Graphics Cards By Joshua Blagden | JB - Mac Help | JBlagden

Graphics Cards  By Joshua Blagden

Overview

Graphics cards are an important piece of computer hardware to know about. Essentially, a graphics card is the part of the computer which figures out how to display visual information. It will likely have: VGA, DVI, HDMI and possibly Displayport(refer to Video Output Interfaces). Admittedly, most people only use a computer for email, web browsing and watching videos,neither of  which requires a dedicated graphics card. However, dedicated graphics cards are useful for video editing, photo editing, video transcoding(i.e. copying DVDs) and playing games. A graphics card can even be useful for people who don’t play games or edit video. It can be useful for everyday things like email, photo editing and documents. In those cases, the graphics card is taking the GUI comptutational load from the processor, freeing it up for other things. This is especially true on Macs because OS X’s GUI and animations(i.e. spinning beach ball and bouncing icons) use OpenGL, which makes a graphics card useful even for someone who doesn’t do anything that necessitates one. Though, if you’re not going to use it for video editing or games, it won’t benefit a Mac user since most Macs don’t come with one and one can’t be added internally, they would have to spend roughly $200 on an enclosure/adapter which will accommodate one or they would have to build a cheap IBM Clone for roughly $300.  However, if you play games and or edit video, you will benefit greatly from a dedicated graphics card. By the way, when you’re looking at specifications, don’t worry about not being able to use DirectX. Even though graphics cards support, which is a Windows-only API, OS X Yosemite and later can use Metal, which performs the same function and is very similar to Vulkan. Vulkan shaders can be converted to Metal shaders with the help of MoltenVK and the rest of the Vulkan code will work perfectly without modification.


 Internal Graphics cards

Most Macs don’t use desktop graphics cards, and instead use mobile graphics cards, or integrated graphics in the case of the post-2012 Mac Mini, 21.1 inch iMac and the 13”/11 MacBooks(Pro,Air and 12”). At this point, most Macs don’t even have dedicated graphics cards. Also, only the pre-2013 Mac Pro’s can use desktop graphics cards internally. This is one of the reasons some people will say Macs aren’t good for gaming. However, this can be remedied with an external graphics card(AKA eGPU), which I’ll cover later.

The only problem with 13” and 11” MacBooks, Mac Mini’s and 21.5 inch iMacs is that they only have integrated graphics cards rather than dedicated ones. This can cause a deficiency in graphics performance, partially because integrated graphics cards do not have any RAM of their own and instead draw from the Mac’s RAM. Also, integrated graphics should not be used for gaming too often as they tend to get a bit worn out and the rest of the Mac slows down a bit, particularly from the temporary overclocking of the CPU(Intel TurboBoost). This is because integrated graphics are a part of the processor, which is fine for things like email and video playback, but are not very good for gaming or any graphics-intensive task such as video editing, photo editing and video trancoding(i.e. copying DVDs). 

Here’s a comparison between MSI’s GTX 650 OC(Overclocked) and Intel HD 3000 integrated graphics: http://www.game-debate.com/gpu/index.php?gid=1176&gid2=581&compare=geforce-gtx-650-msi-oc-1gb-vs-intel-hd-graphics-3000-mobile 

Here’s a more thorough comparison of graphics cards, both integrated(CPU-based) and dedicated: http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/gaming-graphics-card-review,3107-7.html 

It’s remarkable how different those two graphics cards are. That comparison shows the difference between laptop integrated graphics cards and desktop dedicated graphics cards.

Another thing to consider is compatibility. Most graphics cards are made for PC’s instead of Macs. This is understandable because the Mac Pro is the only Mac which can use desktop graphics cards internally(without an adapter). Also, the graphics cards which are made specifically for Macs are expensive, costing over $500. Many Mac users don’t know this, but you can use PC graphics cards in Macs. This is possible because the drivers are already in OS X. To have instant compatibility with the latest graphics cards, you only need to upgrade to the latest version of OS X, which you may have already done. To make use of CUDA in an Nvida graphics card, you will need to download the latest version of the CUDA drivers: http://www.nvidia.com/object/macosx-cuda-6.0.51-driver.html 

Also, Macs tend to have issues with PC graphics cards which contain more than 2 gigabytes of VRAM(Video Card RAM). Although, if your Mac is running Mac OS X  10.8.5 or later, the 2 gigabyte VRAM limitation no longer exists. That means that as long as your Mac is running OS X 10.8.5 or later, it can use PC graphics cards with more than two gigabytes of VRAM.

If you’re still doubtful about a PC graphics card working on a Mac, here’s an article about it on MacRumors: http://forums.macrumors.com/showthread.php?t=1440150

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External Graphics Card Solutions

Of course, you can’t just plug a graphics card into a laptop, because no graphics card has an interface such as ExpressCard or Thunderbolt built-in. There aren’t any graphics cards which can, on their own, be plugged into a laptop externally.

The way around that issue is an external graphics card enclosure/adapter. An external graphics card enclosure is basically a box that allows you to plug a desktop graphics card into a laptop.An external graphics card enclosure has a circuit board which has a PCIe slot on one side and on the other side in has a port which a laptop will have such as Thunderbolt, ExpressCard, or USB. MSI released one few years ago called the GUS(Graphics Upgrade Solution). The trouble with that one is that it used USB 2.0(480 mbps), which is too slow for the GUS’ purpose. Thunderbolt, on the other hand, makes connecting an external graphics card much more feasible (in terms of speed) as it has a transfer rate of 10 Gbps per channel(20 Gbps combined). The only problem is that there aren’t many Thunderbolt graphics card enclosures out there yet, and the ones which are capable of housing and powering a graphics card were expensive, costing upwards of $400 while still lacking the capability of hot-plugging. MSI was going to release their own solution, the GUS II. The GUS II would have been a nice and affordable solution even though it only supported graphics cards which consume 150 watts or less,which is fine for most graphics cards, including the GTX 650. They didn’t release it because they couldn’t get it to work on a Mac and Apple doesn’t want to support it, which is a problem because Mac users are pretty much the only people who would use such a device due to cost. So, MSI decided not to make the GUS II. 

The next option was the Silverstone T004, which Silverstone was hoping to release in Q1 of 2014, most likely to have it finished before CES(Consumer Electronics Show). The T004 supports graphics cards with power consumptions of up to 450 watts. Due to Intel’s strict prohibition to Thunderbolt external graphics card enclosures, the T004 will likely remain “vaporware”. Village Tronic’s Vidock will be an option as soon as they start selling their V2 to Thunderbolt adapter. They’ll be able to make a Thunderbolt graphics card enclosure because it doesn’t actually use Thunderbolt; it uses their own open-source standard called V2 and requires a Thunderbolt adapter. Village Tronic is going about it this way instead of using Thunderbolt directly because Intel forbids this use of Thunderbolt, and as result, won’t even give them the Thunderbolt Developer Kit. So, they have to get around this limitation by using V2, which is similar to ExpressCard and requires a Thunderbolt adapter.

Fortunately, there’s another option: the Akitio Thunder2. It has room for an ITX-size graphics card and it can provide up to 75 watts through its PCIe slot if you use a 120 watt power supply. It costs $220 and the power supply costs $20, but this is the best option out there. And if you want to use a bigger graphics card while still having a semi-portable unit, you can get a small PC case and mount the Akitio Thunder2’s circuit board, the graphics card and the power supply inside.

Which Graphics Card Would Use Externally?
 
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