School of Motion

How I Made My 2013 Mac Pro Relevant Again with eGPUs

  • By Andy Needham
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Thinking about switching from your old Mac Pro? Before you jump to the 'dark' side here's how to get the most out of your Mac Pro with eGPUs. 

As a professional artist and a user of Apple computers, I've become frustrated with Apple's glacial pace at releasing a new Mac Pro, and I'm not alone.

Many people, tired of waiting for Apple to deliver a pro desktop have switched to working on a PC so that they can use the latest hardware and I don't blame them.

So why have I hung on and not jumped ship?

Well, I've been using Macs for so long now, I'm very comfortable with macOS and use many apps that are only available on the Mac.

If I'm honest, I get Windows 10 is a vast improvement on previous iterations of the OS, but I haven't been wowed by it, and I still hear switchers groaning that they have regular issues with drivers and Windows updates (shudder)...

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Windows Updates.... :(

But once you're in the Motion Design App it doesn't matter, right?

I understand the argument that many make - "once you're using the app, it doesn't matter what platform you're on" - but I personally prefer the whole experience of macOS, and I find the Windows File Explorer really clunky with a bloated UI.

The 2013 Mac Pro... Are you Serious?

Yeah, as far as computers go, it's a bit old now, I know... for those that aren't aware, it's the cylindrical one... the, ahem... "Trash Can".

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Trash Can...

With that aside, I love the fact that it is a very portable computer; I have taken it with me to and from locations and would place it in my backpack and carry it from my studio to home if I needed to continue working, but still wanted to spend time with my family that evening.

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Hey there little buddy. Ready to go on an adventure?

The Obvious Problem with the 2013 Mac Pro

If you want to get into GPU rendering for 3D work, the most obvious problem with the 2013 Mac Pro is that it doesn't have an NVIDIA GPU and there is no option to add one. This sucks...

You can't just open the case and attach one because the computer isn't built that way. That's why people hold onto their "Cheese Grater" Mac Pros from 2012 and before because you could and still can upgrade the parts. For me that's what a "Pro" computer should be about; if I want the latest GPU, I want to have a machine capable of allowing me to open the side panel and install it.

As a side note, I did upgrade the RAM and processor on my 2013 Mac Pro, taking it from the base 4-Core model up to a non-standard 3.3GHz 8-Core processor with 64GB RAM - but that's another story for another article.


Are there any Solutions to the Mac Pro GPU Problems?

While the dual D700 AMD GPUs in my Mac Pro are great for apps such as Final Cut Pro X (which I use), the majority of the work I do revolves around 3D animation and so when it comes to getting that work out of the program you need to render it and rendering takes time. However, that's only half the battle; To get to that point you have to create materials and light the scene.

For 3D work, I use Maxon's CINEMA 4D and there are many options as far as render engines go while some of the most popular require an NVIDIA GPU. The benefits of using third party renderers like, Octane, Redshift or Cycles4D (to name but three) are that you have a Real-Time Preview which allows you to create and apply materials and light the scene while receiving real-time feedback because the GPU is doing all the heavy lifting. This makes your decision making fluid and allows your creativity to flow.

I wanted to incorporate these features into my 3D workflow and so I decided to build an eGPU.

What is an eGPU?

An eGPU is a graphics card that connects to your computer via an interface such as PCI-e to Thunderbolt.

Around October 2016, I was watching Michael Rigley's Learn Squared course and realised he was using Octane to render Cinema 4D scenes... but he was using a Mac! He explained he had an eGPU, so that was it. I decided to investigate how I could create a similar setup.

Plug and play... more like plug and pray!

I'm going to be honest, in the beginning it was a struggle. There were all kinds of hoops you needed to jump through and kexts to modify and the boxes that had a PCI-e to Thunderbolt 2 interface were too small to hold a full sized graphics card and were underpowered – we were hacking everything to make it work. You would plug in and pray that it worked and most of the time (for me at least) it didn't.

Then I found a community of likeminded people on eGPU.io - a forum dedicated to finding the best solution for implementing eGPUs.

There were other forums but it seemed like people there wanted to boast about finding solutions but never actually shared anything which was a shame and a waste of time.

I'm a firm believe in sharing knowledge and so I post both my success and failure on eGPU.io and hope that it helps people in a similar position.

So how do you build an eGPU that works on a Mac Pro?

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Inside the box...

In early 2017, I built my eGPUs using custom parts for my Mac pro. Here's my list:

Once I got one eGPU working, I thought, how about building a second? So, I built two practically identical boxes.

You can see the build process on my Instagram post.

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It's buildin' time!

I used a script to automate the whole process of modifying system files and the second box was actually up and running within 5 minutes of completing the build.

Do I still have to go through that whole process to setup an eGPU on a Mac Pro?

The short answer is, No.

So, it's easier to setup an eGPU on a Mac Pro!?

Yes, it is!

If you're still reading this and you're still interested in eGPUs then you're in luck. With the boxes available today, it's very simple to get up and running and thanks to the tireless efforts and help from the eGPU community it is now almost a case of plug and play.

I would recommend heading over to eGPU.io and joining the thriving community.

As a side note, since macOS 10.13.4, Apple supports AMD eGPUs natively so even they recognize the value an eGPU adds.

Since building my custom Thunderbolt 2 eGPU boxes, I decided to buy a couple of Akitio Node Thunderbolt 3 boxes using 2x1080Tis so that I could have a setup which worked with my MacBook Pro - can you imagine, a MacBook Pro with two 1080Tis?!

Most of the eGPU boxes you buy nowadays are Thunderbolt 3 but you can use Apples Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 Adapter to connect a modern eGPU box to a 2013 Mac Pro.

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Apple Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 Adapter

The Akitio Node is a pretty decent box, but I can tell you from experience that the power supply fan is quite noisy and with two boxes running, I wasn't feeling it.

I decided to make some modifications, so I swapped the power supply and the front fan while I was at it.

Now I have two Nodes that run pretty much silent unless under load and they were relatively simple changes to make, plus I quite enjoyed making the modifications.

Thanks goes once again to the awesome eGPU community for sharing knowledge on parts and the process. I managed to get everything from Amazon apart from a 2-Pin cable to connect the front fan to the controller board which came from eBay.

2013 Mac Pro eGPU Shopping List

Here’s the list of parts for those interested in using an eGPU on a 2013 Mac Pro:

  • Corsair SF Series SF600 SFX 600 W Fully Modular 80 Plus Gold Power Supply Unit (you could also use the 450W version)
  • Corsair CP-8920176 Premium Individually Sleeved PCIe Cables With Single Connectors, Red/Black 
  • Phobya ATX-bridging plug (24 Pin)
  • Noctua 120mm, 3 Speed Setting Anti-Stall Knobs Design SSO2 Bearing Case Cooling Fan NF-S12A FLX
  • 2-Pin Converter for Mobile Racks CB-YA-D2P (from eBay)
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Customized Akitio Node

A Few Tips for Getting Started with eGPUs

  1. Join the eGPU.io community and read up on the subject
  2. Purchase a box that is right for your system.
  3. Remember, eGPUs aren't simply for Mac, PC owners can use them too.
  4. Decide which graphics card is right for you. You might not want NVIDIA - you may want a more powerful AMD card. You have options - it depends on what you want to use the additional graphics power for.
  5. Always make a backup of your system drive. Failure to do this is simply asking for trouble.
  6. If you run into errors search the forums and the community will help you.
  7. If everything goes wrong and you're still in two minds as to PC or Mac, well, you have some PC parts now - certainly some of the more expensive ones - you have two options; sell them or build a PC.

Ready to Learn More About eGPUs in Motion Design?

We've done a few eGPU and GPUs  over the last few months if you're interested in learning more check out these awesome posts from the School of Motion community.