PowerColor Mini Pro eGPU Gaming Performance Review

INTRODUCTION

PowerColor’s Mini Pro eGPU is an RX 570 equipped external enclosure that uses Thunderbolt 3 to connect to devices such as laptops, Intel NUCs, and Apple computers. It’s supposed to be for those who have a system that doesn’t have powerful graphics, like laptops with just Intel’s iGPU or users with something like one of Nvidia’s MX GPUs. PowerColor is targeting a particular group of users with its Mini Pro, those who don’t want to sacrifice portability for performance.

eGPUs have been around for a while, but many companies such have PowerColor have entered the market recently thanks to the advent of Thunderbolt 3, which has made GPUs are more feasible than they were in the past. Can the Mini Pro live up to the expectation of powerful graphics on the go? Let’s find out.

PRODUCT OVERLOOK

The Mini Pro box contains a few things: the eGPU, a power brick, and a Thunderbolt 3 cable. Unlike Gigabyte’s Gaming Box eGPUs, which target a similar segment, Powercolor has opted to use a power brick (rated at 240 watts) instead of a PSU integrated into the chassis of the enclosure. This decision was made on the basis of noise, with PowerColor stating the power brick “efficiently reduces the noises comparing with standard PSU” and “by using external power adapter, you will be more comfortable when there is no heat from it.” The power brick actually uses a 6 pin PCIe connector to plug into the eGPU which I found interesting.

The chassis is very airy and open; it’s practically a giant mesh, which is good for cooling, though it doesn’t look especially premium, especially when you can clearly see the internal PCBs and wires. If you’re not into a minimalist approach to design, there’s a good chance you won’t be a fan of PowerColor’s direction. The IO is a little, well, little. It only has 2 USB 3.1 ports and a gigabit Ethernet port. By contrast, Gigabyte’s Gaming Box eGPUs have 4 USB 3.1 ports. To help with cooling, there is an additional fan mounted directly behind the eGPU.

The RX 570 inside is pretty basic, it has one fan, a TDP of 150 watts, 8 GB of GDDR5 (which is unusual for the 570), and a boost clock of up to 1244 MHz which it maintains rather well. On the back of the card we have two DP outputs, two HDMI outputs, and one DVI output, which is very nice. PowerColor says you should be able to upgrade your GPU if you would ever want to, provided that it can fit inside, which many single fan cards probably will be able to.

Currently the Mini Pro retails for about $500 (if you can find one, that is), meaning you’re effectively paying $350-$400 for everything else other than the RX 570, which retails around the $100-150 range currently. By contrast, the competing Gigabyte Gaming Box with an RX 580 is currently retailing for $420. Though I don’t have a Gaming Box to test against the Mini Pro, I think that if you can get a similar eGPU for cheaper, then the Mini Pro needs to be impressive.

TEST METHODOLOGY

To test the Mini Pro, I used two systems: a HP Spectre x360 equipped with the Kaby Lake G based i7-8705G and a desktop test bench running a Ryzen 7 2700 locked to 4.1 GHz. The laptop system was connected to the eGPU via Thunderbolt 3 and I simply removed the RX 570 from the enclosure and put it in the Ryzen based system. This way I can test for any performance degradation that the eGPU might inflict on the RX 570. I tested just three games (for reasons I will explain later): the Witcher 3, Civilization VI: Gathering Storm, and Rocket League.

The specifications of the HP Spectre are as follows:

HP Spectre x360
CPUi7-8705G
RAM16 GB of DDR4 2400 MHZ
Storage256 GB Samsung SSD (OS), 1 TB external MX500 SSD
DriversRadeon 19.5.2

The specifications of the Ryzen test bench are as follows:

Ryzen Test System
CPURyzen 7 2700 at 4.1 GHz
RAM16 GB of DDR4 CL14 3200 MHz
Storage250 GB Samsung 970 EVO (OS), 250 GB Samsung 850 EVO, 1 TB BX500
MotherboardASRock X470 Taichi
DriversRadeon 19.4.2

You may notice the RX 570 was tested on older drivers in the Ryzen system. I will explain why later, but it won’t affect performance at all, or at least not by a noticeable amount.

BENCHMARKS

All of these titles were tested at 1080p, the standard resolution for the RX 570 and I selected settings appropriate for the framerates we want, which is at least 60, because many non-gaming laptops only have a 60 Hz display. You could use an external display, and theoretically that would also improve performance, though in practice I didn’t notice any improvement in performance and thus did not test external displays.

First, our most graphically intensive title, Witcher 3.

As we can see, the Mini Pro is borderline unplayable in Novigrad, and I tested this scene over and over and over again to make sure these numbers were right. This is by far the worst the Mini Pro did in my testing. Strangely, at the beginning of the run, the Mini Pro does fine, averaging about 50-60 FPS, but as the run goes on, performance tanks to what you see. In fact, after entering Novigrad, performance everywhere decreases until you load a save or fast travel. The Velen run, for instance, would get performance similar to the Novigrad run if I walked over to Novigrad and left, despite Novigrad being quite far away in the Velen run.

Performance in Velen is better, but nothing great. This result puts the 570 about on par with the RX 560, a GPU with half the cores. Minimums are still pretty poor here, and that’s a trend that you will continue to see in the next two titles.

Rocket League is by far the best title the RX 570 did in, which is unfortunate since the performance is still rather poor. The average is actually fine, but the minimums are simply bad. You won’t notice the stuttering at a locked 60 FPS, but if you hook up a display with a higher refresh rate and unlocked FPS you will definitely see and feel all the hitches.

Finally, Civilization VI and the new Gathering Storm expansion. This was run with the in built benchmark and using the inbuilt data collection which does not collect .1% lows. Either way, the Mini Pro causes the 570 to lose more than half of its performance here. At least the framerate is consistent, which is clearly not to be taken for granted with the Mini Pro.

Overall, performance is just bad compared to what the desktop performed like. If you have a low end Nvidia MX GPU or integrated graphics, then the Mini Pro can make sense, but it won’t be much faster than what you already have, and the minimums will probably be worse unless you want to lock the framerate and play at very low settings.

PORTABILITY

The power brick makes any chance of the eGPU being reasonably portable about 0. There’s a few reasons why this is: power delivery, size, and complexity. They’re all somewhat minor on their own, but together it makes it hard to recommend the Mini Pro as a small and portable enclosure.

Firstly, power delivery. This isn’t about the power delivered to the GPU, but to the laptop. I don’t have a way to measure the exact power the eGPU gives to the system, but it’s hardly any at all. Even while doing only somewhat intensive workloads like downloading Steam games, the Mini Pro was not able to charge my laptop, only prevent it from dying as quickly as it would have otherwise. You may be wondering how this affects portability, but since the Mini Pro can’t really charge your laptop, you need to bring along your laptop’s power brick as well. Two power bricks is one too many.

Second, size. The power brick is absolutely massive, probably bigger than the bricks that came with previous generation consoles like the Xbox 360. It’s about a third of the size of the entire eGPU enclosure and it’s about as heavy as it too. On its own it’s pretty much the opposite of portable. Adding another power brick to the mix doesn’t help.

Finally, complexity. Compare PowerColor’s solution to the Gigabyte Gaming Box. The Gaming Box has an integrated PSU and has just a standard plug for it (the kind that comes with your desktop PSUs and monitors). Sure, the Gaming Box is heavier because of the PSU inside, but it’s so simple. Even if you needed your laptop’s own power brick, you would only be carrying one around. By contrast, the Mini Pro requires you to carry two power bricks. The Mini Pro’s power brick is also completely non standard, unlike Gigabyte’s PSU which just requires a universal plug. You’re probably better off just buying a desktop style eGPU than the Mini Pro if your concern is portability.

NOISE

Noise is unfortunately not the Mini Pro’s strong suit. Simply put, it sounds like a jet engine in games. Even idling it is pretty loud thanks to the small, rear fan that is on all the time, probably at max speed judging by the noise. While gaming, the Mini Pro will ramp up to about 100% fan speed despite the GPU being at an extremely cool ~60 degrees Celsius. The fan could be far, far quieter if they just let the GPU get a little hotter. Even if they only let the 570 get to 70 degrees, it would be much quieter.

This makes PowerColor’s argument for the power brick utterly moot, because any noise created by a PSU (which aren’t really loud anyways) would be outclassed by the fans already inside the enclosure. A 240 watt PSU would be very easy to cool and it would also improve airflow within the eGPU since the PSU would come with its own fan, letting PowerColor keep the number of fans at 2 if they had integrated the PSU.

The noise problem is also compounded by the design of the enclosure: it is very open and most of it is covered in a sort of mesh design. This makes the travel of the noise of the fans to your ears very, very easy. The mesh design seems to have been created in order to lower temperatures so that the fans didn’t have to work as hard, but for some reason PowerColor decided to have the fans ramp up to 100% at temperatures barely higher than idle. MSI Afterburner has a tool to set your own fan curve, and if you get the Mini Pro I highly recommend you do so.

PRICE AND VALUE

Finally, price. It’s not low enough, simply put. It needs to be no more expensive than the Gigabyte Gaming Box with the RX 580, which currently sits at $420, and Gigabyte’s 1070 equipped Gaming Box which is also at $500. $500 is asking too much for this product, and I think $420 is also since a good desktop eGPU enclosure can retail for about $200 while the RX 570 retails for $100-150, for a total of $350 at most. I understand that portability is a feature that companies like PowerColor can charge for, but the premium is too high, especially considering it’s not really portable.

As it stands, the value of the Mini Pro is not very competitive, and even if you really wanted one it doesn’t seem like they’re easy to come by anyways. Considering that it’s also not very portable, I think a better investment would just be a desktop eGPU enclosure and a desktop GPU. Or perhaps Gigabyte’s Gaming Box if you still want something that could be decently portable.

DRIVERS AND SOFTWARE

I had to make a section for this, and unfortunately it’s not because I was impressed by the level of stability I found. To be clear, I don’t believe any of this is PowerColor’s fault, as PowerColor doesn’t handle the software side of things here. This is really a problem with either AMD’s drivers, Intel’s and Microsoft’s support for Thunderbolt 3 on Windows 10, or both.

Basically, the issues I had were massive: frequent BSODs, unresponsiveness, inability to use the USB ports on the enclosure, driver mishaps, and even extreme CPU throttling. All of these issues were resolved upon reinstalling Windows 10. Using DDU to remove drivers and reinstall them did nothing after a while and I rushed testing games on my current install of Windows in order not to run into any issues that may result in another reinstall being necessary. I was going to test other games and more scenes within the games I tested, but I quickly ran out of patience.

I believe at least some of these issues were caused by AMD’s drivers in relation to my Vega M GPU. Vega M drivers are provided by Intel, not AMD, and they come from a different branch than the mainstream drivers. Installing both at the same time could have really screwed up the system. I’m not sure if this would happen on a laptop with no AMD GPU, a laptop with an AMD GPU but that is mainstream, or a laptop with an Nvidia GPU. It definitely happens on Vega M equipped laptops (which are very rare anyways).

These issues could have been a Microsoft or Intel thing, sometimes unresponsiveness could only be solved by disconnecting the GPU, like if Steam wouldn’t open for instance. Driver issues are one thing, but I honestly can’t see how bad drivers could cause something like that to happen, as well as the many, many types of BSODs I experienced. Maybe my experience is very atypical, but it has left a bad taste in my mouth for eGPUs. To me, it’s apparent that the support isn’t as good as it could and should be.

CONCLUSION

Firstly, even if PowerColor had done a much better job with the Mini Pro’s design, even if it was perfect, I could not really recommend it. The current state of eGPUs is fundamentally flawed. The performance is terrible compared to desktops, the stability can be pretty horrible, and they’re just too expensive to be a good deal. Maybe the vendors could sell them for less, but I’m sure that the Thunderbolt 3 controller inside eGPU enclosures isn’t cheap, which drives up prices. The same controller also adds latency, which hinders gaming performance alongside the measly 4 PCIe 3.0 lanes.

I could only really recommend eGPUs as a whole to Apple users and gamers that don’t have anything stronger than an MX Nvidia GPU or Intel’s integrated graphics. eGPU support on Mac OS is apparently much better than it is on Windows, and it is the only realistic way to upgrade a Mac desktop. And, despite the performance degradation Thunderbolt 3 introduces, the Mini Pro is still far, far faster than Intel’s graphics or Nvidia’s low end solutions. But for anyone with anything as powerful as a GTX 1050, the Mini Pro isn’t worth your time or money.

That being said, the Mini Pro isn’t a very good product regardless. It’s loud, it’s expensive, it’s not very portable, and it doesn’t really look as premium as the price would suggest. Upgradeability is a nice bonus, but I don’t think Thunderbolt 3 has much life in it anyway. It could be good for Mac users, but that may be about it. I do not recommend the Mini Pro, but I do hope PowerColor can rethink it when USB 4 launches, a new interface which should enhance the state of eGPU support and performance. I see what PowerColor was going for, but the execution is in dire need of improvement. I love the idea of a highly portable and modular solution to mobile gaming, but this isn’t it thanks to the poor performance of Thunderbolt 3 and the Mini Pro’s many flaws.

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