While they’ve existed before the most recent MacBook Pro, the surge of interest in external GPUs is largely thanks to the implementation of Thunderbolt 3 in the latest Mac hardware. As we’ve shown in a previous post, an eGPU can make a significant performance difference, turning an otherwise graphically pedestrian MacBook Pro into a competent gaming machine.
In our previous tutorial, we showed you how to wield an AMD RX 480 in macOS. While that solution yielded definite benefits, it was also hindered by difficulties caused by macOS itself.
It should come as no surprise that the setup process and support with Windows is, in some ways, quite a bit better than using an eGPU with macOS. That’s not to say that you should run out and buy a Windows laptop if you want to play the latest games requiring a more powerful GPU. Instead, you can utilize a Boot Camp installation, and turn your MacBook Pro into a 1080p gaming machine.
The now-available $249 Akitio Thunder3 is much smaller than the larger Akitio Node, so it takes up a smaller footprint on your desk. The setup also lets you tap into the power of the GPU right from your MacBook Pro’s built-in display, no external display required. Watch our full walkthrough, as we showcase this simple and compact eGPU solution on video.
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- Akitio Thunder3 PCIe expansion box
- EVGA Nvidia GTX 1050 Ti Superclocked
- Delta 120W AC Power Adapter Cord
- 2016 13-inch MacBook Pro with Four Thunderbolt 3 ports
Other hardware used:
- 6.6-foot Thunderbolt 3 cable
- Noctua 60-by-25mm cooling fan
- LG UltraFine 5K Display
- Hisense 50-inch 4K television with HDR
- Steam Controller
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About the Akitio Thunder3
Let me preface this by saying that if you wish to run the biggest and baddest Pascal graphics cards in an eGPU setup (GTX 1070, GTX 1080, etc.) you should look at other solutions like the Akitio Node, the Razer Core, etc. Those enclosures are specifically designed with graphics cards in mind.
The Akitio Thunder3 really wasn’t designed to house graphics cards. True, it’s a PCIe enclosure, but its small size and lack of power severely limits the type of cards that can be used inside it without making major physical hardware modifications.
Working around this limitation was part of the fun of engaging in this project. In the end, it allows for an eGPU solution that’s significantly smaller and more portable than other graphics enclosures.
The Akitio Thunder3 also has the advantage of having a second Thunderbolt 3 port, so you can use it in a daisy chain if you so desire.
You’ll need a small GPU
At 9-inches long, 3-inches wide, and a little over 5.5-inches tall, the Thunder3 is a tiny specimen when compared to the Akitio Node. In other words, it won’t come close to accommodating full sized GPUs without making physical modifications to the case itself.
I love the design of the Thunder3, so I couldn’t bring myself to make any type of major physical modification to the case. Instead, I opted for a graphics card that was small enough to fit comfortably inside the Thunder3. EVGA’s 5.7-inch GTX 1050 Ti fit the bill, and even features a little bit of room to spare once installed.
Obviously this card won’t come close to yielding results that the upper echelon of Nvidia’s Pascal lineup can produce, but, as you will see from the benchmarks, it’s still much better than using the MacBook Pro’s integrated Intel Iris 550 GPU. Unfortunately, I don’t have a 15-inch MacBook Pro with the Radeon Pro 460 to compare it with, but if you’re a 15-inch owner, you’d probably be better off going with something capable of producing more power.
Using a higher wattage power adapter
The power adapter that ships with the Akitio Thunder3 is adequate enough to power a typical PCIe card, but its included 60W power supply, which only feeds a measly 25W to the PCIe slot, isn’t beefy enough to provide the type of power required by a GPU.
This presents a few challenges. Not only are there no PCIe 6+2 pin adapters included inside of the case, but the Thunder3 doesn’t even supply enough power to the PCIe slot itself.
Due to the lack of PCI molex connectors, it’s a given that you’ll need to use a GPU that doesn’t have the extra power requirements, but you might be surprised to learn that the stock power adapter that ships with the unit doesn’t provide the full 75W of power to the PCIe slot.
The good news is that Akitio documents that its devices are capable of accepting up to 120W of power, it just doesn’t include an adapter in the box that can provide such power.
A quick visit to Amazon can quickly solve this issue. I was able to find an adapter — Delta’ 120W AC Power Adapter Cord — that provided the needed juice to power 75W max TDP cards like the GTX 1050 Ti via the PCIe slot.
Swapping the fan
Outside of the power and size limitations, the other major concerning part of using the Thunder3 was fan noise. I’m not sure why Akitio opted for the stock fan that it did, but it’s ridiculously loud. Before I could even think about using this as an eGPU solution, I knew that the stock fan had to go.
I’d considered just removing the fan altogether, but after testing it out, I decided it wasn’t a good idea. Even with a power-sipping card like the 1050 Ti, it still generated more heat than I was comfortable with.
The only other option was to replace the fan, and after some research I opted for Noctua’s low-noise 60mm fan. Fortunately Akitio designed the Thunder3 in such a way that the stock fan can be easily swapped out by simply removing the front panel and unscrewing a few screws.
I did have to reuse the stock fan’s connector, which involved cutting off the connector and splicing the red and black wires together with the cable on the new fan. This was necessary because the Noctua fan doesn’t come with the needed 2-pin connector for a direct attachment. But even with this modification, it took no more than 15 minutes.
Swapping out the fan made a huge difference in fan noise, and it’s something that I would say is an absolute necessity for anyone considering the Thunder3, even if not used exclusively as an eGPU.
Installing the GPU inside the Akitio Thunder3
Once the fan is swapped out, and a more powerful power adapter is acquired, it’s time to install the GPU inside of the enclosure. The Thunder3’s case is super-easy to remove thanks to the two thumb screws on the rear of the unit.
You’ll need to remove the thumb screws on the PCI slot covers, and remove the single cover that’s installed. Like most GPUs, the GTX 1050 Ti is a dual-width card that will occupy the full width of the enclosure.
Insert the GTX 1050 Ti inside of the PCIe slot, and tighten down the thumb screws to keep the card secure. Next, replace the case cover, and tighten the thumb screws on the rear.
Install Windows 10 using Boot Camp Assistant
We’ve already posted a full tutorial to show you how to install Windows 10 on your Mac, so you can follow that tutorial if you don’t already have Windows 10 installed on your MacBook. You can also watch the video walkthrough below:
Step 1: Once booted to Windows 10, power on the Akitio Thunder3 with the upgraded power adapter, and connect the Thunderbolt 3 cable from the Thunder3 to your MacBook Pro’s Thunderbolt 3 port.
Step 2: Open Device Manager via Start → Settings → Devices → Device Manager, and you should see a Microsoft Basic Display Adapter with an exclamation point next to it due to the lack of a driver. Windows will automatically update the driver and ask you to restart, but you’ll need to use the proper GeForce Drivers instead.
Step 3: Download and Run the GeForce Drivers, and click Yes on the User Account Control pop up. Click OK on the extraction path window to save the needed files to your computer.
Step 4: The Nvidia Graphics driver program will check system compatibility prior to presenting the software license agreement. Click Agree and Continue to progress to the next step.
Step 5: Choose the Express Installation and click Next. The Nvidia Installer app will prep the install and then proceed with the installation of the graphics driver. This will take a few minutes or so to complete. Upon completion click Restart Now to reboot your Mac.
Step 6: After rebooting, go back to Device Manager, and check under Display Adapters to make sure that the GPU is installed correctly with no error symbols.
Note: Even when connected to power, the Akitio Thunder3 will only power on when connected to the Thunderbolt 3 port on your computer. When you wish to connect the Akitio Thunder3, you’ll need to shut down, connect the Thunderbolt 3 cable, and boot into Windows. However, if you wish to disconnect, you can simply remove the Thunderbolt 3 cable without needing to shut down first.
Testing it out
You can now download benchmark tools like Heaven to test out your new eGPU setup. Of course, games should be at the top of the list as well. The great thing about this setup is that it’s flexible. You can opt to connect an external display via the DisplayPort 1.4 or HDMI 2.0 port found on the GPU, or you can go without it and game from your MacBook Pro’s built-in display. The choice is yours.
I especially enjoyed the fact that I could connect to my LG UltraFine 5K Display and play games using the GPU there. Unfortunately the MacBook Pro won’t drive the UltraFine Display in anything higher than DCI 4K when using Windows, but chances are you won’t be using this card to play in higher than 1080p resolution anyway.
If you really want to kick it up a notch, I recommend connecting your eGPU setup to a 4K television for a real console-like experience. Since the GTX 1050 Ti features HDMI 2.0, it works particularly well with television sets like my Hisense 50-inch 4K television with HDR. In the future, more games that support HDR will be made available, which will allow you to fully tap into the a capabilities of both the card and television set.
For older games, I could competently play in 4K. For example, I replayed Portal with max settings in 4K on both the LG UltraFine 5K Display, and my 4K television, and it was downright glorious.
I could also play games like Rocket League in 4K with max settings on my television, but the frame rate would hover around 30-37 FPS when using max settings. Still, it’s impressive that such a tiny setup can pull this off via Thunderbolt 3.
I wanted the full out experience, so I paired both a Playstation Dual Shock 4 controller to my MacBook along with a Steam Controller. The Steam Controller is great for customization and for mouse movement, and the Dual Shock 4 is just an all around good traditional controller for games that require more precise d-pad movements.
I benchmarked the Akitio Thunder3 + GTX 1050 Ti eGPU setup vs the integrated Intel Iris 550 graphics in my 2016 13-inch MacBook Pro. Here are the results when comparing the two:
The Heaven and Valley benchmarks were all set at 1080p, since I imagine that’s what most gamers will be striving for when using this card. All in all, the results weren’t exactly surprising. As you can see, the GTX 1050 Ti provides a significant boost to graphics performance when compared to the anemic Intel Iris 550 integrated graphics. Games in 1080p with max settings are pretty much unplayable on the 13-inch MacBook Pro when using the integrated GPU. Adding a graphics card via the Akitio Thunder3, even a small, power-conscious one like the GTX 1050 Ti, results in significantly better performance.
What’s great is that this performance increase can be enjoyed directly on your MacBook Pro’s display, and doesn’t require an external display. In most cases, you’ll experience a few frames per second less when not going out via the GPU’s HDMI or DisplayPort connector, but the difference isn’t that much.
The fact that there are no Pascal drivers available for macOS means that you’re strictly relegated to using this setup in Windows, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you’re primarily a gamer. This setup will also provide better performance when using Adobe CC apps on Windows.
But if you’re serious about gaming, you’d be better off going with something that can provide more power, such as the Akitio Node. The Akitio Node when paired with a GTX 1080 or 1070 can pack a potent punch, and we’ll be back to cover our tests with those cards in the future. Although this was more of a hobby project, the results do speak for themselves. The Akitio Thunder3, when paired with the right GPU and power supply, can provide competent 1080p gaming performance on a MacBook Pro.
The price of such a setup: around ~$475 in all, is a tall order for anyone who’s truly serious about gaming. After upgrading the power adapter and fan, you could get the Akitio Node and a GTX 1060 for close to the same price. Then, you’d have much more room in the enclosure for more beefy GPU upgrades in the future. Unfortunately, the Node is still backordered.
For a hobby project, I really like the Akitio Thunder3 + GTX 1050 Ti setup. It’s small, quiet, and only powers on when a Thunderbolt 3 connection is established. When paired with a Dual Shock 4 or Steam controller, it’s a quick way to turn my MacBook Pro into a Steam game console on a whim. It’s not something that I’d recommend that everyone run out and do, but I nonetheless enjoyed making it happen.
What do you think? Share your thoughts down below in the comments.