Upgrade your MacBook with an eGPU. Is it worth the price?

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I’ve often mentioned that I use a Razer Core X eGPU enclosure in a few of my posts here on my blog, such as my recent review of the LG 27″ 4K 27UL600-W LED monitor and the post on Beyond a Steel Sky running on my MacBook set up at epic settings. As such, sometimes I get asked why I spent a fair sum to upgrade my MacBook Pro set up with an eGPU enclosure. Most are trying to figure out if doing so is worth the cost. After all, there aren’t many AAA games titles that run on macOS.

Razer Core X
Razer Core X

Why I upgraded my MacBook with an eGPU

1. I’ll admit that gaming on the MacBook a key reason

Yup. It is the few games titles I could and would play on my MacBook that finally drove me to upgrade with a better GPU than the rather lacking Radeon Pro 560 GPU on my MacBook Pro.

The list of games that I really would want to play is turn-based strategy games and CRPG titles like X-COM 2, Wasteland 2, Battletech, Pillars of Eternity, Torment: Tides of Numenera, and Divinity: Original Sin. All of these games are released for the macOS platform.

Of course, there are Windows-only titles that I would like to get my hands on, such as Cyberpunk 2077. If I wanted to go deep on PC gaming, I would have invested in getting a Windows-based gaming rig set up instead. But the reality is that I do not have the luxury of time to spend many hours on gaming.

And that brings me to point #2.

2. macOS is my primary platform of choice

Outside of gaming, I do everything else on a macOS. The key factor here is the OS itself. In my opinion, it has the perfect balance of having a great user experience as well as the ability to do all Unix-y things as well. Therefore, getting back on Windows as my primary machine just didn’t make any sense, at least in my books.

I think Razer has a much better notebook design today even when compared with the MacBook Pro purely on the hardware. But nothing beats a macOS + Apple machine combo. The sum of its parts is much more than just an OS allowing you to do something on the hardware.

With a Windows machine running on an Intel NUC as a home server, I do have something to compare to.

3. There’s little reason to upgrade my existing MacBook Pro

The 2.9 GHz Quad-Core Intel Core i7 that powers my MacBook Pro continues to be sufficient to do everything I need it to do. I figured the only part that needs a real upgrade is the GPU. And I’ve sort of proven this case when I upgraded from a Radeon RX 580 to my current Sapphire Pulse RX 5700 XT GPU.

My experience with an eGPU so far

1. Gaming

As I mentioned, I currently pair my Razer Core X with a Sapphire Pulse RX 5700 XT GPU. The RX 5700 XT is quite a beast and I have been very impressed with it. In short, I can properly run all my games at 1440p resolution with high-quality settings.

Unreal engine-powered Beyond a Steel Sky title running at Epic settings on the RX 5700 XT

I’m sure the GPU will perform much better on a Windows machine. I’m also certain that if I spend the time to get Bootcamp to work with the eGPU on the MacBook Pro, it will perform as well as a Windows machine. However, at the moment, I rather keep things simple since I run my MacBook 100% in clamshell mode with the MacBook hidden behind my dual monitor set up.

Playing games like Battletech is a lot more bearable on the RX 5700 XT. You can see the eGPU getting pushed to the max when Battletech is running.

GPU utilization on Battletech final mission scene
GPU utilization on Battletech
Unigine Valley - Razer Core X - RX 580 - MBP 15”
Unigine Valley benchmark running on my 15” MacBook Pro powered by an RX 580 running in a Razer Core X eGPU enclosure

2. Photo Editing

Photo editing software like Affinity Photo as well as Adobe Lightroom also leverages the GPU to help with the processing. This makes editing large and multi-layered photos on a 4K monitor a breeze with the RX 5700 XT chewing up the processing needs.

Affinity Photo using GPU acceleration via Metal
Affinity Photo using GPU acceleration via Metal
GPU utilization when editing a photo on Affinity Photo
GPU utilization when editing a photo on Affinity Photo

In the GPU History dashboard above, we see that macOS will also assign some of the processing to the MacBook Pro’s Radeon Pro 560 GPU as I edit a photo with several layers with effects stacked on the image.

Photo editing on Affinity Photo with eGPU acceleration
No lag at all when editing a photo on Affinity Photo with eGPU acceleration

As Apple integrates the GPU acceleration into the macOS APIs like Metal, Core Animation, Core Image, and Core ML, you can imagine that the eGPU would be leveraged upon whenever these APIs are used.

What about Machine Learning (ML) acceleration with the eGPU?

Assuming you use any frameworks that leverage OpenCL or Metal, you will be able to leverage on the eGPU to accelerate the ML processing as well. I do not do any ML work, so this isn’t an area of expertise for me.

However, a quick Google search brought me to the PlaidML framework that supports both OpenCL and Metal. A quick install and testing the framework shows there are significant improvements when you have a capable eGPU processing the ML model.

plaidbench test on the Radeon RX 5700 XT, about 23% faster than the Radeon Pro 560
plaidbench test on the Radeon Pro 560

So is the eGPU upgrade for on a Mac worth its cost?

A good eGPU enclosure like the Razer Core X will set you back about US$300. Add on a GPU like the Sapphire Pulse RX 5700 XT, you would spend another US$400, totalling up to about US$700 for this eGPU upgrade.

At the end of the day, the question to ask is this. Are you willing to spend the amount to have a better experience in the limited gaming opportunities on macOS, or perhaps to have a much better photo/video editing experience on your Mac? It also comes down to which model of the Mac you are currently using.

The Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 5700 XT.
Image source: https://www.sapphiretech.com/en/consumer/pulse-radeon-rx-5700-xt-8g-gddr6

If your Mac does not have a discrete GPU?

If your Mac does not come with a discrete GPU, such as a Mac Mini or MacBook Pro 13″, then an eGPU upgrade might be worth considering. Upgrading to a newer MacBook Pro 15″ or a Mac Pro will cost you a lot more than the eGPU option. I have used my work MacBook Pro 13″ with my eGPU set up and it works really well!

If you have an old Mac that has a discrete GPU?

If you have a relatively old iMac Pro or MacBook Pro 15″ with a discrete GPU that is underpowered to run any recent games like my 2017 MacBook, I think an eGPU upgrade is also worth considering. US$700 is still a lot cheaper than spending a few grand for a new MacBook Pro 16″.

What if I have the latest of the latest Mac?

But if you are currently using the latest MacBook Pro 16″ with the Radeon Pro 5600M discrete GPU, I’m not sure if you need to take the eGPU route. Looking at reviews online, the 5600M is pretty powerful and is not that much slower than the RX 5700 XT I’m using. But this is a US$700 upgrade from the Radeon Pro 5500M with 4GB GDDR6 memory option.

$700 for the Radeon Pro 5600M upgrade!

So unless you need that kind of performance to follow you where ever you bring your MacBook Pro, then go for it!. However, if you can live with just having the added performance when you’re working at a desk, perhaps an eGPU upgrade is a better option. Remember, the Radeon RX 5700 XT performs better compared to the Radeon Pro 5600M. Also, with an eGPU, you always have the option to upgrade the GPU further when there is a faster GPU card release, like the upcoming AMD Big Navi GPUs.

Similarly, with the latest iMac Pro, the Radeon Pro Vega 64X option is also a US$700 upgrade. Upgrading the GPU of the iMac Pro is fine, but if you spend the same amount on an eGPU instead, you will end up getting 2 discrete GPUs powering your work on the iMac.

In conclusion: Yes! An eGPU is worth the upgrade!

Frankly, I didn’t expect myself to come to this conclusion of a resounding yes. For me, I thought that it was money well worth spending as I mentioned above. But I wasn’t sure if this was something I would recommend to anyone else. However, now that I’ve done the comparisons with the newer Mac and its respective GPU upgrade options, I think it’s a no brainer to go on the eGPU upgrade route.

Firstly, with an eGPU, you continue to have future upgradability, as long as the eGPU enclosure’s power supply can support the GPU you want to use. Secondly, the cost of the upgrade is on-par if not slightly lesser than upgrading the discrete GPU of the iMac Pro or MacBook Pro.

The only exception to this is if you need to have such GPU power to be mobile in the form of the 16″ MacBook Pro with the Radeon Pro 5600M.

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