School of Motion

Go Faster: Using External Video Cards in After Effects

  • By Chris Salters
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Learn how adding an external video card to your laptop or desktop can help increase efficiency and render times in After Effects.

Imagine this scenario. You’re chugging away on a project and you can barely scrub through the juicy key frames you’ve meticulously laid on the timeline. Every mouse drag or pen slip feels like dragging a bowling ball through mud. Uphill. In the rain.

Your only option is to render, watch, tweak, render, watch, tweak, render… you get the idea.

Maybe you've been itching for a computer upgrade, but dropping a few Gs on a new machine doesn’t sit well with Rich Uncle Pennybags.

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No computer for you.

I’m here to tell you there’s another way: external video cards or eGPUs.

To be clear this is still going to cost you some scratch. However, It will be way less painful than buying a new computer though. There are other things you can try to do to help improve performance in After Effects before going this route, but adding an additional GPU is like throwing it into turbo mode.

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It's funny because he's a snail. sigh...

PC users, depending on their enclosure, can swap and add GPUs as much as they want. If you’re like a lot of folks and live in the world of Mac or work from a laptop though, it’s not so easy. That’s where external GPU enclosures come in. These bad boys let you add full or half-length graphics cards to your machine via Thunderbolt 2 or Thunderbolt 3.

So how exactly does an external graphics card make after Effects faster? Glad you asked. Modern GPUs have the ability to do certain types of calculations quicker than your computer’s CPU and can take away those tasks from the CPU, thus making the whole machine run better. That’s obviously an oversimplified explanation, but you can head here for more of a deep dive.

Now as mentioned in our post about graphics processing in After Effects, AE utilizes the computer's CPU and RAM to do a large amount of its processing. There are, however, many built-in effects that utilize GPU acceleration like blurs, all the way to immersive video effects (VR). Check out this list for all of After Effects' GPU accelerated effects.

If your current graphics card doesn't support Mercury GPU acceleration, it's time for an upgrade. Similarly, if you're thinking of adding Octane render to your Cinema 4D workflow, you'll need a CUDA enabled GPU to do so - more on CUDA in a bit. And last, but not least, whenever you dive into Premiere to dig around in footage, a robust GPU will help you scrub through 4K content like boss.

eGPU Enclosure Options

The world of eGPUs is ever-evolving and the guys at eGPU.io keep a sweet updated list comparing top eGPUs. A few players in the external GPU enclosure game include AKiTiO, with a few different flavors of enclosures. ASUS also has their XG-STATION-PRO or Sonnet Tech with the eGFX Breakaway Box. If you want a ready-to-roll package, there’s also the AORUS GTX 1080 Gaming Box, which comes with an embedded Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 graphics card.

The AORUS brings up an interesting point regarding the AKiTiO and ASUS offerings. Those enclosures do not come with graphics cards – you must purchase them separately. That does however give you a little flexibility in choosing the perfect card that is right for your situation and budget.

What Graphics Card is Right for you?

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You chose... poorly.

Budget is a big determining factor for most people. That aside, here’s what we’re interested in:

  • Form Factor – Does it fit in your chosen enclosure? Check the dimensions of the card versus the enclosure, but also make sure the connections match. Example: PCI doesn't work in a PCIe slot or the other way around.
  • Model Number – This goes without saying, but a newer model card will work better than an older one. Do a little research before pulling the trigger because the last thing you would want is to buy a new GPU right before a new model is released. You can either pony up for the newer model card when it’s available or save some dough on the model you’re currently interested in.
  • Memory I can’t emphasize how important memory size is. Gamers may disagree, but as an editor/animator/wannabe colorist and a native Texan, I can attest that bigger is better. Whatever you do, buy a card that has 4GB of VRAM as a minimum for video work.
  • Cuda Cores – Notice how brand didn’t appear in this short list? Here’s why: Until this point, you could make the argument that AMD and Nvidia are on par with each other’s offerings. Once you narrow down using this card in a creative app like After Effects, the game changes because Adobe makes use of CUDA cores. For some background, here’s a little insight into what a CUDA core is. CUDA cores equal better performance in Motion Design. Make sure you have them.

Recommended eGPU for Motion Design

So you don’t feel like going down the rabbit hole of eGPUs? Fair enough. Here’s our recommendation for the best overall eGPU that should work for either Mac or PC:

This eGPU setup utilizes Thunderbolt 3 and assumes you want performance while still being frugal and has easy installation. If you're on Thunderbolt 2 or 1, you can use this handy-dandy Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) to Thunderbolt 2 adapter for backwards compatibility.

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Time out. We need to talk...

eGPU Mac Compatibility...

Now a word of caution. Apple is working to make macOS more compatible with the growing list of eGPU devices. With the most recent release of macOS High Sierra, eGPUs are natively supported for Macs with Thunderbolt 3 ports - if you're using AMD GPUs.

If you have an older model Mac, like me, or you want to use an NVIDIA card, also like me, then you'll have to do a little more legwork. Luckily eGPU.io has some dedicated folks that are making this a little easier for everyone. Go here for a step-by-step install guide for eGPUs on later model Macs. They have great info for PC users as well.

So all of that to say… If you venture down the eGPU path, do some research on your specific setup first and then purchase from a vendor with a good return policy in the event that murphy’s law goes against your favor. Prior to installation, make sure you have a recent backup of your computer and thoroughly read and understand the instructions - unless your hobby happens to be software engineering...

Bitcoin Bonanza: The eGPU Buying Frenzy

I’m sure you’ve heard of the Bitcoin craze that we all wish we bought into about 10 years ago. Regrets aside, part of what makes cryptocurrencies work is complex math problems that help ensure anonymity. This process is called “mining”. GPUs are currently in short supply thanks to mining cryptocurrencies, which is causing their prices to jump.

Now go forth and render (faster).