Laptops make tradeoffs by definition, but one of the largest has always been in graphics. Physics simply doesn’t allow for a high-end desktop GPU in a svelte, laptop-friendly form factor. And the lighter and thinner you make the portable, the less room you’ve got for an aggressive, power-hogging GPU. The promise of an external graphics dock is that you can eat your laptop steak and have it too, thanks to a second enclosure that handles the GPU, provides power to it, and in some cases includes additional features and capabilities not found in the laptop itself.
Apple recently added support for eGPUs to macOS 10.13.4, which has caused its own problems based on how the support was implemented. Such headaches might be worth it, if they yield huge performance improvements — but Ars Technica’s findings suggest professional users will want to pay attention to the list of situations where an eGPU either doesn’t work, or works less well than you’d expect.
Note: There are informal solutions and workarounds for some of the headaches Ars identifies, but in some cases they’re rather difficult to pull off and require a high level of expertise. Formal support is limited to Thunderbolt 3-equipped devices, Nvidia GPUs aren’t supported, and Boot Camp isn’t supported (getting the eGPU to work in Windows is possible, but Ars describes this as an “absolute nightmare.”). You can’t power the built-in display with an eGPU, so you’d better have an external monitor handy. Some applications, like Final Cut Pro, refuse to do any work on the external graphics solution. Other games, like Hitman, apparently crash at launch when you attempt to run them on the external graphics card.
Now, the good news is that when it works, the eGPU can deliver substantial performance improvements:
Performance improvements tend to be excellent, as one would expect when replacing an RX 460 laptop GPU with a full-fledged RX 580 desktop part. With that said, the gains will tend to accrue to titles that push the GPU in the first place — Civilization VI saw much smaller improvements, for example. This has generally been the case in 3D gaming, however — some titles always see larger improvements than others — so it’s not a knock on the external GPU idea, as such.
Overall, the caveats to Apple’s support for eGPUs seem higher than they truly need to be. It makes sense that some applications might need updates to take advantage of the capability. But the lack of support for Windows Boot Camp, the non-support for Nvidia GPUs, and the Thunderbolt 3 requirements mean the feature is accessible to only a fraction of Mac owners. Some of these issues can be bypassed relatively easily, but others can’t. The benefits are very real, but make certain you’re going to see them before pulling the trigger on this kind of upgrade.
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