July 21, 2016

What’s the Deal with GPU Expansion, Anyway?

What is a GPU expander, why might you want one, and what are the best choices right now?

Eventually, you’ll find yourself wanting more power. Maybe it’s when you click “render” at the end of a project and the estimated time is in days instead of hours. Maybe you’re tired of your project taking 40 minutes to load. Maybe it’s because VR is coming down the pike and you hear Palmer Luckey of Oculus saying Apple users will be left out since our graphics cards aren’t powerful enough. Or maybe you just want to upgrade after all the great GPU releases this year. 

Whatever the cause, you want more.  

The most popular option for filmmakers, once we have maxed out our memory, is the GPU expander box. ​​

Traditionally, Macs have been harder to upgrade and PCs have been easier. While there has been some movement away from Mac lately, the Mac OS is still pretty dominant in the world of film and media. The older Mac Pro Silver Towers offered some expandability, but the new Mac Pro Tower offers very limited options if you need more horsepower. You can increase RAM, and that's about it. You could switch to PC (many are), or, of course, consider a Hackintosh, but if you want to stay in the world of fully supported hardware and software, and you’ve committed to Mac, you’ve still got some good some options to speed up your workflow.

NVIDIA 980
NVIDIA 980, an example of the type of card you might want to upgrade to.Credit: Courtesy of NVIDIA

The most popular option for filmmakers, once we have maxed out our memory, is the GPU expander box. There are two big reasons why. First, what we do is very image-intensive work, which GPUs are well designed to handle, offering a lot of bang for your buck as an upgrade. Resolve, Adobe Creative Cloud, and many other software platforms take advantage of OpenCL to use the graphics card power for faster processing. Even Resolve, which used to rely heavily on the NVIDIA-specific CUDA platform, has worked to integrate OpenCL to such an extent that it's about equal to CUDA in processing speed, meaning you can save money with power from AMD (who acquired the Radeon brand from ATI back in 2006).

One of the nice perks of OpenCL is that more GPUs generally translated directly to faster renders; this means all the power is put to use. With CPUs, more cores can mean more power, but the program needs to be written to take advantage of it, and not all are. OpenCL optimized programs really put all the GPU power you can throw at them to work.

Akitio Thunderbolt Box
Thunderbolt Expansion Chassis, showing dual thunderbolt ports for daisy chaining.Credit: Courtesy of Akitio

The other big reason that GPUs make a great upgrade is that the video game market has made for very cost-effective power. The filmmaker market is relatively small when compared to the film industry as a whole, which is why filmmaker-specific equipment tends to be more expensive. Since there are not as many of us out here buying, costs like R&D can’t be spread over a large market, and other benefits of mass production don’t come into play. You’ll see this in the cost of most of the Thunderbolt boxes themselves; the market is small, and the price is higher than one might hope.  

But there are a lot of people who play video games. Video games require almost precisely the same kind of processing power that we need for video rendering (and also for AI), so there is a huge push for better and cheaper graphics cards to serve the gaming industry. Those factors end up benefiting filmmakers tremendously.

Back in the Silver Tower Mac Pro days, you could buy a PCI CUBIX expander box to stack up a ton of graphics cards all in one machine. And back in 2012, if you took a CUBIX with three GTX cards, a Blackmagic intensity, and a RedRocket, you could do real-time .R3d raws in Resolve.  

Silver Mac Pro with a Cubix
Silver Mac Pro with a Cubix Xpander, set up by Barefeats with 5 GPUs.Credit: Courtesy of Barefeats

With the Black Mac Pro (often abbreviated nMP for “new Mac Pro” or called the trashcan or R2-D2), it’s now a closed box with no PCI slots, so you need to use Thunderbolt to add more GPUs. If you want to add the hot new GTX 1080, or the GTX 1060, or the AMD competitor RX480, you’ll need a Thunderbolt expansion box. One benefit of Thunderbolt is that it also works with Thunderbolt-enabled Macs, including the MacBook Pro, or even the MacBook Air, making it easy to built a set-friendly system with the power to handle bigger formats.

For sound-sensitive applications, Thunderbolt offers lengths up to 10 meters (33 feet) over optical cable so you can place the enclosure, with its fans, far away from your workstation.

The two biggest players in the field are Sonnet and Magma, but there are a few other entries in the field worth considering.

Optical Thunderbolt
Optical Thunderbolt cable is capable of lengths up to 33 feet/10 meters.Credit: Courtesy of Magma

Sonnet

With the EchoExpress line, Sonnet offers a few features that make it stand out from the pack. Designed with the RedRocket in mind, it has built-in BNC mounting holes so that the SDI board doesn’t take up another slot in the chassis. It’s also claimed to be upgradeable to Thunderbolt 3, which will offer 40gb/s speeds when it becomes widely available, hopefully in the near future.

Sonnet also offers a rack mount solutions for three single-width cards if you are running a rack-mount set-up, and the xMac Pro Server, which is a 4U Rackmount enclosure; you would mount a Mac Pro inside of this.

Sonnet Mac Pro Rackmount
Rackmount solution enclosing the Mac Pro from Sonnet.Credit: Courtesy of Sonnet

Magma

Magma has the ExpressBox 1T with a single bay and the ExpressBox 3T and ExpressBox-3T-DB with three bays. Both 3T models offer 3 PCIe slots: two PCIe 2.0 x8 (one available for x16), one PCIe 2.0 x4, 250W total watts of power, and the ability to daisy chain. The main difference with the DB (aside from about $200 more in cost) is 4 2.5” SAS/SATA HDD slots. If you’re looking for a great solution that comes with a lot of room for more cards, and also an external RAID array, this could be a great way to do it.

To solve the RedRocket conundrum (the Rocket takes up a whole slot for just SDI ports), Magma sells a kit to add the SDI ports to the same bracket that holds the Thunderbolt ports for $20.

Netstor offers identical products to the Magma line, at slightly cheaper prices, but reports have been excellent on Magma customer service during the transition from TB1 to TB2. With Thunderbolt 3 looming, I would lean towards paying the slight premium to buy directly from Magma.

Magman ExpressBox 3T DB
Close-up of the 4 hard drive slots inside the ExpressBox 3T DB, allowing for internal storage in the external box.Credit: Courtesy of Magma

BizonBOX 2

Recently profiled by Barefeats using a GTX980, the BizonBOX claims to be specifically designed for GPUs and comes in at $599, comparable with other offerings.

BizonBOX 2
BizonBOX 2 by Bizon-Tech Thunderbolt Expansion Box.Credit: Courtesy of Bizon-Tech

The rest

For under $300, the OWC Helios, Akitio, and Highpoint Rocketstor offer single-slot double wide solutions that, when combined with a $250 GTX 1060, offer a great power-to-price ratio.

mLogic, an early leader with the RedRocket targeting mLink R, has a $399 1/2 length box that might fit a specific need as well. While I'm always one to save on price when possible, Thunderbolt chassis is one area where support really matters, and where I might consider paying slightly more for a company more specifically invested in ensuring the GPUs and other accessories work in film workflows.

Anybody tried any of these, or finally abandoned your Mac for a PC and its easy world of expandability? Tell us about it in the comments.     

Your Comment

34 Comments

Been in both sandboxes for years, and have never had real issue with either. I feel it all depends on your budget and what you're used too. Adobe, BlackMagic, File transfer/transcoding apps work fine on both systems, with no real file issues.

July 21, 2016 at 11:46AM, Edited July 21, 11:46AM

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This is a useful overview, but I have a few questions I think everyone who's considering this has to wonder about:

1) How throttled by the Thunderbolt bottleneck (as opposed to a PCIe connection) will your GPU be? In other words, how much worse is it to use a GPU expansion box than mounting the video card in the computer?

2) What functions within our programs (FCPX, Premiere, After Effects, Resolve etc.) will see a bump – is it only rendering, or will playback and general "smoothness" benefit as well? Will we be able to handle higher resolutions? I am personally much more concerned with boosting the "realtime" performance, rather than cutting down on my render times.

July 21, 2016 at 11:51AM

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Or you could just use a windows machine and not use apple or a laptop and you can upgrade to anything you want and save thousands.

July 21, 2016 at 12:08PM

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Darren Orange
Director/Producer
251

I did mention PC in the post, and folks are moving that way, but as Chris Lambert points out, sometimes you've already invested heavily in a platform and you just want a little bit more power.

I'd go Hackintosh, but the only person I know who uses one in a pro facility spends way more time troubleshooting issues than he does doing work. I'll think about it more seriously if there are folks really making it work.

In the current environment, thunderbolt expansion just makes sense.

July 21, 2016 at 3:21PM

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Charles Haine
Director/Writer/Colorist

Great article Charles.

Please don't think I'm being a d1ck, but have been down this road for my clients too, have some runs on the Mac/gpu/eGPU board, and have posted some comments clarifying some queries below. (not touting, just sharing insights).

Yes, I'm a STAUNCH Mac fan, and believe cuda gpu should be available on the Mac platform. (eGPU, hackT etc).

p.s Hackintosh is non trivial to get right, but once you do... well you know you've taken the red pill.

July 22, 2016 at 10:14AM, Edited July 22, 10:48AM

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Nicholas Croft
IT consultant
321

I would like to know how to set this up on my Macbook Pro.
Do I just have to connect the Sonnet for example with my Macbook via Thunderbolt cable and that's it? Is it just simple plug and play? Will the GPU be detected by the software itself (Resolve)?
Thanks for your help.

July 21, 2016 at 12:35PM

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sep
95

I think it more complicated than expressed in the article.
I'm flirting around that solution for a while and it is on the edge of my incompetence.
It's seem like you have to modify some code stuff in your mac because a gpu cannot be hot-plug and by definition thunderbolt is for hot-plug devices.

Here a great how-to, by a great guy too, his blog is pretty cool : http://www.journaldulapin.com/2013/08/24/a-thunderbolt-gpu-on-a-mac-how-to/

It is from 2013, but it is the more precise article I found on it. It is blurry how things have evolved since.

One other problem, it's seem like amd gpu is unstable with this system, and as I'm working with fcpx... it is too much of a good plan for loosing my time instead of working :)

July 21, 2016 at 1:27PM

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Check out the brand Akitio!!! It is mentioned at the bottom of this post. These guys are awesome and I have never once had a problem with their products. Saw them at NAB and they were super cool!

July 21, 2016 at 1:17PM

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Kyle Lamar
Director Producer DP
1078

Just FYI, AMD acquired the Radeon brand from ATI back in 2006, so anywhere you have ATI here you mean AMD.

July 21, 2016 at 1:32PM

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Alex Everingham
Video Editor
619

Woah, you are correct, that typo definitely lets the world know that I'm way old.

thanks.

July 21, 2016 at 3:18PM

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Charles Haine
Director/Writer/Colorist

The tech forum https://www.techinferno.com/index.php?/forums/forum/83-diy-e-gpu-projects/
is the reason all of this is possible for mac users. A couple of the members wrote the script that allows a Mac computer to recognize the new eGPU and have improved on it over the years, through numerous trail and error reports from other members, and have it almost nailed down to it being "plug a play".
They have also made this "freeware" for anyone to download and use at no charge. The site includes numerous examples of different setups and gear you will need to purchase depending on your setup.
It's seems like a lot of work from a legit set of guys who have asked nothing for it.
It's a shame that companies (I won't name names but look at the one that is using the Akitio Box, relabeled, which that site recommends) took their script, equipment design, and hard work and are charging people double for what it takes to make this simple device. But I guess that's business!
I hope this helps. And tell the guys at techinferno thanks if you visit their site.

July 21, 2016 at 1:59PM

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Timothy Cook
Self employed storyteller.
288

TI looks great on the surface, especially for eGPU noobs.
However, the TI guys, one in particular, is the one who stole it from the originator - A guy by the handle "Netkas" (wrote the script with "Rominator"). Old hands in the HackT scene, and actually developed a key "kext" file (FakeSMC) that makes HT possible.

July 22, 2016 at 9:21AM, Edited July 22, 9:21AM

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Nicholas Croft
IT consultant
321

You've presented some good options here for sure. I do find it fascinating though how much software makes a difference. Since FCPX is written for Mac systems, it really utilizes the hardware so much more efficiently than say Premiere does. This has been tested over and over again and in regards to rendering, transcoding, exporting and just general playback performance FCPX is faster on a lower end mac than Premiere on a higher end PC.

https://www.macprovideo.com/hub/final-cut/final-cut-pro-x-vs-adobe-premi...

http://maxcamera.net/computers/2014vs2015macbookpro/

July 21, 2016 at 3:39PM

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Brad Jones
Director/Producer/Writer/Editor
652

FCPX heavily uses a built in - ie baked in to the cpu hardware - technology called "Quick Sync", (google Intel Quick Sync, FCPX) which is a direct hardware call that's been around since Sandy Bridge (circa 2011, i7's etc). Hence the speed on 'low' systems.
Adobe products, that use gpu acceleration, favour "CUDA", which is nVidia's gpu technology.
And yes, getting an nVidia gpu to work on a nMP is technically achievable, but its a bit of a kludge. And... the cost of the Thunderbolt enclosure (with an appropriate psu) is pretty close to a high end motherboard and cpu. You can easily plug 2,3, 4 gpu's into a motherboard - something you bought once. Making 2, 3, 4 external eGPU's - again, its technically doable - but astronomically expensive.

July 22, 2016 at 9:34AM, Edited July 22, 10:03AM

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Nicholas Croft
IT consultant
321

The quick sync is on the Intel I5 and I7 processors and primarily benefits h.264 encoding. So a 5k IMac with an I7 processor exports to h.264 far more efficiently than a more powerful Mac Pro running on the xeon processors. However, the mac pro will export far more quickly to large batches than say the high end 5k Imac because the xeons have much better hyper threading than the Ivy Bridge to my understanding. FCPX uses Open CL as opposed to CUDA so it does indeed use GPU very efficiently as well as processor and ram power. The thing about X is that it is entirely modern code and does not have any legacy code from 10 years ago that it has to contend with. This has a lot to do with why it is so much faster at encoding and rendering than Premiere is (also why it is more stable). X is completely optimized to run on a limited set of hardware as opposed to the PC world which is full of so many options. If you look at Max's chart, X is more efficient on laptops and high end desktops as opposed to Premiere. It really shines when it comes to encoding 4k material which Premiere struggles with.

July 22, 2016 at 2:38PM

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Brad Jones
Director/Producer/Writer/Editor
652

Google "R9 280X and BruceX".
You may be pleasantly surprised ;-)

July 22, 2016 at 10:23PM

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Nicholas Croft
IT consultant
321

So why are people going to PC when we have this? We have an 8 core Mac pro trashcan with 32gb RAM, the d700 (highest graphics) and a thunderbolt 2 RAID and we have no issues working with pretty much everything we throw at it, even 1/2 res RED RAW works with no problems and since our monitors are 1080 we don't need to edit in full 6k anyway. If we can just buy a GPU expander, then we should have more then enough power for even more. Thunderbolt 2 is really fast. It was made to basically replace PCIe and Apple knows what they're doing. They want everything to be plug and play and modular. The software, if integrated with the hardware and OpenCL is what really makes the difference and Apple software is amazing. Premiere definitely has it's hiccups, program wise but we can render projects in minutes no problem.

July 22, 2016 at 1:49AM

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Brad Watts
Filmmaker/Creative Director - Redd Pen Media
477

... Because Apple missed the boat with Intel's "HEDT" platform - ie Intel's' 'prosumer' high end 6, 8, and now 10 core OVERCLOCKABLE cpus that they started producing in 2011 (X79 now X99 platform).
Just as Apple killed off a fully customisable Mac Pro. Own goal, anyone?
If you're an enthusiast/system builder you can build a much better system than the $10K (aud), and have the best of both worlds - fast single core speed, and great multicore. Oh, and any mix of gpu's you could want.
Don't hate on me for saying that - I've been a Mac *consultant* for 25 years. It pains me - DEEPLY -to see Apple on the backfoot in high end content production.
With no 'real' pro model, it's a shame Apple effectively turned their back on the very users that kept them afloat during The Dark Times.
the nMP, is beautifully realised, it just doesn't suit the wider (ie non fcpx) creative world.

July 22, 2016 at 9:45AM, Edited July 22, 9:57AM

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Nicholas Croft
IT consultant
321

I purchased Bizon product with Nvidia Titan X 12GB Video Memory Graphics Card and after installation I came to know that your internal graphics card wont work and team said its only best for Macbook air macbook pro or imac and not for MacPro Cylinder. Wasted money in this. Dont even recommend for people to waste money on this.

July 22, 2016 at 7:14AM

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Google "Netkas eGPU", they can help you get it working.

July 22, 2016 at 9:59AM

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Nicholas Croft
IT consultant
321

This article is a joke... Thunderbolt does not support GPU. It never has.

You cannot connect a GPU to a nMP or a MacBook Pro.

How could you write an entire article on this and not know that?

July 22, 2016 at 7:51AM

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Chase
81

Not "out of the box".
But it is possible with modification of a key "kext" file.
Bizon and TI both 'appropriated' a script written by another, google 'netkas eGPU' and you'll find instructions from the person who originally cracked this, AND has a deep architectural understanding of how to get it to work on your system.

July 22, 2016 at 9:28AM, Edited July 22, 9:47AM

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Nicholas Croft
IT consultant
321

Whoa, I had NO idea that this was even a thing (and I built a hackintosh several years ago)! I have a 2012 retina MacBook Pro, and I'm curious, I can only run one external monitor (in addition to the internal display). Trying to plug in a second (so three screens total) bogs the system down. Could using an eGPU allow me to connect an additional display?

July 22, 2016 at 5:29PM

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Technically, yes. Fiddly though. Depending on which OS (Yosemite, El Cap - Apple changed the 'guts' in relation to gpu support, knock on to what works and how) and which (external) gpu you use and/or supported drivers by either nVidia or AMD, and how to disable the onboard "igpu".
Your best bet, to steer you through the maze above, is "Netkas" - the original architect of the script that is in wide circulation.
I don't have a vendetta against TI (Tech Inferno). I'm trying to save you some heartache.
One of the main TI guys 'appropriated' the script written by Netkas, and has been trying to fob it off as his own. So what? "If it works, what do I care?". The script they 'borrowed' (copy and pasted) was a few OS/gpu driver generations ago, and it has LOTS of issues now (TI don't understand the Apple OS 'architecture' enough to fix it, to work with all the OS updates since). So your best bet is to go to the source - Netkas - for 100% stability. p.s Netkas wrote "FakeSMC", which you may recall from your Hackintosh days?
I have no affiliation with ANY of the above, just went down the eGPU/Mac rabbit hole myself a while back.

July 22, 2016 at 10:40PM, Edited July 22, 11:08PM

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Nicholas Croft
IT consultant
321

At 40Gps, Thunderbolt 3 should provide enough throughput for an external GPU box.

July 22, 2016 at 7:06PM, Edited July 22, 7:06PM

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Glenn Bossik
Videographer
451

July 23, 2016 at 1:20PM, Edited July 23, 1:20PM

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Others have said as much but I think it bears reinforcing that all this can not only be avoided with a dedicated Windows machine, but also with less money. I have a tower with 4 HDs and still more space, a dual Xeon motherboard, 32GB of RAM with 4 memory slots still open and a GTX 980 to with THREE open PCI express slots still open. The idea of add-on boxes for GPU just seems crazy to me. I do get the investment m made of a long time Mac user, but at certain point it's time to admit the benefit no longer tenable.

July 23, 2016 at 10:15PM

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Douglas Bowker
Animation, Video, Motion-Graphics
150

If you use certain Mac-only apps, then there are good reasons to stay with the Mac. Many apps don't rely on GPU to anywhere near the same degree as PP/AE/Resolve (e.g. Motion, which is much faster than AE) so it's not that big a deal for everyone. Definitely agreed though that the current Pro and laptops are due an upgrade, and that many pros would prefer upgradeable GPUs over pretty-but-outdated options.

July 24, 2016 at 2:31AM

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From the article: "While there has been some movement away from Mac lately" and "You could switch to PC (many are)". Where are the stats on this? While I'm sure some editors probably have switched to PC, others may well have switched back to Mac. The 5K iMac is awesome even if the Mac Pro is outdated right now, and FCP X runs very well on both.

July 23, 2016 at 10:25PM

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Apple don't publish stats of the Macs they DIDN'T sell. ;-)
It's mostly anecdotal from those of us that have been around for a while, and go from job to job with different 'content producers' (sorry, just a broad term for all Video, 3D, ArchiVis: anything that needs real cpu/gpu grunt).
We have seen a clear trend in studios jumping ship. Its NOT something we actually want, we prefer the Mac OS hands down.
And that's the thrust of this article: how to get CUDA (nVidia) acceleration for the Adobe suite, INTO/ONTO a Mac - today.
You can pick up a used "Maxwell" class nVidia card (just the gpu card, not the Tbolt box you have to modify) for about $300 AUD that will that will boost the Adobe Suite's performance beyond FCPX. And a few others CUDA dependant tools like "Octane". - Not bashing FCPX, fine product. But. If your workflow is Premiere/After Effects, you're hobbled on most post 2013 Macs, as Apple have progressively used AMD (Open CL). cards.
https://support.apple.com/en-au/HT202239
nVidia don't do so well on OpenCL, as the above "shoot outs" show.
In essence: "how do I get an nVidia card 'seen' by my mac to speed up Premiere etc", is what *this* article is about.

July 25, 2016 at 4:17AM, Edited July 25, 4:53AM

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Nicholas Croft
IT consultant
321

In other words: the usual, baseless, solipsistic blather. Perfect click-bait, if you're ever looking for a title. Bravo.

Yeah, Apple's GROWING numbers and marketshare on the side of the Mac over the last 10+ years really make your case. Absolutely brilliant math. Bravo. Make things up to suit your perceptions much?

And seeing how FCP X kicks mucho proverbial Premiere ASS when it comes to speed... I'm "hobbled"... LOL!

Dammit Apple! Why couldn't you implement support in Premiere for anything other than that (well paid for with promotional $$$) inferior, proprietary bullshit CUDA??!!

... oh wait... ADOBE are the douche-buckets here!! Silly me. Where Apple is such an easy target. Ignorant rage makes one's train of thought go all STUPID sometimes. Oops.

Yay Merkin Engine!!

July 29, 2016 at 10:49AM

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I know right!
I'm as angry as you are that Apple didn't even offer nVidia cards as an option on the nMP.
Even as a mid cycle 'refresh' (like the 2010 - 2012 MacPro 'upgrade')... when nVidia came out with the shrunken down 980. The one that's in PC portables that are running circles around Apple's DESKTOPS in performance.

Oh, on the "HEDT" price/performance thingy, here's a handy comparison chart:
http://ark.intel.com/compare/63696,64620,70845,77780,75780,75781,77912,8...

Take any of the CPU model numbers, go to "geekbench" and compare the multicore scores vs the $$.

You can see the trend.
Remember, I'm on Apple's side... there is a third way to have the Mac OS AND baller hardware, at reasonable prices.

August 4, 2016 at 1:54AM, Edited August 4, 1:55AM

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Nicholas Croft
IT consultant
321

Unfortunately, the Pascal-based NVidia cards (such as the 1080 and 1060 cited in the article) will not work with OS X yet because NVidia has not released Mac drivers for these cards. (It is not clear as to whether or not they will in the future.)

As some commenters pointed out, external GPUs are not officially supported by Thunderbolt v1 or v2 but will be by Thunderbolt 3. (So, on TB 1 & 2 you can make it work, but it's difficulty and not stable.)

There will, however, still be some downsides to Thunderbolt 3 GPUs, such as:
1. Limited CPU<-->GPU bandwidth: Tb3 can carry only 4 lanes of PCIe 3.0 whereas all professional graphics cards support up to 16 lanes (commonly abbreviated 16x). This 75% loss in CPU to GPU bandwidth won't necessarily mean that the same GPU would only be able to achieve up to 25% of its full performance when used over Tb3, but it will mean that PCIe 16x connected systems will continue to have a decided performance advantage.

2. Full Thunderbolt 3 eGPU capability will require driver support on the part of the graphics card manufacturer. (AMD calls it "XConnect" and it mainly makes plug-and-play possible – whereas you would typically have to restart the computer before both plugging-in and unplugging the eGPU.) This might mean only future and/or only some GPUs will be supported.

All that being said, Thunderbolt 3 and its eGPU support promise to be an amazing step forward and I can't wait to see Apple's implementation!

August 18, 2016 at 4:31PM

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So, as I read the article and all the thoughtful comments, my personal conclusions are thus?

If you heavily use the Adobe Suite, switch to PC

If you heavily use Apple apps, jump though a bunch of hoops, or just go with the hardware/software relationship out the box.

Eh?

November 3, 2016 at 11:05AM, Edited November 3, 11:10AM

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Garrett Evans
Video Consumption Strategist, Post Super
81