you would imagine from seeing photos online. I like it to be honest. I’m sick of designs full of compromises. The Node enclosure and its size accommodates every double-wide GPU made. Look at the EVGA GTX 980 Ti and its liquid cooling components. Everything fits inside with room to spare. I have not put the outer case back on because I like the look of the eGPU this way.

AKiTiO Node review withGTX 980 Ti eGPU and Dell XPS 13

The 400W power supply is surprisingly small and has 3 PCIe cables. One 6-pin PCIe cable goes into the boards. The other two 6+2 PCIe cables are for the GPU.  It’s plenty enough to power most graphics cards. I’ve even tried a Sapphire R9 Fury X which is a 400W TDP card, and the PSU has no issues keeping up under load.

One nice improvement in this AKiTiO enclosure compared to other Thunderbolt expansion boxes I’ve used is the front fan and its mounting. There are two thumb screws holding a 120mm fan and its sliding bracket. I was able to mount the GTX 980 Ti radiator and fan without any modification because of this universal design and sizing.

Thumb screw for fan bracket on AKiTiO Node

The best feature? Its price. I know $300 is still a lot of money but compared to other options on the market, the AKiTiO Node is the most affordable all-in-one Thunderbolt 3 eGPU box. Another nice thing is AKiTiO’s support and involvement with the eGPU community. Many forum members have shared their stories and good experiences with AKiTiO’s customer service. I reached out to Razer and other eGPU makers for a demo unit to test and find a solution for macOS. AKiTiO was one of the two who shipped us a demo unit (Mantiz was the other).

AKiTiO Node review with GTX 980 Ti and Intell NUC Skull Canyon

To assess and review this AKiTiO Node, I tried these Thunderbolt 3 computers and here are the recaps:

  • Late 2016 13″ non-touchbar MacBook Pro – as of 1/10/17 works in both macOS and Windows 10: link
  • Dell XPS 13 9350 – Thunderbolt Software shows eGPU not supported – as of 1/10/17, plug-n-play, fully functional: link
  • Intel NUC Skull Canyon – plug-n-play, fully functional.
  • Alienware 17 R4 – plug-n-play, fully functional: link
  • Late 2016 15″ MacBook Pro – same as the 13″ in macOS, but requires a DSDT override in Windows 10 to resolve error 12: link

During my testings, I’ve found some frustration with Thunderbolt 3 implementation due to outdated Thunderbolt firmware. All Thunderbolt 3 equipped computers are capable of using an eGPU such as this AKiTiO Node. Yet some would show “External GPU Supported: No” in Intel Thunderbolt Software (Dell XPS 9350 is an example). The reason I’ve found is the NVM firmware and its communication with the TI83 controller. NVM firmware version 18 and newer would show support for external graphics cards. If you have a machine with an older NVM firmware, contact your computer manufacturer to expedite the release of new Thunderbolt firmware updates.

1/10/17 Update: The AKiTiO Node firmware update on 1/6/17 claims “Added: Support for Thunderbolt 3 hosts that do not support external GPUs”. Indeed it had. The Dell XPS and Late 2016 MacBook Pro are amongst the host devices which benefit from this new firmware.

Thunderbolt 3 eGPU build with GTX 980 Ti Hybrid and AKiTiO Node review

So why does Apple stop us from experiencing such a great solution for their thin and light laptops? Some may guess Apple is working on its own eGPU product; I highly doubt this. Given its design and sales strategies over the years, the only way Apple would ever implement an eGPU is through a sealed Thunderbolt 3 display, using a custom board GPU. Well, Apple stopped building displays.

My opinion on this situation is the same as the Mac Pro tower vs. the newer Mac Pro trashcan. You can custom build the older Mac Pro to be much more powerful than its newer iteration. Apple wants tight control over its Mac lineup hierarchy. An eGPU would disrupt this order.

Regardless of what Intel, Apple, and the OEMs decide to do, people want external graphics cards for the latest breed of computers. The AKiTiO Node is the first enclosure to push eGPU mainstream with its all-in-one box and reasonable price point. As a long time Mac user, I’d buy this Thunderbolt 3 enclosure and start making the switch away from Apple.

Join our forum for latest Thunderbolt 3 eGPU development. Please share your thoughts in the comments or in our Thunderbolt Enclosure forum.

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