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How to set up your Mac with an external GPU

External GPUs are in the news lately, what with NVIDIA's announcement offering macOS drivers for its Titan Xp and Apple offering an eGPU Developer Kit for High Sierra, so we thought we'd take a second to explain what, exactly, an external GPU is — and how you'd go about getting one.

External GPUs: Supercharging gaming and video production

All Macs have a CPU, which provides the primary processing power for your computer. But in addition, they have a GPU — a graphics processing unit — designed to drive your computer's screen, external displays, and visuals.

GPUs are what sell high-end Windows gaming laptops and desktops: They keep your favorite game flawless, your external display running smoothly, and visual effects rendering speedy. They're also very important in rendering VR experiences.

But all that power comes at the expense of battery and optimization: Heavy-duty GPUs are frequent power hogs with lots of fan noise and problematic battery life. As such, Apple has historically trended toward putting in GPUs that balanced power with optimization: great for your laptop's battery life; not so great for gamers, VR, or visual effects artists.

Enter external GPUs: Like external hard drives, these essentially allow you to stick a GPU in a Thunderbolt housing, where you can then connect it to your computer; from there, when you run games, VR, and visual apps optimized for that GPU you should see significant performance improvements. Awesome, right? Well, almost.

The cons of an external GPU on your Mac

Here's the issue: Macs won't officially support external GPUs until macOS High Sierra. That's not to say you can't use an external GPU on older operating systems — only that Apple Support won't bail you out if you do something that doesn't agree with your Mac. Proceed at your own risk, here be dragons, et cetera.

In addition, should you decide to use an external GPU, there are only a handful of Thunderbolt enclosures and graphics cards with appropriate Mac drivers — you can't just pick an arbitrary graphics card you'd like to attach to your Mac.

How to use an external GPU with your Mac

Thankfully, you don't have to venture into the void without guidance: The eGPU.io community has put together a huge array of helpful how-tos and setup guides for interested users — I'm looking forward to using their startup guide and forums to make a Thunderbolt 3 eGPU for my MacBook Pro.

Questions?

Other questions about external GPUs? Let us know below.

Serenity was formerly the Managing Editor at iMore, and now works for Apple. She's been talking, writing about, and tinkering with Apple products since she was old enough to double-click. In her spare time, she sketches, sings, and in her secret superhero life, plays roller derby. Follow her on Twitter @settern.

11 Comments
  • "This isn't officially supported by Apple yet, and hacky as all get out" Pardon?
  • https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/all%20get-out
  • Yuck, what a horrible idiom. Im glad you've changed it in the title!
  • Thank you for spreading the word on external GPU for Mac. We're looking forward to helping Mac users build their first eGPU.
  • Thank you guys for such great content! I was really thankful someone had a really thorough how-to on using eGPUs with your Mac.
  • Hi Serenity. Just a quick thing. All of the Pascal cards (10 Series) are available for use with MacOS, not just the Titan XP. Might let users know they don't have to shell out $1200 for a GPU.
  • Really excited for the possibilities for this. I have a 2016 MBP and use it at my desk at work for Video editing and graphics work. I would love to be able to give it more horsepower! Hopefully, this all happens quickly! I also hope apple adds support for 3rd party eGPU boxes in the future!Hopefully
  • We tested a GTX 1080 Ti eGPU with the Late 2016 15' MacBook Pro today. Nvidia web drivers indeed provide support for Pascal GPU in macOS. There are some visual glitches in this beta version.
  • They really need to make this a supported thing that works with more GPUs. As it stands, Mac is no more a player in the high end space than Windows is a player in the phone space. And that's saying a lot! Even if this becomes fully supported, it'll still not be in the league of gaming on Windows. First, between a Mac, a thunderbolt enclosure, and GPU, you'll be spending a lot more than you would to build a Win10 gaming PC, or even most store-bought, pre-built ones. Second, there's bound to be more latency with Thunderbolt than with a straight-into-the-mobo setup like you have in conventional gaming PCs (plus, what if the cat unplugs the cord while you're gaming). Third, unless you spend A LOT more than you do on a PC, you're likely to get a weaker CPU and/or less RAM, and all the rest. But most damning of all - and the problem that will take, by far, the longest to overcome, if it's EVER overcome, is the HUGE deficit in games availability. I don't even know the ratio, but something like 9/10 PC games not even being available on Mac doesn't sound unreasonable to me at all. At best, the "game gap" in Mac is roughly analogous to the "app gap" in Windows phone. Even if Mac really enters the space with full support for this, and suddenly enters the general league of power currently enjoyed in near-monopoly in Windows, how quickly will developers get on board? How long will Macs remain 3rd class citizens on Steam, and the like? Serious gaming on Mac has just as big a hill to climb to be successful as Windows does in the phone space, and as Google does in the high-end computing space. That's certainly not to say that it -CAN'T- happen, as I would NEVER say that about Windows Phone, nor would I even say that probably about Google. But I find it no more likely, and CERTAINLY no more easy or guaranteed than I would say about the others. HOWEVER, all that said, I still want this for Mac -VERY BADLY!- I doubt very very much that it'll ever outright replace traditional DIY, Windows powered gaming PC rigs, and would probably NEVER be my main outlet for gaming. But as it stands right now, Mac is basically a total non-player in the gaming space outside of casual games, and even though it'll almost certainly never be my main thing, I at least want to see it be a player again like it was in decades long gone, a contender, just like I want to see for Windows in the phone space, and to a lesser extent, Google in the power-user space. With my new gaming PC, and as amazing as it is (I'm typing this on said system, in fact), I'm really starting to struggle with feelings of "man, do I even still need you anymore" with my Mac, and I don't like feeling that way at all. Why? Well, even though Mac is truly better than Windows at some things, one thing that it's NOT for a gamer is a "total package" proposition. Some things it does better than Windows, sure, but then, some things it doesn't even do, like at all. I mean, I still record the Nerd Noise Radio video game music podcast on my Mac, that's ALL done on Mac. But the thing is I -COULD- do it on my PC if I needed/wanted to if I just brought my mics and my USB audio input upstairs and installed Audacity - and probably still get results comparable enough that only my hair dresser and I know for sure, whereas most of my PC games I straight-up CAN'T play on my Mac, and even the ones that I can are soooooooooo vastly inferior in the way they render that I'd probably have better luck doing it on my PS3 or XBox360! And that's VERY DAMNING! Even if it's never as good as Windows is at gaming, like ever, the ability to at least be even a decent gaming option makes that "total package" proposition a lot more feasible, and instead of having a gaming-focused PC that can also do media upstairs, and a second, media-focused PC downstairs that can also game, and then struggling to figure out what place the Mac can maintain in my life when a PC can do pretty much everything it can do, even if a little less elegantly, on machines that are both more powerful AND less expensive at the same time, perhaps, with a properly supported external GPU, I can erase the "whatever am I going to do with you, Mac" blues, keep the upstairs game-first rig Windows, and keep the downstairs media-first rig Mac. That prospect sounds very nice to me! :-) Then I can maintain my "dual-platform on purpose" stance that I currently enjoy without feeling like I might just be wasting my time. Because I REALLY like macOS, and I don't want to see it phased out of my life. Even if with the advent of Windows 10, I find myself for the first time EVER actually preferring Windows over Mac, **** I still love Mac, and don't want to lose my ability to justify having it. Hooking beefy GPUs up to it, and having more games start showing up on it would sure go a long way towards holding that dreadfully sad day at bay. :-) If nothing else, this all IS exciting stuff, though. I'll be watching the developments with great interest, and hoping for the best! Cheers! p.s. yeah, boot camp with Windows, blah blah blah. It's a super inelegant solution when you have to reboot your computer every time you want to switch between gaming, and everything else - especially when that "everything else" can be done to one degree or another in Windows, and if you spend all your time in Windows, why not just have a PC? The alternative would be virtual machines, but I doubt that any of the Macs are powerful enough to be able to achieve convincing gaming quality while running in a VM with macOS running the whole time as well no matter how you change the VM priority settings! And if you do find a Mac powerful enough to do this, you'll likely spend so much money on it that you might as well have a dedicated Mac and a separate dedicated gaming PC and then you're back at square one.
  • Lol, look don't get me wrong. We're all getting ripped off with Apple products. It's not about the performance, it's about the build quality and the fact that a majority of laptops are built like complete garbage. If you enjoy using OS X, you enjoy using OS X. Anyone who want's to play games isn't going to buy an external GPU enclosure for their Mac, they're going to build a machine it's obvious.
  • Well, my point is simply Mac, as it stands presently, is a complete and utter non-player in the high end gaming space. Now look, I don't think it will ever dominate the space....like EVER. And as a multiplatform user who likes his DIY custom-built Windows 10 gaming PC WAAAAY better than his Mac Mini, I'm perfectly fine with Mac never dominating in this space. That's not what I'm after, not what I'm rooting for..... .......but I would like to at least see it become a player again. And if this external GPU thing bears any fruit at all, or if there's a future for modular Macs that can support internal GPUs, and if developers do anything with it, then that wish of mine could come true. Basically what this external GPU thing does is take us from absolutely dead zero chance of any hope whatsoever to the faintest glimmer of desperate long shot hope. I get it. It's nothing more than that. But it's still a change in the right direction, so it's a change that excites me. That's all.