By Brady Betzel
Blackmagic’s eGPU is worth the $699 price tag. You can buy it from Apple’s website, where it is being sold exclusively for the time being. Wait? What? You wanted some actual evidence as to why you should buy the BMD eGPU?
Ok, here you go…
MacBook Pro With Intel i9
First, I want to go over the latest Apple MacBook Pro, which was released (or really just updated) this past July. With some controversial fanfare, the 2018 MacBook Pro can now be purchased with the blazingly fast Intel i9, 2.6GHz (Turbo Boost up to 4.3GHz) six-core processor. In addition, you can add up to 32GB of 2400MHz DDR4 onboard memory. The Radeon Pro 560x GPU with 4GB of GDDR5 memory and even a 4TB SSD storage drive. It has four Thunderbolt 3 ports and, for some reason, a headphone jack. Apple is also touting its improved butterfly keyboard switches as well as its True Tone display technology. If you want to read more about that glossy info head over to Apple’s site.
The 2018 MacBook Pro is a beast. I am a big advocate for the ability to upgrade and repair computers, so Apple’s venture to create what is essentially a leased computer ecosystem that needs to be upgraded every year or two usually puts a bad taste in my mouth.
However, the latest MacBook Pros are really amazing… and really expensive. The top-of-the-line MacBook Pro I was provided with for this review would cost $6,699! Yikes! If I was serious, I would purchase everything but the $2,000 upgrade from the 2TB SSD drive to the 4TB, and it would still cost $4,699. But I suppose that’s not a terrible price for such an intense processor (albeit not technically workstation-class).
Overall, the MacBook Pro is a workhorse that I put through its video editing and color correcting paces using three of the top four professional nonlinear editors: Adobe Premiere, Apple FCP X and Blackmagic’s Resolve 15 (the official release). More on those results in a bit, but for now, I’ll just say a few things: I love how light and thin it is. I don’t like how hot it can get. I love how fast it charges. I don’t like how fast it loses charge when doing things like transcoding or exporting clips. A 15-minute export can drain the battery over 40% while playing Spotify for eight hours will hardly drain the battery at all (maybe 20%).
Blackmagic’s eGPU with Radeon Pro 580 GPU
One of the more surprising releases from Blackmagic has been this eGPU offering. I would never have guessed they would have gone into this area, and certainly would never have guessed they would have gone with a Radeon card, but here we are.
Once you step back from the initial, “Why in the hell wouldn’t they let it be user-replaceable and also not brand dependent” shock, it actually makes sense. If you are Mac OS user, you probably can do a lot in terms of external GPU power already. When you buy a new iMac, iMac Pro or MacBook Pro, you are expecting it to work, full stop.
However, if you are a DIT or colorist that is more mobile than that sweet million-dollar color bay you dream of, you need more. This is where the BMD eGPU falls nicely into place. You plug it in and instantly see it populate in the menu bar. In addition, the eGPU acts as a dock with four USB 3 ports, two Thunderbolt 3 ports and an HDMI port. The MacBook Pro will charge off of the eGPU as well, which eliminates the need for your charger at your docking point.
On the go, the most decked out MacBook Pro can handle its own. So it’s no surprise that FCP X runs remarkably fast… faster than everything else. However, you have to be invested in an FCP X workflow and paradigm — and while I’m not there yet, maybe the future will prove me wrong. Recently, I saw someone on Twitter who developed an online collaboration workflow, so people are excited about it.
Anyway, many of the nonlinear editors I work with can also play on the MacBook Pro, even with 4K Red, ARRI and, especially, ProRes footage. Keep in mind though, with the 2K, 4K, or whatever K footage, you will need to set the debayer to around “half good” if you want a fluid timeline. Even with the 4GB Radeon 560x I couldn’t quite play realtime 4K footage without some sort of compromise in quality.
But with the Blackmagic eGPU, I significantly improved my playback capabilities — and not just in Resolve 15. I did try and plug the eGPU into a PC with Windows 10 I was reviewing at the same time and it was recognized, but I couldn’t get all the drivers sorted out. So it’s possible it will work in Windows, but I couldn’t get it there.
Before I get to the Resolve testing, I did some benchmarking. First I ran Cinebench R15 without the eGPU attached and got the following scores: OpenGL – 99.21fps, reference match 99.5%, CPU – 947cb, CPU (single core) 190cb and MP ratio of 5.00x. With the GPU attached: Open GL — 60.26fps, reference match 99.5%, CPU — 1057 cb, CPU (single core) 186cb and MP ratio of 5.69x. Then I ran Unigine’s Valley Benchmark 1.0 without the eGPU, which got 21.3fps and a score of 890 (minimum 12.4fps/maximum 36.2fps). With the eGPU it got 25.6fps and a score of 1073 (minimum 19.2 fps/max 37.1fps)
Resolve 15 Test
I based all of my tests on a similar (although not exact for the different editing applications) 10-minute timeline, 23.98fps, 3840×2160, 4K and 8K RAW Red footage (R3D files) and Alexa (.ari and ProRes444XQ) UHD footage, all with edit page resizes, simple color correction and intermittent sharpening and temporal noise reduction (three frames, better, medium, 10, 10 and 5).
Playback: Without the eGPU I couldn’t play 23.98fps, 4K Red R3D without being set to half-res. With the eGPU I could playback at full-res in realtime (this is what I was talking about in sentence one of this review). The ARRI footage would play at full res, but would go between 1fps and 7fps at full res. The 8K Red footage would play in realtime when set to quarter-res.
One of the most re-assuring things I noticed when watching my Activity Monitor’s GPU history readout was that Resolve uses both GPUs at once. Not all of the apps did.
Resolve 15 Export Tests
In the following tests, I disabled all cache or optimized media options, including Performance Mode.
Test 1: H.264 at 23.98fps, UHD, auto-quality, no frame reordering, force highest-quality debayer/resizes and encoding profile Main)
a. Without eGPU (Radeon Pro 560x): 22 minutes, 16 seconds
b. With BMD eGPU (Radeon Pro 580): 16 minutes and 21 seconds
Test 2: H.265 10-bit, 23.98/UHD, auto quality, no frame reordering, force highest-quality debayer/resizes)
a. Without eGPU: stopped rendering after 10 frames
b. With BMD eGPU: same result
Test 3: ProRes4444 at 23.98/UHD
a. Without eGPU: 27 min and 29 seconds
b. With BMD eGPU: 22 minutes and 57 seconds
Test 4:– Edit page cache – enabled Smart User Cache at ProResHQ
a. Without eGPU: 17 minutes and 28 seconds
b. With BMD eGPU: 12 minutes and 22 seconds
Adobe Premiere Pro v.12.1.2
I performed similar testing in Adobe Premiere Pro using a 10-minute timeline at 23.98fps, 3840×2160, 4K and 8K RAW Red footage (R3D files) and Alexa (DNxHR SQ 8-bit) UHD footage, all with Effect Control tab resizes and simple Lumetri color correction, including sharpening and intermittent denoise (16) under the HSL Secondary tab in Lumetri applied to shadows only.
In order to ensure your eGPU will be used inside of Adobe Premiere, you must use Metal as your encoder. To enable it go to File > Project Settings > General and change the renderer to Mercury Playback Engine GPU acceleration Metal — (OpenCL will only use the internal GPU for processing.)
Premiere did not handle the high-resolution media as aptly as Resolve had, but it did help a little. However, I really wanted to test the export power with the added eGPU horsepower. I almost always send my Premiere sequences to Adobe Media Encoder to do the processing, so that is where my exports were processed.
Adobe Media Encoder
Test 1: H.264 (No render used during exports: 23.98/UHD, 80Mb/s, software encoding doesn’t allow for profile setup)
a. Open CL with no eGPU: about 140 minutes (sorry had to chase the kids around and couldn’t watch this snail crawl)
b. Metal no eGPU: about 137 minutes (chased the kids around again, and couldn’t watch this snail crawl, either)
c. Open CL with eGPU: wont work, Metal only
d. Metal with eGPU: one hour
Test 2: H.265
a. Without eGPU: failed (interesting result)
b. With eGPU: 40 minutes
Test 3: ProRes4444
a. Without eGPU: three hours
b. With eGPU: one hour and 14 minutes
FCP X is an interesting editing app, and it is blazing fast at handling ProRes media. As I mentioned earlier, it hasn’t been in my world too much, but that isn’t because I don’t like it. It’s because professionally I haven’t run into it. I love the idea of roles, and would really love to see that playout in other NLEs. However, my results speak for themselves.
One caveat to using the eGPU in FCP X is that you must force it to work inside of the NLE. At first, I couldn’t get it to work. The Activity Monitor would show no activity on the eGPU. However, thanks to a Twitter post, James Wells (@9voltDC) sent me to this, which allows you to force FCP X to use the eGPU. It took a few tries but I did get it to work, and funny enough I saw times when all three GPUs were being used inside of FCP X, which was pretty good to see. This is one of those use-at-your-own risk things, but it worked for me and is pretty slick… if you are ok with using Terminal commands. This also allows you to force the eGPU onto other apps like Cinebench.
Anyways here are my results with the BMD eGPU exporting from FCP X:
Test 1: H.264
a. Without eGPU: eight minutes
b. With eGPU: eight minutes and 30 seconds
Test 2: H.265: Not an option
Test 3: ProRes4444
a. Without eGPU: nine minutes
b. With eGPU: six minutes and 30 seconds
In the end, the Blackmagic eGPU with Radeon Pro 580 GPU is a must buy if you use your MacBook Pro with Resolve 15. There are other options out there though, like the Razer Core v2 or the Akitio Node Pro.
From this review I can tell you that the Blackmagic eGPU is silent even when processing 8K Red RAW footage (even when the MacBook Pro fans are going at full speed), and it just works. Plug it in and you are running, no settings, no drivers, no cards to install… it just runs. And sometimes when I have three little boys running around my house, I just want that peace of mind and I want things to just work like the Blackmagic eGPU.
Brady Betzel is an Emmy-nominated online editor at Margarita Mix in Hollywood, working on Life Below Zero and Cutthroat Kitchen. You can email Brady at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @allbetzroff.