Last week NVIDIA released drivers for its 10 series graphics card lineup to allow use on Mac OSX. Many Mac Pro users went out and bought NVIDIA’s highest end Titan XP GPU, but quickly realized that the new cards didn’t quite add up to their worth.
External enclosures that are needed to house and connect an external GPU to a machine like the Mac Pro use Thunderbolt 3 to transfer data between the GPU and the computer itself. The only problem is that the only Mac that currently has Thunderbolt 3 capabilities are the new MacBook Pros that were released early this year. Machines like the Mac Pro, iMac, and older MacBook Pros only have Thunderbolt 2 or maybe only Thunderbolt 1 if the machine is old enough. (You can check to see what version of Thunderbolt your device has on Apple’s Support Page.)
What does this mean? Well, if you are looking to buy an external NVIDIA graphics card to connect to a machine other than the current MacBook Pro, it might be worth it to wait. Thunderbolt 3 uses USB-C form factor and can transfer data at 40 Gb/s. When using Thunderbolt 3 for an external graphics card, users can pull about 90% of the card’s performance. Thunderbolt 2, however, can only transfer data at 20 Gb/s, only allowing users about 50-60% of the card’s total performance, based on how and what the card will be used for. Drivers, especially, for NVIDIA can be a challenge to get working, and even after a minor update to your version of macOS, problems with drivers and graphics performance can occur. AMD cards are supported natively by macOS as they are in the latest generation of Mac Book Pros, but they still encounter the same performance loss that NVIDIA cards do over Thunderbolt 2.
Now, that’s not to say the cards are a complete waste by any means. Users need to be aware that the card, especially over Thunderbolt 2, will NOT perform at their highest capability. An external graphics card does offer a large improvement of most of Apple’s internal graphics options. Uses that involve video work will have the most noticeable improvements. Gaming on a virtual machine or dual-booted version of Windows does have challenges, and for some users it hasn’t worked. Gaming continues to be challenging on macOS as there are very few AAA titles, and some users cannot get their machines to recognize their graphics card due to driver instability.
With a new modular Mac Pro and “server” grade iMacs on their way by the end of the year, if you can wait it might be worthwhile as it might save you some money and a headache. If you need a graphics card now, the more money you spend the more performance you will get. If you need the most powerful card, NVIDIA’s Titan X Pascal external graphics card is your choice. Our article on the Pascal based Titan X can be found here. Keep in mind that updates could cause instability and I would recommend not installing any updates unless your machine in having trouble or if the update involves a security fix. Nonetheless, Apple will need to make major improvements in its graphics department if it wants to keep its pro customers.