Tons of creatives work on laptops, the Achilles' heel of which is often the GPU. For anyone who wants to improve their performance without investing in an entirely new machine, an external GPU could be the answer.
Though I have a laptop, I actually do the majority of my work on a Mac Mini, which also suffers from the problem of a weak GPU. In fairness, it is actually a perfectly fine GPU for most work, but if you are someone who does intensive photo and video work, it can start to bog you down a bit. That being said, I love Mac Minis. I used my old model for eight years before I finally upgraded this year. It packs a lot of bang for the buck and allows you to use your own monitor, which I prefer. When I upgraded to the 2020 version this year, I got a 3.2GHz 6‑core 8th‑generation i7 (Turbo Boost up to 4.6GHz), 64 GB of 2,666 MHz DDR4 RAM, and a 1 TB SSD. However, you don't get a choice in graphics, so I was stuck with the Intel UHD Graphics 630, which can be a bit of a bottleneck performance-wise. This was first notable when I tried to run dual monitors with one of them at a non-integer scaled resolution, which caused a significant bog-down.
So, I started looking at eGPUs, as I knew they could cause a marked difference in working at scaled resolution and working in apps like Lightroom and Premiere Pro. I eventually settled on a Razer Core X and Sapphire Radeon PULSE RX 580, a middle-of-the-road card that doesn't break the budget or kill the value proposition of the Mac Mini, which together with the Razer Core X came to about $500.
Design and Setup
I won't talk about the look of the Radeon since well, it sits inside the housing, but the Razer Core X is an attractive device. At 14.3 pounds and 14.7 x 9.1 x 6.6 inches, it is no small device, meant to house large cards if needed. It features a black aluminium housing with plenty of ventilation. Beyond that, it's a very straightforward device, with a power connector and Thunderbolt 3 port for connection to a computer that can also deliver 100 W to a laptop. It supports a 3-slot wide, full-length GPU in its PCIe 3.0 x16 slot and supports it with a 650 W built-in power supply. You can swap out the preinstalled 120-millimeter fan if you so choose. It supports a wide range of GPUs from consumer-level cameras on to more powerful options like the AMD Radeon RX Vega 64.
Setup was very straightforward. The Core X has a simple locking mechanism, and all it took was dropped the card in, tightening a couple of thumbscrews, sliding the rack back in, locking the enclosure, and plugging it all in. Altogether, it took no more than five minutes. macOS picked it up automatically, and I was up and running with no additional effort. It would have been nice to have had some extra ports on the device, though if you upgrade to the Chroma model for another $100, you get four USB 3.1 ports, a Gigabit Ethernet port, and RGB lighting.
The Sapphire Radeon PULSE RX 580 I chose features 8 GB of GDDR5 memory in a dual-slot design at a base clock speed of 1,366 MHz. It features two DisplayPort 1.4 ports, two HDMI ports, and a single DVI-D port. It certainly isn't a powerhouse GPU, but it's a big upgrade over the integrated Intel graphics. But that was the point: I wanted a standard GPU that wouldn't totally negate the value proposition of the Mac Mini while still giving me a major performance boost.
Subjectively speaking, the performance boost was quite notable. Running one of my monitors at a non-integer scaled resolution went from a stuttering, slow affair to buttery smooth. Both Lightroom and Premiere Pro were far faster. This was particularly helpful in Lightroom, as it is well known that the program is not exactly efficient with resources, so if you are using the application, sometimes, your only option to improve performance is simply to throw more resources at it. The boosted performance made it much more enjoyable to use and put far less hiccups in my workflow.
If we are being a bit more objective, according to User Benchmark, you can expect a 700-900% increase in performance on lighting, shading, and n-body gravitational computation tasks over the UHD 630. Texture details receive about a 1,100% boost and 500% boost in reflection handling. Put in simpler terms, it's the equivalent of taking the popular game Counter-Strike Global Offensive from 35 fps to 146 fps at 1080p on max settings. That sort of four-fold increase is about what I experienced subjectively, and it was the difference between a stuttering, sometimes fragmented workflow, and smooth sailing that kept up with my demands. It made a huge difference in my enjoyment of the system and allowed me to push it by using two displays with multiple resource-intensive applications running simultaneously.
In practice, the eGPU worked without any hiccups in connectivity or issues of that sort. My only complaint about the Razer Core X is that the PSU fan is distractingly loud. I normally don't mind white noise; in fact, I welcome it. However, the PSU fan spins up for just a few seconds seemingly randomly even when the system is idling, and it is fairly loud when it does so, which makes it rather intrusive. That being said, you can replace the PSU fan with a quieter one fairly easily if it really drives you crazy.
What I Liked
- Extremely easy and straightforward setup
- Attractive design
- Huge performance gains relative to cost
What I Didn't Like
- PSU fan is quite noisy
In terms of performance gains and subjective experience versus price, investing in an eGPU has probably been the best decision I have ever made, particularly since it allowed me to stay with the very affordable Mac Mini line while still getting pro-level performance for both image and video editing. And the great part is that you can easily swap out cards if you feel the need to upgrade in the future. For those using a traditional CPU tower, an eGPU isn't something they'll ever worry about, but for anyone using a laptop (like many creatives do) or a desktop like the Mac Mini, it can give a significant performance boost for the sort of tasks photographers and videographers frequently engage in. You can get the Razer Core X here and the AMD Sapphire PULSE Radeon RX 580 here.