Innovation

How to build an external GPU for 4K video editing, VR, and gaming

This step-by-step guide for Mac users, professional video editors, graphic designers, and gamers explains how to build a Thunderbolt-connected, budget-friendly, and powerful graphics processing unit.

"We depend on powerful machines every day, for work and play," said Dubai-based developer Ali Zahid. "But we really don't take the time to understand how computer guts work." Learning how the hardware inside computers work, he said, can help you transform a functional appliance into a powerhouse PC.

gpucase.jpg
An external GPU and power supply housed in a Thunderbolt case. | Image: Ali Zahid

Creative professionals often use Apple devices, and generally Mac users are happy customers. Even low-end Apple computers are loaded with speedy flash storage, efficient RAM chips, and great CPUs. Most consumers, editors, and casual gamers rarely notice the shortcomings of marginal visual performance associated with Mac. And for good reason. Integrated graphics can improve the performance of multi-core chip architecture.

gpumonitor.jpg
Image: Ali Zahid

The sacrifice is visual performance. Apple machines are woefully inadequate for professional video editing and gaming. Before innovations like USB 3 and Thunderbolt 2, Mac users were stuck with powerful machines, terrible graphics, and few options. Professional video editors grudgingly used PCs, and gamers laughed.

The future of computing is visual and depends on robust visual performance. Common, midrange Macs run video editing tools like Premiere, Final Cut, and Vegas, and older games like World of Warcraft from 30 to 60 frames per second (FPS). Low FPS is fine for cutting iPhone video, tweaking a snapshot, or playing casual games. 4K video and VR are unusable under 60 FPS and run optimally at 90 FPS. In the age of super high def video and mainstream games, low FPS is inadequate.

The solution is to hack your hardware with an external GPU. "Hacking hardware can be really intimidating," Zahid said in a recent email interview. "But it's also a lot of fun, and really empowering!"

READ: Five ways to future-proof your business PC purchases (Tech Pro Research story)

With some research and elbow grease, Mac and Windows PC users can dramatically improve the visual and graphic power of their machines on a reasonable budget. Thunderbolt 2 is a game-changer and allows peripheral devices like external GPUs to benchmark at blazing speed.

externalgpupower.jpg
Image: Ali Zahid

Fed up with perpetually slow video speed and laggy game performance, Zahid recently decided to improve his Mac's performance and build an external GPU. The end result—an infinitely upgradable box, smaller than a gaming console, that improved his graphic performance from 30 to 60 FPS—was worth the investment. "Building the eGPU saved my work productivity," he said, "and made games run smooth as butter."

Step 1: Back up.

Always back up everything. All the time. Really.

Step 2: Do your homework.

Building a GPU can be a relatively simple process, but you'll need to do plenty of research. Take stock of your current hardware rig. Make sure your machine is no more than 36 months old. Check your hardware for compatible ports (Thunderbolt, HDMI, USB), power restrictions, and other details. Search terms related to eGPUs and your particular machine. The process is fairly straightforward, but read the fine print before you get started.

Step 3: Run Boot Camp.

While your eGPU will likely run in OS X, many software tools and games require Windows. Fortunately, Apple's Boot Camp tool makes installing and running Windows on a Mac a fast and easy process. Before you get started, make sure that you have Windows 8.1 or 10 up to date and humming.

Step 4: Buy the hardware.

From NewEgg to Amazon, the web is rife with ecommerce sites that stock components needed to build the eGPU.

  • The graphic processing unit card.
    • For this project we used mid-range GTX 960 and 970 GPUs. These cards are great for most HD video editing tasks and run otherwise-unplayable games smoothly.
    • To push 4K video and high-performance games builders might want to consider the more expensive GTX 980 and Titan cards. While bigger cards might stick out the back of the case and require a PCIE extender cable, the Thunderbolt case eGPU setup is infinitely versatile and upgradeable.
    • For your card to fit the AKiTio case with the cover closed, we suggest using short double-wide cards, rather than traditional long cards.
  • A Thunderbolt 2 case.
    • The Thunderbolt 2 case is the housing component that connects your graphic card to your Mac at high enough speed. Some cards will fit the case, some cards will not. Almost any card will work with the case just fine. The cover is a bonus, but not at all necessary to run high-end cards.
    • The eGPU construction process also works great for both Mac and Windows-based PCs. We recommend the AKiTiO 2 because the device is optimized for Macs with Thunderbolt 2.
    • Windows PC users should consider the Razer Core, Alienware Graphics Amplifier, or MSI Shadow.
  • A power supply unit (PSU).
    • Lower-power cards like the GTX 960 can use the Dell 220W DA-2 AC Power Supply Adapter.
    • We recommend a more powerful GPU like the EVGA 500W Continuous Power unit, or SilverStone Technology 500W Gold Plus unit because these PSUs will work with more powerful graphic cards, should you decide to upgrade in the future.
    • A paperclip. Optional. You'll need a paperclip only if you opt for a more powerful PSU.

When you order your GPU, also purchase a PCIE 16x to 16x Powered Flexible Riser. Some cards may not need this inexpensive peripheral, but large cards may require the extender cable. Also make sure you have Thunderbolt cables compatible with your Mac, and with HDMI.

Step 5: Assemble your eGPU.

  • Carefully unpackage and place each component—the GPU, PSU, and Thunderbolt case—in a clean, well-lit space. Save your packaging in case you need to exchange or return an item. Always treat electronics delicately and use caution when handling the power unit.
  • Unscrew and remove the case cover and expose the housing.
  • Gently snap the GPU into the case slots. The GPU will be wrapped in several layers of protective packaging. Make sure to remove all wrapping and guards from the GPU.
  • Connect the PSU to the card. For most cards this will be a 6 or 8-pin connector.

Step 6: Install drivers.

NVIDIA makes a suite of GeForce drivers that streamline the installation and update process and optimize specific games and video editing apps. If you're using a non-NVIDIA GPU make sure you download graphic drivers from the manufacture website, and follow the instructions included with the device. When your PC drivers are updated, restart your machine.

Step 7: Fire up your new eGPU.

In order for your PC to properly run the GPU, Windows must identify the new device during the startup process. Plug in your card and power up your PSU at the same time about 10 seconds after you fire up the PC, just before the Windows logo displays. Windows will identify the device in the boot process and load it as an additional GPU.

powersupplu.jpg
Image: Ali Zahid

Project investment:

Time

  • Time spent researching: 3 hours.
  • Time spent building the unit: 1 hour.
  • Time spent formatting Windows on OS X and updating drivers: 2 hours.
  • Time spent troubleshooting: 2 hours.

Cost

  • GPU: 200 dollars.
  • Case: 220 dollars.
  • PSU: 30 dollars.

Total

  • 8 hours.
  • 550 dollars.
gpupowermac.jpg
Image: Ali Zahid

Hardware hacking can be challenging, and building the unit was not without a few hiccups. It's likely that you will encounter a few bugs and issues that require attention and troubleshooting. The most common problems with this eGPU rig seem to be human error, driver snags, and hardware incompatibility.

READ: Virtual reality in the enterprise: What you need to know (Tech Pro Research story)

"Don't rage quit!" when you encounter problems, Zahid said. "Take a breath and step away from the machine." He advised users examine the chain of wired components and double check each connection. Search the web for specific component numbers and error messages. Read forums and reach out to hardware hacker communities.

With a little gumption, vexing problems are reduced to small bumps on the road to a home-built, high-performance video editing and gaming rig. Zahid exclaimed, "Then it's game on!"

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Note: Images courtesy of Ali Zahid. Used with permission.

About Dan Patterson

Dan is a Senior Writer for TechRepublic. He covers cybersecurity and the intersection of technology, politics and government.

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