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March 31, 2018

Support for external graphics on MacOS finally arrives, but on select devices

by John_A

Apple said last summer that support for external graphics cards would come to MacOS. That is finally happening with the release of MacOS 10.13.4 “High Sierra” but don’t get too excited just yet: Support for external graphics cards just isn’t possible on all Mac devices. Luckily, Apple provides a list of compatible models to eliminate any need for detective work. 

Here they are: 

Family 

Release date 

MacBook Pro 

2016 to present 

iMac 

2017 to present 

iMac Pro 

2018 to present 

 The big hardware requirement needed to support an external graphics card is Thunderbolt 3. This technology is capable of transferring data at up to 40Gbps, providing plenty of bandwidth for the Mac and external card to thrash textures and other rendering data without any visual problems in games, 3D rendering applications, virtual reality content, and more. 

That said, your just-purchased MacBook Air that saw a huge price reduction during Best Buy’s recent flash sale won’t cut it, as Thunderbolt 2 doesn’t have a wide enough lane to handle data generated by external graphics. Thunderbolt 2 only speeds long at a slower 20Gbps: Four times the speed of a typical USB 3.1 Gen 1 port, but not fast enough for external graphics. 

With the Mac models narrowed down, Apple also provides a list of recommended external graphics card enclosures: Stand-alone “houses” that play host to the card and connects to the Mac via a single Thunderbolt 3 cable.  

First, here are the recommended enclosures along with the graphics cards that work best: 

Enclosures 

Graphics cards 

OWC Mercury Helios FX 

Radeon RX 570 

PowerColor Devil Box 

Radeon RX 580 

Sapphire Gear Box 

Radeon Pro WX 7100 

Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Box 350W 

 

Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Box 550W 

 

Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Box 650W 

 

This group relies on AMD’s previous-generation graphics cards using its older “Polaris” design. Here, Apple recommends using graphics cards manufactured by Sapphire, specifically the “Pulse” series, and AMD’s in-house WX series for pros. 

If you’re looking for a bit more graphical power, check out Apple’s next batch. This list contains some of AMD’s latest graphics cards based on its newer “Vega” design: 

Enclosures 

Graphics cards 

OWC Mercury Helios FX 

Sapphire Vega 56 

PowerColor Devil Box 

XFX Vega 56 

Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Box 550W 

 

Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Box 650W 

 

 Finally, we can’t have an external GPU lineup without mentioning AMD’s top-of-the-line cards, the Radeon RX Vega 64 and the Radeon Pro WX 9100. Have a look at Apple’s recommendations: 

Enclosure 

Graphics cards 

Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Box 650W 

Sapphire Vega 64 

 

XFX Vega 64 

 

AMD Frontier Edition (air-cooled) 

AMD Radeon Pro WX 9100 

 “eGPU support in macOS High Sierra 10.13.4 is designed to accelerate Metal, OpenGL, and OpenCL applications that benefit from a powerful eGPU,” the company states. “However, not all applications support eGPU acceleration.

One last idea Apple suggests is the purchase of Sonnet’s Radeon RX 570 eGFX Breakaway Puck. It resembles set-top boxes used for streaming, only it packs AMD’s RX 570, three DisplayPort connectors, one HDMI port, and the Thunderbolt 3 port. It relies on an external power adapter, enabling Mac owners to charge their device while using the external GPU. The RX 570 model costs $600 before taxes. 

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