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Conclusion

There are both highs and lows about the Radeon HD 4550 graphics card we have tested today. Priced at $50, it offers a lot of features such as the hardware video-decoder ATI UVD2 that can decode H.264 and VC-1 formats (Nvidia’s solutions have more limited decoding capabilities). UVD2 is complemented with an integrated eight-channel HDMI audio core that supports the high-definition formats Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD. Coupled with its very low power draw (less than 20W under full load), this makes the Radeon HD 4550 a perfect choice for a home HD content-oriented multimedia center connected to a full-HD LCD panel via HDMI.

Our tests showed that the Radeon HD 4550 ensures unrivalled quality when playing Blu-ray and HD DVD movies but it is somewhat inferior to its opponents when it comes to playing ordinary DVDs. This is a drawback since many users have accumulated huge collections of DVDs and want to enjoy them for many years. On the other hand, the playback quality depends largely on driver optimizations, so it is quite possible that the HD 4550 will play DVDs with as high quality as the other such cards from ATI. Moreover, it is important to remember that DVDs have a resolution of only 720x480 (for NTSC) and 720x576 (for PAL), so old movies do not look very pretty on large LCD panels irrespective of what video-processor you use.

The Radeon HD 4550 showed itself good at hardware decoding of high-resolution video. The CPU load was mostly within 30% with occasional peaks above 40%, which is an excellent result for any graphics card.

However, the owner of a HTPC and a full-HD panel may also want to use his system for playing games, especially as the large LCD panel ensures a deeper immersion into the gaming world than an ordinary PC monitor, but the Radeon HD 4550 is virtually unable to run modern 3D games at a high speed due to its cut-down subsystems of texture processors and raster back-ends. This card could not provide a playable frame rate in any of the games we tested it in.

Considering that we performed our tests at 1280x1024, we can suppose that the Radeon HD 4550 is going to be just as slow at the HD-ready resolution of 1366x768 and far slower at the full-HD resolution of 1920x1080.

Thus, the Radeon HD 4550 should only be installed into a HTPC if the latter is not going to run modern 3D games. It may be an inexpensive, compact and quiet system with low power consumption. If you want a universal HTPC, you should take a look at the more advanced products from ATI, e.g. the Radeon HD 4850. Having similar multimedia capabilities, this card is far faster in games than the Radeon HD 4550 and costs less than $150.

The Radeon HD 4550, on its part, is meant for small and quiet HTPCs with low gaming performance or as an alternative to an integrated graphics core if you don’t want to use the latter for some reason.

Highs:

  • Wide range of supported FSAA modes
  • Best edge detect CFAA quality in the industry
  • Excellent quality of anisotropic filtering
  • DirectX 10.1 and Shader Model 4.1 support
  • Fully-fledged hardware HD video decoding
  • High-quality HD video post-processing with scalability
  • Built-in 8-channel audio controller with HD support
  • Sound over HDMI
  • Compact PCB design
  • Low power consumption
  • Low heat dissipation
  • Low noise / completely quiet solution
  • No compatibility issues
  • Low price

Lows:

  • Extremely low performance in contemporary games
 
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