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nVidia mid-range match-up, what should you buy?

Rating: 9.0.

Many nVidia fans will be wondering which card to be spending their hard-earned cash on. KitGuru lines up the competitors, points them toward the edge of the cliff, and drops the Labs’ white handkerchief.

Up until the GTX460 was launched, no one apart from hardcore NV-lovers were really interested in Fermi. Many journalists were surprised at the massive levels of power required and the pricing didn’t seem to make a lot of sense. nVidia went back to the drawing board. After several months of Jen Hsun beating his engineering and driver teams with broken bottles, we finally gave a very warm welcome to the GTX460.

While AMD has done a great job of competing in the mid-range market recently – this was, traditionally, the nVidia strong zone.

From the Ti200 and Ti4200, through the 5600 and 6600 cards to more recent times, nVidia unveiled generation after generation of winners in this market. You only need to look across at the statistics on Steam to see what we mean. Steam maintains amazing statistics about game users – and here you can see the movement from green to red from DX9 to DX11.

nVidia's mid-range classics like the 7600 have been replaced by the Radeon HD 5770.

Steam is 100% independent and the results you see are taken from a massive pool of data. nVidia’s challenge is simple. Follow up the GTX460 with something better than the GTS450. That card could be the GTX550, as long as it can beat off its brethren.

For the purposes of this test, two flavours of the GTX550 Ti have been pitted against an intelligent spread of nVidia’s mid-range offerings. While the 910MHz version of the Asus GTX550 Ti is expected to retail around the £115 inc vat mark, the Ultimate version will ship with its core clock set to a stunning 1,015MHz and will retail at just under £150.

On that basis, here’s the line-up we’ve chosen – along with an idea of the street price of each product.

The GTX550 cards are at 910MHz and 1,015MHz

.OK, so those are the riders, what does the course look like?

Today we’re trying something slightly different. When a completely new technology comes into the KitGuru Lab, Zardon will carry out his standard torture program which pokes and prods each and every corner of the new card. Result? Anywhere from 20 to 45 pages of in-depth analysis that will tell you everything you ever wanted to know – and then some.

For the GTX550, we are running a ‘KitGuru Match-Up’ where similar competitors that you’re already familiar with, get in the ring to battle it out for top position. We’ll take real world in-game performance into account, alongside the synthetic tests, the overall package you get for your money and, of course, the price itself.

Sometimes, one of these KitGuru Match-Ups might result in a tie.  How so?  Simple. Some products are great – straight out of the box. Others come out OK, but you can warp their performance characteristics with some intelligent clocking. The Radeon HD 6950 is just such a case. On its own, very good card. Flash the BIOS and it becomes a 6970 – at no extra cost. We all like that.

Pre-amble and competitors done with, let’s move onto the card shots and tests themselves.
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First we need to address the packaging. Although the Asus versions of the GTX550 comes in 3 very different clock options, the packaging is remarkably similar. If you were to buy one of these cards, then KitGuru advises you to check the speed on the box carefully first. Here’s a line up of the 3 packages – alongside our 1.015GHz test card.

Triplets? Almost. These 3 have different performance characteristics - and prices

Here is the Ultimate version of the card from a number of different angles.

GTX550 sitting on top of the box
Strange lack of technical detail
Asus custom cooler design with large central fan.
Attractively coloured PCB design.
It's still wearing protection at this stage
Several converter cables and a software disc.
KitGuru's favourite shot. Looks like a 70s turbo sports car with a huge snout and chromed manifolds

We’ll list the cards in detail in a second, but first the test bed spec.

Test System:
Processor: Intel Core i7 2600k
Memory: OCZ DDR3 1600mhz Special Ops – 4GB
Motherboard: Gigabyte P67A-UD3
Hard Drive: 64GB Kingston SSDNow
Cooler: Thermaltake Frio
Power Supply: Thermaltake ToughPower XT

For this nVidia Mid-Range Match-Up we used a mixture of synthetic benchmarks and games. The idea is to give you handle on where the new card sits – and whether or not we feel that the launch price represents value.

For the synthetic benchmarks we used Futuremark’s 3DMark Vantage and Futuremark’s latest benchmark, 3DMark 11. We also tested the DX11 capabilities of the cards with Unigine’s Heaven v2.0 benchmark. Game-wise we used FarCry 2, DiRT2 and Just Cause 2.

Here’s a quick run down of the cards in the line-up. Remember that each manufacturer will have slight variations on the specification/bundle and your ‘store of choice’ might also be carrying slightly different pricing.

GTX550 line up in price order - click to enlarge

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3DMark 11 is designed for testing DirectX 11 hardware running on Windows 7 and Windows Vista the benchmark includes six all new benchmark tests that make extensive use of all the new features in DirectX 11 including tessellation, compute shaders and multi-threading.

After running the tests 3DMark gives your system a score with larger numbers indicating better performance.

Trusted by gamers worldwide to give accurate and unbiased results, 3DMark 11 is the best way to test DirectX 11 under game-like loads.

We tested the cards with the default Performance settings.

Immediately, it becomes obvious that the GTX550 does not have enough fuel to overtake the GTX460

While the performance in 3DMark 2011 scales nicely with clock speed, given that the GTX550 we received will go on sale at almost exactly the same price as the GTX460, it’s going to be tough. Remember that the GTX460 itself can be a good overclocking card.

Futuremark released 3DMark Vantage, on April 28, 2008. It is a benchmark based upon DirectX 10, and therefore will only run under Windows Vista (Service Pack 1 is stated as a requirement) and Windows 7.  This is the first edition where the feature-restricted, free of charge version could not be used any number of times. Testing was done with the performance presets.

The positions have not changed in 3DMark Vantage

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Already a pattern is forming. Percentage-wise, the gaps between the 450, 460 and 550 options remain very similar. It will be interesting to see if these gaps change with in-game testing.

Unigine provides an interesting way to test hardware. It can be easily adapted to various projects due to its elaborated software design and flexible toolset. A lot of their customers claim that they have never seen such extremely-effective code, which is so easy to understand.

Heaven Benchmark is a DirectX 11 GPU benchmark based on advanced Unigine engine from Unigine Corp. It reveals the enchanting magic of floating islands with a tiny village hidden in the cloudy skies. Interactive mode provides emerging experience of exploring the intricate world of steampunk.

Efficient and well-architected framework makes Unigine highly scalable:

  • Multiple API (DirectX 9 / DirectX 10 / DirectX 11 / OpenGL) render
  • Cross-platform: MS Windows (XP, Vista, Windows 7) / Linux
  • Full support of 32bit and 64bit systems
  • Multicore CPU support
  • Little / big endian support (ready for game consoles)
  • Powerful C++ API
  • Comprehensive performance profiling system
  • Flexible XML-based data structures

We used the following settings for Heaven v2.0; 1920×1080, DX11, Stereo 3d (Off), Shaders (High). Tessellation (Normal), Anisotropic Filtering (x4), Anti-Aliasing (Off), Full Screen (Yes)

The GTX550 drops to last place, even with the clocks over 1GHz

The reference clocked GTS 550 performs on a par with the GTS450 scoring an average of 25 frames per second, which drops to around 17 in the more intensive sections.

Far Cry 2 (commonly abbreviated as “FC2 or “fc2″) is an open-ended first-person shooter developed by Ubisoft Montreal and published by Ubisoft. It was released on October 21, 2008 in North Americaand on October 23, 2008 in Europe and Australia. It was made available on Steam on October 22, 2008. Crytek, the developers of the original game, were not involved in the development of Far Cry 2.

Ubisoft has marketed Far Cry 2 as the true sequel to Far Cry, though the sequel has very few noticeable similarities to the original game. Instead, it features completely new characters and setting, as well as a new style of gameplay that allows the player greater freedom to explore different African landscapes such as deserts, jungles, and savannas. The game takes place in a modern-day East African nation in a state of anarchy and civil war. The player takes control of a mercenary on a lengthy journey to locate and assassinate “The Jackal,” a notorious arms dealer.

Far Cry 2 is still a popular game and the open world environment can be taxing on even the latest hardware available today.

Settings: 1920×1200, D3D10, Disable Artificial Intelligence(No), Full Screen, Anti-Aliasing(8x), VSync(No), Overall Quality(Ultra High), Vegetation(Very High), Shading(Ultra High), Terrain(Ultra High), Geometry(Ultra High), Post FX(High), Texture(Ultra High), Shadow(Ultra High), Ambient(High), Hdr(Yes), Bloom(Yes), Fire(Very High), Physics(Very High), RealTrees(Very High)map (Small Ranch x4 runs)

In-game performance between the GTX550 at 1GHz and the GTX460 is close

For the GTX550 to become a winner will need a change in price from nVidia. The 5 frames per second jump from the GTS450 to the GTX550 at 910MHz is useful and makes things smoother. Clocking up to just over 1GHz also delivers a solid increase. Unfortunately, the similarly priced GTX460 still leads.

Just Cause 2 is an open world action-adventure game and employs the Avalanche Engine 2.0, an updated version of the engine used in the original Just Cause game. Just like the original the game is set on the fictional island of Panau, only on the other side of the island from the original.

Panau has varied terrain, from desert to alpine to rainforest. Players are free to roam the game’s open world, not having to focus on the game’s storyline.

Settings1920 x 1080 Anti Aliasing (16xCSAA), Anisotropic Filtering (16x), In game details (high or Very High), Benchmark map (The Dark Tower Map)

Once again, the GTS450 pulls the GTX550 back into its sights

Still a 10% gap from the GTX550 at just over 1GHz to the GTX460. While the gap between the GTS450 and the GTX550 varies quite considerably, there really doesn’t seem to be a game that breaks the rules for the gap between the GTX550 and GTX460.

Colin McRae: Dirt 2 (known as Dirt 2 outside Europe and stylised, DiRT) is a racing game released in September 2009, and is the sequel to Colin McRae: Dirt. This is the first game in the McRae series since McRae’s death in 2007. It was announced on 19 November 2008 and features Ken Block, Travis Pastrana, Tanner Foust, and Dave Mirra. The game includes many new race-events, including stadium events. Along with the player, an RV travels from one event to another, and serves as ‘headquarters’ for the player. It features a roster of contemporary off-road events, taking players to diverse and challenging real-world environments. The game takes place across four continents: Asia, Europe, Africa and North America. The game includes five different event types: Rally, Rallycross, ‘Trailblazer,’ ‘Land Rush’ and ‘Raid.’ The World Tour mode sees players competing in multi-car and solo races at new locations, and also includes a new multiplayer mode.

Settings: 1920×1200 Raid (Croatia) Filtering (16xmsaa) Detail Settings (Ultra)

Daylight between each of the cards this time

Leaving the GTS450 off this chart shows a very clear stepping between the cards. For some reason, the GTS450 stubbornly refused to engage DiRT 2 at the required resolution. We did some runs at different resolutions and there was no issue at all, but not at the 1920 setting required here – so we left it off.

The Asus GTX550 Ultimate card we tested looks great, works well and was cool and quiet under pressure. We love the design of the DirectCU II cooler and the idea of buying a card off the shelf at more than 1GHz is very attractive. Unfortunately, when all of the initial love-fest is over, you’re left with the actual performance against the other cards in the nVidia range.

It’s so obviously better than the GTS450 and so obviously slower than the GTX460. On that basis, it has a position in the market – but the big problem is the price for the turbo-charged versions.

With a street price of £115 inc vat, the stock clocked Asus GTX550 Ti looks to be about £5 more than the Asus GTS450 TOP that we tested. While the performance delta is small in some games, you can get more than 10% in some titles. The memory interface is wider than with the GTS450 products and we know that the core has more potential than the 910MHz is ships with as standard.

It’s worth saying that the GTX560 is a beast of a card which deserves its lead in every test. While we can call it cheap in comparison to the new top of the range models from AMD and nVidia, it’s hard to see a gamer who is focused on value being drawn to the >£200 price point, except in passing.

KitGuru’s conclusion is that the GTX460 is still nVidia’s standard bearer in the £150 region (plus or minus £45) and it should be on the short list for any mid-range system being considered by an nVidia lover.

While Asus’ Ultimate edition is both visually sexy and technically interesting – our top prize must go to the very competitively priced Asus GTX550 Ti. At £115 this is a bargain and no mistake. Many people will buy a single card to start with and then, maybe, consider upgrading to SLi at a later date. For that reason, we will be looking at GTX550 in SLi formation sometime in the future.

KitGuru says: For now, the £115 1GB Asus GTX550 Ti is a worthy winner and definitely recommended at this price point.


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