By Twain Richardson
When I’m on set, I use my MacBook Pro to backup data and do quick edits, but it’s a laptop and lacks the power needed to handle RAW files in that environment. With Mac OS High Sierra, Apple introduced connecting eGPUs to Macs via Thunderbolt 3, but my big question was: “Will this work with a Thunderbolt 2 Mac?” Doing a bit of Google research, I couldn’t find any concrete evidence that told me it could work. So the best way to find out was to test it, but I knew I was jumping head-on into a situation that might not work.
For my test, I wanted to go with a fairly inexpensive graphics card and eGPU unit. Through my research, I found it very helpful that OWC offers a very complete list of GPU cards they have tested. That saved a lot of early guesswork, research and missteps. I ended up going with the OWC Mercury Helios FX and the AMD Radeon Pro WX7100.
My first impression of the Helios FX is that it is very light, which I did not expect. When I saw the heft of the fan included in the Helios FX, I was a little concerned that it would be noisy, but it really is whisper-quiet. The package comes with a Thunderbolt 3 cable, so you don’t have to go out and get one. Lastly, I needed a Thunderbolt-3-to-Thunderbolt-2 adapter. To play it safe, I went with the official Apple offering.
Installing the card was easy. I just removed the screws from the back of the unit. One thing I must commend OWC on is that you don’t need a screwdriver to remove the screws; you simply screw them out with your hands and remove the outer casing by sliding it backwards and up. The next step is to insert the card and fasten it in place, connecting the cable from the unit to the card. Replace the outer casing and you’re done.
Connecting the unit to my computer was simple as well. A message popped up that it detected an external GPU, and that I needed to log out to start using it. When logging back in I found a little icon that looked like a CPU in my menu bar, showing that I had the card connected.
Set-up and installation took almost no time, and once the case was closed the eGPU was really plug-and-play. It’s like having a desktop system you can take with you and use anywhere. It’s interesting to note that my MacBook Pro specs are a 2013 13-inch with 16GB RAM, Core i5 running Mac OS 10.13.3.
Now for the fun part: testing it in the real world. The two applications I use the most are Adobe Premiere Pro and Blackmagic Resolve, so that’s what I ran the test with.
Premiere doesn’t allow you to select the card, but using Metal as the renderer with a one-minute Sony A7sii UHD clip, exporting to 1080, the results are:
No GPU = 1920×1080/H.264 = 7 minutes, 17 seconds
With GPU = 1920×1080/H.264 = 3 minutes, 19 seconds
That’s fast. I was able to also open an old UHD timeline of a TV show I’ve edited with all effects unrendered, and it played back like butter.
Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve
Resolve gives you the option to select the card in your preferences.
Using the same one-minute Sony A7sii UHD Clip, exporting to 1080, the results are:
No GPU = 1920×1080/H.264 = 5 minutes, 25 seconds
With GPU = 1920×1080/H.264 = 35 seconds
Now that’s fast, wow.
With Apple opening up the OS to support external GPUs, they have acknowledged that the laptop is the go-to solution for most filmmakers and producers who want to begin working on their content on set as opposed to waiting until they get back to their workstation.
The external GPU gives you a fast, easy and surprisingly economic way of upgrading the performance of MacBook Pros like mine. While it does add another item you have to bring with you to begin work immediately, it is very light and probably as compact as it can be given it is supporting a power-hungry GPU that puts off considerable heat and needs the space and whisper-quiet, temperature-controlled fan to perform the fast data crunching.
Today’s laptops — both Mac and PC — have powerful enough CPUs to do most of the work quickly and easily, but when it comes to the data-intensive workflows you really need a GPU.
By adding OWC’s Helios FX with a GPU card, you really can boost the performance and capabilities of your system. It really does let you take your post workflow with you. It also saves a lot of time and frustration, and we all know that in this industry, time is money.
Twain Richardson is co-founder of Jamaica-based post house Frame of Reference. At FoR, he assumes the roles of chief executive officer, director of video editing, colorist and many others. Follow him on Twitter @forpostprod and Instagram @twainrichardson