Blackmagic eGPU review: A beautiful MacBook Pro graphics booster with no room to grow

Apple at last has an external graphics processing unit on the
hallowed shelves of the Apple Store, and as you might expect,
it’s a looker.

The Blackmagic eGPU (from Blackmagic Design) was designed in
collaboration with Apple. With its brushed aluminum casing and
the spot-on space gray coloring, the Blackmagic eGPU, MacBook
Pro, and iMac could pass for cousins in a family portrait. It
belongs

It also follows many of the same design philosophies that make
Apple’s own products so beloved. It’s quiet and sleek, with its
noise reaching only around 15dB at peak performance, thanks to
a tangle of cooling tubes. It’s inconspicuous and easy to set
up, to the point that it doesn’t even have a power switch. You
simply plug it into your a Mac’s Thunderbolt 3 port and it
works. Heck, at the moment, you get only get it
from the Apple Store.

And yet for all that, you’ll likely find that its magic fails
to leave a lasting spell.

Gray ghost

Perhaps intentionally, its design somewhat echoes the maligned
2013 Mac Pro. The Blackmagic eGPU is a softly angular
eight-faced contraption rather than Jony Ive’s often-lampooned
curvy trash can, but like that device, its design embraces
squat, 11.5-inch verticality rather than the desk-hogging
horizontalism of other eGPUs. In fact, Blackmagic’s unit is
slightly more interesting to look at, as a soft LED light
illuminates the 1.7-inch gap between the bottom grill and the
surface it rests on when it powers up.

blackmagic egopu and mac pro
Leif Johnson/IDG

Not quite pot and kettle, but it’s pretty close.

A selection of ports runs along its spine in the style of the
Mac Pro, ranging from four USB-A 3.1 ports and an HDMI slot to
two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports for connecting it to
your Mac or hooking up to an external monitor like the
officially supported LG UltraFine 5K display. Considering that
it can also charge your Mac with 85 watts of juice, that’s an
impressive selection to choose from. The only drawback in this
regard is the roughly 20-inch Thunderbolt 3 cable, which means
you’ll always have to keep it fairly close to your MacBook. In
a way, though, that’s the point, as the shorter cables help
with the 40GBps data transfer speeds to your MacBook Pro.

But, of course, the chief legacy of the Mac Pro was its famous
resistance to upgrades and alterations, and these same troubles
carry over to the Blackmagic eGPU. Blackmagic’s device comes
with a non-removable 8GB AMD Radeon Pro 580 tightly packed
in-between the aluminum shell and the grills on the unit’s top
and bottom, and you can see the massive tangle of cooling tubes
when you peek through the honeycomb latticework. There are no
visible screws; If you want to get into this thing, you’re
going to have to force your way in (and we don’t recommend
that). It’s a sturdy beast, though, and it’s easy to get the
feeling that none of the unit’s 9.9 pounds were wasted.

heat tubes on blackmagic egpu
Leif Johnson/IDG

Nice set of pipes, eh?

Plug and play

I understand why someone would want a device like this. There’s
a lot to be said for a device that can significantly boost the
graphics performance of a MacBook Pro simply by plugging it
into a Thunderbolt 3 slot. And it really is that simple, as
macOS High Sierra (and Mojave) comes with all the drivers
needed to support most AMD cards built right into the OS
itself. When you need to unplug it, you simply right-click an
icon on the taskbar.

Most eGPUs are actually fairly easy to set up, but this device
avoids even the (very minor) hassle of slipping a supported
graphics card into the enclosure’s slot and screwing it in. The
Blackmagic eGPU is about as plug-and-play as you get.

grill blackmagic egpu Leif Johnson/IDG

We’re fans of the fans.

But it’s just not that powerful, which means it’s not a
future-proofed as it could be. The AMD Radeon Pro 580 is
certainly more powerful than the Radeon Pro 560X you’ll
find in the 2018 15-inch MacBook Pro, but it still doesn’t hold
a candle to AMD cards like the RX Vega 56 and and the RX Vega
64. And it’s not like including these would have been out of
the realm of possibility (although they may have boosted the
price by a couple hundred bucks), as the iMac Pro already comes
with Vega-powered graphics. For that matter, the Radeon Pro 580
is already over a year old at this point.

As it stands, you’re going to get the absolute most out of a
unit like this if you’re using a Mac that doesn’t have a
discrete graphics card, such as the 2017 13-inch MacBook Pro
without Touch Bar that I sometimes use.

Double your fun

First off, it’s not bad. You’re almost certainly going to get a
significant 3D boost regardless of which Thunderbolt-3 MacBook
Pro or non-Pro iMac you’re using, although the boost will
naturally be stronger for older and smaller units such as the
2017 13-inch MacBook Pro. The big question is whether it
delivers enough of a boost to make it worth $700.

Naturally, I wanted to check out how it works with our
decked-out 2.9GHz 2018 15-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar,
which is packed with 32GB of RAM and an AMD Radeon 560X
graphics card. Here’s how it checks out:

2018 15 macbook pro using blackmagic egpu IDG

Longer bars/higher scores are better.

As you can see, it soundly trounces Apple’s latest and greatest
laptop in a series of Geekbench 4 benchmarks for both Metal and
OpenCL.

Impressive, yes, but I was especially impressed with how well
it performed with the 2017 15-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar
that I use on a daily basis. It allows the Check out the
performance gains in that machine with Geekbench 4 benchmarks.

2017 15 inch macbook pro with touch bar
IDG

Longer bars/higher scores are better.

As impressive as these results are, I found that they’re
usually not powerful enough to deliver the kind of performance
in games that you might expect. In other words, just because
you have this $700 eGPU hooked up to your MacBook Pro, you
shouldn’t expect the kind of performance that you’ll get from a
proper gaming PC.

For testing, I ventured into the crowded hub of Barolus in
World of Warcraft’s new Battle for Azeroth
expansion on the 2017 MacBook Pro, and I found I could only
reach a steady rate of more than 40 frames per second by
dialing down the overall graphics settings from 10 to 7 (on a
scale of 10) on an external 25-inch Asus Predator XB2 gaming
monitor. For comparison, my 2017 MacBook Pro recommends a
setting of 4 without the eGPU.

I gathered more concrete results with the benchmarking tool for
the resource-demanding game Rise of the Tomb Raider.
As you can see below, I was never able to reach the desired 60
fps while running it on Very High settings at a 1920×1080
resolution, although it still gives a big boost over the 2017
15-inch MacBook Pro’s discrete Radeon Pro 555 card.

rise of the tomb raider benchmarks on 2017 macbook pro
IDG

Longer bars/higher framerates are better.

I saw similar results in Uningine’s Benchmark Valley tool while
running it on Ultra settings at 1920×1080 resolution on the
Asus monitor. You can see how the frame rate basically doubles,
but we’re still not reaching 60 fps.

uningine benchmark valley
IDG
Longer bars/higher framerates are better.

I’m focusing so much on gaming because video editing still lags
behind with eGPUs, which is a bit of a shock because I’d assume
this would be the market eGPUs work with. Fortunately,
Blackmagic Design’s own DaVinci Resolve 15 works well with the
eGPU, but more popular suites from other companies present more
problems. Final Cut Pro X appears to use it for video editing,
for example, but there’s little discernible difference when
processing videos. And Adobe apps simply don’t use support
eGPUs at all, which is a major blow considering Premiere Pro’s
massive presence on the market. For that matter, you still
can’t use eGPUs to play PC games through BootCamp.

The Radeon Pro 580 is a good card, but you shouldn’t be under
any illusions that it’s the best. For a comparison, I hooked up
an AMD Radeon RX Vega 64 to a customizable eGPU and ran the
same Geekbench 4 tests. The Vega 64 is essentially
top-of-the-line now, and it’ll remain a good card for a few
years to come. It’s basically what you want if you consider
yourself a “pro” user. Here’s how it performed on the 2018
15-inch MacBook Pro in comparison to the onboard cards and the
Blackmagic eGPU.

egpu comparison IDG

Longer bars/higher scores are better.

I wouldn’t say the Vega 64 blew the Radeon Pro 580 out of the
water, but the improvements were undeniable. As for the Radeon
Pro 580? I worry that Apple’s own machines could overtake it
within a couple of years.

Bottom line

If you’re looking for the absolute minimal hassle when setting
up an eGPU, the Blackmagic eGPU isn’t such a bad buy. It’s
beautiful and it complements the aesthetic of Apple’s own
devices, and it delivers clear (if occasionally disappointing)
performance boosts over the graphics cards built into many
Macs, and it’s impressively quiet. It effectively doubles the
graphic processing capabilities of the 2018 MacBook Pro.

blackmagic egpu with macbook pro
Leif Johnson/IDG

You can use an eGPU without an external monitor in Mojave
(but you’ll take some performance hits).

But even now, this pricey non-upgradeable unit isn’t going to
give you the best performance boost you can get with an eGPU,
and in just a couple of years, it may lag behind what Apple
itself is rolling out in its new MacBooks. When that happens,
you won’t be able to simply buy a new graphics card and replace
the Radeon Pro 580; instead, if you want this same kind of ease
of installation, you’re likely going to want to buy an updated
Blackmagic eGPU. And when that happens, let’s hope it’s got a
better card than this one.

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