What’s the best Thunderbolt eGPU for Mac in 2017? Depends on whom you ask, the answers vary. I happen to be in possession of three Thunderbolt expansion enclosures and four Apple Mac laptops which span three generations of Thunderbolt connectivity. At the moment, my pick would go to the AKiTiO Node.
My conclusion came after I ran all four Mac laptops through all three Thunderbolt enclosures. The Node is the only enclosure that is a ready-to-go eGPU solution from the factory. Its 400W power supply and generous chassis dimensions mean it can accomodate up to the most powerful AMD or NVidia cards available. It also has the newer USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 controller, TI83, which macOS fully supports.
The other two enclosures, Thunder2 and Thunder3, require a more powerful power supply than their factory 60W unit to run any AMD or NVidia card. Their cases need to be modified to accommodate most graphics cards. They also have older and unsupported Thunderbolt controllers.
The list of Thunderbolt equipped Mac laptops for this evaluation with the AKiTiO Node Thunderbolt 3 enclosure are:
- Late 2016 15″ MacBook Pro with iGPU HD 530 and dGPU Radeon Pro 450
- Late 2016 13″ MacBook Pro with iGPU Iris 540
- Early 2015 11″ MacBook Air with iGPU Iris 6100
- Late 2011 17″ MacBook Pro with iGPU HD 3000 and dGPU Radeon HD 6770M
The Late 2016 Mac laptops are running at Thunderbolt 3 speed (40Gbps) through the AKiTiO Thunderbolt 3 cable while the older Mac laptops are running at slower speed via the Apple Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 adapter. The Early 2015 11″ MacBook Air is running at Thunderbolt 2 speed (20Gbps) and the Late 2011 17″ MacBook Pro is running at Thunderbolt 1 speed (10Gbps).
An AKiTiO Node running with firmware v126.96.36.199 B1-23+3.6.1 is fully functional in macOS 10.12 Sierra. To enable the use of an eGPU in Mac OS environment, the one prerequisite is Goalque’s automate-eGPU script. At the moment, Nvidia GTX 900s series and older are Mac compatible. The soon-to-be-released version 1.0.0 of this script will have better support for AMD Polaris and Fiji graphics cards.
I successfully ran automate-eGPU script on these four Mac laptops to enable eGPU with the AKiTiO Node enclosure. The graphics card used is an EVGA GTX 980 Ti Hybrid with liquid cooling; it’s a perfect pairing with the Node. Below are the benchmarks – you can click on the scores to see the screen captures.
|Mac Laptop||Thunderbolt PCIe Speed||Luxmark 3.1||Unigine Valley||Unigine Heaven|
|Late 2016 15" MacBook Pro||32Gbps-TB3||18,141||2,834 (67.7 FPS)||1,790 (71 FPS)|
|Late 2016 13" MacBook Pro||32Gbps-TB3||18,602||2,389 (57.1 FPS)||1,756 (69.7 FPS)|
|Early 2015 11" MacBook Air||16Gbps-TB2||18,435||2,218 (53 FPS)||1,653 (65.6 FPS)|
|Late 2011 17" MacBook Pro||10Gbps-TB1||17,933||2,215 (52.9 FPS)||1,538 (61.1 FPS)|
The performance difference between older Thunderbolt Macs vs the latest Thunderbolt 3 ones is very marginal. The only scenario in which you would benefit from native Thunderbolt 3 speed is in Windows using Nvidia Optimus or AMD XConnect to accelerate the internal display; I will be testing these same four Mac laptops in the coming weeks with Windows 10. In macOS environment, full usage of an eGPU requires an external monitor.
I know many people (myself included) want a solution for eGPU accelerated internal display. It’s not possible yet through software. There are workarounds using hardware though. A very clever and resourceful forum member built a HDMI adapter-to-no-where to trick the operating system into using eGPU through the internal display. Alternatively, you can get a HMDI adapter-to-fake-display.
Update 1/21/2017: It’s now possible to have the eGPU accelerate your Mac’s internal display in macOS.
Thunderbolt eGPU for Mac is becoming more of a reality than it has ever been. With the demands of VR development, 4K video editing, and immersive video games, the performance boost of an external graphics card would enable your Mac to do things Apple didn’t think you could.
Browse the builds for other successful eGPU implementations with Apple Thunderbolt computers.
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