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Kickstarter project offers external graphics for MacBooks — but is this the best option?

Laptops have always traded performance for portability, particularly when it comes to GPUs — and Apple users have it worse than most. Apple laptops are generally quite competitive with their PC counterparts at equivalent prices. But PC users always have the option to buy a boutique system with a mobile GPU, while Apple customers are limited to either a $1,999 system with Intel’s Iris Pro and 128MB EDRAM cache or a $2,499 system with an AMD R9 M370X. Neither option is appealing at their respective price points if you care about GPU performance.

Now, a new Kickstarter project aims to bring additional flexibility to Macs via an external GPU chassis. We’ve seen this type of solution pop up before, both as a DIY solution and as a formal product from companies like Alienware and Razer. The team behind the Wolfe and its bigger brother, the Wolfe Pro, want to sell users either a GTX 950 or GTX 970 in an external enclosure and with all of the required engineering and assembly done for you (unless you buy the DIY kit). Both the Wolfe and Wolfe Pro come with a 220W PSU, three DisplayPort outputs, and one HDMI output.

Various online tutorials and guides make it clear that you can absolutely roll your own solution for Macs by buying a Thunderbolt chassis, appropriate hardware, and making some edits to your Mac’s default configuration. Since guaranteeing that various components will all play nice with your laptop is something of a guessing game, it makes sense to buy a third-party piece of equipment that takes care of this heavy lifting for you. Be advised, however, that since Apple doesn’t formally support solutions like this, future driver or OS updates could theoretically cause problems. AMD, Razer, and Intel recently collaborated to solve this problem on the PC side of the equation, but Mac support has never been officially implemented (at least not yet).

Right now, Wolfepack is offering the Wolfe (with a GTX 950) for $449, while the Wolfe Pro (GTX 970) is $599. That’s considerably better than the BizonBOX 2, a competitor solution that costs $798 for a GTX 960 and $948 for a GTX 970. Then again, this is Kickstarter, where delays abound and it’s anyone’s guess whether a project will actually come to fruition. Wolfepack’s focus on a concrete deliverable that’s already in-market means the company has a better chance of shipping what it promises, but Kickstarter is a deeply uncertain market.

The Wolfe and Wolfe Pro have already hit their funding targets, so there’s no need to contribute more. If you’re on the fence about this kind of solution it may be wise to wait and see what Apple does when it refreshes the MacBook Pro, as it’s expected to do later this year. While a desktop GPU will still offer better performance than most laptop parts, those of you already in the market for a laptop upgrade may find the difference is small enough not to want to bother with an external chassis. Waiting also gives potential backers a bit of a window to see how the project develops to avoid investing in something that may or may not ship.

One final note: Wolfepack notes that it is “working hard to bring you multi-GPU gaming.” This is never going to happen — and not because of any failure on the dev team’s part. Multi-GPU support requires far more bandwidth — both between the two graphics cards and between the GPUs and the host CPU. It’s not clear if Apple even supports multi-GPU configurations for gaming, and attempting to run two GPUs simultaneously across the limited bandwidth provided by Thunderbolt 2 or 3 would likely result in worse performance than running a single card (assuming you could make it work at all).

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