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NVIDIA GeForce GTX 550 Ti Roundup: ASUS, EVGA, Gigabyte & MSI

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SKYMTL

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In our initial GTX 550 Ti review, we alluded to the fact that we would soon have a roundup live in order to better showcase the lay of the land in the retail market. Well, that’s exactly what we will be doing here with no fewer than four cards from four different board partners being featured.

When taken at face value, the reference GTX 550 Ti 1GB really isn’t anything to get too excited about even though it does bring forth some unique technologies which could very well filter down to many future NVIDIA cards. But the board partners set out to rectify this situation by releasing a long list of pre overclocked and altogether custom cards that push the GF116 in new directions. Some don’t even come with an associated price premium over the MSRP.


ASUS and EVGA get things started with cards from opposite ends of the spectrum. The ASUS Ultimate Edition is an unassuming card that is saddled with a drool-worthy core clock that’s in excess of 1Ghz but comes with a $20 price premium over the reference version. Meanwhile, EVGA’s GTX 550 FPB takes a bit more mundane approach with slightly increased clock speeds but doesn’t deviate from NVIDIA’s MSRP of $149.

Perennial competitors Gigabyte and MSI have both sent cards which feature similar pre-overclocked clock speeds along with custom designs and are only priced a few bucks over the reference price. It will likely be a race that’s too close to call between these two but from where we’re standing, it’s hard to imagine where either could go wrong.

Considering the clock speeds and feature sets these four cards come with, this roundup should give you a good cross section of the GTX 550 Ti product stack. All in all, it should be interesting to see how NVIDIA’s board partners have risen to the challenge of breathing life into a new GPU.

 
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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.
 

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ASUS GTX 550 Ti Ultimate / EVGA GTX 560 Ti FPB

ASUS GTX 550 Ti Ultimate



After a long hiatus, ASUS has finally seen fit to reintroduce their Ultimate series of graphics cards. Sporting some massive clock speeds but a slightly slimmed down accessory package without a mini HDMI to HDMI adaptor, this card is geared towards gamers who don’t need any superfluous accessories. However, it does come with a “hefty” price tag of $169.


ASUS has used their DirectCu heatsink on this card along with what they call Super Alloy Power which is supposed to ensure clean and effective power delivery to various onboard components. Basically, the components are upgraded over the reference card.


At around 8 ¾” in length, the Ultimate is slightly longer than the reference version’s 8 ¼” but since this card uses a PCI-E power connector that’s placed at a right angle to the PCB, it actually winds up taking the same amount of place once installed. Meanwhile, the backplate sports a unique layout and includes a full size HDMI output which is why no adaptor was included in the box.


EVGA GTX 550 Ti 1GB FPB



Last year, EVGA introduced the first of their FPB or Free Performance Boost branded graphics cards. These offered higher performance than the reference-based versions while retailing for not a penny more than the MSRP. This series has now been brought over into the budget friendly market by offering a reasonable clock speed bump on the GTX 550 Ti. The FPB also comes with EVGA’s 3 year standard warranty which can be upgraded to 5 or 10 year coverage for a nominal fee.


Like most other EVGA cards, this one adheres to NVIDIA’s reference design which means it’s equipped with a centrally mounted 80mm fan blowing down onto a standard aluminum heatsink. Naturally, EVGA applies their own brand stickers which actually look quite good in this case.


As we said, nothing here is any different from the reference design. There is still a 6-pin PCI-E header on the back of the card while output connectors consist of two DVIs and a single mini HDMI.
 

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Gigabyte GTX 550 Ti OC / MSI GTX 550 Ti Cyclone II OC

Gigabyte GTX 550 Ti 1GB OC



Gigabyte’s OC series of graphics cards has always played second fiddle to their SOC (Super Overclock) branded products but this doesn’t stop them from shining well in their own light. In the case of their GTX 550 Ti OC, the core clocks have been pushed beyond those of MSI and EVGA but the GDDR5 picks up a bit more leisurely pace.


Without a doubt, this card’s defining feature is the absolutely gargantuan 92 mm fan placed atop it. This Sikorsky-like propeller spins quite slowly while pushing cool air down onto a decidedly rudimentary heatsink design made up of aluminum fins. Gigabyte has also gone with a custom PCB and PWM design for their OC version which is keeping with the Ultra Durable VGA methodology behind many of their products.


The backplate is once again equipped with the standard layout of one mini HDMI output and a pair of dual link DVIs.


MSI GTX 550 Ti 1GB Cyclone II OC



Like other cards in this roundup, MSI has joined the game with their own unique take on a custom GTX 550 Ti. Along with upgraded components from the Military Class spec, they have also equipped this card with the next generation of their Cyclone heatsink. One of the more interesting aspects of this card is that MSI is asking for a mere $5 more over the reference design for it.


MSI’s card is distinguishable by its large Cyclone II heatsink which takes up a full two slots of height. While the PCB itself does feature upgraded components, it sticks to the reference length of about 8 ¼” which should make it adaptable to almost any enclosure.


The heatsink itself consists of a contact plate which is attached to a primary fin array as well as two large heatpipes. These heatpipes allow any excess heat to be moved away from the core to be dispersed by the secondary fin array. MSI has also incorporated an aluminum stiffener along the length of the PCB.


Like most of the other cards in this roundup, MSI has equipped their card with the stock output connectors which are hooked up to a custom designed backplate.
 

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)
ASUS GTX 550 Ti Ultimate
EVGA GTX 550 Ti FPB
Gigabyte GTX 550 Ti OC
MSI GTX 550 Ti Cyclone II OC


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

GTX 460 1GB (Ref)
GTX 460 1GB SE (Gigabyte / Custom Cooled)
GTX 460 768MB (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

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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

 
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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



 
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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



 
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SKYMTL

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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



 
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