External GPU implementations have proved to be successful for Mac laptops. But what about Mac desktops that have no standard PCIe slots? The Mac Pro trashcan and Mac mini are such machines. There is definitely demand for a more powerful GPU setup from Mac Pro users. There’s virtually no demand on the Mac mini front, so it’s not often you see an eGPU setup with it. YOLO, my friends!
The Mid 2011 Mac mini was one of the first Macs to have Thunderbolt connectivity (full list of Thunderbolt-equipped Macs). I hadn’t been making use of this Mac mini and figured I would try something fun. I did some upgrades to what many would consider an outdated and least powerful Mac then paired it with the highest performing AMD graphics card that works in macOS. This Mac mini is now running 10.12 Sierra with a pair of SSDs in RAID-0, 8GB of RAM, and an R9 Fury X external GPU.
You may have seen disassembled photos of the AKiTiO Node. The enclosure has a lot of room inside. I measured the empty space between the power supply housing and the front of the enclosure. It turned out to be a perfect fit for a Mac mini. The AKiTiO Node‘s fan and its bracket do have to be removed to accommodate this unusual pairing.
Routing the Mac mini’s power cord and Thunderbolt cable was a challenge because I didn’t want to modify the casing of the Mac mini or the AKiTiO Node. I plugged the cables into the back of the Mac mini prior to fitting it inside the AKiTiO Node. I initially wanted the underside of the Mac mini to face outwards and without the bottom cover for better air flow (read: to look cool). This placement did not work very well due to the hidden location of the Power button. Placing the Mac mini with the Apple logo face outwards provides easier access to the Power button.
The next hurdle was the R9 Fury X’s liquid cooling lines. They are rather stiff and don’t tend to stay where you want them. Fortunately the tabs for the AKiTiO Node‘s fan bracket are in such a spot that they apply a decent pressure against the radiator to keep the whole cooling system in place. This Mac mini + R9 Fury X external GPU setup could run fully enclosed within the AKiTiO Node. Yet it’s too cool to be hidden away.
In order to install automate-eGPU.sh script v1.0.0, I had to use the Mac mini’s Intel HD 3000 iGPU through HDMI connection to see the screen. Once eGPU script was up and running, I switched over to the DisplayPort connection on the R9 Fury X external graphics card.
As we have found with other Mac eGPU builds, the Apple Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) to Thunderbolt adapter not only enables older Macs to use TB3 enclosures but also improves the success rate in macOS. This external GPU setup has worked surprisingly well. Sleep and wake-up are non-issues, which I did not expect to be possible with an eGPU attached in macOS. This Mac mini has been running flawlessly for almost a week as if the R9 Fury X was an integral component.
The R9 Fury X’s performance is definitely bottlenecked by the 1st generation Thunderbolt connection (10Gbps). Still it’s a huge improvement over the Intel HD 3000 iGPU which came stock in this Mac mini. If you’re a lucky owner of the quad-core Late 2012 Mac mini, pairing it with an eGPU is a no-brainer. The Late 2012 Mac mini i7-3615QM paired with the R9 Fury X would likely outdo a base Mac Pro trashcan in certain tasks. On top of that, the total cost to build a Franken-Mac mini like this is less than half the starting price of a Late 2013 Mac Pro.
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I received many requests for additional photos of this eGPU setup. There were also questions about running it with a non-watercooled GPU. This Mac mini external GPU is now running with a Sapphire R9 Fury Nitro. These were the steps I took to put this setup together.
Mac mini power cable and Thunderbolt cable were routed through the gap in the front fascia of the AKiTiO Node.
With the AKiTiO Node front fan and its bracket removed, the Mac mini fits perfectly in this space.
I positioned the Mac mini with the Apple logo facing outwards so that I can access the Power button.
R9 Fury Nitro mounted in front of the Mac mini with room to spare.
The cables can be routed to the bottom and ran underneath the AKiTiO Node enclosure.
Mac mini + AKiTiO Node + R9 Fury Nitro all hooked up and running like a dream.
Here’s a quick video of this eGPU setup in action. Listen for the “whoosh” sound right before the screen came on – that’s the success sound with AMD eGPU in macOS. 😀