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NVIDIA GeForce GTX 550 Ti Review

Date: March 23, 2011
Author(s): Rob Williams

Catering to those who demand great GPU performance for a modest price, NVIDIA has launched its $130 $150 GeForce GTX 550 Ti. Compared to the GTS 450 which it replaces, the GTX 550 Ti delivers faster performance, a beefier memory bus and what NVIDIA touts as being one of the best performance per watt ratios around.



Introduction

March 25, 2011 Addendum: The original price I quoted the GeForce GTX 550 Ti as was $130, when in fact it’s $150. The reason behind the mistake is that NVIDIA’s marketing materials listed a $129 price-point, but what we didn’t catch was that the company was talking about the older GeForce GTS 450 which the 550 Ti replaces. We apologize for the error.

Since NVIDIA first launched its GeForce GTX 500 series in November, the company has kept quite close to a schedule of one new card per month, with the most recent being this one, the GeForce GTX 550 Ti – a budget offering.

Up to this point, we’ve seen four GTX 500 cards launched across a good set of price ranges: $130, $250, $350 and $500. There are still some gaps, though, so it can be assumed that as per the norm, NVIDIA will release in-betweens over the course of the year.

As the numbering scheme implies, the GeForce GTX 550 Ti is the lowest-end model of the GTX 500 series released thus far, and despite its “GTX” moniker, it is indeed a budget / low-end mainstream model. NVIDIA’s first goal with the card is to deliver great gameplay experiences to gamers using a resolution of 1680×1050 or less, and secondary on the list, the company wants to beat out AMD’s Radeon HD 5770 – a card of the same price-range.

Mentioned in one of our news posts last week, NVIDIA puts the GTX 550 Ti in the “Sniper” category of its gamer-esque naming scheme. It’s meant to be lightweight, but still pack a punch, and I guess if you want to take things literally, it could also refer to the card being silent, just as a sniper would be when hiding in the bushes.

Also, since a sniper can shoot from afar and leave a little hole in its target, NVIDIA’s GTX 550 Ti leaves a little hole in your wallet due to its modest $130 price tag. Am I thinking too deeply into this? I think so, so let’s get on with our closer look, and then dive into a look at the card’s performance!

Closer Look

The GTX 550 Ti could be best compared to the GTS 450, as both feature similar goals, and even share similar silicon. The cards are designed to offer the best performance per watt, but thanks to the GTX 550 Ti’s improved memory density of 1GB, along with a bus boost up to 192-bit, the memory bandwidth has been increased roughly 70%.

For more specific information on the card, I recommend reading through that news post linked to above, and for a simpler comparison between the GTX 550 Ti and GTS 450, along with the rest of NVIDIA’s current line-up, this table should do the trick:

Model
Core MHz
Shader MHz
Mem MHz
Memory
Bus Width
Cores
GeForce GTX 580
772
1544
4008
1536MB
384-bit
512
GeForce GTX 570
732
1464
3800
1280MB
320-bit
480
GeForce GTX 560 Ti
822
1645
4008
1024MB
256-bit
384
GeForce GTX 460
675
675
1350
1350
3600
3600
768MB
1024MB
192-bit
256-bit
336
336
GeForce GTX 550 Ti
900
1800
4104
1024MB
192-bit
192
GeForce GTS 450
783
1566
3608
1024MB
128-bit
192

Compared to the GTS 450, the GTX 550 Ti is the far superior card. It offers faster clocks all-around, an increased bus width and consequently far improved memory bandwidth. Given that lower-end models like these tend to struggle mostly because of a tight memory bus, this improvement might make some hearty differences in our real-world tests.

For our testing, MSI sent us its N550GTX-Ti Cyclone II, a card that features a starkly different cooler compared to NVIDIA’s reference, and also higher-that-reference clocks, with a 50MHz boost to the core, 100MHz to the shaders and roughly 200MHz to the memory. Overall, those are fairly substantial boosts, so for this article we’re including results with both the reference clocks and also MSI’s Cyclone II clocks.

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 550 Ti

According to MSI, this card avails an additional 20% worth of airflow across the card compared to the reference, but judging by looks alone, I’d have to assume the real number would be even higher. At the same time, the cooler included here is likely to be much more efficient with heat dissipation, and it’s for one very good reason: it’s huge. Well, huge as far as “budget” cards go, anyway.

It’s so large, in fact, that once the card was installed into our Cooler Master HAF X chassis, I couldn’t even close the door, due to the fact that it has a large fan equipped on it. Now, I’ve installed tri-SLI and tri-CrossFireX setups before in that chassis no problem – but here it is, a $150 GPU that prevents me from closing the door!

To be fair to MSI, most people who run a $150 GPU are not going to be using an equally-expensive $150 chassis with a huge fan in the door. But, it’s important to bear this minor issue in mind when looking to purchase it. While the cooling ability is sure to be top-rate, if you have a fan on your chassis door that lines up with the GPU PCI Express slot, you might have clearance issues.

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 550 Ti

Bulkiness aside, NVIDIA includes the same array of ports on this card as it does on the others from the GTX 500 series. That includes dual DVI ports and a mini-HDMI. As you’d also expect, this card can be paired up with another down the road for an SLI setup, which could boost the performance to put the card just past the GTX 560 Ti.

Our test suite and explanation of our methodologies can be found on the following page, and immediately after, Colin McRae: Dirt 2 testing.

Test System & Methodology

At Techgage, we strive to make sure our results are as accurate as possible. Our testing is rigorous and time-consuming, but we feel the effort is worth it. In an attempt to leave no question unanswered, this page contains not only our testbed specifications, but also a detailed look at how we conduct our testing.

Test Machine

The below table lists our testing machine’s hardware, which remains unchanged throughout all GPU testing, minus the graphics card. Each card used for comparison is also listed here, along with the driver version used. Each one of the URLs in this table can be clicked to view the respective category on our site for that product.

Component
Model
Processor
Intel Core i7-975 Extreme Edition – Quad-Core @ 4.05GHz – 1.40v
Motherboard
Gigabyte GA-EX58-EXTREME – F13j BIOS (08/02/2010)
Memory
Corsair DOMINATOR – 12GB DDR3-1333 7-7-7-24-1T, 1.60v
ATI Graphics Radeon HD 6990 4GB (Reference) – Catalyst 11.4 Beta
Radeon HD 6970 2GB CrossFireX (Reference) – Catalyst 10,12 Beta
Radeon HD 6950 2GB CrossFireX (Reference) – Catalyst 10.12 Beta
Radeon HD 6970 2GB (Reference) – Catalyst 10,12 Beta
Radeon HD 6950 2GB (Reference) – Catalyst 11.1
Radeon HD 6950 1GB (Reference) – Catalyst 11.1
Radeon HD 6870 1GB (Reference CrossFireX) – Catalyst 10.10
Radeon HD 6850 1GB (Reference CrossFireX) – Catalyst 10.10
Radeon HD 6870 1GB (Reference) – Catalyst Oct 5, 2010 Beta
Radeon HD 6850 1GB (Reference) – Catalyst Oct 5, 2010 Beta
Radeon HD 5870 1GB (Sapphire) – Catalyst 10.8
Radeon HD 5850 1GB (ASUS) – Catalyst 10.8
Radeon HD 5830 1GB (Reference) – Catalyst 10.8
Radeon HD 5770 1GB (Reference) – Catalyst 10.8
Radeon HD 5750 1GB (Sapphire) – Catalyst 10.8
NVIDIA Graphics GeForce GTX 580 1536MB (Reference) – GeForce 262.99
GeForce GTX 570 1280MB (Reference) – GeForce 263.09
GeForce GTX 560 Ti 1024MB (Reference) – GeForce 266.56
GeForce GTX 550 Ti 1024MB (MSI) – GeForce 267.59
GeForce GTX 480 1536MB (Reference) – GeForce 260.63
GeForce GTX 470 1280MB (EVGA) – GeForce 260.63
GeForce GTX 460 1GB (EVGA) – GeForce 260.63
GeForce GTX 450 1GB (ASUS) – GeForce 260.63
Audio
ASUS Xonar D2X
Storage
Seagate Barracuda 500GB 7200.11
Power Supply
Corsair HX1000W
Chassis
Cooler Master HAF X Full-Tower
Display
Gateway XHD3000 30″
Cooling
Corsair H50 Self-Contained Liquid Cooler
Et cetera
Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit

When preparing our testbeds for any type of performance testing, we follow these guidelines:

To aide with the goal of keeping accurate and repeatable results, we alter certain services in Windows 7 from starting up at boot. This is due to the fact that these services have the tendency to start up in the background without notice, potentially causing inaccurate test results. For example, disabling “Windows Search” turns off the OS’ indexing which can at times utilize the hard drive and memory more than we’d like.

The most important services we disable are:

The full list of Windows services we assure are disabled is large, but for those interested in perusing it, please look here. Most of the services we disable are mild, but we go to such an extent to have the PC as highly optimized as possible.

Game Titles

At this time, we benchmark with three resolutions that represent three popular monitor sizes available today, 20″ (1680×1050), 24″ (1920×1080) and 30″ (2560×1600). Each of these resolutions offers enough of a variance in raw pixel output to warrant testing with it, and each properly represent a different market segment: mainstream, mid-range and high-end.

Because we value results generated by real-world testing, we don’t utilize timedemos. The possible exceptions might be Futuremark’s 3DMark Vantage and Unigine’s Heaven 2.1. Though neither of these are games, both act as robust timedemos. We choose to use them as they’re a standard where GPU reviews are concerned.

All of our results are captured with the help of Beepa’s FRAPS 3.2.3, while stress-testing and temperature-monitoring is handled by OCCT 3.1.0 and GPU-Z, respectively.

For those interested in the exact settings we use for each game, direct screenshots can be seen below:

Colin McRae: Dirt 2

Colin McRae: Dirt 2 - Settings

Colin McRae: Dirt 2 - Settings

Just Cause 2

Just Cause 2 - Settings

Mafia II

Mafia II - Settings

Metro 2033

Metro 2033 - Settings

StarCraft II

StarCraft II - Settings

Colin McRae: Dirt 2

It’s not that often that faithful PC gamers get a proper racing game for their platform of choice, but Dirt 2 is one of those. While it is a “console port”, there’s virtually nothing in the game that will make that point stand out. The game as a whole takes good advantage of our PC’s hardware, and it’s as challenging as it is good-looking.

Colin McRae: Dirt 2

Manual Run-through: The race we chose to use in Dirt 2 is the first one available in the game, as it’s easily accessible and features a lot of GPU-pounding effects that the game has become known for, such as realistic dust and water effects, a large on-looking crowd of people and fine details on and off the track. Each run-through lasts the entire two laps, which comes out to about 2.5 minutes.

A big goal of NVIDIA’s in creating the GTX 550 Ti was to beat out AMD’s Radeon HD 5770, and thus far, it looks like that’s been accomplished. An exception is seen at 2560×1600, but let me assure you… you do not want to be using either card for that resolution. 1080p is another matter, but anything higher isn’t much fun at all.

Just Cause 2

Just Cause 2 might not belong to a well-established series of games, but with its launch, it looks like that might not be the case for long. The game offers not only superb graphics, but an enormous world to explore, and for people like me, a countless number of hidden items to find around it. During the game, you’ll be scaling skyscrapers, racing through jungles and fighting atop snow-drenched mountains. What’s not to like?

Just Cause 2

Manual Run-through: The level chosen here is part of the second mission in the game, “Casino Bust”. Our runthrough begins at the second-half of the level, which requires us to situate ourselves on top of a car and have our driver, Karl Blaine, speed us through part of the island to safety. This is a great mission for benchmarking as we get to see a lot of the landmass, even if some of it is at a distance.

With Just Cause 2 leaning towards AMD’s cards (for some bizarre reason, given the game is an NVIDIA “The Way it’s Meant to Be Played”), it’s of no surprise to see the HD 5770 creep up ahead. Both cards don’t do well to handle this game, however. For smooth 1080p gameplay, AA needs to be turned off, along with SSAO and other detail settings need to be turned to Medium or Low. For 1680×1050, AA and SSAO need to be disabled at which point the game can deliver an acceptable ~40 FPS.

Mafia II

For fans of the original Mafia game, having to wait an incredible eight years for a sequel must’ve been tough. But as we found out in our review, the wait might be forgotten as the game is quite good. It doesn’t feature near as much depth as say, Grand Theft Auto IV, but it does a masterful job of bringing you back to the 1940’s and letting you experience the Mafia lifestyle.

Mafia II

Manual Run-through: Because this game doesn’t allow us to save a game in the middle of a level, we chose to use chapter 7, “In Loving Memory…”, to do our runthrough. That chapter begins us on a street corner with many people around, and from there, we run to our garage, get in our car, and speed out to the street. Our path ultimately leads us to the park, and takes close to two minutes to accomplish.

Similar to Just Cause 2, Mafia II seems to be a game that turned its favor towards NVIDIA cards after some point, so overall, the GTX 550 Ti and HD 5770 perform very similarly, with AMD’s card taking the slight edge.

Metro 2033

One of the more popular Internet memes for the past couple of years has been, “Can it run Crysis?”, but as soon as Metro 2033 launched, that’s a meme that should have died. Metro 2033 is without question one of the beefiest games on the market, and though it supports DirectX 11, it’s almost a feature worth ignoring, because the extent you’ll need to go to in order to see playable framerates isn’t likely going to be worth it.

Metro 2033

Manual Run-through: The level we use for testing is part of chapter 4, called “Child”, where we must follow a linear path through multiple corridors until we reach our end point, which takes a total of about 90 seconds. Please note that due to the reason mentioned above, we test this game in DX10 mode, as DX11 simply isn’t that realistic from a performance standpoint.

We have quite a comeback here. While AMD’s HD 5770 surpassed the performance of the GTX 550 Ti slightly in both Just Cause 2 and Mafia II, NVIDIA’s card took control with Metro 2033, which again, is typically weighted towards AMD cards, for whatever reason. With “High” detail levels at 1650×1080, the game was surprisingly very playable with NVIDIA’s budget card.

StarCraft II

Of all the games we test, it might be this one that needs no introduction. Back in 1998, Blizzard unleashed what was soon to be one of the most successful RTS titles on the planet, and even as of today, the original is still heavily played all around the world – even in actual competitions. StarCraft II of course had a lot of hype to live up to, and it did, thanks to its intense gameplay and superb graphics.

StarCraft II

Manual Run-through: The portion of the game we use for testing is part of the Zero Hour mission, which has us holding fort until we’re able to evacuate. Our saved game starts us in the middle of the mission, and from the get-go, we build a couple of buildings and concurrently move our main units up and around the map. Total playtime lasts about two minutes.

I admit I don’t put a ton of credence into StarCraft II as a benchmark (which is why it’s soon to be replaced), but overall, the performance we see is stable across all of the resolutions. In this particular game, NVIDIA’s GTX 550 Ti storms past the HD 5770, and is even mostly playable at 2560×1600!

Futuremark 3DMark 11

Although we generally shun automated gaming benchmarks, we do like to run at least one to see how our GPUs scale when used in a ‘timedemo’-type scenario. Futuremark’s 3DMark 11 is without question the best such test on the market, and it’s a joy to use, and watch. The folks at Futuremark are experts in what they do, and they really know how to push that hardware of yours to its limit.

Futuremark 3DMark 11

Similar to a real game, 3DMark 11 offers many configuration options, although many (including us) prefer to stick to the profiles which include Performance, and Extreme. Depending on which one you choose, the graphic options are tweaked accordingly, as well as the resolution. As you’d expect, the better the profile, the more intensive the test. The benchmark doesn’t natively support 2560×1600, so to benchmark with that, we choose the Extreme profile and simply change the resolution.

In a head-to-head comparison with NVIDIA’s latest card and the HD 5770 competition, the latter comes out just ahead in 3DMark. Again, the performance differences are rather minor, especially when you bring overclocking into things, as the MSI card proves.

Unigine Heaven 2.1

While Futuremark is a well-established name where PC benchmarking is concerned, Unigine is just beginning to become exposed to people. The company’s main focus isn’t benchmarks, but rather its cross-platform game engine which it licenses out to other developers, and also its own games, such as a gorgeous post-apocalytic oil strategy game. The company’s benchmarks are simply a by-product of its game engine.

Unigine Heaven 2.1

The biggest reason that the company’s “Heaven” benchmark grew in popularity rather quickly is that both AMD and NVIDIA promoted it for its heavy use of tessellation, a key DirectX 11 feature. Like 3DMark Vantage, the benchmark here is overkill by design, so results here aren’t going to directly correlate with real gameplay. Rather, they showcase which card models can better handle both DX11 and its GPU-bogging features.

Proving that NVIDIA still reigns supreme in DX11 performance, the GTX 550 Ti surpasses the HD 5770 by a fair margin here. Overall, AMD’s card is good for overall gaming, while NVIDIA’s has a slight edge for those who might want to run DX11 applications. There’s a definite trade-off for each.

Power & Temperatures

To test our graphics cards for both temperatures and power consumption, we utilize OCCT for the stress-testing, GPU-Z for the temperature monitoring, and a Kill-a-Watt for power monitoring. The Kill-a-Watt is plugged into its own socket, with only the PC connect to it.

As per our guidelines when benchmarking with Windows, when the room temperature is stable (and reasonable), the test machine is boot up and left to sit at the desktop until things are completely idle. Because we are running such a highly optimized PC, this normally takes one or two minutes. Once things are good to go, the idle wattage is noted, GPU-Z is started up to begin monitoring card temperatures, and OCCT is set up to begin stress-testing.

To push the cards we test to their absolute limit, we use OCCT in full-screen 2560×1600 mode, and allow it to run for 15 minutes, which includes a one minute lull at the start, and a four minute lull at the end. After about 5 minutes, we begin to monitor our Kill-a-Watt to record the max wattage.

In the case of dual-GPU configurations, we measure the temperature of the top graphics card, as in our tests, it’s usually the one to get the hottest. This could depend on GPU cooler design, however.

Note: Due to changes AMD and NVIDIA made to the power schemes of their respective current-gen cards, we were unable to run OCCT on them. Rather, we had to use a less-strenuous run of 3DMark Vantage. We will be retesting all of our cards using this updated method the next time we overhaul our suite.

I admit that I was opposed to testing out this card at first for temperature testing because of the door issue. Being unable to put the chassis door back on due to the card’s ridiculously large cooler is one thing, but actually testing temperatures that way is another, and is sure to skew results. So bear that in mind. For what it’s worth, though, the temperatures seen are extremely good, with the card barely breaking 50°C.

Final Thoughts

Ahh, the ‘final thoughts’ page… the one where I’m supposed to make use of my professionalism to conjure up a definitive answer as to whether or not the product at hand is “meh”, “good”, “great” or “:o!!!”. For NVIDIA’s GeForce GTX 550 Ti, it’s a little hard to conclude on. While the company had focused on beating out AMD’s Radeon HD 5770, it only managed to do that about half of the time.

If both cards in question came out at around the same time, this would be a good thing, but as AMD’s card came out more than a year-and-a-half ago, it’s a little hard to feel too excited about the GeForce GTX 550 Ti.

At the $130 reference price point, NVIDIA’s card is meant to be cheaper than the HD 5770, but in most cases it’s not. At Newegg, there are many stock-clocked HD 5770s for less than $130, and as we saw in our testing, and especially with 3DMark 11, AMD’s card is the faster overall. That’s just a simple fact. When overclocking is brought into the picture, that can change, but at the same time, AMD’s card could also be OC’d just the same.

For those interested, and if it makes a difference, NVIDIA states that these games will see an improvement on its card compared to AMD’s: Civilization V (+35%), F1 2010 (+25%), Lost Planet 2 (+42%), Call of Duty: Black Ops (+18%) and Tom Clancy’s: H.A.W.X. 2 (+50%). We can’t back up these claims due to time-constraints.

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 550 Ti

If DX11 is brought into the picture, though, NVIDIA’s card reigns supreme… the difference is nearly +20% for the GTX 550 Ti compared to the HD 5770. That’s quite substantial, and when running games at 1680x or lower that can take advantage of things like tessellation, that’s important. It’s also important to note, though, that DX11 is rather GPU-intensive, so don’t expect to pick up any card at the sub-$200 price-range and expect a superb DX11 experience.

Other benefits that NVIDIA’s card avail include its CUDA performance. For those who like to run [email protected], there’s just no competition… at all. So after a game, you can still make full use of your GPU and make a difference. In addition, there’s also PhysX support, and for that, the card can be used as a slave down the road when you look to upgrade. That’s a benefit AMD unfortunately cannot provide.

As usual when comparing two similar NVIDIA and AMD cards, it all comes down to features here. AMD offers superb multi-display support and improved power consumption, while NVIDIA offers CUDA, PhysX and improved DX11 support. The factors you care about most should make choosing the right graphics card easy.

March 25, 2011 Addendum: The original price I quoted the GeForce GTX 550 Ti as was $130, when in fact it’s $150. The reason behind the mistake is that NVIDIA’s marketing materials listed a $129 price-point, but what we didn’t catch was that the company was talking about the older GeForce GTS 450 which the 550 Ti replaces. We apologize for the error.

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