eGPU support on Mac is official and now we have it. Originally on July, I had written a review using Node on Sierra with the help of 3rd party scripts. Now with the official support on High Sierra, I figured it would be a good time to go back and discuss the experience as a whole. The question is, and always will be, where do we draw the line and say this a good Thunderbolt gadget.
On Apple’s side of the fence, macOS’ native support on eGPU is solid enough even on pro level. All it takes is to simply hook up the Thunderbolt PCI-E enclosure loaded with compatible graphics card: Radeon RX 580, or any Polaris (470/480/570) cards that are known. Vega is also in the picture, but no Nvidia. In the long run, I can only hope Apple will add more GPUs on to the list to counteract cryptocurrency-hyped price tags.
But all the fuss behind the cryptocurrency does not help to build Node’s case. What makes Node stands out in newly discovered Mac eGPU field is definitely the price tag, and it falls drastically short after that. With around $250, AKiTiO delivers highly customizable kit that could potentially be reworked to fit your needs. But an under-built steel box leaves a lot to be desired.
When I was installing the first GPU, RX 560, for testing, I realized the graphics card doesn’t slide in smoothly; so I literally hammered it in. Same can be said with the new GPU, RX 580, which was more than handful experience. I believe these to be low quality PCIe ports, much like the ones found on knockoff motherboards. It inherently lacks the satisfying ‘click’ sound when the card slides into the port like butter melting on the toasty bread. What’s worse, the enclosure is not designed to be tool-free. So all the civilized computer building experience from this new millennia doesn’t come as part of the package in Node.
What sticks out the most like a sore thumb on this enclosure is the way the manufacturer has rigged the air flow. There are total of 5 vents on this unit, on each sides and bottom; which means it will also need some clearances on all sides and hard floors to sit on. You can easily compare how ATX would fare much better in an office environment. Standard configuration for ATX usually comes with 2 intakes from front and left, 2 exhausts to rear and top. You can’t possibly place an extension box in the center of a table. With it, you can’t escape from the noises of cooling fans that happen to be taking undivided attention on the center of a workstation.
For what it’s worth, it is almost a necessity to upgrade both fans. What really triggered me was the 80mm PSU fan constantly running at high speed making exhausting purr sound. Not only it’s unbearable, it is isolated from the rest of the system for no apparent reason, making the sacrifice less attractive. There is enough space inside Node to create an intake vent. Flipping the power supply upside-down to create another vent is uncalled for. So is the 120mm exhaust fan on the front, which in my opinion, should have been at the back for maximum silence, just like any other computers. Although the fan makes less of a problem than PSU’s; close the source is bigger the nuisance it creates. The upgrade to more efficient and silent fans can’t be more constructive temptation.
If you happen to be interested in upgrading PSU entirely, you need to be aware of the fact that the board takes PCIe auxiliaries instead of regular 24 pins and that it takes the PSU backward. Again, it is hardly “user-friendly” or “mod-friendly” when a pseudo-motherboard will not cope with the popular specification. I can see the thought process behind the design; one type of power connectors for everything will cut cost, so redesign the board to take PCIe. But in the long run, especially when all the positivity toward the said product is angled at the customization, cutting corners will do no good, and did no good. At least we could give AKiTiO some credits for not trying to whip up a baseless specification for external PCIe enclosures. This is a problem for being a frontier in a newly discovered land, and it would have been easily remedied by including a simple adapter to fool power supplies or even an instruction on how to do so.
What is even more peculiar is the undeserved appreciation it gets from the community. Thanks to its standardized components, you can easily modify and customize its power and fans, or anything that occurs to your mind. It may sound incredible, and it is, because such promises will be short-lived by the fact that it will also void the warranty. Not only that, the manufacturer still does not guarantee the device works with macOS High Sierra nor with the Polaris graphics card, community has confirmed so far. Highly appraised customizability and community support discussed in some of the reviews only appear to be suspect, when only communication AKiTiO have been in was providing free review units to the eGPU community moderators and reviewers. If AKiTiO actually promoted customization, they should have listened and enlisted the help of the community, and provided detailed instructions on how to achieve them with the calculated design to do so. But at this point, it is largely inappropriate of me to discuss such things as a feature or to recommend it as a feature.
That being said, AKiTiO Node for $250 may not be a good bargain after all. Competitors like Sonnet cut quite close at $270 with smaller PSU, but more silent and ‘it just works’ approach. As an average user, this unit could interest you as a semi-PC building unit. But as a professional, this is a hassle nobody signed up for. Perhaps in the future we can expect more streamlined generation that will allow a pro user to upgrade whatever they want at the justifiable price point.
updated Dec 1, 2017: added info in regard to the power supply.