Mac users have always wished for a modern, top-of-the-line graphics card in their computers. Apple has never answered those prayers. Has this situation changed with the Late 2016 15″ MacBook Pro which sports a Radeon Pro discrete GPU?
The short answer is no. The long answer is yes, if your primary objective is performance per watt.
The AMD Radeon Pro GPU lineup comes in three options. The base 15″ model comes with the Radeon Pro 450 and 2GB of dedicated video memory. The higher spec 15″ has the Radeon Pro 455, also with 2GB of dedicated video memory. The top dog Radeon Pro 460 has 4GB of VRAM and is only available as a build-to-order configuration. Going from the base 450 to 460 costs $200 while the 455 to 460 upgrade costs $100. My educated guess on a stand-alone price for this Radeon Pro 460 graphics card is $400.
The Radeon Pro 460 shares many similarities with the RX 460, a desktop graphics card. These two cards are part of AMD Polaris 11. They have the same PCI ID (67EF) in macOS. In fact, the main difference is power consumption. Apple underclocked and undervolted the Radeon Pro GPUs in its Late 2016 15″ MacBook Pro laptops to cap power consumption at no more than 35W. The Desktop RX 460 consumes more than twice that figure at 75W. And because we’re comparing apples to oranges, I opted to go with the least expensive RX 460 I could find that has 2GB VRAM and costs $80. Let’s see how this $80 budget graphics card performs against the top-of-the-line Radeon Pro 460.
For this comparison, I installed the RX 460 graphics card into the AKiTiO Node ($269) Thunderbolt 3 eGPU enclosure. Total cost for this RX 460 eGPU build is $349. The RX 460 eGPU tests were conducted on a Late 2016 13″ MacBook Pro (Thunderbolt 3) and an Early 2015 11″ MacBook Air (Thunderbolt 2). I also tested the RX 460 in a 2010 Mac Pro tower via the PCIe slot to get a baseline for this card. Benchmarks on Radeon Pro equipped Late 2016 15″ MacBook Pro laptops were contributed by our forum members (special thanks to Relvce and benr). These raw performance numbers speak for themselves.
|Polaris 11||Mac||Luxmark 3.1||Geekbench 4||Valley 1.0||Heaven 4.0|
|RX 460 PCIe||2010 Mac Pro||5,920||77,676||1,094||564|
|RX 460 eGPU||2015 11" MBA||5,849/7,384(iGPU+eGPU)||68,458||1,005||510|
|RX 460 eGPU||2016 13" MBP||5,935/8,389(iGPU+eGPU)||70,750||1,002||511|
|Radeon Pro 455||2016 15" MBP||5,901(iGPU+dGPU)||39,009||798||404|
|Radeon Pro 460||2016 15" MBP||4,567/6,056(iGPU+dGPU)||47,452||895||495|
Apple touts the new 15″ MacBook Pro and its Radeon Pro discrete GPU lineup as providing the best performance per watt bar none. This is true. However, it’s a steep price to pay for a card that scores lower in all four benchmarks than its $80 desktop counterpart. The RX 460 eGPU simply outperforms the Radeon Pro 460 and costs less.
The true potential of external graphics cards for Macs and ultrabooks doesn’t stop at budget GPUs such as the RX 460 though. You can go all out with a GTX 980 Ti or R9 Fury X with liquid cooling. For the speed freaks among us, pairing more than one eGPU to a Thunderbolt computer is also possible. They don’t yield 100% performance compared to Desktop PCIe speed but can easily run circles around Apple’s top-of-the-line Radeon Pro dGPU.