Blackmagic Design eGPU Pro Review

Blackmagic eGPU, the business end.

There’s a market for the Blackmagic Design eGPU Pro, but it’s very specific. Blackmagic Design has updated its external GPU device, replacing the Radeon Pro 580 with a Radeon RX Vega 56. This upgraded model carries the Pro moniker and a US$1199 sticker price, compared to the less expensive US$699 of the base model.

The Short Version

If you have a TB3 capable, entry level Mac (iMac, MBP, Mini), and you need a simple, quick solution for some real GPU power for editing and coloring in Resolve, Premiere or FCPX, then this is worth taking a look at. If you have an LG UltraFine 5K display and a desire to have the least number of cables and a beautiful, whisper-quiet hub on your desk, then even more reason. The Blackmagic eGPU Pro looks and sounds great in a client-facing environment.

If you are not in this situation or you’re trying to spend the least amount of money on an eGPU enclosure, then this is not the machine for you. Like I said, this is for a specific market.

An External GPU and a Hub of Many Ports

The eGPU Pro is, at its core, a graphics card shoved into a hub. It adds much needed speed and performance to an existing computer system. These units have been popular for the last few years because they can breathe performance life back into older machines, or ones that can’t swap out their graphics cards.

Until the last year or so, using one has required some hacking and fiddling to get it to play well in the OSX ecosystem. All that changed with the release of High Sierra. You still had to restart your machine to get it to detect an external GPU, but it was closer to plug and play.

With Mojave, this process is hot-swappable. You can plug-and-play at will, without losing the 45 seconds it take you to reboot. The other big innovation that makes an eGPU a reasonable piece of accelerant hardware is Thunderbolt 3. And this is the giant caveat: you need a Thunderbolt 3 capable machine. Really. While there are TB3 to TB2 adapters that will allow you to connect and use an eGPU, you’re cutting your bandwidth in half, which pretty much defeats the purpose of adding an external GPU.

The Blackmagic Design eGPU Pro is for machines that have Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) and a GPU that’s underpowered and can’t be upgraded. So we’re talking about Apple products. Specifically the entire starting line-up of MacBook Pros in 2016, iMacs starting in 2017, and Minis in 2018. If you have one of these machines with an Intel Graphics GPU, you’re the person who will benefit the most from an eGPU Pro. Especially if you are using that machine to edit and color grade compressed 4K video in Davinci Resolve, FCPX or Premiere.

The eGPU Pro fits so nicely into the Apple OSX ecosystem that it is the only external GPU you can buy directly from Apple. Plugging your entry level iMac, MBP or Mini into the eGPU Pro will mean playback will leap from 3-4 fps up to realtime while you stack on nodes. It’s the difference between ripping your hair out and getting work done. And it’s also a nice, attractive and quiet hub that will connect to a the very popular 5K UltraFine LG display at full resolution with a single USB-C cable. It’s the only eGPU that has Intel’s Titan Ridge Thunderbolt 3 controller which brings DisplayPort 1.4 support to all the TB3 ports.

And that’s also who this is for — the person that owns that 5K LG display and a Mini or MBP and wants to work smoothly in Resolve, FCPX or Premiere for serious creative work. It’s for the person that has a pretty great iMac from 2017 that they don’t want to replace yet but need some GPU heavy lifting. If you already have a machine that already has a discrete, higher-end GPU cruising along inside, the performance differences are much less noticeable.

What About Performance on a Pro Machine?

I tested the loaner unit from Blackmagic Design for about two weeks on my entry-level iMac Pro with a Radeon Pro Vega 56, and it provided a nice boost, but I really only noticed the difference when I was stacking a lot of nodes on to h.264 4K footage. My iMac Pro was suddenly a dual GPU set up. Which was cool, but in terms of actual performance, I saw about a 10-15% increase in render speeds and play, back but only on clips that had a multiple nodes and/or a lot of Noise Reduction applied.

This is a significant boost. But if you’re someone buying an iMacPro, you could just spend another 700 dollars for the Pro Vega 64X GPU,  or more RAM and processors.

Why Can’t I Upgrade the Card Inside?

Here is the big complaint that is leveled at the BMD eGPU Pro: unlike every other eGPU unit on the market, the Blackmagic Design eGPU Pro takes a very Apple-like design take — you can’t swap out the card inside. This renders the unit semi-disposable since GPU’s are a volatile commodity in the economy of computer system building. Today’s top-of-the-line “pro” GPU will become a slow-moving tugboat compared to the options available 18 months from now.

I think that this is largely true in fields like 3D animation and Machine Learning. And if you’re looking to build a system with lots of raw GPU processing power this is really the wrong thing to invest your limited resources in to. But that power user is not who this unit is aimed at. This is for accelerating Resolve on Mac hardware with USB C ports. I know, that’s a very specific market. I have no idea how many people that may be, but Blackmagic does a great job at creating relatively affordable, highly specific pieces of hardware for what I imagine are very niche markets. How many people need thousand dollar colorociter control surfaces?

But Why Is It 1200 dollars?

You can buy another eGPU enclosure and Radeon RX Vega 56 Pro for about half the cost of the BMD eGPU Pro. So why the premium price?

Because the person that is willing to pay that kind of money doesn’t have the time to fiddle around with shoving a GPU into a controller in a box, and troubleshooting anything that might go sideways. Blackmagic Design profiled, who I think, the perfect user for the eGPU: the team that did dailies for ROCKETMAN.

They already had a iMac 5K and needed some extra power to iterate looks, create different LUTs and knock out h264 dailies. A note, this article is about the base model, not the Pro, but the market is the same.

If you have already own a 2018 Mac mini that you want to set up as a dailies station. Or you have a newer MBP  and want a more powerful home system. For an additional 2500 bucks, you could add the eGPU Pro and an LG Ultrafine 5K display and be in business with a couple of USB-C cables and a visit to the Apple Store.

Are there less expensive options for external GPUs? Absolutely. But the eGPU Pro offers up a beautiful piece of hardware, quiet and cool, with the ease of plug-and-play without the hassle of wondering which piece of your puzzle isn’t working. 

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