Blackmagic eGPU Review – Apple’s UltraFine Curse

Truong Nguyen Product Reviews

Introduction

If you’re a Macintosh user who owns a Thunderbolt 3 Mac and an LG UltraFine monitor, then you’re in luck. You’ve just been prequalified for the Blackmagic eGPU. This enclosure is neither for Windows users nor eGPU enthusiasts. If you fall into either of these camps, you can stop reading now and entertain yourself with a wide selection of external GPU solutions.

Apple partnered with Blackmagic Design to build just the eGPU a Mac user never thought they’d need. For US$699 you can now connect the magic of an external Radeon Pro 580 graphics card to power the UltraFine 5K monitor.

Hardware Specifics

Blackmagic Egpu Radeon Pro 580 Nmp Opened

Blackmagic eGPU inspired by Mac Pro trashcan

Specifications compare
Price US$
$699
PSU location-type
internal-custom
PSU max power400W
Power delivery (PD)
85W
USB-C controller
TI83
TB3 ControllerTitan Ridge
TB3 USB-C ports2
Size (in/mm, LxWxH)11.59 x 6.96 x 6.96
295 x 175 x 175
Weight (kg/lb)4.60/10.2
Updated firmware26.3 ✔
TB3 cable length (cm)50
Implementations
link

In attempting to pay homage to the Mac Pro trashcan, the Blackmagic eGPU ends up only disrespecting the iconic design. They look like they should work together; both are nonupgradable, over-engineered, cylindrical-shaped objects. Yet Apple blocked Thunderbolt 2 Macs like the trashcan from using external graphics.

The Blackmagic eGPU is a much better match with Alienware’s current design language. Case in point is the Alienware 15 R3. The angular edges, crossing pattern covers, and honeycomb grilles are too busy to pair well with a Mac computer. Perhaps these design cues were borrowed from sports cars to imply high performance. Well, let’s open the hood and see what’s inside.

Blackmagic Egpu Radeon Pro 580 Mac Pro Rx 580 Gaming Box

Blackmagic Egpu + Mac Pro + Rx 580 Gaming Box

Blackmagic Egpu Radeon Pro 580 Alienware 15 R3

Better match with Alienware 15 R3

Before I could get to the core component block, I needed to remove eight hidden Torx screws from the top and bottom of the enclosure. In total there are 61 screws and 29 components holding this eGFX together. The foundation of the Blackmagic eGPU enclosure starts with a clever L-shape metal frame that serves as the mounting plate for both the Thunderbolt 3 main board and power supply as well as the rear I/O shield. The main board is where all the magic happens. It’s essentially a Thunderbolt 3 PCB that was extended to include an on-board Radeon Pro 580 graphics card. Riding piggyback on the main board is the expansion daughter board that hosts four USB 3.1 gen 1 ports. On the opposing side of the L frame, Blackmagic Design mounted a custom power supply.

Blackmagic Egpu Radeon Pro 580 Component

Blackmagic eGPU Radeon Pro 580 Component Layout

To understand the origin story of the Blackmagic eGPU, we begin in late 2016 when Apple called it quits building monitors. They announced a partnership with LG to build a new lineup of Thunderbolt 3 high-resolution monitors known as UltraFine Display. The two models are 21″ 4K and 27″ 5K. They match the panel sizes and resolution of Apple’s iMac lineup. The 21″ 4K requires a USB-C monitor input, while the 27″ 5K needs Thunderbolt 3 monitor input. That seems appropriate considering Apple went all-in with USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports for the 2016 and newer MacBook Pro.

The LG UltraFine 5K is a demanding display with a sole Thunderbolt 3 monitor input. Problems arise when you want to use this monitor in conjunction with graphics-intensive tasks. The built-in graphics cards on Thunderbolt 3 MacBook Pros are not up to speed, creating the need for a more capable external graphics solution. Herein lies Apple’s UltraFine curse. No existing graphics cards have USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 monitor output. And so the Blackmagic eGPU was born.

To solve this conundrum, Apple and Intel made a rare exception to allow dual TB3 ports on the Blackmagic eGPU. Up until the release of this eGPU, no enclosure with more than one Thunderbolt 3 port was granted eGFX certification. The existing dual Thunderbolt 3 port enclosures are PCIe expansion solutions rather than eGPU solutions. Dual Thunderbolt 3 ports are a necessity so that the eGPU can accelerate the LG UltraFine Display directly. You need one TB3 port to connect the host Mac computer and another to connect the monitor. It gets more complicated than dual TB3 ports however, so we’ll look at the main board next.

Blackmagic Egpu Radeon Pro 580 Mainboard Rear Ports

Blackmagic Egpu HDMI & Thunderbolt 3 Ports

Blackmagic Egpu Radeon Pro 580 Gpu Thunderbolt Controller Traces

Radeon Pro 580 GPU die to Thunderbolt 3 Controller Traces

The Thunderbolt 3 main board contains two USB-C controllers [TI83]. The star of the show is the new Titan Ridge Thunderbolt 3 controller [Intel JHL7540]. The Blackmagic eGPU is the first eGFX to implement this new controller. Its primary advantage is to allow internal routing of DisplayPort signals from the on-board GPU through this controller for Thunderbolt 3 monitor output.

Blackmagic Egpu Radeon Pro 580 Jhl7540 Dual Ti83

JHL7540 (green) and Dual TI83 (orange) Controllers

Blackmagic Egpu Radeon Pro 580 Jhl7540 Titan Ridge Thunderbolt 3 Controller

Jhl7540 Titan Ridge Thunderbolt 3 Controller

Another benefit Titan Ridge provides over Alpine Ridge is for Thunderbolt 3 devices rather than hosts. TB3 devices with this new controller can dynamically communicate with Thunderbolt 3 as well as USB-C host computers. In a TB3 device «» TB3 host pairing, all features will be enabled, while a TB3 device «» USB-C host pairing is limited to basic functionalities. In eGFX application, Thunderbolt 3 connection has always been a prerequisite, so there’s no performance difference between Titan Ridge and Alpine Ridge. Other crucial components on the Blackmagic Design Thunderbolt 3 main board are two Texas Instrument TPS65983 USB-C controllers and the Winbond 25X20CL firmware EEPROM chipset.

Blackmagic Egpu Radeon Pro 580 Ti83 Usb C Controller

TI83 USB-C Controller

Blackmagic Egpu Radeon Pro 580 Winbond Firmware Chipset

Winbond Firmware EEPROM Chipset

The daughter board attaches to the main board via a tiny rectangular connector. It’s anchored in place with three screws to ensure no play during removal and insertion of USB peripherals. In proximity to the daughter board receptacle are a pair of 6-pin PCIe power plugs. These plugs feed power to the main board with the majority going to the graphics card. I also spotted two USB mini-B plugs. These are hidden from outside of the enclosure. They are likely there for service purposes.

Blackmagic Egpu Radeon Pro 580 Pcie Power Mini B Expansion Connector

PCIe Power, Mini-B, and Expansion Connectors

Blackmagic Egpu Radeon Pro 580 Usb 3 Expansion Board

USB 3.1 Expansion Board

The Radeon Pro 580 GPU itself takes up the majority of real estate on the main board. This is not the first eGFX to incorporate the GPU chip and Thunderbolt 3 controller on the same board. That distinction belongs to the Lenovo Thunderbolt 3 Graphics Dock. I spotted eight Samsung GDDR5 memory chips around the GPU die. The base clock is 1,200 MHz and memory clock is 1,693 MHz. These clock speeds are in line with AMD figures. Given the dedicated heatsink for the on-board ICs, there should not be an issue with cooling.

Blackmagic Egpu Tear Down Heatsink Mainboard

Heatsink and Radeon Pro 580 Main board

Blackmagic Egpu Radeon Pro 580 Gpu Chip Board

Radeon Pro 580 die and components

The cooling system is elaborate. It borrows the same thermal management concept of the Mac Pro trashcan, using a heatsink with massive surface fins and a large centrifugal fan. This semi-passive heat dissipation results in quiet operation most of the time. The copper heat pipes reminiscent of spider legs draw heat away from the GPU die to a nine-layer cooling fin array. This component takes up nearly half the internal volume of the enclosure. The cooling fan is measured at 160mm and mounted on top with rubber pins. This fan accelerates the convective flow by forcing the replacement of warm air at a quicker rate.

Blackmagic Egpu Radeon Pro 580 Gpu Cooler Bottom

Blackmagic eGPU Radeon Pro 580 GPU Cooler

Blackmagic Egpu Radeon Pro 580 Gpu Cooler Angle

GPU copper pipes and cooling fins

Blackmagic Egpu Radeon Pro 580 Power Logic 160mm Cooling Fan

Power Logic 160mm Cooling Fan

Last but not least is the custom power supply. The label shows it’s a Mean Well EPP-400-12 that’s capable of a max 400W output (12V≈33.3A). The components are placed neatly with plenty of room for airflow. It’s efficient enough to run without any cooling when limited to 250W output (12V≈20.8A). The PSU provides two 6-pin PCIe cables to power the main board. It’s interesting to note that the Radeon Pro 580 is rated for 150W. Combined with 85W Power Delivery and eGFX component overhead (approximately 30W), there’s some leftover juice for a higher-performing graphics card. I would bet Apple and Blackmagic Design are gauging interest on this first offering to decide whether a custom Vega option is in order.

Blackmagic Egpu Radeon Pro 580 Mean Well 400w Psu

Mean Well 400W Power Supply

Blackmagic Egpu Radeon Pro 580 Psu Label

Blackmagic eGPU PSU Label

Testings & Benchmarks

My 2016 15″ MacBook Pro is currently undergoing a warranty repair so I could not confirm 85W Power Delivery of the Blackmagic eGPU. When connecting to a 2018 13″ MacBook Pro, it pulls 60W as that’s all this laptop needs for charging. Thunderbolt tree in System Information shows firmware version 26.3. Interestingly the given birth name of this eGFX is “eGPU RX580.” This is an inconsistency found in the packaging and manual as well. Fortunately macOS identifies the eGPU correctly as “Radeon Pro 580.” In Windows, the eGPU shows up as “67DF:C0”. It seems the Blackmagic eGPU has a bit of an identity crisis.

Blackmagic Egpu Radeon Pro 580 2013 Mac Pro Thunderbolt
2018 13 Qc Macbook Pro Blackmagic Radeon Pro 580 Power

Apple partnered with Blackmagic so it’s a given this external graphics card is macOS-certified. As long as you have a Thunderbolt 3 Mac that runs 10.13.4 and newer, it’s plug-and-play in macOS. Apple officially blocked older Thunderbolt Macs, but our community has been providing evolving solutions to extend this external graphics feature to Thunderbolt 1 and Thunderbolt 2 Macs. My nMP trashcan paired with the Blackmagic eGPU once I ran Mac_editor‘s Purge-Wrangler script.

Also to keep in mind is the lack of software support for eGPU. At the moment OpenGL applications require an external monitor for rendering tasks with the eGPU. Metal and OpenCL may use the eGPU for computing tasks without an external monitor. It varies greatly based on whether the developers optimize their apps to take advantage of external and multiple GPUs. Blackmagic has done a great job with its DaVinci Resolve app to make the most of eGPU. Ironically Apple’s own video editing app, Final Cut Pro X, still has second thoughts about external graphics. Mac_editor discovered a solution that forces all applications to use the eGPU in macOS.

Blackmagic Egpu Radeon Pro 580 Nmp Tb3 Monitor Output

Blackmagic eGPU Radeon Pro 580 nMP TB3 Monitor Output

Blackmagic Egpu Radeon Pro 580 Vs Pcie Options

Blackmagic Egpu Radeon Pro 580 Vs Pcie Options

I never bought into the LG UltraFine Displays and wasn’t going to drop US$1,300 on the 27″ 5K to test Thunderbolt 3 monitor output. What I did instead is an indirect DisplayPort routing via the Mantiz Titan TB3 Dock. The monitor in use was an LG 4K FreeSync 27UD69P-W. I daisy-chained the Mantiz Titan to the second Thunderbolt 3 port of the Blackmagic eGPU, then connected a DisplayPort cable to the 4K monitor. Graphics/Displays tree confirmed the Blackmagic eGPU can provide Thunderbolt 3 monitor output with the Radeon Pro 580. Resolution output was as expected at 3840 x 2160 @ 60 Hz.

Blackmagic Egpu Mantiz Titan Nmp Daisy Chain Tb3 Output

Daisy Chaining Mantiz Titan Dock to Blackmagic eGPU

Blackmagic Egpu Mantiz Titan Nmp Tb3 Output Graphics Displays

Thunderbolt 3 Monitor Output to DisplayPort

Looking over the product page of the Blackmagic eGPU, it’s confusing who the target market is. In terms of gaming performance, the Radeon Pro 580 is similar to the specs of an RX 480 that was released over two years ago. For as much fawning media coverage as this enclosure has garnered, I’m underwhelmed. As far as computing performance for professional applications, I highly doubt BMD’s customers are not demanding at least a Vega 56 card. If you were to get an eGPU enclosure with a PCIe slot, you can go balls to the wall with the highest-performing GPU that fits your needs and budget. In the examples below, I paired an ASUS XG Station Pro to a STRIX GTX 1080 Ti graphics card. The other setup is a Sonnet Breakaway Box 650 paired with a Radeon Pro WX 9100 graphics card.

Blackmagic Egpu Radeon Pro 580 Vs Gtx 1080 Ti

Blackmagic eGPU Radeon Pro 580 Vs ASUS XG Station Pro GTX 1080 Ti

Blackmagic Egpu Radeon Pro 580 Vs Wx 9100

Blackmagic eGPU Radeon Pro 580 Vs Sonnet Breakaway Box WX 9100

In Windows, AMD drivers may refuse to install on this eGFX due to the graphics card not having a proper name. I got the Blackmagic eGPU working with a Razer Blade Stealth because the laptop already had Radeon drivers installed from previous Radeon eGPU testings. When I tried to update to the latest Adrenalin drivers, the installer failed because it could not identify AMD graphics hardware. BMD will likely need to work with AMD so that new drivers can detect this eGPU properly.

Blackmagic Design Egpu Radeon Pro 580 Amd Settings

Blackmagic Design Egpu Radeon Pro 580 Amd Settings

Blackmagic Design Egpu Radeon Pro 580 Windows Drivers Error

Blackmagic Design Egpu Radeon Pro 580 Windows Drivers Error

Boot Camp Windows mode may be possible with certain Macs. I have not been able to get a functional setup. When I tried pairing the Blackmagic eGPU with a 2018 13″ MacBook Pro, the external graphics card produced no display output through both the laptop’s internal display and external monitor. This was after full preparation in Windows 10 [1803] by using a Gigabyte RX 580 Gaming Box to install drivers and resolve error 12. At the moment, I’d take Apple’s and BMD’s word that they don’t support this eGPU in Boot Camp.

The expansion USB 3.1 gen 1 ports are a nice convenience to connect mouse, keyboard, and other peripherals. They share bandwidth with the external graphics card (22Gbps max). In order to get the best eGPU performance, it’s advisable to connect a high-bandwidth peripheral such as an external SSD through another port of the computer rather than via the external GPU enclosure. I connected the Blackmagic eGPU to the 2018 13″ MacBook Pro and ran CL!ng to measure the baseline bandwidth. In the second test, I attached an external solid state drive (Samsung T5) to the eGPU and ran Blackmagic Disk Speed Test concurrently with CL!ng.

Blackmagic Egpu 2018 13 In Qc Macbook Pro Cling Test

Blackmagic eGPU CL!ng without external SSD

Blackmagic Egpu 2018 13 In Qc Macbook Pro Cling Disk Speed Test

Blackmagic eGPU CL!ng with external SSD attached

RX 580 eGPU benchmarks have been done many times and we have numerous builds. I was interested to find out the performance differences between the Radeon Pro 580 [Blackmagic eGPU] versus the RX 580 [Zotac AMP Mini Box & Gigabyte Gaming Box], Vega 56 [Mantiz Venus] and GTX 1080 Ti [ASUS XG Station Pro]. RX 580 and Vega 56 results were done previously through my 2016 15″ MacBook Pro. The Blackmagic eGPU Radeon Pro 580 was benched with the Razer Blade Stealth because no other Windows computers I have would work with it. Mac in Boot Camp was almost impossible with this eGFX. The GTX 1080 Ti benchmarks were done on an Alienware 15 R3. Here are the results and retail cost of each setup.

Blackmagic eGPU vs other options

Conclusion

Apple is renewing their commitment to the pros, they said. Everything will be more pro, they said. All I see is a locked-in solution that further keeps Mac users under the UltraFine curse. Apple has increasingly tightened their grip on hardware repair and upgrade options, going against the fundamental purpose of external graphics solutions and the flexibility needs of professional users.

I tore down more than a dozen eGFXs to review in the past 18 months. The Blackmagic Design unit was the most challenging and clearly not meant to be upgraded or repaired. Luck would have it that I’ve also been without my 2016 15″ MacBook Pro for more than a week for a warranty top case replacement. The culprit? A single stuck W key. What happened to thoughtful design so we don’t have to waste time and money when one small component fails?

The Blackmagic eGPU achieves its goal of providing a singular solution to the problem Apple created. US$699 is overpriced when compared to other similarly performing solutions on the market, but it’s better than no choice at all if you have an UltraFine Display. Also noteworthy is that it’s the first eGPU with the Titan Ridge controller. Ultimately a non-upgradable, outdated graphics card is a huge disappointment and will be the undoing of this eGFX. Cursing consumers and using black magic, Apple’s storyline has become a dark fairy tale.