When you hear the expression “graphics card”, the first thing that probably comes to mind is beasts from the high price segment. Well, this time we'll deal with models that don't require you to spend hundreds of euros for a graphics card. The two Radeon HD 5550 models that we've received have little in common bar the same GPU. They are different in memory quantity and size, dimensions, frequencies, performance, and perhaps most importantly - target market. This interesting date was joined by the new GeForce GT 430, the weakest graphics card based on the Fermi architecture, one that we expected a lot from.
Radeon HD 5550 to the Max
Sapphire has made this model for buyers who wish to both play all the freshest titles and get as good a deal as possible. The graphics core is factory-overclocked to 650 MHz (the default clock being 550 MHz), and since an excellent Arctic Cooling solution with an 80 mm fan and aluminium cooling body has been put in charge of cooling it, there should be room for an additional overclock of 100-150 MHz without increase in voltage (factory settings were used for obtaining benchmark results). Despite all this, the cooler is exceptionally quiet, its dimensions are formidable and will prevent the usage of the closest slot on most motherboards. As the final price is nevertheless imperative in this category, price cuts had to be made in some department. Sapphire has opted for only 512 MB of graphics memory, but of GDDR5 type, which enables four times the throughput of the memory controller's default frequency. As it's been proven countless times by now (this review included), a smaller quantity of faster memory is always a better solution than a larger quantity of slower one, so we're more than glad that Sapphire's opted for this solution.
As far as multimedia is concerned, you won't be disappointed either. The card has DVI, HDMI and DisplayPort connectors. The thing that we could reproach is that you won't get a DVI-to-VGA adapter with the card, despite most potential buyers of this models still working with VGA monitors - unless you have an adapter of the sort from the previous card, you'll have to buy a new one. However, buy this card, and you'll get a price reduction coupon of 45% for buying Total Media Theatre 3.
This card will satisfy any moderate gamer who doesn't care much about object edge aliasing in 3D games, but cares very much about the price. Of course, don't even think about playing games in 1680x1050 or higher in newer games. If your graphics card budget is around 70 euros, you'll hardly find a better graphics card in this price range, especially having in mind its overclock potential.
ASUS for HTPCs
When it first appeared, the HTPC (home theatre PC) class quickly rose to fame, making a real boom on the market. It was the weapon of choice for those who only required a PC for films, music and internet access. However, due to not being properly informed, many bought PCs that had neither a strong enough graphics card nor CPU for watching films in full HD. This put them in a rather unpleasant situation - they had a freshly bought PC that had turned out to be underachieving, without the resources for buying another one. As most HTPC enclosures are rather short, the only way to fix this was by buying a low-profile graphics card. Well, this card comes bundled with a low-profile bracket for mounting into all HTPC enclosures. As far as connectors are concerned, what you'll find on this card is analogue VGA and digital DVI and HDMI. Since compatibility was imperative in this model, there was little room for exhibitions concerning the cooling system, which means that a very small fan was placed along with a cooling body that covered as much “territory” as possible without encroaching on the room for other components. Therefore, the default GPU clock of 550 MHz has remained. The thing that we didn't like was the choice of video memory. The manufacturer has opted for 1 GB of GDDR3. Watching films in full HD won't be a problem for this card, but if you ever get the need to play some games, you'll have trouble getting a high enough FPS rate in a good deal of modern games. To make things worse, a large quantity of memory has risen the price of the entire card, without making a significant impact in performance. Finally, the memory bus throughput in ASUS' model is a mere 25.6 GB/s, while Sapphire goes up to an entire 64 GB/s.
As ASUS has always tried to reward its customers even in lower product categories, this card comes with a discount coupon for Battlefield: Bad Company 2, amounting to 10%.
The Weakest Fermi
Besides the cards based on already well-known chips, we've received something new for testing as well. NVIDIA GF108 is the weakest chip in the Fermi-based series, allegedly up to par with similarly priced Radeons. We expected a lot from this card, since both the number of CUDA cores and the memory subsystem are the same as on GeForce GT 240, so we were hoping for GT 430 to be at a little faster due to optimizations introduced by the new architecture.
Yet we were wrong. We don't know whether the previous Fermi cards are better than their predecessors due to the pumped up memory bus, a higher number of CUDA cores, or whether a mere four ROPs (rendering output units) have crippled the performance of the new model that much, yet the new GeForce GT 430 is nowhere near the speed of a Radeon HD 5670. These cards are similarly priced and both represent the strongest solutions the companies have to offer without the need for an additional power connector (i.e. other than the required PCI-Express power input), so the idea of comparing them seemed obvious to us. Game results have proven otherwise, placing GT430 within the grasp of HD 5550 and HD 5570 rather than HD 5670 (the test results of which you can find in a recently published article; they were run on the same platform).
Lamentable 3D results aside, the card is more than successful in the multimedia section. NVIDIA was fully aware that GT 430 is no speed champion that's going to take away awards, so they did their best to implement all multimedia capabilities that the users could need. The installed HDMI output is the latest 1.4a version, which means that it can transfer 3D video in HD; it also provides support for lossless DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD audio bit-streaming. We have nothing to reproach in this regard, therefore, ASUS has managed to implement everything flawlessly. This card is also a low-profile one, and the cooler isn't too noisy either, so “bedroom” users won't have any trouble with it. The temperatures are nothing dramatic, 55 degrees Celcius under full load. As the fan's default RPM rate is at around 50%, users with bat-hearing can additionally slow it down via the provided software without endangering the card, making it virtually silent. We have to commend the presence of all three popular video outputs (HDMI, DVI and VGA), which completely eliminates any concern for adapters. Finally, overclock capabilities have proven to be rather nice, since the GPU climbed up to 870 MHz (albeit with the fan set to 100%), with a performance jump proportional to the megahertz one.
Which card to pick? Well, if you have a low-profile compact enclosure, and wish to enable your HTPC to do the job it was supposed to from the very beginning, opt for an ASUS card, depending on your preference of “red” or “green”. If you have an HTPC with a weaker CPU, we recommend GeForce, because of its top-notch video decoder which “chews up” practically any variant of H.264 video, whether via the DXVA subsystem or using the CoreAVC Pro codec, which supports decoding via CUDA extensions. Radeons have seen trouble, however rarely, with certain films being unable to decode via DXVA due to disrespecting the guidelines of the H.264 level when they were originally encoded, while CoreAVC Pro still doesn't support ATI's Stream technology. In these cases, decoding will be entirely software-wise, which won't cheer up users with weaker CPUs all that much.
If your enclosure has enough space for a standard-dimension card, and you enjoy a game or two every now and then, the performance/price ratio is absolutely on Sapphire's side.
|ASUS EAH5550/G/DI/1GD3(LP)||Sapphire Radeon HD 5550 OC Edition||ASUS ENGT430|
|GPU codename||AMD Redwood||AMD Redwood||NVIDIA GF108|
|GPU/shader frequency||550 MHz||650 MHz||700 / 1400 MHz|
|Stream/CUDA cores||320 (comparable to 64 on NVIDIA)||320 (comparable to 64 on NVIDIA)||96|
|ROP/texture units||8 / 16||8 / 16||4 / 16|
|Memory type / qty. / bus||GDDR3 / 1 GB / 128-bit||GDDR5 / 512 MB / 128-bit||GDDR3 / 1 GB / 128-bit|
|Memory freq. / effective||800 / 1,600 MHz||1,000 / 4,000 MHz||800 / 1,600 MHz|
|Price||around 72€||around 68€||sample|