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NVIDIA GeForce GTX 550 Ti Debut: ZOTAC, MSI and Asus
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Date: Mar 15, 2011
Section:Graphics/Sound
Author: Marco Chiappetta
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Introduction and Specifications

NVIDIA continues to flesh out their GeForce GTX 500 series line-up, this time with a new GPU targeted at more mainstream, budget conscious gamers. The new GeForce GTX 550 Ti which is being introduced today, like the other members of the GeForce GTX 500 series, is based upon a refinement and update to a GeForce 400 series GPU (in this case the GTS 450), but there’s more going on under the hood here than a respin and a new transistor mix. More on that a little later, though.

The new GeForce GTX 550 Ti improves upon the previous-gen GTS 450 in a number of ways, all of which enhance performance, but the GTX 550 targets a price point and performance level below the GTX 460. The branding of this new card is sure to result in a few confused consumers.  We’d expect most people to assume a GTX 550 outperforms a GTX 460 based on the model numbers alone, but as the market clears out of older GeForce 400 series parts, NVIDIA’s line-up will also be more clearly defined.

With that said, let’s move on to some of the particulars and see what makes the new GeForce GTX 550 Ti tick. The reference specifications are posted below, and we’ve got a trio of retail-ready cards on tap from ZOTAC, Asus, and MSI that all offer a little something extra, above and beyond what NVIDIA has outlined in the reference specs...


NVIDIA GeForce GTX 550 Ti Reference Design

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 550 Ti
Specifications & Features





NVIDIA GeForce GTX 550 Ti GPU, Front and Back

As we’ve mentioned, the GeForce GTX 550 Ti GPU is an update and refinement of the GeForce GTX 450. Both of the GPUs feature a single Graphics Processing Cluster, with 4 SMs (Streaming Multiprocessors), a total of 192 CUDA cores, with 32 texture units. The GeForce GTX 550 Ti, however, sports 24 ROP units to the GTS 450’s 16, 384K of L2 to the GTX 450’s 256K, and an additional memory partition which increases the interface width from 128-bits (GTS 450) to 192-bits (GTX 550 Ti). In addition to offering a wider memory interface, NVIDIA also tweaked the memory controller to allow the use of mixed-density memory chips. In the past, GPUs with 192-bit memory interfaces, like some versions of the GeForce GTX 460, would require oddly sized frame buffers, like 768MB or 1.5GB for example. With the GeForce GTX 550 Ti though, GDDR5 memory chips of different sizes can be mixed which results in more traditional frame buffer configurations, like the 1GB found on the GTX 550 Ti. An updated transistor mix and refinements to the manufacturing process have also allowed NVIDIA to crank up the clock speeds on the GeForce GTX 550 Ti. Whereas the GTS 450 reference specifications called for a 783MHz GPU clock, with 1566MHz shaders, and 902MHz memory, the GeForce GTX 550 Ti reference specifications designate a 900MHz GPU clock, with 1800MHz shaders, and 1026MHz memory.

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Zotac, MSI and Asus GeForce GTX 550 Ti Cards

For the purposes of this article, we acquired a trio of retail ready GeForce GTX 550 Ti cards from three of NVIDIA’s premiere board partners, ZOTAC, Asus, and MSI. All three of these cards are factory overclocked and feature custom coolers and PCB designs. As was the case with the GeForce GTX 450, there will be many GeForce GTX 550 Ti cards overclocked right out of the gate, hence the arrival of the cards you see pictured here.


  

  
ZOTAC GeForce GTX 550 Ti AMP! Edition

The ZOTAC GeForce GTX 550 Ti AMP! Edition card is the highest clocked of the cards we’ll be featuring here, yet it is also the smallest. The ZOTAC GeForce GTX 550 Ti AMP! Edition card sports a 1GHz GPU clock, with 2GHz shaders, and 1GB of 1100MHz (4400MHz effective) GDDDR5 memory. The output configuration on the card consists of a pair of dual-link DVI outputs, an HDMI output, and a DisplayPort output, although only two outputs can be used simultaneously. Bundled with the ZOTAC GeForce GTX 550 Ti AMP! Edition card, we found a few pieces of documentation, a case badge, a DVI to VGA adapter, and a single PCI Express 6-pin power adapter. There was also an obligatory driver / utility CD, which contained copies of some useful apps, like vReveal, Nero Vision Xtra, CoolIris, XBMC, and Kylo.


  

  
MSIN550GTX-Ti Cyclone II

Next up, we have the MSI N550GTX-Ti Cyclone II. The N550GTX-Ti’s PCB is about an inch longer than ZOTAC’s card and it is outfitted with a much larger circular cooler, dubbed the Cyclone II. MSI clocks their card at 950MHz for the GPU, 1950MHz for the shaders / CUDA cores, and 1075MHz (4300MHz effective) for the memory. The MSI N550GTX-Ti Cyclone II’s outputs consist of dual, dual-link DVIs and a single mini-HDMI output. Bundled with the card are a typical array of documents, drivers and adapters, although MSI also throws in a mini-HDMI to full-sized HDMI adapter. We should also point out that MSI’s Afterburner overclocking / tweaking utility is included as well, which is arguably one of the better apps of its kind.


  

  
Asus GTX 550 Ti DirectCU TOP

Finally, we have the Asus GTX 550 Ti DirectCU TOP edition. The Asus GTX 550 Ti DirectCU TOP is about the same size as the MSI card, but it sports yet another different PCB design. The “DirectCU” in the card’s model name is a reference to the cooler, which uses copper heat-pipes that make direct contact with the GPU, to enhance cooling performance. This card’s GPU is clocked at 975MHz, with 1950MHz, shaders, and 1026MHz (4104MHz effective) memory. The Asus GTX 550 Ti DirectCU’s outputs consist of an HDMI output, a VGA output, and a dual-link DVI output. And bundled with the card were a quick setup guide, driver / utility CD, and a single PCIe 6-pin power adapter.

All of the GeForce GTX 550 Ti cards you see pictured here require only a single PCIe 6-pin power feed and despite their differences in size and appearance, all three of the coolers used on these cards are nice and quiet. In fact, throughout testing, none of them spun up to the point they were audible over our test PSU and stock Intel Core i7 CPU cooler.

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Test Setup & Unigine Heaven v2.1

How We Configured Our Test Systems: We tested the graphics cards in this article on a Gigabyte GA-EX58-UD5 motherboard powered by a Core i7 980X six-core processor and 6GB of OCZ DDR3-1333 RAM. The first thing we did when configuring the test system was enter the system BIOS and set all values to their "optimized" or "high performance" default settings. Then we manually configured the memory timings (DDR3-1333, CAS 7) and disabled any integrated peripherals that wouldn't be put to use. The hard drive was then formatted and Windows 7 Ultimate x64 was installed. When the installation was complete we fully updated the OS and installed the latest DirectX redist, along with the necessary drivers, games, and benchmark applications.

HotHardware's Test System
Intel Core i7 Powered

Hardware Used:
Core i7 980X (3.3GHz)
Gigabyte EX58-UD5 (X58 Express)

Radeon HD 6870
Radeon HD 6950 1GB
Radeon HD 6850
GeForce GTX 560 Ti
GeForce GTX 460
GeForce GTX 550 Ti x 3
GeForce GTS 450 OC

6GB OCZ DDR3-1333
Western Digital Raptor 150GB
Integrated Audio
Integrated Network

Relevant Software:
Windows 7 Ultimate x64
DirectX Nov. 2010 Redist
ATI Catalyst v11.1a
NVIDIA GeForce Drivers 266.58 / 267.59

Benchmarks Used:

Unigine Heaven v2.1
Futuremark 3DMark11
FarCry 2
Just Cause 2
Alien vs. Predator
Metro 2033
Lost Planet 2
F1 2010*

* - Custom benchmark

Unigine Heaven v2.1 Benchmark
Pseudo-DirectX 11 Gaming


Unigine Heaven

The Unigine Heaven Benchmark v2.0 is built around the Unigine game engine. Unigine is a cross-platform real-time 3D engine, with support for DirectX 9, DirectX 10, DirectX 11 and OpenGL. The Heaven benchmark--when run in DX11 mode--also makes comprehensive use of tessellation technology and advanced SSAO (screen-space ambient occlusion), and it also features volumetric cumulonimbus clouds generated by a physically accurate algorithm and a dynamic sky with light scattering.

The new GeForce GTX 550 Ti cards, whether running at reference or overclocked speeds, performs right in-line with our expectations. All of the cards we tested outpaced the GeForce GTS 450, but finished just shy of the mark set by the GeForce GTX 460.

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Futuremark 3DMark11

Futuremark 3DMark11
Synthetic DirectX Gaming


Futuremark 3DMark11

The latest version of Futuremark's synthetic 3D gaming benchmark, 3DMark11, is specifically bound to Windows Vista and 7-based systems because it uses the advanced visual technologies that are only available with DirectX 11, which isn't available on previous versions of Windows.  3DMark11 isn't simply a port of 3DMark Vantage to DirectX 11, though.  With this latest version of the benchmark, Futuremark has incorporated four new graphics tests, a physics tests, and a new combined test.  We tested the graphics cards here with 3DMark11's Extreme preset option, which uses a resolution of 1920x1080 with 4x anti-aliasing and 16x anisotropic filtering.

3DMark11 tells essentially the same story as Unigine Heaven from the previous page. All of the GeForce GTX 550 Ti cards have no trouble outpacing the overclocked GeForce GTX 450, but they couldn't quite catch the GeForce GTX 460.

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FarCry 2 Performance

FarCry 2
DirectX Gaming Performance


FarCry 2

Like the original, FarCry 2 is one of the more visually impressive games to be released on the PC to date. Courtesy of the Dunia game engine developed by Ubisoft, FarCry 2's game-play is enhanced by advanced environment physics, destructible terrain, high resolution textures, complex shaders, realistic dynamic lighting, and motion-captured animations.  We benchmarked the graphics cards in this article with a fully patched version of FarCry 2, using one of the built-in demo runs recorded in the "Ranch" map.  The test results shown here were run at various resolutions with 4X AA enabled.

The same performance trend we've witnessed on the previous benchmarks played out again in FarCry 2. Here, all of the GeForce GTX 500 Ti cards outpace the GTX 450, but can't catch the GeForce GTX 460 of the previous generation.

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Just Cause 2 Performance

Just Cause 2
DX10.1 Gaming Performance


Just Cause 2

Just Cause 2 was released in March 2010, from developers Avalanche Studios and Eidos Interactive. The game makes use of the Avalanche Engine 2.0, an updated version of the similarly named original. It is set on the fictional island of Panau in southeast Asia, and you play the role of Rico Rodriquez. We benchmarked the graphics cards in this article using one of the built-in demo runs called The Concrete Jungle.  The test results shown here were run at various resolutions and settings. This game also supports a few CUDA-enabled features, but they were left disabled to keep the playing field level. 



The Just Cause 2 benchmark doesn't reveal anything new. All of the GeForce GTX 550 Ti cards outpace the GeForce GTS 450, but trail the GeForce GTX 460.
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Metro 2033 Performance

Metro 2033
DirecX11 Gaming Performance


Metro 2033

Metro 2033 is your basic post-apocalyptic first person shooter game with a few rather unconventional twists. Unlike most FPS titles, there is no health meter to measure your level of ailment, but rather you’re left to deal with life, or lack there-of more akin to the real world with blood spatter on your visor and your heart rate and respiration level as indicators. The game is loosely based on a novel by Russian Author Dmitry Glukhovsky. Metro 2003 boasts some of the best 3D visuals on the PC platform currently including a DX11 rendering mode that makes use of advanced depth of field effects and character model tessellation for increased realism. This title also supports NVIDIA PhysX technology for impressive in-game physics effects. We tested the game resolutions of 1920x1200 and 2560x1600 with 4X anti-aliasing and in-game image quality options set to thei High Quality mode, with DOF effects disabled.

Nothing new to report with the Metro 2033 benchmark. The same performance trend we've seen throughout testing plays out again here.

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Lost Planet 2 Performance

Lost Planet 2
DirectX 11 Gaming Performance


Lost Planet 2

A follow-up to Capcom’s Lost Planet : Extreme Condition, Lost Planet 2 is a third person shooter that takes place again on E.D.N. III ten years after the story line of the first title. We ran the game’s DX11 mode which makes heavy use of DX11 Tessellation and Displacement mapping and soft shadows.  There are also areas of the game that make use of DX11 DirectCompute for things like wave simulation in areas with water.  This is one game engine that looks significantly different in DX11 mode when you compare certain environmental elements and character rendering in its DX9 mode versus DX11.  We used the Test B option built into the benchmark tool and with all graphics options set to their High Quality values.


We saw more of the same with the Lost Planet 2 benchmark. The GeForce GTX 550 Ti cards all outpaced the factory-overclocked GTS 450, but trailed the GeForce GTX 460 and more expensive Radeons.

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F1 2010 Performance

F1 2010
DirectX 11 Gaming Performance


F1 2010

Though Codemasters still continues to torture us with their ridiculously complicated labyrinth of game menus, we’ve found ourselves coming back to one of their titles for a taste of bleeding-edge DX11 benchmarking. F1 2010 is their latest racing simulation and like Dirt 2, it sports impressive visuals with DX11 support. “Ultra” settings for shadow effects and post processing elements like depth of field then become available to the gamer and in turn, crank up the workload on the graphics subsystem. The game engine also makes use of multi-core processors for higher performance on top-end systems. We tested the game configured with its Ultra graphics options at resolutions of 1920x1200 and 2560x1600.

The F1 2010 benchmark shows the same performance trend as all of the others up to this point. The GeForce GTX 550 Ti cards were faster than the GeForce GTS 450, but not as fast as the GTX 460 here.

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Alien vs. Predator Performance

Alien vs. Predator
DirectX 11 Gaming Performance


Alien vs. Predator

The Alien vs. Predator benchmark makes use of the advanced Tessellation, screen space ambient occlusion and high-quality shadow features, available with DirectX 11. In addition to enabling all of the aforementioned DirectX 11 related features offered by this benchmark, we also switched on 4X anti-aliasing along with 16X anisotropic filtering to more heavily tax the graphics cards being tested.

And finally, the Alien vs. Predator benchmark confirms all of our previous tests. The GeForce GTX 550 Ti cards all outpaced the GeForce GTS 450 here, but fell short of the mark set by the GeForce GTX 460, just as we've seen in all of the previous tests.  This test is especially grueling for budget conscious cards, so we'd actually recommend more moderate resolutions and image quality settings than we tested here.

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Total System Power Consumption

Before bringing this article to a close, we'd like to cover a few final data points--namely power consumption and noise. Throughout all of our benchmarking and testing, we monitored how much power our test system was consuming using a power meter. Our goal was to give you all an idea as to how much power each configuration used while idling and while 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 graphics cards alone.

Total System Power Consumption
Tested at the Outlet

Despite offering better performance than the GeForce GTS 450 all around, the GeForce GTX 550 Ti cards consumed similar or less power. The higher-clocked ZOTAC GTX 550 pulled a bit more power than the GTS 450 under load, but the different is tiny at best and well worth the additional performance. At idle, all of the cards were within a couple of watts of one another.

As we mentioned earlier, all of the cards remained cool and quiet throughout testing as well. The custom coolers on all of the GeForce GTX 550 Ti cards we tested here, in conjunction with their relatively low power consumption, results in relatively low temps (the cards were just warm to the touch after hours of benchmarking) and quiet operation. There wasn't a single point where the GeForce GTX 550 Ti was audible over the ambient noise produced by our PSU and CPU cooling fans.

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Our Summary and Conclusion

Performance Summary: The GeForce GTX 550 Ti’s performance fell right in-line with expectations. Throughout our battery of tests, the GeForce GTX 550 Ti, whether running at reference frequencies or overclocked from the factory like our ZOTAC, Asus, and MSI cards, clearly outpaced the GeForce GTS 450. The GeForce GTX 550 Ti could not keep pace with the GeForce GTX 460, however. The performance of all of the GTX 550 Ti cards we tested also scaled as expected. The highest clocked card, the ZOTAC GeForce GTX 550 Ti AMP! Edition led the pack, followed by Asus’ offering and them MSI’s. Although, MSI’s higher-clocked memory versus the Asus card gave it an edge in a couple of tests, like AvP.


NVIDIA GeForce GTX 550 Ti Reference Card

The new GeForce GTX 550 Ti is a clear step-up over the GeForce GTS 450 it is meant to supplant in NVIDIA’s current GPU line-up. In terms of performance and power efficiency, the GeForce GTX 550 Ti is simply superior than the GTS 450. However, the GeForce GTX 550 Ti is set to debut at a slightly higher price point then the GTS 450 did. Reference GTX 550 Ti cards should be priced right around the $149 mark with overclocked cards coming in slightly higher in the $155 to $165 range. GeForce GTX 460 cards and Radeon HD 6850 cards are available now with very similar, albeit slightly higher prices, but factor in a number of mail in rebates currently available and the price disparities virtually disappear. As the benchmarks have shown, the additional $10 to $25 investment is well worth it for the higher performance offered by GTX 460 and 6850.

GeForce GTX 460 cards aren’t likely to remain on the market for much longer though, now that the GeForce GTX 560 Ti has hit the scene. And we expect the GeForce GTX 550 Ti’s street prices to quickly fall in light of competing offerings. If you’re in the market for an affordable, quiet, DirectX 11 class card, and are on a very strict budget, the GeForce GTX 550 Ti is worth checking out. If you can scrounge up a few more bucks though, there’s lots of additional performance to be had for a marginal additional investment.

We suspect the full story on the GeForce GTX 550 Ti isn't completely clear, just yet. In a few more weeks, once GTX 460 supplies have dwindled, GTX 550 Ti availability has peaked, Radeon HD 6850 pricing has settled, and we can see where the street prices for everything fall, we'll have a better understanding of the landscape. Its MSRP currently puts the GeForce GTX 550 Ti in the same range as better performing products. But it's clearly a better card than the popular GTS 450 and with lower street prices, it's going to be more attractive to budget conscious gamers.

  • Cool and Quiet Operation
  • PhysX and CUDA Support
  • Affordable DX11 Card

 

  • Questionable Naming
  • Higher Performing Cards Available for Minimal Extra Investment

 



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