It’s no secret that Macs are traditionally lackluster when it comes to graphics. It’s one of the reasons gaming is so poor on Mac, and it can make 3D modeling feel subpar.
Luckily, there is a solution for (some) Mac owners in the form of an eGPU.
What is an eGPU?
eGPU stands for external Graphics Processing Unit. In other words, it’s a graphics processor that you don’t have to install on your computer. Like an external hard drive, you plug it in via USB C, and your computer gets a jump in graphics performance.
Think of it as a plug-and-play GPU for computers that don’t allow you to install your own GPU (à la Mac).
A key factor here, though, is that most eGPUs don’t include a graphics card. They simply give you the housing to connect a graphics card to your computer, externally. So for most eGPUs, you’ll have to buy a compatible graphics card to go with it. Kind of like a GPU adapter – does that make any sense?
Side Note: Make sure your eGPU and graphics card are compatible
While researching for this post, it came to my attention that not all graphics cards work with all eGPUs (as if this wasn’t complicated enough!).
This mainly comes down to the power supply. Some graphics cards require more power to run than an eGPU can output. This is usually only a problem with high-end graphics cards, but check into this before making any purchases.
Unless you’re super tech-savvy, this is an instance where I’d recommend emailing the seller of the eGPU and/or graphics card to not only ensure the two work together but also that they’ll work with your Mac.
Can you use an eGPU with a Mac?
Yes, sometimes. Not all Macs are compatible with eGPUs, not all eGPUs are compatible with Macs, and not all apps on Mac can take advantage of an eGPU.
But in the most technical sense, yes, there are eGPUs you can buy for Mac, and some Macs will use them when you run some applications.
If that sounds vague, it’s because the usefulness of an eGPU on Mac is vague. I’ll get into this in more detail further on, but the point I’m trying to make is that you shouldn’t rush into buying an eGPU. You need to do your research (such as reading this article) before you go out and grab one.
And I’ll go ahead and address the elephant in the room: At the time of writing, the new M1 Macs DO NOT support eGPUs. However, they can detect eGPUs. This means that existing eGPUs are probably never going to work on the M1 Mac, but does look like Apple might add support in the future. Emphasis on “might”; do not count on the M1 Macs getting eGPU support until it’s announced.
How to use an eGPU with your Mac
First things first, make sure you have everything you need to get started. That includes:
- A Mac running macOS High Sierra 10.13.4 or later (to check this, click the in the top left of your screen and then click About This Mac)
- A Mac that has a Thunderbolt 3 port (if you have a USB C port built into your Mac, you’re good to go; a USB to USB C adapter won’t help, unfortunately – it needs to be built-in)
- A Mac-compatible eGPU and GPU card (we’ll list a few further in the article, but generally, AMD/Radeon eGPUs work, Nvidia eGPUs do not)
If you have these things on hand, you’re ready to start.
Step 1: Install your graphics card into the eGPU
If you’re eGPU already has a graphics card built-in, skip to Step 2. For everyone else, take your Mac-compatible eGPU, open its hatch, and slide your graphics card inside. This should be pretty simple, though it will vary from one eGPU to the next, so look up a specific tutorial if you need it.
Step 2: Plug it in!
There’s not much more to say here – plug your eGPU into your Mac’s Thunderbolt 3 port. Again, it should look like an ordinary USB C port, with the catch being that it has to be built into your Mac. It can’t be an adapter.
Once connected, you should see a new icon appear in the Menu Bar that looks like a little chip. When you click it, the name of your graphics card should appear with an option to disconnect.
Step 3: Set your apps to run using the eGPU
Plugging the eGPU into your Mac doesn’t mean that everything is going to instantly start running on the eGPU. You have to let each application know that you want to run it with the eGPU. This is pretty simple to do.
Before running the app (if it’s already running, quit it), find it in your Applications folder (Finder > Your Mac > Macintosh HD > Applications), right-click it, and click Get Info in the pop-up menu.
Under the first tab, titled General, you should see a checkbox that says Prefer External GPU. Make sure this is checked.
Once checked, this app will always try to run on an eGPU if one is connected to your Mac. So you only have to do Step 3 the first time you run an app with your eGPU, but you will have to do it for each individual app you want to run this way. In other words, do this once per app.
How to connect your eGPU to an external display on Mac
Remember how I said before that you have to set the eGPU as the preferred option for each of your apps? I hope so, because I just said it!
Well, as it turns out, there is an exception to this rule. If you have an external display that can connect to your eGPU, you can make your eGPU the default for everything on your Mac by making this external display your primary display.
In other words, if you treat your actual Mac monitor as if it were the secondary monitor, then an external monitor connected to an eGPU will run all of your apps on that eGPU – your Mac’s built-in GPU will become the secondary GPU.
Here’s how that works.
Step 1: Install your graphics card into your eGPU and plug it into your external display
Just like we did in the previous Step 1, stick that graphics card into your eGPU and plug it into your external display. If you’re having a hard time figuring this out, refer back to Step 1 and Step 2 from the previous section.
Step 2: Make your external display your primary display
In the top-left of your screen, click the and choose System Preferences. Then click Displays.
From here, click the Arrangement tab to view both of your display screens. The one in the middle with the white bar at the top represents your Mac’s built-in display; the white bar means it’s the primary display.
By dragging these two blue thumbnails around each other, you can choose “where” your screens are. For example, if you place the secondary (no white bar) display on the left side, you’ll move your mouse off of the left edge of your Mac screen to interact with that display. You can move it anywhere in space that you like, and your Mac will act as if that’s where it’s located.
But we don’t want to mess with that right now.
All we want to do at the moment is change which display has the white bar at the top. To do this, click and drag the white bar onto the display that doesn’t have a white bar. If you multiple displays connected, this can get a bit tricky. The goal is to put the white bar on the external display connected to your eGPU.
Your external display is now going to register as the primary display for your Mac. This means you’re ready for Step 3.
Step 3: Quit any apps you want to run with the eGPU
And then restart them! No need to find them in the Applications folder or anything like that. If you quit an app and then run it, it’ll default to the GPU in your external display, which is now the eGPU you have connected to that display.
In other words, all of your apps will now run on the eGPU by default.
And that’s it!
What do eGPUs do for your Mac?
Now that we’ve thoroughly covered the how’s, let’s get into the why’s. Why would want to use an eGPU, and what can it do for your Mac?
I’m sure most of those reading this article realize that it isn’t possible to upgrade the graphics card on any Mac after purchase, except for the costly Mac Pro. For every other Mac purchase, you’re stuck with whatever you choose at checkout.
Unfortunately, this means you’re going to get subpar graphics performance on most Macs, especially non-Pro Macs. This can affect your ability to play games, even simple ones, and makes tasks like video editing and 3D rendering more cumbersome.
For now, an eGPU is the closest most users can get to upgrading their graphics card, and there’s no sign of this changing soon. So, for now, an eGPU serves as the sole way to boost your Mac’s graphics performance.
Do you need an eGPU?
If you haven’t purchased an eGPU yet, you might want to hold off. They aren’t going to be useful for everyone, even if you’re experiencing issues with your graphics performance.
First, not every app is compatible with an eGPU. When you navigate to an app’s settings to check Prefer External GPU, you’ll find that several apps don’t even list this as an option. So if you’re a video editor who wants a performance boost, check that your editing app of choice supports this. The same goes for gamers, designers, and so on.
Second, an external GPU won’t run everything on your computer without being paired to an external display. Most of the core functions of your computer will still run with the built-in GPU. In other words, don’t expect your Mac to feel like a new machine the moment you plug an eGPU in.
According to Apple, an eGPU helps in areas such as:
- Apps that use Metal, OpenGL, and OpenCL
- Increasing the number of displays you can connect to your Mac
- Using VR on Mac through your eGPU
- Using multiple eGPUs on Macs with multiple Thunderbolt 3 ports (allowing you to have different apps running on separate graphics cards simultaneously)
If these use cases sound useful to you, then, by all means, grab an eGPU! But if you’re hoping for a blanket increase in performance across your system, an upgrade (or a switch to a more customizable PC) might be the better option.
How to tell if an app is compatible with an eGPU on Mac
There are a few ways to check if a specific app is compatible with an eGPU. First, let it be known that any eGPU that’s compatible with your Mac should be compatible with any apps that support eGPU on Mac. You won’t have a situation where some apps support your eGPU while others only support a different kind of eGPU.
If you already have an eGPU, then you can test an app’s support for that eGPU by finding it in the Applications folder, right-clicking it, clicking Get Info, and searching for the option Prefer External GPU. If that option is there, then the app supports an eGPU. Check the box. If it isn’t there, then that app doesn’t support eGPU usage on Mac.
For those who don’t have an eGPU on hand, you can also check if an app supports an eGPU on Mac by turning to the internet. Use a search engine to see if an app offers support. If you can’t find the results you’re looking for, then contact that app’s support team for more information.
Additionally, forums like Reddit, Quora, StackExchange, and Apple’s own forums might be able to answer this question for you.
The best eGPUs for Macs in 2021
As promised, here are some links to popular eGPUs that are confirmed to work on Mac. I tried to pick from a range of prices so that anyone can find a solution, but remember that none are going to be cheap. For that, look for options similar to these on resale sites such as eBay.
The Blackmagic eGPU ($699)
The Blackmagic eGPU is the eGPU officially offered on Apple’s website. It’s a solid option to go with and is guaranteed to work with your Mac, and to work with it well. If you have the budget and want the very best, this is it.
Keep in mind, though, that it isn’t at all necessary to spend this much on an eGPU. The graphics card is where your eGPU power is going to come from. So if you aren’t a professional or simply can’t justify this purchase, don’t hesitate to choose one of the lower-priced options.
Razor Core X Chroma ($399)
For a more affordable eGPU that still packs a premium punch, go with the Razor Core X Chroma. Though not the smallest eGPU, it packs a ton of features and performance into the aluminum body.
These features include four additional USB ports, three slots for graphics cards, the ability to charge your laptop through the eGPU, tunable LED lighting, and 500w of power dedicated to connected graphics cards.
In short, it’s a great middle of the road purchase that you won’t regret buying.
Akitio Node Titan ($329)
Lastly, we have the Akitio Node Titan, which is the closest to a budget-friendly option there is in the eGPU market. If offers slightly less power output, but also only accepts two graphics cards, which means that each card is still getting plenty of power.
The enclosure is slightly smaller than the Razor Core X Chroma, making it more portable. A handle helps with this portability. It doesn’t offer any additional ports, just the one required to connect to your Mac.
Overall, this is a more bare-bones option that will get the job done at a (slightly) more wallet-friendly price.
More ways to boost your Mac performance
An eGPU is one of the better ways to boost your Mac’s performance. It improves one of Mac’s traditionally weak areas, and eGPU support in apps has been growing over the years. Most big-name apps will see an increase in performance once you hook up an eGPU.
For more tips, advice, and insights into getting more out of your Mac, check out the rest of the AppleToolBox blog.
See you next time!
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