RX 580 External GPU Review – AMD XConnect and FreeSync

eGPU Reviews 29 Comments

AMD launched its Radeon RX 500 series GPUs a month ago with the RX 580 leading the charge. It’s a refined version of the highly successful mid-range graphics card from last summer, the RX 480. As a matter of fact, the two cards share the same PCI ID 67DF. The Radeon RX 580 brought performance improvements at the same price point as the outgoing RX 480. I’ve been testing a Gigabyte Aorus RX 580 XTR 8GB factory overclocked to 1439 MHz.

 

Disclosure: I’m very fond of AMD Radeon RX 480. It’s the graphics card that lured me into higher GPU performance for the Mac platform and my eventual involvement with the eGPU community. The three reference RX 480 graphics cards I own are currently enclosed in a 2010 Mac Pro tower. They serve as beta testers for newer versions of macOS so that I can provide up-to-date information on my RX 480/580 installation how-to for Mac.

Being Mac users, we don’t always have the luxury of choosing any graphics card we want. The Polaris 10 GPUs arrived at the right time as Apple released macOS 10.12 Sierra with drivers for Polaris 11 graphics cards. While these drivers were never intended for the RX 480, the genius minds (Pike’s, netkas, Fl0r!an, okras, and others) in the Mac community figured out a way to make it work. The problem is there are very few Macs with full-length PCIe slots. The solution was to connect Macs to these newer and more powerful GPUs via an external PCIe enclosure. Thunderbolt is the natural conduit for this task.

 

You’ve most likely read reviews of the RX 580 from popular outlets. My review of the RX 580 is strictly based on its use as an external GPU. I make this distinction because eGPU in general and eGPU for macOS in specific is still in its infancy. 

In macOS, the few active eGPU developers are goalque, rastafabi on eGPU.io and netkas on his forum. We hope there will be collaboration and involvement from other developers as eGPU gets more recognition.

In Windows, eGPU implementation is easier and works better. Intel has been making a big push for Thunderbolt 3. It plans to unleash this technology under a nonexclusive, royalty-free license. This will speed up adoption rate due to lower certification and manufacturing costs. AMD and Nvidia have developed software solutions, XConnect and Optimus respectively, to handle graphics card switching in the Windows environment. AMD XConnect team in particular is very active in promoting external GPU. The ultimate goal for an external graphics card is to function similar to how an external hard drive does.

AMD XConnect gets us very close to this goal. The prerequisites are R9 and RX graphics cards paired with a high-compatibility eGPU enclosure. For this RX 580 external GPU review, I’m using the Sonnet Breakaway Box Thunderbolt 3 enclosure. The external display is an LG Ultrawide 34UM68P with FreeSync. FreeSync is an AMD technology available on certain monitors that synchronizes the frame rate between the monitor and compatible AMD graphics cards. In macOS, I ran the RX 580 eGPU on a Late 2013 Mac Pro. The host in Windows was a Razer Blade Stealth.

 

The macOS Experience

Goalque’s automate-eGPU script makes installing external graphics cards for Mac a much less frustrating process. The 2013 Mac Pro differs from other Macs in that it has no integrated GPU. There are 6 Thunderbolt 2 ports in the back that pair up with 3 Thunderbolt buses internally. From forum members’ and my experience, Port #5 and #6 are more eGPU-friendly than others. I have managed to use other Thunderbolt ports via a boot delay. The “highly technical” process is to push the POWER button on the nMP, wait for the boot chime to finish, count to 3, then connect the eGPU.

Using either Thunderbolt Port #5 or #6 is recommended. Keep in mind these two ports share the same Thunderbolt Bus #0 with the HDMI port. Therefore, you should ensure there are no more than 2 display devices connected to this bus.

 

The RX 580 eGPU setup works for both gaming and work in macOS. While it’s running at Thunderbolt 2 speed (16Gbps), the performance boost from this RX 580 is a marked improvement over the stock FirePros. In Final Cut Pro X, adding the RX 580 eGPU reduced BruceX benchmark time to 16 seconds on average. This same benchmark was around 24 seconds with the pair of D500s. F1 2016 is one of the few games for macOS that makes use of Apple Metal framework. It runs beautifully with this nMP + eGPU pairing. While FreeSync is not available in macOS, the increased frame rate helps smooth things out significantly during gameplay.

RX 580 eGPU Sonnet Breakaway Box + 2013 Mac Pro + LG Ultrawide FreeSync

2013 Mac ProD500 dGPURX 580 eGPU
Unigine Valley23.1 FPS37.6 FPS
Unigine Heaven22.3 FPS39.8 FPS
F1 201623 FPS51 FPS
GeekBench 4.172,055126,749
Luxmark 3.19,03714,897
FCPX BruceX24 s16 s

 

Windows: AMD XConnect & FreeSync

It’s plug-and-play with the Razer Blade Stealth in Windows 10. As soon as I connected the RX 580 eGPU to the Razer laptop’s Thunderbolt 3 port, I heard the new device sound and Intel Thunderbolt Software prompted me for my preference to connect to this enclosure. Windows 10 can automatically install the drivers for most graphics cards. However, they are not the latest drivers. I downloaded and installed the latest Radeon Software Crimson ReLive Edition drivers 17.5.2. Forum member Sky11 has provided us with a guideline on how to best upgrade AMD GPU drivers.

XConnect works with the Intel HD Graphics 620 iGPU to enable internal display acceleration with the Radeon RX 580 eGPU. This software solution from AMD for Windows 10 is so much easier than eGPU-accelerated internal display in macOS. I simply plugged the Thunderbolt 3 cable into this Razer Blade Stealth. The RX 580 spun up then slowed to a halt after initialization. AMD XConnect notification showed up at the bottom right to let me know “External AMD Radeon graphics has been enabled.”

AMD XConnect Enabled and Disconnected Notification

 

Once I connected the LG Ultrawide 34UM68P monitor to the eGPU, AMD XConnect switched to accelerate this external display. FreeSync is disabled by default. I went into the monitor’s On-Screen Display to change this setting to Enabled. As soon as FreeSync was enabled, Windows 10 notified me the new device was found and proceeded with driver installation. AMD Radeon Software also confirmed FreeSync was running.

To my eyes it’s similar to the way 120 MHz TVs display motion vs. 60 MHz ones. The on-screen fluidity makes gaming more enjoyable even at lower FPS. Low Framerate Compensation (LFC), a component of FreeSync, kicked in to help with scenes in which the RX 580 eGPU delivered less than 30 FPS. If I didn’t know, I would have guessed LFC means less f-ing choppy. On top of that, AMD really puts FREE in FreeSync monitors. It demands no costly proprietary hardware, royalties, or licensing costs. Competing technology from Nvidia, G-Sync results in G-Sync monitors costing a lot more than their FreeSync counterparts.

Razer Blade StealthIntel HD 620 iGPURX580 eGPU InternalRX580 eGPU External
Unigine Valley4.4 FPS50.4 FPS50.5 FPS
Unigine Heaven4.7 FPS49.1 FPS49.1 FPS
Unigine Superposition5.5 FPS55.5 FPS59.0 FPS
3DMark Time Spy2.2 FPS26.7 FPS26.5 FPS
3DMark Fire Strike4.8 FPS57.9 FPS56.4 FPS
Rise of the Tomb Raider6.5 FPS53.4 FPS54.1 FPS
Tom Clancy's GhostRecon1.9 FPS36.6 FPS44.9 FPS

It’s no surprise that the RX 580 eGPU improved the graphics performance of this Razer Blade Stealth nearly tenfold. What I was surprised by was how little difference in performance there was between the eGPU accelerating the laptop’s internal display and it accelerating an external monitor. This could be a result of better drivers and AMD XConnect’s optimization for internal display acceleration.

Another similarity with external hard drive is the way you can disconnect an eGPU. Right-clicking the XConnect notification area icon will give you the option to safely eject external AMD Radeon graphics. This essentially closes applications that are currently using the external GPU prior to disconnection. I’ve disconnected the enclosure the “bad way” plenty of times by hot unplugging. While I did not encounter BSOD, ejecting the enclosure the proper way is highly recommended to prevent issues with applications which have yet to support graphics switching between external GPU and integrated GPU.

 

Conclusion

By taking full advantage of AMD XConnect and FreeSync, an RX 580 eGPU setup can transform a lightweight ultrabook into a formidable Windows gaming machine. A major advantage of the AMD Radeon platform is the lower overall cost when considering the purchase of a compatible monitor. 

Gaming in macOS is continuing to improve with more developers adopting Apple Metal framework. Another advantage for AMD graphics cards is Apple’s optimization of Final Cut Pro X. Video editing in FCPX is less time-consuming with the added performance boost from an RX 580 eGPU. While we wait for Apple to deliver on its promise of a modular and powerful next-generation Mac Pro, a relatively affordable RX 580 eGPU setup bridges the performance gap.

 

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Max
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Max

Nice Test! I am using Adobe After Effects and Premiere Pro and work with an 13´MBP TouchBar and lot’s of 4k Footage from multiple Cameras like the GH5, FS7, A7RII and Phantom 4 Pro but the power is not really impressive. Not only one Codec of all of these play’s at full resolution in real time…Editing and grading is only possible with proxy’s and thats not that what I want. I think I’m not the only user who want a test of MBP+eGPU in Premiere and AfterEffects. For Example: -MBP+Mantiz Venus+RX580 (OpenCL) or 1080Ti (Cuda) -Playback, multiple Effects and Grading… Read more »

alone1i
Member

@THEITSAGE: First of all thanks for all of your great works. Could you please tell me while using eGPU, how the fans rev on notebooks? Because you are an expert thats why I am asking a silly question- high rev fan will not reduce computer’s lifespan?

Thank you

enjoy
Member

Great post again 🙂

RX580 have the same or close performance as GTX 1060 so it’s normal over Thunderbolt 3 your Internal Display Result to be the same as if you using External Display,it is not about the drivers and AMD XConnect’s optimization for internal display acceleration.

More info: https://egpu.io/forums/mac-setup/pcie-slot-dgpu-vs-thunderbolt-3-egpu-internal-display-test/

Sky11
Member

More information about AMD FreeSync and Low Frame Rate Compensation (LFC):

The wider the frequency range supported by the display, the better are the results.

Yan
Guest
Yan

I’m using MacBook Pro 13 w/ bar + Akitio Node + RX580, however, I’m having trouble using Final Cut Pro, whenever I launch the app, it crushes.
May I ask if there is a solution for that please. Thank you.

ikir
Member

Here it is working Radeon RX 580, macOS 10.13beta and last FCP version 10.3.4

ikir
Guest

Great article as always, keep up your fantastic job mate

Rob-ART
Guest
Rob-ART

Did you try the RX 580 in the Mac Pro tower?

ikir
Member

Let’s hope FreeSync comes to macOS too

hypernurd
Member

Hi ITSage, Just getting around to setting up my MacPro 2013 (Dual D300’s) with the Mantiz/1080ti. Looks like this will be a lot more straightforward than it is on TB2 MacBooks (thanks to lack of internal display for one). I am curious. You mention only running a max of 2x display devices from the DP (TB2) ports when also using HDMI. By this do you mean two distinct monitors or two distinct eGPUs (which can of course have multiple displays attached)? My MSI 1080Ti has Dual DP ports and Dual HDMI 2.0 ports; seems to be commonplace on the 1080TI… Read more »

screendor
Member

Thanks for so much great info.  
New to the forum but looking to get another year or two of life out of my 2013 nMP, which is used primarily for editing with FCPX.  I see you like the 580 cards–is there a particular model?  Also: do you have a preference on eGPU boxes?  And lastly, if cost wasn’t an issue, what card would you recommend for FCPX/eGPU config?
 
Thank you!!!

screendor
Member

Thanks for the tip.  As I understand it, the Vega cards will be IN the new iMac Pro–and yes, a nice new machine would solve my issues but be a big capital expense (although dang, I wish I new the specs and costs of  the 2018 Mac Pro). So to clarify: the Vega cards will be avail as a separate purchase as well when iMac Pro launches.  Pop one in my eGPU and my 2013 nMP will have a new lease on life for FCPX…yes?  But with TB3, I could potentially also use them down the line when I purchase… Read more »

Coded Games
Member

Hello, Today I got a Sonnet Breakaway 550 with a Vega 56 for my 2013 Mac Pro and have had fairly mixed results and wondered if you know any ways to fix them. I’m running MacOS 10.13.4, used the script to get this to work (which worked perfectly) and have 1 4k monitor hooked up to it. So far I’ve seen significant improvements in Unigen Heaven and Rocket League but have noticed other things like Fortnite and Unity get worse results. If I make Fortnite fullscreen I get around 20-30 FPS and for some reason Unity now has a fairly… Read more »

Coded Games
Member

The monitor was not. I change it to primary display and it fixed the input delay and low FPS in Fortnite. Was getting consistent 30+ FPS playing at Ultra 1080p so that’s pretty great. Although, at one point the monitor went black and my entire computer froze. Restarted and haven’t had that happen since.

I saw that setup guide earlier and was worried it wouldn’t work since it is focused entirely on Thunderbolt 3 MacBooks, do you think it would still work for a 2013 Mac Pro with Thunderbolt 2?

LongEz
Member

It is interesting that the Unigine Valley and Geekbench performance with this TB2 to RX580 seems to be roughly similar to the (few) build reports of TB1 to RX580, and even a few of the TB3 to RX580 reports.   I understand the idea of loading up the video memory with data and then the processor can issue a relatively slow stream of graphic processor instructions to transform the video memory data for display.  That is why I am hoping my x-plane flight simulation will see a 10 fold increase in frame rate even across the TB1 port to the RX580,… Read more »