Should you get an eGPU for playing on a Mac or rather purchase a gaming PC? [my feedback for iMac 2017 and MBPro15 2018 + NVidia eGPUs]
I just wanted to share my own results / discoveries / advices for people having this question:
I have a Mac, I love my Mac, but I want to play videogames, so could eGPU be the solution?
Before we go further
This post is quite long, and as of now I don't have pictures ready. I'll try to answer questions at best.
Nothing of my eGPU wanderings would have been possible without egpu.io, advices from its community, and @ITSage in particular. Such people motivated me to take the time to share my own experience-s.
Please keep in mind these are my personal feelings / results, so these are not generic rules whatsoever.
I'm a long time gamer, but no hardcore gamer (playing something like 1h per day). My favorite games are FPS and RPG.
Bootcamp & other pre-requisites
Let's go straight to the point: gaming on MacOS is no good. The greatest games are not there, and even when they are, performance is way lower than under Windows. So Bootcamp is the way to go.
Also keep in mind you will have to purchase a mouse. The Magic Mouse won't do gaming because lacking a right hardware button (so you won't be able to aim and shoot on any FPS).
You can use your Mac keyboard (either the Magic Keyboard or the integrated MacBook Pro keyboard) for most games. Pro players will say "you need a mechanical keyboard", but if you're just gaming for fun, it's not that true. For some games, the fact you can't recognize more than 4 to 8 simultaneous key presses (I didn't measure that much) can be troublesome ... but this is pretty unusual as pushing 8 keys with 10 fingers is not frequent and anyway unpractical with any keyboard 😉
Be warned that if you want to use your Mac keyboard, you will have to use a tool like SharpKeys to modify the behavior of the Command key: it's mapped as the Windows key but should be remapped as the Left Alt key. If you don't do this, crouching in games will be hard and will lead you to switch from the game screen to the Windows desktop opening the Windows "start" menu.
I had a 2017 5K 27" iMac with i7, 32 GB of RAM, 1 TB SSD, Radeon 580 Pro.
It's a fairly decent machine to play many titles at 1080p in High settings, and the picture is lovely on the 5K display. However, it's a little bit noisy when gaming, and the drivers can be a nightmare (those from Apple / AMD are way too old for some games, and those from bootcampdrivers have in my case broken my Windows once or twice - not Matt's fault as he's doing a great job -). I would also largely prefer playing at 1440p instead of 1080p, as the 5K resolution is a pure multiple of 1440p and any game really shines at 1440p on the iMac 5K display.
- Unigine Heaven (1080p, no VSync, 8xAA, Ultra Q, Extreme Tessel) on 580 Pro: 1.240
- Unigine Heaven (same settings) on e-RTX 2070 Super: 2.434
- Unigine Valley Valley (same settings) on 580 Pro: 2.230
- Unigine Valley on e-RTX 2070 Super: 4.110
- 3DMark TimeSpy on 580 Pro: 3.996
- 3DMark TimeSpy on e-RTX 2070 Super: 5.699
We are talking of a +50% to +100% boost.
And in games? First, yes, the iMac is way more silent. Performance? Well ... benchmarks are far from the real life experience. In most games, I have been able to "push" the settings from High to Ultra. The Witcher 3 was running smooth at 1080p in Ultra, but still not at 1440p (which was my target). So a bump, but not a game changer
Setting up the eGPU under BootCamp was so easy. Nothing done on EFI or the AMD drivers, just hot-plugged the eGPU after Windows boot, wait for detection, wait for the drivers to be installed, change the graphical advanced settings to use eGPU (high performance) instead of dGPU (low power), and that was it!
... but that wasn't that stable. After 5 boots or so, I had to change the TB3 port used by the eGPU, as Windows did not detect it anymore on the previous one. This lasted 5 boots, and the same happened, but then the eGPU was not detected on any port. Next reboot ... blue screen, Windows partition dead, impossible to recover.
My conclusion: the iMac 2017 with 580 Pro is decent enough to game, the 2019 with Vega 48 should be even better, adding an eGPU is useless.
Some will argue it's better to connect an external screen, but then again, if you have the money for a screen comparable to the 5K one from the iMac for gaming, then you should buy a gaming PC.
I would even say: when ordering an iMac, if you're a gamer, invest in the highest GPU, not in an eGPU.
I had to switch from the iMac to a MacBook Pro because of new needs for my work. This is a 15" MBPro from 2018 with 6 core i9, 32 GB RAM, Vega 20, 1 TB SSD. Yes, a beefy MacBook Pro, but I'm in the dev business and really need rough power, RAM, and speedy large storage. Some of you know the drill.
Here are the same benchmarks as before using the Vega 20 and the internal display:
- Unigine Heaven on Vega 20: 937
- Unigine Valley on Vega 20: 1.491
- 3DMark TimeSpy on Vega 20: 2.874
The number are lows, but gaming is feasible through reducing details. Some real world comparison:
- on the iMac with Radeon 580 you can get:
- Overwatch at 1440p - Epic => stable 60fps (and way above)
- Apex Legends at 1440p - High to Highest => stable 60fps
- Witcher 3 at 1080p - High => from 45 to 60fps
- on the MBPro with Vega 20 you can get:
- Overwatch at 1900x1200 - High => stable 60fps
- Apex Legends at 1900x1200 - Low to High => from 50 to 60fps
- Witcher 3 at 1900x1200 - Low to Mid => around 45 fps
If you combine this to the bright sharp detailed colorful but "only 15" display, gaming experience is not great. But the hugest problem is heat and noise and I will take some lines to explain this, as I have made several hours of measurement with HWInfo64 and MSI Afterburner to get the full story.
Many already explained the MBPro 2018 has a problem with heat, leading to heavy throttling of the CPU. Apple made a strong power / temp / fan correction for MacOS, but not for BootCamp. In my first tests, I saw the CPU throttling from 2.9 GHz to 800 MHz. Yes, no mistyping, 800 MHz!!! For games like Apex, which require CPU power, framerate could decrease from 60 to 10 fps, totally unplayable.
Why such a frequency drop? Because not only the CPU is at a high temp, the GPU and the HMB2 VRAM are hot, so everyone is increase the temperature problem, and this will push fans and throttling.
There is one partial solution: go to the energy / battery settings (under Windows), create a custom profile, go to the advanced settings, and change the "max CPU power" from 100% to 99%. No more Turbo mode, there will still be some throttling, but never below 1.8 GHz after some hours of play. Better. However, fans will be at full speed, and these fans are noisy. The CPU will also remain very hot, so lifetime (thermal paste) could be an issue.
But then there is another problem: available power. The MBPro is limited to 100W of power (USB-C limit and battery limit), and this is not enough to free the CPU and GPU horsepower. So even if the Vega 20 is not a ridiculous GPU, when the game will require a little bit of CPU (and actually many of those I'm playing do use CPU), then the GPU will not get sufficient power.
Some days ago, I had the opportunity to build an eGPU setup at a bargain price through searching second-hand hardware: Razer Core X + GeForce 1660Ti + 27" QHD screen.
You can have a look here: https://egpu.io/forums/builds/2018-15″-macbook-pro-vega20-8th6ch-geforce-1660ti-32gbps-tb3-razer-core-x-win10-proto42/#post-74159
Benchmarks on internal display:
- Unigine Heaven on e-1660Ti: 1.644
- Unigine Valley on e-1660Ti: 2.639
- 3DMark TimeSpy on e-1660Ti: 5.560
So we are going higher than the iMac Radeon 580 Pro. On the external display, results are even a little bit better but I wanted to compare apples to apples 🙂
If you look at TimeSpy, it's even matching the e-2070 Super result, because the i9 is going far above the i7.
And this is the real result: the i9 can use the full 100 power (and it shines), and if disabling Turbo, it will keep 2.9 GHz whereas the machine will remain silent.
Now on the real gaming:
- Overwatch at 1440p - Ultra to Epic => stable 60fps
- Apex Legends at 1440p - High => stable 60fps
- Witcher 3 at 1080p - High => stable 60fps
So with a limited eGPU setup, the MacBook Pro can deliver a gaming experience identical to (or even better than) an iMac 5K with Radeon 580 Pro (should match the iMac 2019 with Vega 48). Yes, the iMac 5K display is better, but on the slow side for gaming. And for sure the MBPro + eGPU is way more silent.
The setup costed me 450$, which is a bargain. I think you could have the same for about 750$, brand new, screen included. At that price, I consider an entry-level eGPU setup for gaming on the MacBook Pro 15 with an external 1080p or 1440p display is great.
The "next level" of gaming would be to be able to play the Witcher 3 at 4K Ultra with a stable 60fps. This would really bring gaming to the next level. However, this would require a RTX 2080 Super and a nice 4K display. Considering the price, I would rather go the gaming PC route. Remember using eGPU is not flawless (connect after boot, do not close lid, do not use only external display when powering off, etc.) and my case was the easiest one (NVidia GPU, MBPro 15 2018, etc.).
If playing on the internal display, my opinion is that eGPU is useless. It will be more silent, it will provide more details or a higher framerate ... but on a 15" display, the difference will not be that important. I would then save the money, and go for a newer MBPro 16 with better graphics, power management, and heat management.
It’s pretty clear that the next gen iMac needs to include options specifically for gaming.
That’s if Apple wants iMac to keep a meaningful place in the product line in 2020. And wants a strong marketing hook.
Faster displays and 5700XT-ish level graphics. Plus a new mouse and keyboard. All those are needed.
Hopefully Apple does something to move the needle. 🍎
You’re absolutely right. But I’m still impressed by what an older 2017 iMac 5K can deliver as per gaming. You cannot push games to 1440p Ultra but still get a very decent gaming experience.
My message here was results / opinion about eGPU for gaming on a Mac:
- useless for the iMac 5K with Radeon 580 or above
- great for the MBPro 15 TouchBar with external display if not spending too much on the GPU
- useless for playing on the same MBPro on the internal display if already having a Vega 20
- too many problems for the money compared to a PC if you want to play in 4K
So far my setup using second hand hardware including the external display is giving me pleasant results for the money. Even paying the price for first hand hardware would be interesting.
Great post and analysis. It’s nice to read about real world use cases as I feel the tech world gets a big bogged down with stats and figures that don’t actually translate to real world performance or even address the problems face by users - “As a Mac user I want a better gaming experience”.
I just discovered my screen can go up to 70 Hz, so will test again games with this target.
So far I have a stable 70fps+ on Destiny 2 under 1440p Ultra settings.
Not the heaviest game, but soooooo beautiful with these settings.
@proto42 I've seen a couple of videos that show fps above refresh rate has benefits. As I result I aimed for 120fps on my 60hz 5K (at 1440 obvs) and I honestly feel I can tell the difference, and my PUBG performance has definitely improved (whether thats just down to frames is questionable but its the only real variable atm).
@eightarmedpet I'm not that a good player to benefit from a higher framerate 😉
But I'll try lower Q settings to target 120fps at 1440p on some games, to check whether I feel a difference. I think Overwatch will be the best candidate, as Apex Legends is a hard beast when it comes to controling the framerate, and Destiny is not that competitive.
The more I use my "entry level" setup, the more I enjoy it, and I'm starting to change parameters I never touched before. Typically VSync, which I always turned on to avoid picture tearing before the eGPU, and that I've totally disabled now since I'm able to play most games higher than the display refresh rate. I could be wrong, but I think tearing only occurs when your framerate is below the display refresh rate, so the GSync and FreeSync solutions there. Anyway, not needed anymore, and turning VSync off has a latency benefit I can instantaneously feel.
@proto42 I'm a terrible player, thats why I need the frames! Honestly, night and day difference.
@proto42, Thank you for sharing this very authentic perspective that most mainstream media failed to present. There's satisfaction in turning a "boring Mac" that we use day in and day out to a capable Windows gaming machine. We'd love to see your iMac build guide because we don't see too many of them especially with internal display acceleration. Hopefully the next iMac design will sport a panel with higher refresh rate.
Hi Buddy, it's great to see someone put together a post like this. Thanks for sharing.
I can say I went thru similar trials, buying a lot of the nuts and bolts to make it happen. I used my 2017 13" Macbook Pro with an external Vega 64, External Dell 24" 144 hz monitor, and logitech g keyboard & mouse.
I love Mac OS, so my personal goal was to get away from Windows (I did experiment with boot camp, but it didn't play nice with my Vega 64 for reasons documented within the egpu.io community).
What I found was that the gaming experience in Mac OS available games (many Blizzard titles) was good 90% of the time. I loved being able to use my day to day Mac applications such as iMessage, Mail, Music, Airpods, and generally continue to live in the Apple ecosystem. However, I started to run into many of the little inconveniences, such as the third party software I would use for game capture, my peripherals, etc, also not being optimized for Mac OS and would bog me down with poor user experience, glitches, or reduced features. I strangely experienced very slight input lag compared to using the same peripherals in Windows - maybe driver optimization.
It was all enjoyable & playable for casual gaming, but probably not acceptable for competitive gaming. It did bother me enough to where I got a windows laptop for my casual gaming itch. I long to get back to 100% Mac OS, but for me it will take not only the games, but other third party applications and peripherals to be better optimized. I do wonder if Apple Arcade will draw the attention of more gaming software to be optimized for Mac OS.
@cigmatic thanks for your thanks 😉 this is what sharing is all about, helping others, since I've been helped.
I think Apple Arcade won't be enough, as it's mainly casual and some arcade games being available on iOS / TV OS / MacOS. Somewhat different from what we call "gaming on a computer". But the fact Apple is going more on the gaming side is good news for us. There are rumors on a "Gaming Mac", although these are just rumors. But hey, every serious live electro music performer is using a MBPro, would love to see eSport players doing the same.
The real problem is that there is no real incentive for game developers to address the MacOS platform: for many game genres, you need a GPU, and there are too few Macs with "real" GPUs. Not to forget the 3D libs are not that great, and mostly unknown from game developers (and the most used gaming engines). Look at Fortnite running on the same Mac under MacOS and BootCamp: you get a +30% to +40% bump when BootCamping
In my case, using BootCamp is actually nice: I do not "pollute" my MacOS partition with Windows stuff (and their associated bugs, such as instability when upgrading drivers). Yes, it costs some disk space, it requires reboot, but at least the "gaming machine" does not affect the "everything else machine". I know experience is very different from one person to another though.
@itsage, sorry I just missed your reply!!!
Yes, as soon as I'll get some time, I'll fill the template about the iMac.
Sadly, trying ports configurations to have the Multiport AV dongle and the eGPU attached at the same time under BootCamp just broke my system. First I had to switch TB3 port (Multiport AV dongle not connected at boot), or the eGPU would be in error (detected but "no drivers available"). Then some boots later, the eGPU went in error for every TB3 port (code 43), with no script or existing easy solution to fix it.
I'll have to re-install drivers or clean install (but I won't be able to do this in the coming days).
This sounds like the experience I had with the iMac: plug-n-play setups under BootCamp will need re-install after some days. Just my personal experience.
So yes, we can play on a Mac with an eGPU, but I believe there are still some issues with the way Apple "blocks" things under BootCamp. As such, the "native iMac BootCamp gaming" has provided me with a better experience, not under gaming, but to be able to enter games 🙄
Please remember, it's my very personal experience, so take it with a grain of salt. But I'll take it this way: until Apple will embrace eGPU for MacOS and BootCamp, eGPU experiences will be personal 🙂