MSI Radeon HD 3650 Graphics Card Review

ATI Radeon graphics card family has recently acquired a new member: ATI Radeon HD 3650. Todayw e will discuss one of the solutions based on this chip - MSI R3650-T2D512-OC – and will fid out if it is worthy representative of the ATI Radeon HD 3000 family that can offer new performance level in the Sub-$100 price range.

by Alexey Stepin , Yaroslav Lyssenko
05/27/2008 | 11:07 AM

The announcement of the RV670 GPU didn’t brought ATI, the graphics department of AMD, absolute technical superiority, yet the Radeon HD 3870 and HD 3850 proved to be lucky solutions and gained popularity among people who didn’t have much money to spend for a graphics card. The aggressive price policy contributed to that. The ATI Radeon HD 3870 X2, released later on, even brought the company the crown of the developer of fastest graphics cards for a while.

 

ATI didn’t forget about entry-level products belonging to the price niche of $100 and less. Notwithstanding the pressure from Intel’s integrated solutions, inexpensive discrete graphics cards are still highly popular among system integrators, OEMs and thrifty users who don’t need high gaming performance but plan to use such features as hardware HD video decoding. The ATI Radeon HD 3650 is an example of such a solution. What distinguishes it from the previous generation of entry-level Radeons?

The Radeon HD 2600 series was based on the RV630 core manufactured on 65nm tech process while the ATI Radeon HD 3650 features an improved version of that core, called RV635 and manufactured on 55nm tech process. It is the same tech process as is used to manufacture the RV670. Besides, the RV635 has acquired support for DirectX 10.1 and PCI Express 2.0 and quite rightly belongs to the ATI Radeon HD 3000 series. The name of the Radeon HD 3650 card is not merely a marketing trick as is the case with Nvidia’s GeForce 9800 GTX and 9600 GSO.

On the other hand, the basic specs of the Radeon HD 3650 are the same as those of the Radeon HD 2600. Moreover, the new card is not necessarily going to deliver more performance.

Click to enlarge

Easy to see, both series have the same amount of functional subunits. The clock rates are the only significant difference. The Radeon HD 3650 has lower operating frequencies than the Radeon HD 2600 XT GDDR4 but higher than the Radeon HD 2600 Pro. The 128-bit memory bus makes it obvious that the card cannot provide high performance in modern games, but it is hardly the purpose of a solution that comes at a recommended price of only $99 even if it is equipped with fast GDDR3 memory. The junior version of the card is equipped with slow GDDR2 memory which is but rarely installed on graphics cards today, and costs only $79. It is called Radeon HD 3650, too. So, there exist two versions of Radeon HD 3650 with dramatically different performance. It can be quite confusing for the customer especially if the manufacturer doesn’t indicate the memory type on the product box explicitly.

The Radeon HD 3650 cannot be fast in 3D applications but it can appeal to the user with its low price and rich functionality as it incorporates a best-in-industry video-processor and an integrated audio core. Coupled with 55nm tech process, the described product may make a perfect choice for an inexpensive and quiet multimedia system.

The Radeon HD 3650 is represented by MSI’s R3650-T2D512-OC model in this review. It is in the mainstream and performance-mainstream sectors that graphics cards are especially variegated. Let’s see if MSI’s product has any original traits.

Package and Accessories

The card comes into retail in a rather small box. It is designed in the same way as the MSI R3870X2-T2D1G we tested earlier and resembles the boxes of professional sound cards from E-MU Systems: a vertical plate on the left with the manufacturer’s name, and the model name below.

The design is simple, stern and not frivolous at all as opposed to many other boxes with graphics cards. The face side shows a picture of an android. Robotics seems to be the favorite theme of MSI’s designers as it is utilized in product boxes of all MSI cards based on ATI Radeon HD processors. In the right part of the box there is a row of red plates telling the customer important facts about the product such as the type and amount of graphics memory which are especially important for Radeon HD 3650 as we noted above. It’s clear that we’ve got a non-standard solution. The reference Radeon HD 3650 with GDDR3 has 256MB of onboard memory while the MSI card has two times as much. The OC Edition sticker indicates increased frequencies – we’ll talk about that shortly.

The box contains a cardboard tray. The graphics card and accessories lie in the compartments of this tray:

The accessories are rather odd, even archaic, for 2008 when the digital connection standards DVI and HDMI have nearly ousted the analog YPbPr standard, let alone the outdated S-Video and Composite formats. You can’t expect high gaming performance from RV635-based solutions, so it is especially sad that the kit doesn’t include a DVI-I → HDMI adapter which is mentioned in the accessories section of the official MSI website. A software HD video player is missing, too. That’s a significant downside considering that the R3650-T2D512-OC is obviously not a gaming card. On the other hand, this software would make the product more expensive. The current version of CyberLink PowerDVD costs over $50, but software is usually cheaper when included with hardware components. Still, the official price of the Radeon HD 3650 is only $99 and even $10 would make a difference for the end-user as well as manufacturer.

Among the exclusive software from MSI we can note the MSI Live Update tool for updating not only the driver but also the graphics card’s BIOS. The Dynamic Overclocking Technology is hardly valuable with respect to an RV635-based solution because the effect from overclocking is going to be negligible in games. You may also find the MSI Vivid technology interesting although we are rather skeptical about various kinds of software enhancements of the sound or image.

The AMD Ruby ROM Volume 1 disc contains an exclusive screensaver and desktop wallpaper with ATI’s official sex symbol, the red-haired Ruby, a few demos of games including Call of Juarez and Stranglehold, and a game client for the online RPG Dungeon Runners. This disc is just a nice free bonus.

So, the packaging of the MSI R3650-T2D512-OC is high quality but the accessories are just satisfactory and mostly due to the low price of the product. Of course, we didn’t hope to find an expensive software HD player included with a $100 graphics card but we guess a DVI-I → HDMI adapter must be provided if the product is meant for multimedia applications.

PCB Design, Specs, Cooling System

MSI’s card uses the reference PCB design developed especially for the Radeon HD 3650. The PCB looks sophisticated due to the dense component placement, yet it is only because the PCB is small. The card is very compact and can be easily installed into any system case save for low-profile systems that don’t have a riser to turn the PCI Express x16 slot by 90 degrees.

 

The power circuit is very simple, the RV635 requiring even less power than the RV670. The two-phase GPU voltage regulator is based on an uPI uP6201BQ controller (reference samples of Radeon HD 3870/3850 have an uP6201AQ controller). Each phase has two power transistors but the design allows installing three transistors per each phase. This improvement will hardly be necessary for RV635-based cards, though. A separate regulator based on an uP6101BSA chip (we know it from Radeon HD 3870/3850, too) is responsible for the memory chips. The card lacks an external power connector and does not actually need one. By our estimates, its power consumption is 30-40W. The power section of the PCI Express can provide far more than this.

There are 8 chips of GDDR3 memory on the card, four on the face side and four on the reverse side of the PCB. It is impossible to put all the chips on the face side of such a small PCB. These Qimonda HYB18H512321BF-10 chips have a capacity of 512Mbit (16Mbit x 32), a voltage of 2.0V, and a rated frequency of 1000 (2000) MHz. The memory frequency is 800 (1600) MHz, the same as on the reference Radeon HD 3650. It means there is some room for increasing the memory frequency considering the specs of the memory chips. On the other hand, the 128-bit memory bus limits the bandwidth, which is only 25.6GBps by default. Even if the memory is overclocked to its rated frequency of 1000 (2000) MHz, the resulting bandwidth will only be 32GBps which is a very modest number for a modern graphics card.

The GPU die is very small as you could guess considering the RV630 specs and the 55nm tech process. The marking on the core doesn’t tell us anything valuable save for the manufacturing date, which is the sixth week of 2008 (February 3 – 9). The GPU frequency is higher than the reference card’s: 750MHz against 725MHz of the Radeon HD 3650 and 800MHz of the ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT GDDR4 (see this news story for details). This modest overclocking can hardly produce a notable effect in games and help outperform the predecessor.

As noted above, the RV635 has the same amount of functional subunits as its predecessor. The GPU incorporates 120 ALUs grouped into 24 superscalar execution modules with 5 ALUs in each (4 ALUs can execute simple instructions like MAD while the fifth has a more complex architecture and can execute transcendental instructions like SIN, COS, LOG, EXP, etc). This architecture has its pros and cons as we have described in our previous graphics card reviews concerning the ATI Radeon HD series.

Besides the computing part, the core has two large texture processors roughly equivalent to 8 TMUs and one raster processor which is comparable to 4 classic ROPs. That’s more than modest in comparison with Nvidia’s G94, let alone G92 even in cut-down configurations. We cannot expect the Radeon HD 3650 to set any performance records. The GPU also features a second-generation UVD video-processor and an audio core that supports audio-over-HDMI.

Belonging to the low-end sector, the Radeon HD 3650 has two standard CrossFire connectors for building CrossFireX configurations. This feature has little practical value, though. The card is also equipped with two dual-link DVI-I ports with support of resolutions up to 2560x1500 and HDMI (with an adapter), and a universal mini-DIN port for analog video output.

The R3650-T2D512-OC has a non-reference cooler. It is a rather simple thing, resembling Thermaltake’s Orb or Zalman’s models with a radial placement of the heatsink ribs and a fan nestled in the center to blow in every direction. The heatsink is made from aluminum. It wouldn’t be wise to use expensive copper in such a cheap product with such a low level of heat dissipation. The fan has a 3-wire connection although the connector on the PCB has 4 pins and supports PWM-based speed management.

The heatsink is surrounded with an air-directing aluminum frame that also serves as a decoration. It is embellished with an MSI logo and a picture of an android girl. The cooler is fastened to the PCB with four spring-loaded nuts that are put on the heatsink’s threaded mounting poles. The nuts are fragile – you should be cautious with them if you want to replace the thermal interface or replace the cooler. There is an X-shaped back-plate that prevents the PCB from bending although this is hardly necessary due to the low weight of the cooler.

This cooler seems to be even redundant for a Radeon HD 3650 yet its surplus performance can be used to reduce the level of noise. The next section will tell you how noisy it really is.

Power Consumption, Noise, Temperature, Overclockability and Compatibility

The R3650-T2D512-OC is the first sample of Radeon HD 3650 we’ve ever dealt with, so we perform our standard procedure of measuring its power draw. It is done on a special testbed with the following configuration:

3D load is created by the first SM3.0/HDR test from 3DMark06 running in a loop at 1600x1200 with 4x FSAA and 16 anisotropic filtering. The Peak 2D mode was emulated by the 2D Transparent Windows test from PCMark05. We’ve got the following results:


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The MSI card differs from ATI’s reference sample with the amount of memory and a slightly higher GPU frequency, so these results are also indicative of the reference card’s power draw. Our estimate of the consumption of RV635-based cards is quite correct: hardly above 40W in the 3D mode. The load is far from the load capacity of the PCI Express slot, which is 75W for PCI Express 1.0 and 150W for PCI Express 2.0. The extremely low result in the idle mode is due to PowerPlay technology which lowers the GPU frequency to 110MHz and the memory frequency to 400 (800) MHz.

The MSI R3650-T2D512-OC uses an original cooler, but we decided to measure its noise level to see if it was right to use such a massive cooler on a GPU with low heat dissipation. We checked this out with a digital sound-level meter Velleman DVM1326 using A-curve weighing. The level of ambient noise in our lab was 36dBA and the level of noise at a distance of 1 meter from the working testbed with a passively cooled graphics card inside was 43dBA. Here are the results:

The card is indeed silent after the OS boots up and loads the Catalyst driver. The cooling efficiency is high as the CPU temperature is only 30°C in idle mode and 53°C under load. In other words, the card can be used in compact system cases. You shouldn’t fear overheat unless your system case has no vent holes at all.

Our attempt to overclock the card using RivaTuner was not successful. The latest official version of that tool does not support the RV635. In the ATI Catalyst settings the core frequency slider is at the maximum by default. The memory frequency slider allows to overclock it by 25MHz only, which cannot have a great effect on the card’s performance.

We found no compatibility issues between the MSI card and mainboards we tried it with. Thanks to the mechanism for PCI Express identification ATI Radeon HD 3000 GPUs start up in PCI Express 1.0 mode and then switch into the faster mode if it is supported by the chipset.

Testbed and Methods

For our performance tests of MSI R3650-T2D512-OC graphics card we put together the following testbed:

According to our testing methodology, the drivers were set up to provide the highest possible quality of texture filtering and to minimize the effect of software optimizations used by default by both: AMD/ATI and Nvidia. Also, to ensure maximum image quality, we enabled transparent texture filtering - Adaptive Anti-Aliasing/Multi-sampling for ATI Catalyst and Antialiasing – Transparency: Multisampling for Nvidia ForceWare. As a result, our ATI and Nvidia driver settings looked as follows:

ATI Catalyst:

Nvidia ForceWare:

For our tests we used the following games and synthetic benchmarks:

First-Person 3D Shooters

Third-Person 3D Shooters

RPG

Strategies

Synthetic Benchmarks

We selected the highest possible level of detail in each game using standard tools provided by the game itself from the gaming menu. The games configuration files weren’t modified in any way. The only exception was Enemy Territory: Quake Wars game where we disabled the built-in fps rate limitation locked at 30fps. Games supporting DirectX 10 were tested in this particular mode.

Besides MSI R3650-T2D512-OC we have also included the following graphics accelerators to participate in our test session:

Unfortunately, we didn’t have the new Nvidia budget solution – GeForce 9600 GSO – available at the time of tests. However, this product is priced slightly higher: $129 vs. $99 for ATI Radeon HD 3650 GDDR3.

Except a few especially demanding games, the tests were performed in the following resolutions: 1280x1024/960, 1600x1200 and 1920x1200. If the game didn’t support 16:10 display format, we set the last resolution to 1920x1440. We used “eye candy” mode everywhere, where it was possible without disabling the HDR/Shader Model 3.0/Shader Model 4.0. Namely, we ran the tests with enabled anisotropic filtering 16x as well as MSAA 4x antialiasing. We enabled them from the game’s menu. If this was not possible, we forced them using the appropriate driver settings of ATI Catalyst and Nvidia ForceWare drivers.

Performance was measured with the games’ own tools and the original demos were recorded if possible. Otherwise, the performance was measured manually with Fraps utility version 2.9.1. We measured not only the average speed, but also the minimum speed of the cards where possible.

Performance in First-Person 3D Shooters

Battlefield 2142

This game doesn’t support display resolutions of 16:10 format, so we use a resolution of 1920x1440 pixels (4:3 format) instead of 1920x1200 for it.

Alas, the accelerated version of ATI Radeon HD 3650 from MSI cannot boast high performance. It cannot deliver an acceptable speed at any resolution in Battlefield 2142, which is not a demanding application by today’s standards. The new card is inferior to previous-generation solutions of the same class, ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT GDDR4 and Nvidia GeForce 8600 GTS. Its low price is the only justification. The R3650-T2D512-OC is obviously not meant for serious gaming.

BioShock

BioShock doesn’t support FSAA when running in Windows Vista’s DirectX 10 environment. That’s why we benchmarked the cards without FSAA.

The MSI card is not far behind the Radeon HD 2600 XT GDDR4, probably because there is no FSAA. Still, the speed of the Radeon HD 3650 is low for playing BioShock at the highest graphics quality settings. You’ll need a better solution with a 256-bit memory bus and at least 16 TMUs, e.g. the Radeon HD 3850.

Call of Juarez

This game is a hard test even for $500 graphics cards. Of course, we can’t expect a $100 solution to run it fast. The Radeon HD 3850 and GeForce 9600 GT cannot provide an average frame rate of 20fps while the less advanced cards don’t reach even 10fps. That’s why we limited our test to 1280x1024 resolution.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

The GeForce 9600 GT is the only card that can run Call of Duty normally at 1280x1024. The other cards are too slow, especially the RV635/R630 and G84-based solutions. MSI’s overclocking can’t affect the performance of the Radeon HD 3650 much.

Crysis

This game is tested at the High level of detail, excepting the Shaders option which is set at Very High. This way we try to achieve a compromise between image quality and speed.

The low numbers are not surprising at all. Crysis is deservedly considered one of the most demanding of today’s games. Only most expensive single cards and luxurious multi-GPUs systems can provide a more or less playable speed in it. Entry-level and mainstream solutions can do nothing here. Still, we can note the good performance of the GeForce 9600 GT in comparison with the other cards.

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars

The frame rate is fixed at 30fps in this game as this is the rate at which the physical model is being updated at the server. Thus, this 30fps speed is the required minimum for playing the game.

512 megabytes of fast GDDR3 memory can’t save the day for the MSI card. It cannot reach the desired 30fps in any mode. This proves again that this card is not meant for serious gaming.

Half-Life 2: Episode Two

The MSI card takes last place again but it delivers good performance at 1280x1024. The speed may bottom out to below comfortable level in heavy scenes, though. We recommend you to disable FSAA as this can be beneficial for a graphics card with a 128-bit memory bus.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl

The game doesn’t support FSAA when you enable the dynamic lighting model, but loses much of its visual appeal with the static model. This is the reason why we benchmarked the cards in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. using anisotropic filtering only.

ATI’s solutions have traditionally been slow in this test, the Radeon HD 3870 X2 being the only exception. The Radeon HD 3650 is architecturally alike to the Radeon HD 2600, so its low performance should have been expected. The Nvidia GeForce 9600 GT is the single card worthy of a gamer’s attention here.

Unreal Tournament 3

 

Unreal Tournament 3 is one of the few modern games with very modest system requirements. The MSI R3650-T2D512-OC delivers high performance here. You can play at resolutions up to 1600x1200. MSI’s overclocking is beneficial here as it provides a 10% performance boost relative to the ATI’s reference card.

On the other hand, both versions of the ATI Radeon HD 3650 are inferior to the Radeon HD 2600 XT GDDR4 as well as to the outdated GeForce 8600 GTS.

Performance in Third-Person 3D Shooters

Lost Planet: Extreme Condition

Overclocking helps the MSI card keep close to the Radeon HD 2600 XT GDDR4 but it has little practical value due to the low overall performance. The GeForce 9600 GT is the only card to stand out among the inexpensive solutions yet it cannot deliver a desired frame rate, either.

Tomb Raider: Legend

Having very few texture and raster processors and a 128-bit memory bus, the RV635- and RV630-based solutions cannot be fast. The GeForce 8600 GTS performs better, but it is only with modern solutions, based on the RV670 and G94 cores, that you can have really comfortable gaming conditions.

Performance in RPG

Hellgate: London

Both versions of Radeon HD 3650 take last places but none of the tested cards can provide a comfortable frame rate here. The GeForce 9600 GT is close to doing that yet it has a low minimum of speed.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

The game loses much of its visual appeal without HDR. Although some gamers argue that point, we think TES IV looks best with enabled FP HDR and test it in this mode.

The MSI card is good at 1280x1024 but the minimum speed is barely playable in open scenes. The card takes last place in the competition with the others, though. After all, the Radeon HD 3650 has the most modest technical specs among these graphics cards.

Performance in Strategies

Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts

The new add-on to Company of Heroes is tested in DirectX 10 mode only since it provides the highest quality of the visuals.

The Radeon HD 3650 cannot deliver a playable frame rate with our settings even at 1280x1024. On the other hand, the ATI Radeon HD 3850 and GeForce 9600 GT have low minimum speeds, too.

Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars

The game having a frame rate limiter, you should consider the minimum speed of the cards in the first place.

The low performance of the RV670- and RV635-based solutions is due to the lack of TMUs and raster processors. The latter are not a bottleneck in modern applications usually but ATI’s junior solutions have only four of them, which is insufficient. As a result, the junior models of Radeon HD cannot run this game normally even at 1280x1024 while the outdated GeForce 8600 GTS with 8 ROPs delivers quite comfortable performance then.

World in Conflict

The GeForce 9600 GT differs from the others here. The rest of the cards, including the Radeon HD 3850, cannot yield 10fps even. The MSI card offers a frame rate of only 7fps, which is not playable at all.

Performance in Synthetic Benchmarks

Futuremark 3DMark05

The MSI card has a lower overall score than the ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT GDDR4 due to the lower GPU and memory frequencies. Let’s see how it behaves in the individual tests.

The two versions of ATI Radeon HD 3650 take last place in every test even though the gap from the ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT GDDR4 is small in the second and third tests.

Futuremark 3DMark06

The ATI Radeon HD 3650 is the slowest card again. You can note that MSI’s pre-overclocking of the GPU has almost no effect on the final result here.

The Radeon HD 3650 behaves in the same way in both SM2.0 and SM3.0/HDR tests. In the latter group of tests it is about as fast as the Nvidia GeForce 8600 GTS which feels a lack of computing capacity. The effect from factory overclocking is negligible in both cases.

The gap between the Radeon HD 3650 and the GeForce 8600 GTS is smaller in the second SM2.0 than in the first one because the performance of the texture processors is not a decisive factor then.

Here, it is the second SM3.0/HDR test that shows a considerable advantage of the Nvidia GeForce 8600 GTS over the ATI Radeon HD 3650 although it doesn’t load the TMUs as much as the first SM3.0 test does and mainly displays HDR effects and dynamic CSM shadows. The Radeon HD architecture should cope with such shadows better thanks to Gather4/Fetch4 features but it is not so, perhaps due to the less efficient TMU architecture overall. Anyway, these results agree well with the overall 3DMark06 scores.

Conclusion

The MSI R3650-T2D512-OC is an odd product really. First of all, it is surely not meant for serious gaming. We mean playing modern 3D games at high graphics quality settings and display resolutions of 1280x1024 and higher. Moreover, the ATI Radeon HD 3650 is slower than the Radeon HD 2600 XT GDDR4.

The single game where the MSI R3650-T2D512-OC provides a really comfortable speed is Unreal Tournament 3. In Half-Life 2: Episode Two and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion this card may slow down to below comfortable level in the heaviest scenes. MSI’s factory overclocking does not bring a significant effect because it only added 25MHz to the core clock rate.

This card can hardly be viewed as an optimal choice for a multimedia center with HD video support. The kit lacks a DVI-I → HDMI adapter although HDMI is the main standard for digital home entertainment today. There is also no software for HD video playback but we didn’t actually expect to find it included with a $100 graphics card. In other words, you have to invest some more money in order to use the MSI R3650-T2D512-OC in your multimedia system. The product has a few positive features, though. It can start up newest games, has low power consumption (hardly over 40W in 3D mode) and a silent cooler.

Generally speaking, the ATI Radeon HD 3650 is a variation of the ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT with certain architectural improvements but it is unclear why the developer decided to lower the clock rates. The Radeon HD 2600 XT was not fast even with GDDR4 memory and the ATI Radeon HD 3650 turns out to be even slower. Yes, it costs a mere $99 (for the GDDR3 version) but we don’t see a proper application for it. This card cannot interest gamers and seems to be targeted at the multimedia market where its popularity will depend on the accessories included with it by the particular graphics card vendor.

MSI R3650-T2D512-OC Summary

Highs:

Lows: