GeForce GTX 550 Ti Graphics Accelerator Review: MSI N550GTX-Ti Cyclone OC

GeForce GTX 550 Ti launched without much fuss and fireworks, but it is the mainstream solutions that usually find their way into our computer systems. Please meet our first candidate – MSI N550GTX-Ti Cyclone OC!

by Yaroslav Lyssenko
03/28/2011 | 11:27 AM

In most industries, and especially in IT, sales are expected to peak twice a year during the back-to-school and Christmas seasons when many people go shopping to buy stuff for their children or relations. The manufacturers, on their part, try to prepare their most exciting and innovative solutions right in time for these period of high demand. This is why the beginning of 2011 in the graphics card market may look somewhat odd as AMD and Nvidia were both unveiling new products in every price segment. This unusual behavior is due to the fierce competition which doesn’t let the GPU developers take a break.

 

The California-headquartered Nvidia has recently released the most affordable solution in its newest 500 series of graphics cards. It is called GeForce GTX 560 Titanium (or just Ti; you may remember that Nvidia used this abbreviation back in the times of CRT monitors and AGP graphics cards). Coming at a recommended price of $250, the new card is about 30% faster overall than the previous-generation products from the same price category.

However, the GPU developers themselves have repeatedly emphasized the fact that they earn most of their money by selling products which cost less than $200, which means that Nvidia needed another solution to replace the outdated GeForce GTS 450. The company did announce this replacement a couple of weeks ago, so today we are going to take a look at the new GeForce GTX 550 Ti graphics card.

GeForce GTX 550 Ti: Positioning and Specifications

Having made a big step forward with its newest top-end solutions in terms of technologies, Nvidia refrains from introducing anything particularly new into the midrange segment with the GeForce GTX 550 Ti.

The table above indicates that the new card is largely a product of marketing decision-making rather than an implementation of a new technology for affordable graphics solutions. The new GF114 is just bigger than the old GF106 in a most brutal and unsophisticated way. The most significant difference is the use of a 192-bit memory bus instead of the GeForce GTS 450’s 128-bit one, which boosts the peak memory bandwidth by 70%.

The number of stream processors has remained the same at 192 but they are clocked now at 900 MHz. This cannot have as high an effect on the card's resulting performance as what we can expect from the six extra raster operators, though.

While the improvements are obvious, the new GeForce GTX 500 series product doesn’t look any better than the highly successful GeForce GTX 460 768MB, let alone the latter’s elder cousin.

Closer Look at MSI N550GTX-Ti Cyclone OC

PCB Design

The Taiwan-based MSI was the first company to offer us their version of the new card. It’s called N550GTX-Ti Cyclone OC.

The product comes in a very eye-catching box. You just can’t miss it on a shop shelf.

We’d even call it indiscreetly gaudy for an affordable product. The numerous logotypes and captions tell the customer that this graphics card features a nonstandard cooling system Cyclone II as well as highly reliable military-grade electronic components. It supports Nvidia’s PhysX and even 3DMark11. Such a flashy design isn't MSI's invention, though. We've seen something like that with Gigabyte’s products.

Despite the remarkable packaging, the accessories are far from gorgeous. We found the following inside, besides the actual graphics card:

There is even tougher competition among graphics card vendors than between the two GPU developers, so MSI engineers had to work hard to make this product special and, consequently, desirable.

The first and rather expected decision was to pre-overclock the card. Instead of the reference sample’s 900 and 4100 MHz for the GPU and memory, the N550GTX-Ti Cyclone OC has clock rates of 950 and 4300 MHz, respectively, and MSI offers a warranty for that. Perhaps not as much overclocking as some enthusiasts would ask for, this is quite a nice bonus to performance which you can enjoy right out of the box.

A large black fan of the cooling system is a prominent feature in the card’s appearance. As a matter of fact, the standard cooler of the reference GeForce GTX 550 Ti is good and does not really call for a replacement, but MSI decided to use a custom cooler to make this card even more attractive.

Indeed, it is not often that a mainstream graphics card gets to be cooled by a 90mm fan. Combining a large heatsink with an effective fan, the custom cooler not only lowers the GPU temperature by 20% (MSI’s number) but also helps cool the rest of the PCB components. The single downside of this cooling system is its size. The heat pipes and the decorative details stick out beyond the PCB dimensions by as much as 2.5 centimeters, so you should make sure your system case can accommodate the card before purchasing it.

The cooler’s heatsink is a rather sophisticated thing that consists of four parts. There is a nickel-plated copper base to which a couple of heat pipes are attached. Two sets of aluminum fins are glued to the pipes. There is also an additional heatsink that serves as a fan seat. We have no doubts this cooler can easily dissipate those 116 watts of heat that the GeForce GTX 550 Ti is declared to generate.

The cooler is fastened to the PCB with four spring-loaded screws. Taking it off, we can see a GF116-400-A1 graphics core and six memory chips. Our sample of the card has Hynix H5GQ2H24MFR memory with a rated frequency of 1250 (5000) MHz.

The PCB is quite densely populated. Although the card is positioned as an affordable product, the manufacturer does not seem to have saved on its components.

As we mentioned above, there are military-grade electronic components in the card’s power circuit, which is yet another advantage besides the large box, efficient cooler and factory overclocking. The manufacturer claims that they help lower the level of EMI, protect against voltage surges, and may also improve the card's overclocking potential.

The MSI N550GTX-Ti Cyclone OC supports SLI technology and has an appropriate connector.

The card’s connectivity options are rather limited by today's standards. There are three connectors on its mounting bracket: two DVI-I ports and one mini-HDMI. This selection of interfaces can hardly be called insufficient but MSI engineers have ignored the next generation of multimedia interfaces such as DisplayPort.

Power Consumption, Temperature, Noise, Overclockability

We are going to check out the power appetite of our MSI N550GTX-Ti Cyclone OC graphics card based on the latest GF116 using our traditional testbed with the following configuration: 

The new testbed for measuring electric characteristics of graphics cards uses a card designed by one of our engineers, Oleg Artamonov, and described in his article called PC Power Consumption: How Many Watts Do We Need?. As usual, we used the following benchmarks to load the graphics accelerators:

Except for the maximum load simulation with OCCT, we measured power consumption in each mode for 60 seconds. We limited the run time of OCCT: GPU to 10 seconds to avoid overloading the graphics card's power circuitry. Here are the obtained results:

There are no surprises here. The GeForce GTX 550 Ti needs only 11 watts when idle. That's a normal result for a modern graphics card. At low loads like Blu-ray playback the MSI card consumes 41 watts. The electric current in the 12-volt 6-pin power connector increases then, so you shouldn’t forget to plug your power supply's connector into it. Working under heavy load, the N550GTX-Ti Cyclone OC had a peak power draw of 91 watts. Let’s have a look at the comparative table now.

More performance for fewer watts – that’s the motto of the GeForce GTX 550 Ti! The peak power consumption has only increased by 7 watts over that of the previous-generation GeForce GTS 450 card. Considering that the new card has more raster operators, higher clock rates and a wider memory bus, such a small increase in power consumption is a technical achievement. On the other hand, the GF116 is inferior to the Radeon HD 5770 solutions and can only compare with the Radeon HD 6850 in terms of power draw.

Now what about the temperature?

The N550GTX-Ti Cyclone OC has the best result here, which might be expected considering its advanced cooling system. Of course, the GF116 doesn’t dissipate too much heat, yet the effect from the Cyclone OC is clear even under such conditions. Working at low loads, the card had a GPU temperature of 28°C. The temperature increased to only 52°C at high load, which proves the efficiency of the custom cooler.

MSI's card is also good in terms of noisiness. The Cyclone OC is close to the ambient noise in 2D applications but gets louder, up to 42 dB, in 3D mode. This is not a reason to search for a replacement, but we must note that the standard coolers installed on the GeForce GTS 450 and Radeon HD 5770 produce the same amount of noise. The fan speed changes from 1300 to 2300 RPM as the load increases, which is the reason for the noise.

The MSI N550GTX-Ti Cyclone OC is the first GF116-based product we tried to overclock. We were lucky with our sample and added 100 MHz to its factory overclocking, reaching a GPU clock rate of 1050 MHz (2100 MHz for the shader domain). The memory subsystem did well, too. We overclocked it from 1075 (4300) to 1175 (4700) MHz. Thus, the MSI N550GTX-Ti Cyclone OC easily conquered the 1GHz barrier.

Talking about the overclocking potential of this product, we shouldn't omit the exclusive overclocking tool MSI Afterburner. Computer enthusiasts should be familiar with it. It used to be called RivaTuner and developed independently, reaching the status of a leader among GPU overclocking tools. A couple of years ago MSI decided to establish its own tuning agency, like Mercedes-Benz’s AMG, and took RivaTuner under its aegis. So now everyone can download this tool, which has acquired a new interface and a new name, from the company’s official website.

Of course, the MSI card is fully compatible with that software. Moreover, you can use Afterburner to easily adjust the GPU voltage without changing any registry keys or editing configuration files.

According to the official page, MSI Afterburner offers the following features, among many others:

This is an indispensable tool for any overclocker but you should keep it in mind that your graphics card warranty won’t cover any damages inflicted by your having increased the clock rates and/or voltages above the default values.

Testbed and Methods

We are going to investigate the gaming performance of MSI N550GTX-Ti Cyclone OC using the following universal testbed:

We used the following ATI Catalyst and Nvidia GeForce drivers:

The ATI Catalyst and Nvidia GeForce graphics card drivers were configured in the following way:

ATI Catalyst:

Nvidia GeForce:

Below is the list of games and test applications we used during this test session:

First-Person 3D Shooters

Third-Person 3D Shooters

RPG

Simulators

Strategies

Semi-synthetic and synthetic benchmarks

We selected the highest possible level of detail in each game. If the application supported tessellation, we enabled it for the test session.

For settings adjustment, we used standard tools provided by the game itself from the gaming menu. The games configuration files weren’t modified in any way, because the ordinary user doesn’t have to know how to do it. We ran our tests in the following resolutions: 1600x900, 1920x1080 and 2560x1600. Unless stated otherwise, everywhere, where it was possible we added MSAA 4x antialiasing to the standard anisotropic filtering 16x. We enabled antialiasing from the game’s menu. If this was not possible, we forced them using the appropriate driver settings of ATI Catalyst and Nvidia GeForce drivers.

In our today’s review we are going to test MSI N550GTX-Ti Cyclone OC in the following modes:

Besides MSI N550GTX-Ti Cyclone OC, we also tested the following solutions:

Performance was measured with the games’ own tools and the original demos were recorded if possible. We measured not only the average speed, but also the minimum speed of the cards where possible. Otherwise, the performance was measured manually with Fraps utility version 3.3.3. In the latter case we ran the test three times and took the average of the three for the performance charts.

Performance in First-Person 3D Shooters

Aliens vs. Predator

The MSI N550GTX-Ti Cyclone OC is an interesting version of the GeForce GTX 550 Ti which is itself quite an exciting solution. Aliens vs. Predator uses tessellation, and we can see that the new card is faster than the GeForce GTS 450 it has actually come to replace. On the other hand, for all its high clock rates and wide memory bus, the GF116 cannot beat the GeForce GTX 460 768MB.

Battlefield: Bad Company 2 Vietnam

Thanks to its increased clock rates, the GeForce GTX 550 Ti leaves the GeForce GTS 450 far behind. But on the other hand, it cannot catch up with the GeForce GTX 460 768MB even when overclocked. We shouldn’t forget about AMD’s competitive offers, either. In this particular game, the Radeon HD 5770 and HD 6850 are worthy alternatives to the new GF116-based solutions.

Call of Duty: Black Ops

The latest game in the Call of Duty series has rather modest system requirements, so the GeForce GTX 550 Ti can deliver an average frame rate of 100 fps and higher, being comparable to the Radeon HD 5770. The new GeForce is also somewhat better at 2560x1600 than the older GeForce GTS 450.

Crysis Warhead

As opposed to the previous test, this game has high system requirements, so you may want to lower your graphics quality settings to achieve a playable frame rate. The best that the pre-overclocked card from MSI can do is 28 fps at the lowest of the tested resolutions. The Radeon HD series cards are slow as well, though.

Metro 2033

This game is tested with the tessellation option turned on.

Nvidia’s new mainstream solution is competing with the Radeon HD 5770 here and MSI’s factory overclocking doesn’t help much. If you overclock your N550GTX-Ti Cyclone OC even more, you can make it as fast as a Radeon HD 6850, yet the game may still be rather too slow unless you lower its graphics quality settings.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat

This game runs with enabled tessellation.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat is the first game where the GeForce GTX 550 Ti shows its very best. It is far faster than the GeForce GTS 450 and challenges not only the Radeon HD 5770 but also the Radeon HD 6850. MSI's factory overclocking doesn't add much to its performance, though, so you may want to tweak the card further with the exclusive MSI Afterburner tool.

Performance in Third-Person 3D Shooters

Just Cause 2

The GeForce GTX 550 Ti is good in this third-person shooter, enjoying a 25% advantage over the GeForce GTS 450 which really seems to call for an upgrade if you are a fan of Just Cause 2. Thanks to the factory overclocking, MSI’s version of the new GF116-based solution is competitive to the GeForce GTX 460 768MB as well as to the Radeon HD 6850.

Lost Planet 2

We expected a larger gap between the old GeForce GTS 450 and the new GeForce GTX 550 Ti in Lost Planet 2. It looks like the affordable graphics cards do not have the resources necessary to process the complex tessellation algorithms implemented in this game. The general trend is clear, though. The MSI card outperforms the Radeon HD 5770 but cannot compete with the GeForce GTX 460 768MB and Radeon HD 6850.

Performance in RPG

Dragon Age II

Although role-play games are generally not the heaviest of 3D applications, Dragon Age II turns to be quite a difficult test. The GeForce GTX 550 Ti can only yield 20 fps at the highest settings. The factory overclocking cannot save the day for the N550GTX-Ti Cyclone OC because it increases the frame rate by less than 7%. On the other hand, the other tested cards, except for the Radeon HD 6850, can't offer a higher speed, either. So you may want to consider more advanced products if you are going to spend a lot of time on the continent of Thedas.

Mass Effect 2

We enforced full-screen antialiasing using the method described in our special Mass Effect 2 review.

Mass Effect 2 has rather low system requirements. Thanks to its increased clock rates the GeForce GTX 550 Ti allows enjoying this space opera even at 2560x1600. The MSI card is again about as fast as the GeForce GTX 460 768MB and Radeon HD 6850.

Performance in Simulators

F1 2010

The new Formula 1 season has recently kicked off in Melbourne, Australia, with new drivers and new cars whereas in the world of 3D graphics Nvidia’s new card leaves the old GeForce GTS 450 far behind, enjoying a 30% advantage. On the other hand, the MSI N550GTX-Ti Cyclone OC, even when overclocked, is inferior to the two Radeons as well as to the GeForce GTX 560 Ti.

Performance in Strategies

StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty

Like in the previous game, the new GeForce GTX 550 Ti leaves no chance to the old GeForce GTS 450 and is about as fast as the GeForce GTX 460 768MB. The only notable difference from F1 2010 is that the Radeon HD 5770 cannot outperform the N550GTX-Ti Cyclone OC.

Total War: Shogun 2

Real-time strategies seem to become as heavy applications as Crysis and Metro 2033. The GeForce GTX 550 Ti is of course slower than its cousin GTX 560 Ti but most of these cards are unable to deliver a comfortable frame rate anyway, unless you reduce the graphics quality settings.

Performance in Synthetic and Semi-Synthetic Benchmarks

Futuremark 3DMark Vantage

We minimize the CPU’s influence by using the Extreme profile (1920x1200, 4x FSAA and anisotropic filtering). We also publish the results of the individual tests across all resolutions.

3DMark Vantage makes the relative strength of the cards clear enough. The GeForce GTX 560 Ti is twice as fast as the new GeForce GTX 500 series product, yet this is not a very poor result for the latter if you compare it to the other cards. The pre-overclocked MSI is only 5% faster than the reference GeForce GTX 550 Ti, which cannot change anything in the standings.

The N550GTX-Ti Cyclone OC is doing its best to break away from the GeForce GTS 450 and prove that it's better than the reference sample. When overclocked, MSI's card outperforms the GeForce GTX 460 768MB and Radeon HD 6850, which is a surprise considering their hardware resources.

Futuremark 3DMark11

We use the Extreme profile here. As opposed to 3DMark Vantage, this profile uses a resolution of 1920x1080 pixels.

Futuremark's newest 3DMark is an ordeal for graphics cards. The reference GF116-based solution cannot notch 1000 points and the overclocked N550GTX-Ti Cyclone OC is just a little better. Thus, the GeForce GTX 550 Ti is overall equal to the Radeon HD 5770 and inferior to the Radeon HD 6850 and GeForce GTX 560 768MB in this benchmark.

Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. 2 Preview Benchmark

This benchmark makes wide use of tessellation to render the surface of the earth. The number of polygons per one frame can be as high as 1.5 million!

This benchmark prefers GeForce series products with high-performance tessellation units. Thanks to this, the GeForce GTX 550 Ti is 20 fps faster than the GeForce GTS 450. The pre-overclocked N550GTX-Ti Cyclone OC is twice as fast as the Radeon HD 5770 at 1600x900. So, the new card from MSI is going to be a good choice for paying this game.

Unigine Heaven 2.5 Benchmark

We use Normal tessellation in this test.

This benchmark is very difficult for any graphics card, and the GeForce GTX 550 Ti is no exception. Its performance is awful at high resolutions. When it comes to low resolutions, the N550GTX-Ti Cyclone OC is about as fast as its main market opponent Radeon HD 5770.

Conclusion

We’ve got rather mixed impressions from our benchmarking the newest GeForce GTX 500 series product in 17 tests. Let’s take a look at the performance summary:

So, the GeForce GTX 550 Ti is superior to the previous generation of affordable Fermi-based products, its advantage varying from a modest 6% to a huge 30%. It’s up to the user to decide whether these performance benefits are worth the upgrade, though.

When we compare the new card to AMD’s offerings, we don’t see such a clear picture. Price is the crucial factor in the mainstream segment, so we guess that the GeForce GTX 550 Ti will compete with the mature Radeon HD 5770 in the first place. And the GeForce GTX 550 Ti looks preferable, delivering higher performance across more games, its advantage being as high as 62% in certain applications.

So, the decision is obvious if you are choosing from the three mentioned cards: Radeon HD 5770, GeForce GTS 450 and GeForce GTX 550 Ti. Nvidia has developed an effective GPU, so every GF116-based product is going to satisfy an undemanding user. However, the problem of choice gets more complicated if we throw in the old GeForce GTX 460 768MB. Despite its respectable age, its performance is no worse than that of the GeForce GTX 550 Ti. Nvidia will certainly try to put a quick end to the previous generation of its cards, so you shouldn’t think long if you really want to buy a GeForce GTX 460.

MSI N550GTX-Ti Cyclone OC Summary

Talking about the MSI N550GTX-Ti Cyclone OC, we want to note the positive trend in the development of the brand. MSI has been rather passive in terms of promoting its products under its own brand but the new graphics card is an excellent product that stands out among the competition.

The N550GTX-Ti Cyclone OC comes pre-overclocked, being an average 7% faster than the reference card, and features an effective and quiet cooler. Most importantly, it costs a mere $5 more than Nvidia’s recommended price for GeForce GTX 550 Ti ($149). This looks like a real bargain to us. Therefore, we would like to award this product with our Recommended Buy title:

Highs:

 Lows: