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.
|2013 Mac Pro||D500 dGPU||RX 580 eGPU|
|Unigine Valley||23.1 FPS||37.6 FPS|
|Unigine Heaven||22.3 FPS||39.8 FPS|
|F1 2016||23 FPS||51 FPS|
|FCPX BruceX||24 s||16 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.”
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 Stealth||Intel HD 620 iGPU||RX580 eGPU Internal||RX580 eGPU External|
|Unigine Valley||4.4 FPS||50.4 FPS||50.5 FPS|
|Unigine Heaven||4.7 FPS||49.1 FPS||49.1 FPS|
|Unigine Superposition||5.5 FPS||55.5 FPS||59.0 FPS|
|3DMark Time Spy||2.2 FPS||26.7 FPS||26.5 FPS|
|3DMark Fire Strike||4.8 FPS||57.9 FPS||56.4 FPS|
|Rise of the Tomb Raider||6.5 FPS||53.4 FPS||54.1 FPS|
|Tom Clancy's GhostRecon||1.9 FPS||36.6 FPS||44.9 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.
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.