Super quiet • Pass-through charging for MacBooks with USB-C

Expensive • Non-replaceable graphics processor • Many apps aren’t optimized for eGPU • Most apps don’t support hot-plugging • eGPU support for macOS High Sierra and Mojave varies • Included Thunderbolt 3 cable is really short

Blackmagic’s eGPU is worth considering if you wanna give your Mac a graphics boost, but only if you have all the right equipment and don’t mind going through trial and error to see if your apps will benefit from it.

If you judged by how Apple presented the Blackmagic Design external graphics processing unit (eGPU) at its coming-out party for the latest MacBook Pro, turbo-charging your Mac with faster graphics performance was easy. Improving speed for things like exporting high-resolution video looked as simple as connecting the Blackmagic eGPU into one of the laptop’s Thunderbolt 3 ports.

Take it from me: It’s not.

After weeks of frustrated testing, I learned that there’s actually a very specific “correct way to use the $700 external graphics processor and I had been using it all wrong. 

But could you really blame me? None of the info to get the eGPU working properly is included in the instructions.

It was only after a long journey down Google search and seemingly endless back-and-forth emails with Blackmagic and a call with Apple that I was finally able to see faster and not slower graphics performance.

But first, some basics. The almost 10-pound eGPU houses a non-upgradeable AMD Radeon Pro 580 graphics processor with 8GB of VRAM. Unlike other eGPUs such as the Razer Core, you can’t swap the GPU. This non-upgradeability severely limits its usefulness if you want more power down the road.

The Radeon Pro 580’s not bad (it’s the same one in the 2017 5K 27-inch iMac), but its performance still pales in comparison to NVIDIA’s GTX 1080 and is nowhere as powerful as the AMD Radeon Pro Vega GPUs inside of the iMac Pro.

If you need even more graphics performance, you can also connect multiple Blackmagic eGPUs directly to each of your Mac’s Thunderbolt 3 ports. (Don’t daisy chain them, though, because that will overload the port, according to the company’s FAQ.) I didn’t get to test multiple Blackmagic eGPUs (I only had one to play with), but keep in mind that an app also needs to support multiple GPUs (external or not) in order for it to access the extra power.

The eGPU runs almost silent.

The eGPU runs almost silent.

Image: raymond wong/mashable

GPU choice aside, Blackmagic’s eGPU is well built and won’t easily be knocked over on desks (the included 20-inch Thunderbolt 3 cable is a tad short, though). I wouldn’t call it beautiful — the base is ugly in my opinion — but it blends in nicely with any space gray MacBook or iMac Pro. It kind of reminds me of the the trash can Mac Pro (Apple helped design this thing after all) and works similarly with air being sucked up from the bottom and released out through the top vent. Most impressive is how quiet it operates — it’s barely audible.

Lots of ports to plug your external display and accessories into. It's basically a huge dongle.

Lots of ports to plug your external display and accessories into. It’s basically a huge dongle.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Around the eGPU’s back is a healthy stable of ports for connecting accessories: two Thunderbolt 3 ports, four USB 3.0 ports, and an HDMI 2.0 port. 

The only indicator the eGPU is on is this light.

The only indicator the eGPU is on is this light.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Noticeably missing on the eGPU is a power button. The only way to know if the eGPU is on and connected properly is the white LED down below, which lights up when its in use. Also, on your Mac, the eGPU symbol appears in the menu bar.

One issue after another

My main beef with Blackmagic’s eGPU isn’t just that it’s expensive or that the GPU is non-upgradeable, but that there are a whole lot checkboxes you need to tick off to get it to actually work. Even worse, when it’s connected and not working, there’s absolutely no way to tell (unless you’re looking at the Activity Monitor or doing rigorous testing like me). It still lights up, and you still get the menu-bar icon.

When I first unboxed the eGPU, I thought I’d just plug it into my 2017 top-of-the-line 15-inch MacBook Pro (2.9GHz Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, Intel HD Graphics 630, and Radeon Pro 560 discrete GPU with 4GB of VRAM) running the latest version of macOS High Sierra and — BOOM — faster graphics performance.

How wrong was I.

My first order of business was to test video exporting with and without the eGPU. I plugged the eGPU into the MacBook Pro and fired up both Final Cut Pro X and Adobe Premiere Pro CC. With the help of Mashable video producer Ray White we created several test projects to export.

(We did a 1080p export project, but to keep things simple we’ll focus on my 4K trials because 1080p performance was the same with and without the eGPU.)

For both video-editing apps, we created a 4K video project with the following components:

  • 12 video clips at 3,840 x 2,160 resolution and 30 fps (shot with a Sony A6300 camera) 

  • 3 simple transitions (dissolve, crossfade, and wipe)

  • 2 title cards (intro and outtro)

  • 3 of the 12 clips were stabilized

We exported the video at native resolution and framerate in H.264 and took the average of three trials for each test. Here’s what we got:

Without the eGPU: 

With the eGPU: 

Without the eGPU: 

With the eGPU: 

After seeing a measly 36 seconds faster export time in Final Cut Pro X and surprisingly worse exporting times with the eGPU versus without in Premiere Pro CC, I knew something was perhaps… not right. So I did what anyone would do. I went to Google and found a shocking answer: The eGPU does nothing if it’s just plugged into a MacBook Pro by itself. 

If your Mac is running High Sierra, you need an external display plugged into the eGPU. This is because only one GPU can drive a Mac’s built-in screen and that’s the one already inside of it. 

(I later learned macOS Mojave does support eGPUs for a Mac’s built-in screen, but since the OS was still in beta at the time of testing, it didn’t work reliably.)

The proper way to use the eGPU: external display, MacBook Pro lid closed, and keyboard and mouse connected.

The proper way to use the eGPU: external display, MacBook Pro lid closed, and keyboard and mouse connected.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Okay, no biggie — just a minor setback! I borrowed an LG 5K UltraFine Display (it’s the only Thunderbolt 3 display that’s officially supported by the eGPU) and plugged it directly into my MacBook Pro with the eGPU also plugged into a separate port. 

I fired up both FCP X and Premiere Pro CC and again saw no improvements. Export times with the eGPU were again slower in Premiere CC compared to without it. What could be wrong now? More Googling and I find out graphics performance is only better if the monitor is plugged into the eGPU, which is then plugged into your Mac.

Ughhh. Alrighty, then!

With the correct wiring, I ran my tests and yet again saw exports that were either barely faster or somehow slower. I just wasn’t seeing faster performance.

Super annoyed, I combed Blackmagic’s website and noticed there’s no mention of faster graphics performance for any app but its own DaVinci Resolve video production software. Could it be that this eGPU is only good for one app? Because that would be really dumb. 

Besides, the description for the eGPU on Apple’s website says otherwise:

Get desktop-class graphics performance on your MacBook Pro with the Blackmagic eGPU. Featuring the Radeon Pro 580 graphics processor, the Blackmagic eGPU is built to make any Mac with Thunderbolt 3 ports a graphics powerhouse. Enjoy supersmooth gaming, accelerate graphics-intensive pro app workflows, and enable VR experiences or content creation. Built-in I/O connections drive a Thunderbolt 3 display, support multiple accessories, and charge your MacBook Pro at the same time.

Hmm, maybe it was something with High Sierra. I booted up another partition with the latest beta version of Mojave.

This was supposed to be easy. Instead, it was turning into a technical nightmare.

Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, they did. Premiere CC on Mojave just wouldn’t work. It kept crashing and I never was able to export a single video at any resolution. About to lose my mind, I contacted Blackmagic to see if I could get to the bottom of all of these problems I was experiencing.

A spokesperson kindly provided some non-answers that basically blamed the issues on Adobe for optimizing Premiere Pro CC for eGPUs. At the same time, I was told the eGPU (any one from any company) “should not slow any app down.”

Really wanting to smash the eGPU to bits (physical abuse is never the answer, but just goddamnit), I switched back to High Sierra and ran my Premiere exports again. This time, I opened up the Activity Monitor and fired up the GPU history to see what the heck was going on.

To my surprise, the GPU History chart showed the app was using the MacBook Pro’s two built-in graphics processors (both the discrete AMD Radeon Pro 560 and the Intel HD Graphics 630) and not the eGPU like it should have been.

If there's no activity on the eGPU's chart (Radeon Pro 580), it means something is wrong or an app's not using the eGPU at all.

If there’s no activity on the eGPU’s chart (Radeon Pro 580), it means something is wrong or an app’s not using the eGPU at all.

Image: screenshot: raymond wong/mashable

I went back to Google to find out if there was a way to force apps to use the eGPU. I found out on High Sierra, that’s not possible. But, on Mojave, there is a way to force apps to use the eGPU on an app-by-app basis. I cursed both Apple and Blackmagic.

I rebooted into Mojave and followed the steps to force Premiere CC to use the eGPU and then said a little prayer as I launched the app. Everything seemed to work until I hit the export button. The app crashed again

Even more frustrated than before, I decided to try something else. I loaded up Fortnite on the default “High” settings to see how playable the game would be. TL;DR: Not very. Not at High settings.

On High settings on just the MacBook Pro, the game recorded between 30-32 fps. With the eGPU, the game’s framerate jumped up to 40-45 fps. Both were below 50-60 fps, which is considered to be the optimal framerate for smooth gameplay by many players.

The game wasn’t unplayable at High settings with the eGPU, but there was still quite a bit of noticeable latency as I panned the camera around or shot at other players. The framerate took a bigger hit when there were multiple players onscreen.

Even crazier was that it took longer to boot the game up with the eGPU compared to without: about 55 seconds versus 30 seconds.

Dropping Fortnite’s settings down to Medium increased the framerate, but the graphics became so low-res, I would have been better off just playing it on iPhone.  

Instructions that should have come in the box

It looks clean, but wait until you connect power, a monitor, and accessories to the back and it becomes a mess of cables.

It looks clean, but wait until you connect power, a monitor, and accessories to the back and it becomes a mess of cables.

Image: raymond wong/mashable

I was all ready to give up on the eGPU until I reached out to Apple to see if I could make a last-ditch effort to troubleshoot my problems.

After chatting with an Apple hardware engineer I learned a few new things that (again) aren’t included in the instructions manual and is valuable for anyone who buys this eGPU.

Here’s what ultimately led to faster graphics performance with the eGPU:

  • Never mirror your Mac to the external display. It uses up some of the eGPU in order to do so and as a result will slow performance down.

  • If you’re using a MacBook like I did, make sure the lid is closed. Doing so forces the computer to always default to the eGPU when possible instead of using the internal GPU. Apple told me you don’t need to have the lid closed, but there’s a chance that it won’t tap the eGPU if you don’t.

  • Most apps will not support hot-plugging with the eGPU, which is the ability for the computer to recognize changes when an accessory is plugged in or removed. In other words, if you want to use the eGPU with, say, Premiere Pro CC, you need to quit the game and launch it again after you hook it up. I’m told only two known apps are hot-pluggable, one of them being Cinema 4D.

With all this in mind, I ran the same 4K and 1080p export tests. Here’s what I got after properly setting the eGPU up with my MacBook Pro. (As with the earlier tests, all times are the average of three trials each.)

Final Cut Pro X actually used all three graphics cards: two from the MacBook Pro and the eGPU.

Final Cut Pro X actually used all three graphics cards: two from the MacBook Pro and the eGPU.

Image: screenshot: raymond wong/mashable

Without the eGPU:

With the eGPU:

Adobe Premiere Pro CC only used two GPUS: the MacBook Pro's Intel integrated graphics and the eGPU.

Adobe Premiere Pro CC only used two GPUS: the MacBook Pro’s Intel integrated graphics and the eGPU.

Image: screenshot: raymond wong/mashable

Without the eGPU:

With the eGPU:

For good measure, I also took the same 4K video project and exported it to a downscaled 1080p resolution. The leap in performance is much more drastic for rendering:

Without the eGPU:

With the eGPU:

As you can see in the above export times, Final Cut Pro X doesn’t appear to benefit much from the eGPU. However, exporting video in Premiere Pro CC is way faster. With the eGPU, Premiere Pro CC shaved 1 minute and 29 seconds off. 

Where the eGPU seems most useful is for rendering things like effects and scaling. 

Note the framerate in the upper right corner.

Note the framerate in the upper right corner.

Image: screenshot: raymond wong/mashable

Playing Fortnite with the correct setup, I saw almost no change in average framerates:

Without the eGPU:

With the eGPU:

Not sure why, but the latest version of Fortnite sometimes has these black glitching patterns.

Not sure why, but the latest version of Fortnite sometimes has these black glitching patterns.

Image: screenshot: raymond wong/mashable

Not worth the trouble (for now)

Unless you're willing to experiment, the Blackmagic eGPU is more trouble than it's worth.

Unless you’re willing to experiment, the Blackmagic eGPU is more trouble than it’s worth.

Image: raymond wong/mashable

I’ve been fascinated by eGPUs for as long as they’ve been around. The idea that you can soup up a thin and light computer designed for portability (but not performance) and transform it into a desktop-class beast for graphics-intensive tasks like video editing or gaming when you’re at home or at work is super appealing.

I was genuinely excited that, maybe — just maybe — Blackmagic had made an eGPU that any regular ol’ joe could easily set up and enjoy the benefits of.

While I did eventually get the Blackmagic eGPU set up right and saw minor boosts to performance in FCP X and and significant improvements in Adobe Premiere Pro CC, I nearly lost my marbles doing so.

My tests are by no means definitive — everyone uses different apps and has a different workflow demands — but they do suggest eGPUs have potential.

Ultimately, the the Blackmagic eGPU is useful if your Mac has a really old discrete graphics card or only Intel integrated graphics. You may see big graphics performance boosts or you may not. It’s gonna take a lot of trial and error.

If you’re willing to experiment, then by all means check out the eGPU. However, if you’re hoping the eGPU will make your Mac faster across the board for all your apps, that’s just not gonna happen. 

Maybe in a few years when eGPUs are mature and more apps use GPU-acceleration, but they’re still in their infancy right now. The fact that all of the issues I ran into took a bunch of Googling and chats with Blackmagic and Apple to resolve tells you all you need to know about the current state of eGPUs: It’s basically the Wild West.

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