MANUFACTURER: Blackmagic Design
PRODUCT: Blackmagic eGPU
PRICE: $699, Blackmagic eGPU; $1,199, Blackmagic eGPU Pro
• 1x HDMI 2.0 port; 4x USB Type A ports; 2x Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports
• AMD Radeon Pro 580 GPU, 8GB video memory
• 85W of power
Last year, we got a surprising announcement from Blackmagic Design — that the company would be releasing an external graphics card, also known as an eGPU, and it would be co-designed and sold exclusively through Apple. It’s an interesting collaboration, and it could mean amazing things for creative professionals and content creators — or it could fall flat on its face instead. Let’s find out as I put the Blackmagic eGPU to the test.
The Blackmagic eGPU is a beautiful piece of design. Built from a single piece of aluminum and weighing almost 10 pounds, the unit has a sturdy yet elegant feel. The aluminum has a nice textured feel that makes it appear very high-end. This device would look right at home next to a space grey iMac or MacBook, especially with the white glow that’s emitted from the power LED on the bottom of the device. Unfortunately, the stand isn’t as pleasing on the eyes, but I wouldn’t call it ugly either.
On the front of the unit, Blackmagic continues its focus on minimalism, with no power button, no power/status light and no additional ports. It’s a design aesthetic that feels very similar to Apple, so you’ll either love it or hate it. While I do appreciate the modern design, it would have been nice to have an additional Thunderbolt 3 or USB port accessible on the front of the device.
On the rear of the device, there are a variety of ports to assist in connecting accessories: Two Thunderbolt 3 (TB3) ports, three USB 3.1 ports, and an HDMI 2.0 port. While the inclusion of USB-A ports is helpful, I’m disappointed to see only a single HDMI 2.0 port (which is limited to 4K DCI resolution) and no DisplayPort connections [Note: It’s important to mention that a DisplayPort connection is available on the Blackmagic eGPU Pro]. While Blackmagic’s higher-end eGPU Pro does offer a DisplayPort connection, I would have appreciated it on the eGPU as well. Though you can daisy-chain multiple eGPUs, Blackmagic advised that you cannot use the additional Thunderbolt 3 port on the device for that purpose. [Note: If users would like to use two Blackmagic eGPUs on one machine, you can put one eGPU on each Thunderbolt 3 bus. The additional Thunderbolt 3 port on the Blackmagic eGPU can be used to daisy chain Thunderbolt 3 storage, or a monitor up to 5K resolution.]
Unfortunately, the beautiful design comes with a pretty large caveat: You can’t upgrade the graphics card, unlike many other DIY eGPU solutions, such as the Razer Core X and Sonnet EFX series. [Note: According to the company, There are a few very important reasons why the AMD Radeon 580 (or the Vega 56 when referencing the Blackmagic eGPU Pro) isn’t replaceable in the Blackmagic eGPU. The design is optimized for quiet operation, so it’s better suited for creative customers, including those that work in post production and require a quiet setup. While most eGPUs run very hot, and very noisy, the Blackmagic eGPU (and eGPU Pro) run at consistently low noise levels and maintain very cool temperatures, even throughout a heavy day of usage.
If you’re using an eGPU, you most likely don’t have a machine room, all of your gear is right in front of you, on your desk, making noise. Additionally, high temperatures are counter productive for a GPU’s long term ability. The Blackmagic eGPU and eGPU Pro are designed to operate at maximum efficiency, noise levels and temperatures all of the time, with simple plug and play operation.]
EVALUATING THE HARDWARE
Inside its beautiful aluminum chassis, the Blackmagic eGPU houses an AMD Radeon Pro 580 GPU with 8GB of GDDR5 memory. It’s an interesting choice, as it provides more power than the built-in GPUs available in most laptops and some mid-range desktops (including the ATI Radeon 560X in my 2018 MacBook Pro, which was used for testing), but it’s still somewhat anemic when compared with higher-end offerings, like Nvidia’s RTXi or ATI’s Radeon Vega (which is used in the iMac Pro). While Blackmagic has already announced it will offer the much-faster ATI Vega 56 in its upcoming eGPU Pro, I can’t help feeling somewhat disappointed in the company’s choice of such a middle-range GPU to power what is otherwise a very premium product.
SOME TROUBLESHOOTING REQUIRED
After carefully unboxing the unit, I connected the device using the included .5m (1.5ft) cable and was greeted to that nice white glow from underneath the device, along with an additional notification on my MacOS menu bar. Once connected, I fired up Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve 15, Adobe Premiere CC 2018 and Apple Final Cut Pro X and performed some benchmark tests. Oddly, I got some very strange results, especially with Apple Final Cut Pro X. After manually configuring each application, I was able to get Adobe Premiere Pro and DaVinci Resolve working properly, but FCPX refused to fully utilize the eGPU. While it does officially support eGPUs, MacOS High Sierra (V.10.13) provides no method of selecting which GPU to utilize. However, additional testing showed similar issues with MacOS Mojave (V.10.14), despite a new option to select which GPU to use, so the issue appears to be FCPX-based rather than the specific MacOS version.
BENCHMARKING THE EGPU
For my benchmark testing, I used a 2018 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro with fairly standard specifications (2,6GHz Intel Core i7, 16GB RAM, 512GB SSD, ATI Radeon 560X with 8GB VRAM) running MacOS High Sierra V.10.13.x.
For testing within DaVinci Resolve 15.2, I created three 1080p timelines utilizing a variety of color controls and effects: Basic, Medium and Intense. I exported a H.264 using the YouTube 1080p preset and compared the results between the built-in GPU and the eGPU.
On the most basic tests (two nodes of simple color correction), I saw a negligible difference, but after adding more intensive effects (such as Spatial Noise Reduction), the eGPU quickly starts to illustrate its usefulness, improving the render time by over three minutes (159 percent faster). Continuing to add additional effects (such as Glow and Contrast Pop, along with some temporal noise reduction), the performance difference between the eGPU and my laptop’s built-in GPU is quite significant: A 16 minute improvement in render time (181 percent faster). If you use DaVinci Resolve for anything beyond the basics, it’s clear the eGPU provides some nice performance improvements. Beyond improving render times, the eGPU allowed me to work at realtime, 24fps when my Macbook’s built-in GPU was dropping frames left and right. Working at realtime allows you to stay in a creative mindset, so it can be a night and day difference for a creative professional.
For testing within Adobe Premiere Pro CC 2018, I used the same timeline as my Resolve tests but utilized Premiere’s built-in effects instead of Resolve. Since I saw little performance improvement after adding additional effects (as I did in DaVinci Resolve), I tweaked the benchmark test to focus on different resolution and export types.
Within Premiere, I saw improvements across the board when utilizing the eGPU. The basic test (a 1080p sequence exported using the YouTube 1080p H.264 preset) shows an improvement of over a minute (147 percent faster). Adjusting the export codec to HEVC H.265, the performance improvement grows slightly to 158 percent faster. The most stressful test (a UHD sequence exported using the Youtube 2160p preset) yielded a significant difference between the built-in GPU and the eGPU, completing the render over 11 minutes sooner (275 percent faster).
With Apple’s own nonlinear editor, Final Cut Pro X, I was unable to properly test the eGPU. Throughout testing, FCPX recognized and utilized the eGPU while working on the timeline, but refused to utilize it for exports. While this is somewhat helpful (as it assists with playback performance while editing), I consider it a dealbreaker, as it doesn’t even touch the eGPU for exports, even if you send it to Apple Compressor. For a product co-designed by Apple, it’s certainly disappointing. Hoping this improves with future versions of FCPX.
The Blackmagic eGPU is an interesting piece of hardware, but hard to recommend to all but a fairly specific market: Creative professionals who are operating primarily on Apple laptops and who require additional horsepower when not mobile. It looks right at home next to an iMac or MacBook, it runs cool and quiet, and improves performance in DaVinci Resolve and Adobe Premiere. But, is it worth the $699 price tag? If you’re in that specific market, it’s certainly worthy of your consideration.
Jason Bowdach is a colorist and finishing artist at Pixel Tools Post (pixeltoolspost.com) in Los Angeles.
BLACKMAGIC DESIGN STATEMENT
The Blackmagic eGPU was designed to address the needs of professional video editors, colorists and visual effects artists who need to remain mobile, but want the power of a desktop class GPU added to their MacBook Pro. It features a unique thermal cooling system that’s designed to perfectly balance the airflow and dissipate heat more efficiently. While the design does not allow for the graphics card to be replaced, it does so to enable an extremely quiet operation as low as 18dB, which is vital for those working in video production and audio engineering environments. While most eGPUs run very hot and noisily, the Blackmagic eGPU runs at consistently low noise levels and maintains very cool temperatures, even throughout a heavy day of usage. The Blackmagic eGPU is designed to operate at maximum efficiency, with the lowest noise levels and temperatures possible, with simple plug and play operation.
For users looking for a faster graphics processor, the Blackmagic eGPU Pro is available. Designed to accelerate creative software such as DaVinci Resolve, 3D games and VR, the Blackmagic eGPU Pro delivers nearly twice the performance of the original Blackmagic eGPU model and up to 22x faster performance than the built-in graphics on a 13-inch MacBook Pro. — Blackmagic Design