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NVIDIA GeForce GTX 550 Ti 1GB Review

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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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For more results from ASUS, EVGA, Gigabyte & MSI cards, read our GTX 550 Ti Roundup


The last six months or so have been rife with “refreshed” GPU releases as both AMD and NVIDIA vied for market dominance. People who were in the market for a new graphics card were treated to a glut of mid to high end cards that hit literally every price point from $180 on up to $700 so there was definitely no lack of choice. However, those with a bit less liquid capital were left high and dry since the technology gracing the HD 6000 and NVIDIA 500 GPUs never did filter down to lower end cards. To this day, the sub-$150 market is cluttered with previous-generation cards in the form of the GTS 450 and GT 430 along with AMD’s own HD 5700, 5500 and 5400 series.

NVIDIA is now trying to apply the lessons learned with the previous GTX 500 cards into a card that hits a significantly lower price point than the $250 GTX 560 Ti. Dubbed the GTX 550 Ti, this new member in the GeForce family hits the $149 price point while incorporating some unique features like support for NVIDIA Surround which we aren’t used to seeing in a product with mass market appeal. This also happens to mark one of the few times we see the GTX moniker slapped onto a budget-friendly graphics card.

To many, the GTX 550 Ti will be considered the spiritual successor to the wildly successful GTS 450 1GB. This is only partially true since it isn’t meant to replace the GF106-based GTS 450 but rather act as bridge between two segments within NVIDIA’s current lineup. The “new” GF116 is supposed to offer significantly higher performance and boasts similar power consumption as the GTS 450 so successor or not, parallels between the two need to be drawn. This also means NVIDIA is gunning for AMD’s HD 5770; a card that’s been sitting pretty at $150 for as long as many can remember.

With the GTX 460 768MB retailing for $130 after rebates at many retailers and the 1GB version not too far off at $160, things look a bit tough for NVIDIA’s new kid on the block. Yet we have to remember that early spring usually marks the starting point of the crazy pre-summer game release schedule so if there was ever a time to cater to budget gamers, it’s now.

 
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SKYMTL

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GF106 to GF116; Another Revised Architecture

GF106 to GF116; Another Revised Architecture


Unlike past revised Fermi cores, NVIDIA really didn’t have to make too many changes to the GF106 architecture in order to bring its features in line with the rest of their product stack. Nonetheless, NVIDIA still decided to revise the GF116’s layout so more of the faster, higher leakage transistors were placed on the critical rendering paths instead of being used for periphery tasks. Meanwhile, the slower low leakage transistors were placed where speed wasn’t a primary concern.

Strategically distributing the transistors in this way allows for a small speed-up in overall rendering performance. More importantly it also means the fastest transistors will now be fully utilized instead of being used for non critical tasks and thus lowering overall performance per watt. In addition, some other not so insignificant tweaks were made.


The GF116 core looks very much like that of the GF106 but there are a number of noteworthy additions. The basic layout of four individual SMs bringing with them 192 CUDA cores 16 texture units and a quartet of all-important PolyMorph engines has remained unchanged from the GF106.

Meanwhile, NVIDIA has gone to work expanding other portions of the architecture. The GF106’s remaining ROP partition and 64-bit memory controller were enabled which brought along an additional 128KB of L2 cache. This means GF116-based products will have 24 ROPs, 384KB of L2 cache and a 192-bit memory interface.


With the addition of a 192-bit memory interface, NVIDIA was faced with a bit of a challenge. Usually, memory controllers and drivers are meant to function with balanced memory allotments. Take for example the GTX 560 Ti’s layout; it uses four 64-bit memory controllers each of which is paired up with two 128MB GDDR5 modules equaling 256MB per controller and 1GB when all of the modules are combined.

The above-mentioned formula led a version of the GTX 460 having a 192-bit memory interface along with 768MB of memory and the 8800 GS having a 192 / 384MB layout. NVIDIA wanted to avoid reducing the overall memory allotment from the GTS 450’s 1GB to 768MB on the GTX 550 Ti so they implemented an obvious yet innovative solution.

NVIDIA now has a way to allow for mixed memory allotments on a per-channel basis. Since the technology is proprietary and will presumably a closely guarded secret, they declined to discuss the specifics with us. What we do know is that two of the GTX 550 Ti’s memory controllers are populated with 256MB of memory (in two 128MB modules) while the other is paired up with 512MB of GDDR5. Presumably, there is some sort of load balancing going on behind the scenes which is facilitated by a slightly revised driver stack but we’re sure that some core changes were implemented as well.

In our opinion, this newfound ability to mix memory sizes is truly a game changer that could have a huge impact upon upcoming NVIDIA products.


With the refined process bringing the ability for increased clock speeds and the addition of an expanded memory interface, the GTX 550Ti performs above and beyond the GTS 450 which is likely why this new card isn’t going to replace its predecessor in NVIDIA’s lineup. The 192-bit interface in particular brings massively increased memory bandwidth (an area in which the GTS 450 was lacking) which could lead to some dramatic increases in games.
 

SKYMTL

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The GTX 550Ti’s Place in NVIDIA’s New Lineup

The GTX 550Ti’s Place in NVIDIA’s New Lineup



Before we get too far into this section, it should be mentioned that NVIDIA’s aim for the GTX 550 Ti 1GB isn’t to replace the GTS 450. Rather, the GF116-based card will occupy the all-important $150 price point which makes it highly appealing for OEMs and the retail channel alike.

Increasing performance over the GTS 450 while maintaining an optimal TDP was one of NVIDIA’s major goals for the GTX 550 Ti and it looks like they have accomplished this. 116W represents a mere 10W increase over its predecessor despite much higher clock speeds and a fully enabled core with an additional active memory controller and eight more ROPs. Memory bandwidth has also increased exponentially due to the 192-bit interface and is actually a step above what’s offered on the GTX 460 768MB.

Judging from the specifications and pricing structure of the newest card in NVIDIA’s lineup, it should be quite obvious that the GTX 550 Ti is aimed to take a chunk out of AMD’s HD 5770 market share. Up until now the HD 5770 has been sitting in a position which was largely uncontested since there just weren’t any GeForce products to compete with it. That’s about to change but the GTX 550’s impending release has already had a profound effect on the HD 5770 since AMD has finally seen fit to reduce its price to about $130 after rebates.


The only issue we see with NVIDIA’s approach is the GTX 460’s volatile pricing structure has made it available for under $150 if you look hard enough. Despite lower clock speeds, the GF104 core can simply overpower anything the GTX 550 Ti can offer. Even the rare yet underpowered GTX 460 SE (a card that seemed to be released in a desperate attempt to dump GF104 cores) holds an edge over the 550.

From our understanding there is still a huge amount of GTX 460 cards in the channel which may be preventing NVIDIA from releasing any products between the GTX 560 and GTX 550. This in effect leads to a yawning gap in the 500-series product stack which is currently of occupied by the three GF104-based cards. Hopefully as stocks of the older cores decrease, we will see NVIDIA releasing cut down GTX 560 products but until that time comes, there will be GeForce cards sitting at literally every conceivable step of the $150 to $200 staircase.
 

SKYMTL

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A Closer Look at the GTX 550 Ti

A Closer Look at the GTX 550 Ti




According to NVIDIA’s the GF116 core is pin for pin compatible with the GF106 so we will likely see many board partners using reference GTS 450 cards as the basis for the new GTX 550 Ti line of products.

From all outside appearances, the reference GTX 550 Ti design features the same layout as the GTS 450 with a full length shroud and a centrally located 80mm intake fan.


The heatsink’s shroud has a slight indent as it moves closer to the fan in order to allow for some air movement space if two of these cards are placed in SLI. Also, the heatsink itself is the same basic aluminum fin / copper core affair which has proven itself quite successful on past NVIDIA cards.


Due to the low power requirements of the GTX 550 Ti, it maintains a single 6-pin power connector as well as a fairly standard 3+1 phase PWM. Meanwhile, it only has a single SLI connector so two of these cards can work in SLI.


Output connectors are in line with what we have come to expect from this generation of NVIDIA cards. A pair of DVI outputs and a single mini HDMI connector are included but we can expect most board partners to ship a mini HDMI to HDMI adaptor with their cards.


Other than the PCB colour, there really aren’t that many physical differences between the GTS 450 and GTX 550 PCBs (both are 8 ¼” long) but the memory layout has been fundamentally changed. Instead of using an 8 x 128MB layout (or 512MB per controller), the GTX 550 Ti is designed to accept mixed memory allotments so it uses four 128MB modules and two 256MB GDDR5 ICs. This also eliminates the need for mounting modules on the back of the PCB.
 

SKYMTL

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Test System & Setup

Test System & Setup

Processor: Intel Core i7 920(ES) @ 4.0Ghz (Turbo Mode Enabled)
Memory: Corsair 3x2GB Dominator DDR3 1600Mhz
Motherboard: Gigabyte EX58-UD5
Cooling: CoolIT Boreas mTEC + Scythe Fan Controller (Off for Power Consumption tests)
Disk Drive: Pioneer DVD Writer
Hard Drive: Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB
Power Supply: Corsair HX1000W
Monitor: Samsung 305T 30” widescreen LCD
OS: Windows 7 Ultimate N x64 SP1


Graphics Cards:

GTX 550 Ti 1GB (EVGA, Flashed w/ref. BIOS)

HD 6850 1GB (Ref)
HD 5830 1GB (Ref)
HD 5770 1GB (Ref)

NVIDIA GTX 560 Ti 1GB (Ref)
GTX 460 1GB (Ref)
GTX 460 1GB SE (Gigabyte / Custom Cooled)
GTX 460 768MB (Ref)
GTS 450 1GB (Ref)


Drivers:

NVIDIA 267.59 (GTX 550 Ti)
NVIDIA 267.31 Beta
ATI 11.4 Preview + CAP 11.2 R4

Note: Even though AMD claims the “AMD Optimized Tessellation” feature in the 11.1a drivers has not yet been implemented, we have changed the setting to “Off” in order to ensure additional, untested optimizations are not enabled.


Applications Used:

3DMark 11
Aliens Versus Predator
Battlefield: Bad Company 2
DiRT 2
F1 2010
Just Cause 2
Lost Planet
Metro 2033
Unigine: Heaven


*Notes:

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT OUR BENCHMARKING PROCESS PLEASE SEE THIS ARTICLE

- All games tested have been patched to their latest version

- The OS has had all the latest hotfixes and updates installed

- All scores you see are the averages after 3 benchmark runs

All game-specific methodologies are explained above the graphs for each game

All IQ settings were adjusted in-game
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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3DMark 11 (DX11)

3DMark 11 (DX11)


3DMark 11 is the latest in a long line of synthetic benchmarking programs from the Futuremark Corporation. This is their first foray into the DX11 rendering field and the result is a program that incorporates all of the latest techniques into a stunning display of imagery. Tessellation, depth of field, HDR, OpenCL physics and many others are on display here. In the benchmarks below we have included the results (at default settings) for both the Performance and Extreme presets.


Performance Preset



Extreme Preset

 

SKYMTL

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Aliens Versus Predator (DX11)

Aliens Versus Predator (DX11)


When benchmarking Aliens Versus Predator, we played through the whole game in order to find a section which represents a “worst case” scenario. We finally decided to include “The Refinery” level which includes a large open space and several visual features that really tax a GPU. For this run-through, we start from within the first tunnel, make our way over the bridge on the right (blowing up several propane tanks in the process), head back over the bridge and finally climb the tower until the first run-in with an Alien. In total, the time spent is about four minutes per run. Framerates are recorded with FRAPS.


1680 x 1050





1920 x 1200



 

SKYMTL

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BattleField: Bad Company 2 (DX11)

BattleField: Bad Company 2 (DX11)


To benchmark BF: BC2 we used a five minute stretch of gameplay starting from the second checkpoint (after the helicopter takes off) of the second single player mission up until your battle with the tank commences. Framerates are recorded with FRAPS.


1680 x 1050





1920 x 1200



 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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DiRT 2 (DX11)

DiRT 2 (DX11)


Being one of the newest games on the market, DiRT 2 cuts an imposing figure in terms of image quality and effects fidelity. We find that to benchmark this game the in-game tool is by far the best option. However, due to small variances from one race to another, three benchmark runs are done instead of the normal two. It should also be mentioned that the demo version of the game was NOT used since after careful testing, the performance of the demo is not representative of the final product. DX11 was forced through the game’s config file. In addition, you will see that these scores do not line up with our older benchmarks at all. This is due to the fact that a patch was recently rolled out for the game which included performance optimizations in addition to new graphics options.


1680 x 1050





1920 x 1200



 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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12,857
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F1 2010 (DX11)

F1 2010 (DX11)



1680 x 1050





1920 x 1200



 
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