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ATI Radeon HD 4550 Budget DX10.1 GPU
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Date: Sep 30, 2008
Section:Graphics/Sound
Author: Marco Chiappetta
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Introduction and Specifications


AMD continues their procession of new ATI Radeons today, with a couple of new entry-level offerings targeted at users who would like to upgrade from underpowered IGPs. Like the Radeon HD 4670 that came before it, the new Radeon HD 4550 and HD 4350 being rolled out today are based on the same GPU architecture first introduced with the popular Radeon HD 4800 seriesThe Radeon HD 4550 and HD 4350 both offer support for DirectX 10.1, DisplayPort, AVIVO with the UVD 2 engine, and CrossFire, although they do not have CrossFire bridge connectors like AMD's higher-end offerings.  As such, these new entry-level cards sport virtually all of the same features as their more expensive, and more powerful, counterparts--they just don't perform on the same level.

We've got one of AMD's passively cooled Radeon HD 4550 cards in-house and plan to show you all what it's made of on the pages ahead. There's a half-height actively cooled version coming out as well, however, pictured below. Go ahead and take a gander at the teaser shots and specifications, we'll get down to business and see what the Radeon HD 4550 is really made of a little later.

 
AMD's ATI Radeon HD 4550 Cards

AMD ATI Radeon HD 4550
Specifications and Features

242 million transistors on 55nm fabrication process

PCI Express 2.0 x16 bus interface

GDDR3/DDR3/DDR2 memory interface (depending on model)

Microsoft DirectX 10.1 support

  • Shader Model 4.1
  • 32-bit floating point texture filtering
  • Indexed cube map arrays
  • Independent blend modes per render target
  • Pixel coverage sample masking
  • Read/write multi-sample surfaces with shaders
  • Gather4 texture fetching
Unified Superscalar Shader Architecture
  • 320 stream processing units
    • Dynamic load balancing and resource allocation for vertex, geometry, and pixel shaders
    • Common instruction set and texture unit access supported for all types of shaders
    • Dedicated branch execution units and texture address processors
  • 128-bit floating point precision for all operations
  • Command processor for reduced CPU overhead
  • Shader instruction and constant caches
  • Up to 128 texture fetches per clock cycle
  • Up to 128 textures per pixel
  • Fully associative multi-level texture cache design
  • DXTC and 3Dc+ texture compression
  • High resolution texture support (up to 8192 x 8192)
  • Fully associative texture Z/stencil cache designs
  • Double-sided hierarchical Z/stencil buffer
  • Early Z test and Fast Z Clear
  • Lossless Z & stencil compression (up to 128:1)
  • Lossless color compression (up to 8:1)
  • 8 render targets (MRTs) with anti-aliasing support
Dynamic Geometry Acceleration
  • Programmable tessellation unit
  • Accelerated geometry shader path for geometry amplification
  • Memory read/write cache for superior stream output performance
Anti-aliasing features
  • Multi-sample anti-aliasing (2, 4 or 8 samples per pixel)
  • Up to 24x Custom Filter Anti-Aliasing (CFAA) for superior quality
  • Adaptive super-sampling and multi-sampling
  • Gamma correct
  • Super AA (ATI CrossFireX configurations only)
  • All anti-aliasing features compatible with HDR rendering
Texture filtering features
  • 2x/4x/8x/16x high quality adaptive anisotropic filtering modes (up to 128 taps per pixel)
  • 128-bit floating point HDR texture filtering
  • sRGB filtering (gamma/degamma)
  • Percentage Closer Filtering (PCF)
  • Depth & stencil texture (DST) format support
  • Shared exponent HDR (RGBE 9:9:9:5) texture format support
OpenGL 2.0 support

ATI PowerPlay Technology
  • Advanced power management technology for optimal performance and power savings
  • Performance-on-Demand
    • Constantly monitors GPU activity, dynamically adjusting clocks and voltage based on user scenario
    • Clock and memory speed throttling
    • Voltage switching
    • Dynamic clock gating
  • Central thermal management – on-chip sensor monitors GPU temperature and triggers thermal actions as required
ATI Avivo HD Video and Display Platform
  • 2nd generation Unified Video Decoder (UVD 2)
    • Enabling hardware decode acceleration of H.264, VC-1 and MPEG-2
    • Dual stream playback (or Picture-in-picture)
  • Hardware MPEG-1, and DivX video decode acceleration
    • Motion compensation and IDCT
  • ATI Avivo Video Post Processor
    • Enhanced DVD up-conversion to HD
    • Color space conversion, Gamma Correction 
    • Chroma subsampling format conversion
    • Horizontal and vertical scaling
    • Advanced vector adaptive per-pixel de-interlacing
    • De-blocking, noise reduction filtering, Detail enhancement
    • Inverse telecine (2:2 and 3:2 pull-down correction)
    • Automatic dynamic contrast adjustment
    • Full score in HQV (SD) and HQV (HD) video quality benchmarks
  • Two independent display controllers
    • Drive two displays simultaneously with independent resolutions, refresh rates, color controls and video overlays for each display
    • Full 30-bit display processing
    • Programmable piecewise linear gamma correction, color correction, and color space conversion
    • Spatial/temporal dithering provides 30-bit color quality on 24-bit and 18-bit displays
    • High quality pre- and post-scaling engines, with underscan support for all display outputs
    • Content-adaptive de-flicker filtering for interlaced displays
    • Hardware cursor
  • Two integrated DVI display outputs
    • Primary supports 18-, 24-, and 30-bit digital displays at all resolutions up to 1920x1200 (single-link DVI) or 2560x1600 (dual-link DVI)
    • Secondary supports 18-, 24-, and 30-bit digital displays at all resolutions up to 1920x1200 (single-link DVI only)
    • Each includes a dual-link HDCP encoder with on-chip key storage for high resolution playback of protected content
  • Two integrated 400MHz 30-bit RAMDACs
    • Each supports analog displays connected by VGA at all resolutions up to 2048x1536
  • DisplayPort output support
    • Supports 24- and 30-bit displays at all resolutions up to 2560x1600
    • Integrated HD audio controller with up to 2 channel 48 kHz stereo or multi-channel (7.1) AC3 enabling a plug-and-play cable-less audio solution
  • HDMI output support
    • Supports all display resolutions up to 1920x1080
    • Integrated HD audio controller with up to 2 channel 48 kHz stereo or multi-channel (7.1) AC3 enabling a plug-and-play cable-less audio solution
  • Integrated AMD Xilleon HDTV encoder
    • Provides high quality analog TV output (component/S-video/composite)
    • Supports SDTV and HDTV resolutions
    • Underscan and overscan compensation
  • Seamless integration of pixel shaders with video in real time
  • VGA mode support on all display outputs

ATI CrossFireX Multi-GPU Technology

  • Scale up rendering performance and image quality with two GPUs
  • Integrated compositing engine

As the above list of specifications and features show, the new Radeon HD 4550 has essentially the exact same features as the higher-end cards in the Radeon HD 4800 series.  The Radeon HD 4550 offers DX10.1 and Shader Model 4.1 support.  These GPUs are manufactured on TSMC's 55nm process node and the cards support ATI's CrossFire multi-GPU technology.

Since we've covered essentially all of the shared features in our article featuring the Radeon HD 4800 and 4600 series cards before, we won't be going into them in depth again here.  However, we would recommend taking a look at a few recent articles to brush up on the tech, if you're so inclined.

Reading the articles above will lay the groundwork for the technology inherent to the cards we'll be showing you on the pages ahead.  Because the new Radeon HD 4550 shares the same core architecture as the cards in the Radeon HD 4800 series, with some elements pared down to reduce die size, they have basically the same feature set and capabilities, as we already mentioned earlier.

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Radeon HD 4550 Cards

The Radeon HD 4550 will initially be offered in two versions, a larger, passively cooled, 512MB version and a half-height, 256MB version with a small, active cooler.  The slide below has a quick breakdown of the HD 4550's main features and performance related specifications...



As you can see, ATI's reference specifications call for a 600MHz GPU clock with an 800MHz memory clock.  Max board power is only in the 20W range, so neither card requires a supplemental power connector.  What the slide above does not show you is that the Radeon HD 4550 GPU features 80 Stream Processors, 1/10 the number available in the Radeon HD 4850 / 4870. 


  

 
Passively Cooled, 512MB Raden HD 4550 with HDMI, DisplayPort, and DVI outputs

The Radeon HD 4550 we used for testing purposes was the passively cooled 512MB variant. As you can see, the board features an L-shaped PCB with a large, heatsink covering almost the entire front side of the card.  Samsung DDR3 memory is used on the card--note we did not say GDDR3.  One way of keeping costs down on the 4500 series is through the use of standard, more affordable DDR3 memory.

The outputs on the card consist of a single HDMI output, a DisplayPort output, and a dual-link DVI output.  Obviously, with 512MB of on-board RAM, a passive--hence totally silent--cooler, and integrated HDMI, this card should be well suited to HTPC applications.



As we have already mentioned, AMD is also introducing the Radeon HD 4350 today.  The HD 4350 is much like the 256MB Radeon HD 4550, but with lower-clocked DDR2 memory.  Although the lower clocked DDR2 memory results in lower peak memory bandwidth, it also results in a lower price.  The Radeon HD 4350 is expected to retail in the sub-$40 price range.

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Our Test Systems and 3DMark06

HOW WE CONFIGURED THE TEST SYSTEMS: We tested all of the graphics cards used in this article on either an Asus nForce 790i SLI Ultra based Striker II Extreme motherboard (NVIDIA GPUs) or an X48 based Asus P5E3 Premium (ATI GPUs) powered by a Core 2 Extreme QX6850 quad-core processor and 2GB of low-latency Corsair RAM. The first thing we did when configuring these test systems was enter their respective BIOSes and set all values to their "optimized" or "high performance" default settings. Then we manually configured the memory timings and disabled any integrated peripherals that wouldn't be put to use. The hard drive was then formatted, and Windows Vista Ultimate was installed. When the installation was complete we fully updated the OS, and installed the latest DX10 redist and various hotfixes, along with the necessary drivers and applications.

HotHardware's Test Systems
Intel and NVIDIA Powered


Hardware Used:
Core 2 Extreme QX6850 (3GHz)

Asus Striker II Extreme
(nForce 790i SLI Ultra chipset)

Asus P5E3 Premium
(X48 Express)

Radeon HD 4550
Radeon HD 4670
Radeon HD 3650
Radeon HD 3850
GeForce 9500 GT
GeForce 9500 GT 512MB DDR2
GeForce 8600 GTS
GeForce 9600 GT
GeForce 9600 GSO

2048MB Corsair DDR3-1333 C7
(2 X 1GB)

Integrated Audio
Integrated Network

Western Digital "Raptor" 74GB
(10,000RPM - SATA)


Relevant Software:

Windows Vista Ultimate SP1
DirectX June 2008 Redist

NVIDIA Forceware v177.92 / v177.39
ATI Catalyst v8.53

Benchmarks Used:
3DMark06 v1.0.2
3DMark Vantage v1.0.1
Unreal Tournament 3 v1.2*
Crysis v1.2*
Half Life 2: Episode 2*
Enemy Territory: Quake Wars*

* - Custom Benchmark

Futuremark 3DMark06
Synthetic DirectX Gaming


3DMark06

3DMark06 is a synthetic benchmark, designed to simulate DX9-class game titles. This version differs from the earlier 3Dmark05 in a number of ways, and includes not only Shader Model 2.0 tests, but Shader Model 3.0 and HDR tests as well. Some of the assets from 3DMark05 have been re-used, but the scenes are now rendered with much more geometric detail and the shader complexity is vastly increased. Max shader length in 3DMark05 was 96 instructions, while 3DMark06 ups that number to 512. 3DMark06 also employs much more lighting and there is extensive use of soft shadows. With 3DMark06, Futuremark has also updated how the final score is tabulated. In this latest version of the benchmark, SM 2.0 and HDR / SM3.0 tests are weighted and the CPU score is factored into the final tally as well.


3DMark06's default benchmark puts the new Radeon HD 4550 behind all of the other cards we tested here.  We should note, AMD is positioning the card against NVIDIA's GeForce 9400 GT, which we unfortunately did not have available for testing in time for this article.  The GeForce 9500 GT 512MB DDR2 card, however, is available for under $50 after mail-in-rebate, which puts it right in the same price bracket as the 512MB, passively cooled Radeon HD 4550 we tested here.





As we tunnel deeper into 3DMark06's individual shader model tests, the Radeon HD 4550's position amongst the other cards we used for reference does not change.

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3DMark Vantage

Futuremark 3DMark Vantage
Synthetic DirectX Gaming


3DMark Vantage

The latest version of Futuremark's synthetic 3D gaming benchmark, 3DMark Vantage, is specifically bound to Windows Vista-based systems because it uses some advanced visual technologies that are only available with DirectX 10, which isn't available on previous versions of Windows.  3DMark Vantage isn't simply a port of 3DMark06 to DirectX 10 though.  With this latest version of the benchmark, Futuremark has incorporated two new graphics tests, two new CPU tests, several new feature tests, in addition to support for the latest PC hardware.  We tested the graphics cards here with 3DMark Vantage's Performance preset option, which uses a resolution of 1280x1024, with no anti-aliasing or anisotropic filtering.

The trend in results using 3DMark Vantage's Performance present essentially mirrors those of 3DMark06, as the Radeon HD 4550 trailed all of the other cards we tested.  




3DMark Vantage's individual GPU tests also show the Radeon HD 4550 trailing the competition.

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Half Life 2: Episode 2

Half Life 2: Episode 2
DirectX Gaming Performance


Half Life 2:
Episode 2

Thanks to the dedication of hardcore PC gamers and a huge mod-community, the original Half-Life was one of the most successful first person shooters of all time. And courtesy of an updated game engine, gorgeous visuals, and intelligent weapon and level designs, Half Life 2 became just as popular.  Episode 2 - the most recent addition to the franchise - offers a number of visual enhancements including better looking transparent texture anti-aliasing. These tests were run at resolutions of 1,280 x 1,024 and 1,680 x 1,050 with 4X anti-aliasing and 16X anisotropic filtering enabled concurrently.  Color correction and HDR rendering were also enabled in the game engine as well.  We used a custom recorded timedemo to benchmark all cards for these tests.



The Radeon HD 4550 fared a bit better in our custom Half Life 2 benchmark, as it performed on essentially the same level of the Radeon HD 3650.  Although the delta was much smaller than what we saw on previous pages, the 4550 still trailed all comers here.

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Unreal Tournament 3

Unreal Tournament 3
DirectX Gaming Performance


Unreal Tournament 3

If you're a long-time PC gamer, the Unreal Tournament franchise should need no introduction.  UT's fast paced action and over the top weapons have been popular for as long as Epic has been making the games.  For these tests, we used the latest addition to the franchise, Unreal Tournament 3.  The game doesn't have a built-in benchmarking tool, however, so we enlisted the help of FRAPS here.  These tests were run at resolutions of 1,280 x 1,024 and 1,680 x 1,050 with no anti-aliasing or anisotropic filtering enabled, but with the UT3's in game graphical options set to their maximum values, with color correction enabled.



We saw more of the same with our custom Unreal Tournament 3 benchmark.  In this game though, the Radeon HD 4550 was significantly outperformed by the Radeon HD 3650 and it didn't come close to any of the GeForces.

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Enemy Territory: Quake Wars

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars
OpenGL Gaming Performance


Enemy Territory:
Quake Wars

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars is Based on a radically enhanced version of id's Doom 3 engine and viewed by many as Battlefield 2 meets the Strogg, and then some.  In fact, we'd venture to say that id took EA's team-based warfare genre up a notch or two.  ET: Quake Wars also marks the introduction of John Carmack's "Megatexture" technology that employs large environment and terrain textures that cover vast areas of maps without the need to repeat and tile many smaller textures.  The beauty of megatexture technology is that each unit only takes up a maximum of 8MB of frame buffer memory.  Add to that HDR-like bloom lighting and leading edge shadowing effects and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars looks great, plays well and works high end graphics cards vigorously.  The game was tested with all of its in-game options set to their maximum values with soft particles enabled in addition to 4X anti-aliasing and 16x anisotropic filtering.



The Radeon HD 4550 fared a bit better in our Quake Wars: Enemy Territory benchmark. Here, the HD 4550 managed to pull slightly ahead of the Radeon HD 3650, but it couldn't catch any of the other cards we tested.

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Crysis v1.2

Crysis v1.2
DirectX 10 Gaming Performance


Crysis

If you're at all into enthusiast computing, the highly anticipated single player, FPS smash-hit Crysis, should require no introduction. Crytek's game engine produces some stunning visuals that are easily the most impressive real-time 3D renderings we've seen on the PC to date.  The engine employs some of the latest techniques in 3D rendering like Parallax Occlusion Mapping, Subsurface Scattering, Motion Blur and Depth-of-Field effects, as well as some of the most impressive use of Shader technology we've seen yet.  In short, for those of you that want to skip the technical jib-jab, Crysis is a beast of a game.  We ran the full game patched to v1.2 with all of its visual options set to 'High' to put a significant load on the graphics cards being tested  A custom demo recorded on the Island level was used throughout testing.



The Radeon HD 4550 didn't fare very well in our custom Crysis benchmark. In this test, the Radeon HD 4550 once again trailed all of the other cards we tested.

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SD and HD Video Tests

We also did some quick testing of the new Radeon HD 4550's video processing engine, in terms of both image quality and CPU utilization with some standard and high-definition video playback tests.

Video Playback Performance: SD and HD
HQV (coming soon) and H.264

HQV is comprised of a sampling of SD video clips and test patterns that have been specifically designed to evaluate a variety of interlaced video signal processing tasks, including decoding, de-interlacing, motion correction, noise reduction, film cadence detection, and detail enhancement. As each clip is played, the viewer is required to "score" the image based on a predetermined set of criteria. The numbers listed below are the sum of the scores for each section. We played the HQV DVD using the latest version of Cyberlink's PowerDVD HD, with hardware acceleration for AMD AVIVO HD and NVIDIA PureVideo HD extensions enabled.



Both ATI's and NVIDIA's latest GPUs have no trouble with SD video playback. All three of the cards put up near perfect scores in the HQV test. In case you're not familiar with HQV, 130 points is the maximum score attainable. At 128 points, a PC equipped with any of these graphics cards plays back DVD video at quality levels better than the vast majority of set-top DVD players on the market.



Next we conducted a test using an H.264 encoded movie trailer clip for "Beowulf" which is available for download on Apple's QuickTime HD website.  The CPU utilization data gathered during these tests was taken from Windows Vista's built-in Performance Monitor. The graphs show the CPU utilization for a GeForce 9500 GT and a Radeon HD 4550 using PowerDVD 8 Ultra to playback the QuickTime clip.


  
GeForce 9500 GT




Radeon HD 4550


With a fast quad-core processor powering our test system and an unencrypted HD video clip being played back, both of the cards we tested had low CPU utilization in this test.  We should note that with hardware acceleration disabled, playing this video clip results in about 12% - 15% average CPU utilization, so there is a marked improvement with both PureVideo HD and UVD 2.  Also note that with encrypted content, like many off the shelf Blu-Ray discs for example, CPU utilization will be measurably higher that what you see here.  However, both platforms should have no trouble playing back HD digital video.

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Power Consumption

We'd like to cover a few final data points before bringing this article to a close. Throughout all of our benchmarking and testing, we monitored how much power our test systems were consuming using a power meter. Our goal was to give you an idea as to how much power each configuration used while idling and under a heavy workload. Please keep in mind that we were testing total system power consumption at the outlet here, not just the power being drawn by the motherboards alone.

Total System Power Consumption
Tested at the Outlet



The Radeon HD 4550 proved to be quite power friendly.  The Radeon HD 4550 has the lowest idle and peak power consumption of all of the Radeons. A couple of the GeForce cards had lower idle power consumption, but only the GeForce 9500 GT 512MB DDR2 had lower peak consumption.

We normally talk about noise output in this section of of video cards articles as well, but because the Radeon HD 4550 we tested was passively cooled, it generated absolutely no noise.  In case you're wondering, heat wasn't a concern either.  Throughout all of our testing, the heatsink on the card got warm to the touch, but it was never hot enough to cause concern.

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Our Summary and Conclusion

Performance Summary: The new Radeon HD 4550 struggled in most of our in-game tests and benchmarks.  It managed to pull ahead of the previous-gen 120 steam processor Radeon HD 3650 in a couple of tests, but more often than not the Radeon HD 4550 trailed our reference cards.  SD and HD video playback was strong, however, as the Radeon HD 4550 put up a near perfect score in HQV and offered low-CPU utilization during playback of our 1080P H.264 video test clip.
 


 

With an expected price range of $45 to $55, the new Radeon HD 4550 is certainly an affordable product and it represents a significant upgrade over any integrated graphics solution.  The card's feature set, low power characteristics, optional passive cooler, and HDMI / DisplayPort outputs are also appealing, especially to prospective HTPC do-it-yourselfers and systems integrators.  However, the simple fact of the matter is, there are a multitude of similarly priced graphics cards in the Radeon HD 4550's class that offer better frame rates with similar video digital video performance.  Currently we can find in our price search engine, a passively cooled Asus Radeon HD 3650 being offered for $35 and an EVGA GeForce 9500 GT 512MB for $49 after mail in rebates.  In addition, GeForce cards also offer the added benefit of PhsyX support.  Regardless, even without rebates, these cards are available in the $55 to $65 range.  Considering how close they are in price--even if your budget is really tight--we'd recommend spending the extra few bucks for the increased performance.

With that said, the Radeon HD 4550, especially the passively cooled version we tested, is an intriguing option if low power and / or silent computing is your goal.  If prices ultimately settle in at the lower-end of the product's expected range, this new entry-level card from AMD could make a good addition to a home theater or similar media PC.

     
  • DirectX 10.1 Support
  • Passively Cooled
  • Great Video Playback
  • Low Price
  • Low Power
  • 3D Performance
  • Get's beat by 9500 GT



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