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Review: Blackmagic Design eGPU Pro

In this video review, Paul Schmutzler evaluates the ease of installation, usability, reliability, and performance gains of the Blackmagic eGPU Pro for Mac-based editors and colorists working with 4K video.

In this review we'll discuss my experience over the last few weeks with the Blackmagic eGPU Pro. What you're looking in the video review above is a very elegant all-metal enclosure, inside of which is an AMD Vega 56 card. On the back, you have all the ports that you would need, including of course power, the main one that you use to connect to the computer, which is the Thunderbolt 3, and two ports there. And you also get a whole USB hub inside of this as well. So you have four additional USB 3 ports. You get an HDMI port and a display port.

Depending on which Mac you have, this could be really helpful because you're going to use one Thunderbolt port on your computer, but you're going to get all of these additional ports added in. So there's more to it than just being a faster video card.

Use Cases

So who is this product intended for? Consider what Blackmagic is showing on their box. There are two pictures on each side. One side shows gaming, including VR gaming. The other side of the box shows color correction in DaVinci Resolve and then in Resolve as well.

A closer look at this box reveals what computers are being used with this. Most of them are MacBook laptops, but there is one iMac on here. I'm using the eGPU Pro on a 2019 iMac. I just got this iMac a few months ago, and it's fully loaded from Apple and has the Vega 48 card in it. And remember this one has a Vega 56. It has 64 gigs of RAM, the highest i9 processor, and everything else is loaded out in it. So I already had a pretty spiffy machine.

Connecting the eGPU

The process of connecting it is super easy. You just plug in the power, get your Thunderbolt 3 cable, plug it into the computer, and it should show up immediately. Now one thing I had to learn about this is it essentially sees it as a separate display-type device, so you have to disconnect it before you unplug it. Think of it like mounting a USB drive, you should always disconnect before you unplug the cable.

Now, I did have a couple times where I actually needed to disconnect it, and I went through the process of clicking on the top where the clock is on your MacOS. Telling it to disconnect, and then it takes a good 20 to 30 seconds, and all my applications completely crashed and the computer went to the Please Press a Button to Restart screen. This is the gray screen with the big power button in the background, this is like the blue screen of death for a Mac.

So I don't really know what caused that other than sometimes when I disconnected it, it caused that. Sometimes when I disconnected it, it did just fine. It took it off, and then I was able to unplug it and move on without any trouble. So, could be a software bug, could be on Apple's end, could be on Blackmagic's end, I don't really know. But, assuming you're using this all the time, you won't really need to disconnect it. 

The eGPU automatically powers on with the computer so you don't need to turn it off or unplug it when it's not in use.

Testing: Applying Filters to 4K Footage

Right now I have a great project that I'm working on. It's all 4K, so I started the editing in Resolve. I did the color correction in Resolve. And then I also used some really GPU-heavy effects on it as well, lots of blurs and special effects like that.

Depending on which version of MacOS you're on, if you open your Activity Monitor and go to the Window button at the top, you'll find that you can open a GPU monitor. It's a small black persistent window that'll stay overtop of every window on your screen, unless you minimize it. And it just gives you a black box with a bar graph that goes across over time that shows you how much your GPU or GPUs are being used.

When I didn't have this connected, it only showed me the Vega 48 that's in my machine. And it shows the blue bars going up or down depending on my activity. But when I plug this in, it actually splits it into two vertically so it shows two bars, one on top of each other, with the 48 on the top and the 56 on the bottom. And I can see how much of each GPU is being used no matter what I was doing. So I tried this by having it open and just going through my whole day leaving this window open and just keeping an eye on it.

What I saw was very interesting because most of the time, no matter what I was doing, both cards were used about the same levels. So the OS did a really good job of utilizing both cards evenly to not put too much stress on one over the other. Now the downside to that was I never felt like I was getting a huge boost out of either because the most I could get them to push was about 40% on screen according to the bars that I was looking at. Now that's not a lot, but that's not insignificant either, because if you figure I only had one card in there, it might use 80% of its power, which is going to be a lot more wattage, a lot more heat, and energy usage.

Maybe I'm saving a little money by using this or maybe it's about the same, because this is equaling out no matter what; it's just split over two different cards. So let's talk about performance. I did several encoding tests and also some GPU-heavy effects and some color correction both with and without the eGPU connected. I can tell you from my experience I saw virtually zero difference in performance.

Now some of that is perspective, because I can sit there and wait on a color correction and scrub back and forth and I can say, "Well, it looks like it's going faster and it's responding more quickly."

Encoding Tests

But then there are other things that don't lie: for example, waiting on an encode. So I used my 4K footage and I exported a 4K H.264 or H.265. I also down-res'd it to 1080p.

No matter what I did, every single encode was within one to two seconds of each other. And that's certainly within a margin of error depending on how you want to rank things. So maybe it's me, maybe my laboratory wasn't the greatest way to test this.

Either way, whether it really helped me or not, it was still fun to try and it was still neat to be able to find the GPU monitor that's found on the MacOS so that I could see actually how my GPU is being used, whether it was with both or just the built-in GPU.

But remember, the Pro version costs about $1,200. So that's a pretty expensive investment to get some performance gains. And unless you know that your GPU is what's causing your bog down on your machine and your workflow, I don't know that this is always going to be the best answer. But for those that need a portable machine like a laptop and they have the Thunderbolt 3 capability, the eGPU Pro might just give you some performance gains that'll really speed up your processes.