Hands On With The Blackmagic eGPU

The Blackmagic eGPU is designed to add GPU power to specific Mac computers.

What Is It?

The Blackmagic eGPU is a higher-end external standalone graphics accelerator. The unit is a product of collaboration between Apple and Blackmagic Design, and it’s designed for use with the recent generations of Mac computers with a Thunderbolt 3 connection. iMac users need not apply because most modern iMacs have a pretty powerful GPU built in; this unit was designed with the laptop power-user in mind. Windows users with the right ports can also consider the device, however, there are some compatibility issues which Blackmagic Design expects to be resolved through future updates from Windows computer vendors.

Featuring a built-in Radeon Pro 580, the Blackmagic eGPU connects to your computer via Thunderbolt 3/USB-C. (Could the designers have made what this connection is named, who it is for, and what it does any more confusing?) The eGPU gives you an HDMI output, 85W of power, and another Thunderbolt 3 connection as well as four USB 3.1 connections, all wrapped up in design that’s optimized for performance and quiet operation.

Okay, How Are We Going To Test This?

Blackmagic loaned me its new eGPU to try out for a few weeks. I’m starting to run into this more frequently, but my own computing hardware (2011 MacBook Pro, 2012 top-of-the-line iMac), in computing terms, is antique. Neither of my computers has the required Thunderbolt 3 connection, so I needed to find someone locally who had one of the new MacBook Pro laptops with a Thunderbolt 3 connection. External GPUs have been around for the past few years, but I was not familiar with them or how much they improve or affect performance, so this was a great opportunity to get my feet wet with an external GPU.

Connector set on the rear of the Blackmagic eGPU.
Connector set on the rear of the Blackmagic eGPU.

Fortunately a colleague of mine, Gabriel Schroer, who is a motion graphic designer and animator, recently picked up one of the latest 15-inch MacBook Pros with the i9 processor and Thunderbolt 3 connections. Gabriel is a power user who designs motion graphics for his own stock footage business as well as the Emmys, ESPYs, NBC’s The Voice and dozens of other projects on a regular basis. I asked him if I could bring the eGPU to his office and if we could put it through its paces, and he, too, was curious about what it could potentially do for his workflow and rendering times.

Is That All There Is?

After unpacking the eGPU, we were surprised find the unit came with a power cable, a short Thunderbolt 3 cable and a small instruction booklet. That’s it. The instructions are comically brief and basically show images and copy that tell you to, “Unbox the unit, place it near your laptop, connect power, and connect Thunderbolt.” Yes, that’s all there is to it—no drivers, no software to install, no special instructions.

So how can you tell if the unit is even working? There is a white light that glows from the base of the unit when powered and connected to a computer. The fan inside the unit is whisper quiet. You do get a small blue dot that shows up on the dock bar of your computer screen, and you do need to treat the eGPU like a hard drive, so once it’s mounted, you have to unmount it if you are going to disconnect it.

The Blackmagic eGPU viewed from the top. The eGPU was almost silent in operation, even with heavy rendering duties.
The Blackmagic eGPU viewed from the top. The eGPU was almost silent in operation, even with heavy rendering duties.

It’s Not As Portable As You Might Think

First impressions from both of us were about the relative size of the eGPU. It’s fairly large—larger than we thought it would be from pictures. This will dispel any ideas you may have had that the eGPU is easy to throw into a laptop bag to bring with you for remote editing on a plane or train. Its footprint is fairly large: It’s almost 12 inches tall, 7 inches wide and weighs 9.2 pounds. It seems that the eGPU is designed more for laptop users who will be docking their computers to a monitor than for laptop users who want to edit at their local Starbucks, and that’s OK, but just be aware before ordering one of its size and weight.

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How Does It Perform?

As mentioned earlier, the eGPU was created for a very specific audience, mainly MacBook Pro users who are looking for a more powerful GPU than their computer contains. The Radeon Pro 580 in the Blackmagic eGPU is a fairly powerful unit, so we tried several tests to establish some informal processing and rendering benchmarks.

One of the challenges of testing the eGPU is that if you look at the owner’s manual, it gives no indication of which programs are presently optimized for external GPU usage. Same with the Blackmagic and Apple webpages for the device—it’s all a bit vague. We do know for a fact that Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve 15 is optimized for the eGPU. What about Adobe After Effects? Upon investigation, and a conversation with Blackmagic, no, AE does not presently support the eGPU. What about Final Cut Pro X? Didn’t Apple co-develop the eGPU with Blackmagic? You’d think that FCP X would be optimized to work with this unit. Unfortunately, there isn’t a comprehensive list yet of programs that do, don’t or may support the eGPU in the future, and after speaking with Blackmagic, I can say that it seems to be taking a hands-off approach, telling me that it is up to each application’s company to decide if it wants to support the eGPU.

Gabriel Schroer’s MacBook Pro is top of the line. The Blackmagic eGPU requires a recent model Mac with a Thunderbolt 3 connection.
Gabriel Schroer’s MacBook Pro is top of the line. The Blackmagic eGPU requires a recent model Mac with a Thunderbolt 3 connection.

Test Methodology

Just to put this assertion to the test, we booted up Gabriel’s laptop that had a copy of Final Cut Pro X 10.4.3 running on macOS High Sierra. We made sure the eGPU was hooked up and powered on and ran some rendering tests as follows. We used a UHD 35-second clip recorded on the Panasonic GH5 and first applied some third-party plug-in effects including Red Giant Magic Bullet and some plug-ins from other sources to see if our renders were affected, positively or negatively. Our results showed a baseline of 3:02 rendering time without the eGPU connected and a test time of 2:57 with the eGPU connected. Our conclusion was that the time variance was simply normal rendering variance and that the eGPU didn’t really do anything with FCP X and third-party effects.

Our next test was to try a similar sort of setup but to only utilize FCP X’s built-in effects versus third-party effects. This was a fairly real-world test and not carefully controlled, but we applied some Gaussian blurs and glows to the same clip and compared the rendering times without the eGPU and with the eGPU, and came to the same conclusion; the renders varied only by a few seconds on a 2-3 minute render.

What About DaVinci Resolve?

Our next test was to try the one program that we know the eGPU is optimized for, Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve 15. We made sure to download the most current version of Resolve and to make sure that the laptop’s OS was also running the most current version of Apple High Sierra (10.13.6). With the software updated and the clip loaded onto the timeline, we applied Zoom Blur, Mirrors, Light Rays and Glow.

We output the first render and came up with a rendering time of 2:57. After hooking up the eGPU and running the same render again, we ended up with a render time of 2:52. We noticed that the fan on the eGPU came on during rendering during this test, so we knew that the eGPU was actually working, but the difference in rendering time was not very significant. We ran the test three times with variances between the MacBook Pro’s internal graphics, a Radeon Pro 560X, comparing it with the eGPU’s Radeon Pro 580, the spread was never more than 15 seconds on a roughly three-minute render.

The Blackmagic Design eGPU render load in DaVinci Resolve 15.
The Blackmagic Design eGPU render load in DaVinci Resolve 15.

Conclusions

We discussed our render results amongst ourselves and did some reading and investigation with others who have tried out the eGPU and noticed that the sweet spot seems to be even more specialized than we first thought. The 15-inch, top-of-the-line i9 MacBook Pro we were using has a fairly robust internal GPU, available with the Radeon Pro 555X or the Radeon Pro 560X, which, granted, are not as powerful as the eGPU’s Radeon Pro 580, but our results show that the Radeon Pro 560 rendering results were within a few seconds of the Radeon Pro 580, at least with the combination of filters and effects we applied, which seemed to put considerable load on the GPU.

The 13-inch MacBook Pro laptops, on the other hand, feature the less-powerful Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640 and 655 GPUs, so you would understandably see a larger performance increase when using the eGPU with the 13-inch MacBook Pros than with the top-of-the-line 15-inch model. Unfortunately, we didn’t have access to a test 13-inch MacBook Pro, but based upon other users’ experiences, the rendering change is more dramatic with the 13-inch and the eGPU. Keep this in mind as you consider the Blackmagic eGPU; the GPU your computer has built-in could radically affect the value equation the eGPU presents.

If you have an older MacBook Pro with Thunderbolt 3 or one of the current 13-inch models, you may find the unit to be a great time-saving device to increase rendering efficiency. MacBook Pros have had Thunderbolt 3 connections since 2016, so there may be several models out there that would see a net result that makes the potential timesaving appealing. The unit is constructed robustly and cosmetically; it looks high-end and appealing. The Blackmagic eGPU can also be used as a docking and charging station. Its built-in power supply powers the GPU while also providing 85W of downstream power via Thunderbolt 3 for charging laptop computers and powering peripherals. Don’t forget that Thunderbolt 3 docking stations themselves can cost from about $200 up to $400, so there is considerable value in the eGPU’s external ports and its ability to radically expand the I/O capability of your laptop.

As I write this article, IBC 2018 is about to begin, so it will be interesting to see if Adobe, Apple, AVID and other providers announce any optimization in their editing, compositing and motion graphics programs for the Blackmagic eGPU that could change its utility and value equation in one fell swoop.

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