AKiTiO Node Pro Review - Jack of All Trades
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.
Awesome review! Quick question, in your testing, did you encounter any PSU fan whine?
Any idea if I could plug my LG Ultrafine 5K display into the other port and have it accelerated?
@matthewmchang The PSU fan is definitely audible when idle. How would you describe the behavior of the fans on your Node Pro? I will try to observe if mine does the same.p
@eightarmedpet Plugging the LG 5K Ultrafine display to the second TB3 port will likely work as DisplayPort passthrough. I don't believe it will be accelerated by the eGPU with this arrangement.
@antoine It's a tight space and access to the mounting screws is from the bottom. The mounting plate is for a 92mm fan so we'll need an adapter to 120mm on the radiator. I will try mounting either a 980 Ti Hybrid or R9 Fury X and report back.
EDIT: It's possible to mount the radiator and fan at the bottom but you'll have to modify the case. There's not enough vertical room to attach the 92-120mm fan adapter. Here are a couple of photos I took when test fitting the R9 Fury X tonight.
Fantastic review, thank you!
You mentioned, "the Node Pro may have additional latency", was this noticeable to you when gaming?
It would be interesting to devise a test to get some latency figures, perhaps by using a high-speed camera.
@itsage, When initially turned on, the PSU Fans on my Node Pro do not make any audible noise. But around 30 min. into use, (while editing using Final Cut Pro), the PSU fans start producing a slightly audible high pitched whine, that changes in pitch depending on the speed of the PSU fan. It's not so loud that would make me not use the Node Pro, but its noticeable.
Thanks @theitsage. Do you think that there's sufficient space on the bottom to insert a longer card such us the Vega LC ? (assuming that the thickness of the fan+radiator is the same of the Fury)
2017 15" MBP 3.1 MHz RP560 + AMD Vega FE LC@32Gbps-TB3 (Breakaway 350 + SF600) + macOS 10.13.4
@antoine there's space for longer cards than the Fury X. My thinking is you can relocate the plastic snap-in clip to hold the hose so that they don't get in the way. You may need to cut out more opening in the bottom panel to sufficiently route exhaust air from the radiator.
@matthewmchang I will try a quieter card next and observe for this bahavior.
@another_droog I don't have the equipment to test. That statement was a paraphrase from Intel Thunderbolt blog explaining the advantages of eGFX over generic PCIe expansion.
A note on the thunderbolt controllers. It looks like the difference between the JHL6540 and the DSL6540 is a non-issue. DSL6540 has been discontinued (see here https://www.anandtech.com/show/11692/intel-to-discontinue-first-gen-thunderbolt-3-controllers). JHL6540 appears to be the successor. Both chips are dual thunderbolt 3 port chips, so I doubt it'll cause latency issues. I can't find a copy of the datasheets to do a more real comparison, but from what Intel publishes, there are no differences other than the JHL is lead-free and DSL is not.
is it possible to run the Samsung drive and a gpu card in the same enclosure? is this possible with any enclosure? would be nice to not run an external ssd and external gpu separately
@kyle_jones It's not possible to have a Thunderbolt 3 enclosure hosting both an NVMe drive and eGPU at the same time. As you can see in the Samsung 960 EVO speed test, its read speed can saturate the TB3 bandwidth.
@kyle_jones , the buyer's guide has several enclosures (Powercolor Devil Box, Mantiz Venus, Omen Accelerator) with internal SATA-III connectors & bays to host an internal SATA drive. Just note that for best drive & eGPU performance you'd want to host them off their own separate cable. Such enclosures are also internal USB 3.1 Gen1 hub limited to 5Gbps for those drives.
Stepping up one notch, the AKiTiO Node Pro's daisy-chain TB3 port can function as a 10Gbps USB-C 3.1 port. Consider there:
Example USB-C 2.5″ drive components
Or as per @theitsage , a NVME SSD can saturate TB3 bandwidth. There would need a separate TB3 enclosure with it's own TB3 port for best performance. Eg:
Hi, I bought the enclosure and should arrive soon and I bought an EVGA 1080ti SC2 hybrid. I’ve notice that the GPU has a fan, is there space to install it?
Can I use this card?
Hi, I’ve ordered the akitio node pro and should arrive at the beginning of March.
I’m recapping what I need to do in order to let this work.
Having the Nvidia Evga 1080Ti hydro copper I will need the download the latest driver (I saw a thread on this website) install the latest High Sierra and should work?
Is there a step by step?
@theitsage thank you. I actually stopped the order but did install 10.13.3 so in case I'd like to use an EGPU with my TB2 I should still be able.
Have had my Node Pro for about a week hooked up to a 13" Spectre X360 (8550U) with an Asus-braded RX 480. So far I have been happy with the performance of the Node Pro, but I have to say the fans are pretty crazy. The case fan (which is an exhaust fan, which seems odd to me) was pretty low quality and runs all the time. I found the sound it made to be, honestly, pretty annoying so I replaced it with an $8 92MM fan. It's bad enough that this fan seems to just run constantly, but it seems like Akitio skimped on the quality of the part as well.
The PSU fan get's what I would consider extremely loud. Significantly louder than my GPU. I'm not sure if the fan speed is controlled by power draw or temps, but my RX480 only seems to pull around 150W max under load, so it's not exactly stressing the power supply. It may get replaced some day with a model that is quieter.
The rest of the case is awesome and the quality / aesthetics of the Node Pro are fantastic, which is honestly the reason I shelled out more for the Node Pro vs the Node. I guess I just expected more for the price, but I suppose it isn't the most expensive case out there.
If anyone is curious, this is the fan I used: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B002KTZJOQ/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o01_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1 I have had good luck with them in the past. They don't move as much air as some other fans on the market, but the thermals in the Node Pro seem fine. My GPU never gets above 60c and I am venting directly against a wall with about a two inch gap, which is totally not ideal. Switching the bottom exhaust fan didn't seem to affect the situation whatsoever and makes the box much more pleasant at idle.
Other than that, peripherals absolutely do not work on the second TB3 port, which is as expected, and the rest of the enclosure works fantastically. Looks great, great thermal performance, rock solid stability, great performance, etc.
And for the record, I would totally recommend the Node Pro (without any experience with any other eGPU enclosure) - I still have a week or two to return it and I can't see that happening.