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The graphics card market is almost entirely centered on creating the fastest, high-yield (except in the case of fermi) products possible. Not everyone, however, needs the hottest running, graphics cycle crunching product available. Yet, thanks to the research done to produce those aforementioned high-end enthusiast graphics cards, new technology is made available to simultaneously make more efficient low-end video processing products. Thus, through AMD's 40nm "Evergreen" manufacturing process (known for such monsters as the HD 5970), the ultra efficient HD 5550 video card has been developed. It's a low-profile video card that still manages to pack 320 stream processors, AMD's Unified Video Decoder, Dolby over HDMI, and DirectX 11, with a maximum load of 45 Watts (minuscule compared to the 5970's 300 Watt load). Today, we are going to evaluate VisionTek's branded HD 5550, a video card that differs from the reference board by using 1GB of GDDR2 (instead of GDDR3 or 5). The card does, however, have an actively cooled heatsink, a feature that is removed from many of the other 5550 cards. Read on to discover if VisionTek has the HTPC, workstation, slimline, and low-budget gaming card that the market deserves!
• Memory specifications: 800 MHz GDDR2 128-bit Memory
• Engine clock speed: 550 MHz
• Processing power (single precision): 352 GigaFLOPS
• Polygon throughput: 550M polygons/sec
• Data fetch rate (32-bit): 35.2 billion fetches/sec
• Texel fill rate (bilinear filtered): 8.8 Gigatexels/sec
• Pixel fill rate: 4.4 Gigapixels/sec
• Anti-aliased pixel fill rate: 17.6 Gigasamples/sec
• Maximum board power: 45 Watts
• Idle board power: 10 Watts
• Full DirectX®11 support for rich, realistic visuals and HD gaming performance
• ATI Stream technology to help speed up your PC Multi-monitor support
• Supports OpenGL 3.2
• ATI Avivo™ HD video and display technology
• ATI Crossfire X
• PCI Express® 2.0 support
• Lifetime warranty
VisionTek's Product Page
MSRP: $99.99 @ Best Buy
Most video card manufacturers opt for one of two packaging schemes: dark and mysterious or explosive and "sexy" (see "ATI" girl, ugh). What results is usually a retail box that makes me somewhat ashamed to purchase a video card in a retail store (thank goodness for the internet). VisionTek, however, matched their tastefully designed website to the HD 5550's retail packaging, and the result is impressive. The box has contrasting red and white elements and, while it does display an Ogre of sorts, it isn't overwhelmingly gaming oriented. It's still definitely a standout item on retail selves, as a white box easily differentiates itself from other items.
On the front of the box, VisionTek included the essential information about the card. A helpful tag explaining that PCIe is definitely not PCI, memory size, warranty status, and an emphasis on the card's dual monitor support. I'm glad that VisionTek played up the dual monitor support. The HD 5550 supports eyefinity and most of the boards have an HDMI, DP, and DVI port. This card, however, has DVI, VGA, and HDMI, while only supporting two simultaneous RAMDAC outputs. On the back of the box is information regarding the card's DirectX 11 support and multimedia features. I wish that VisionTek downplayed the DirectX snippet and emphasized the multimedia information. While this card does support DirectX 11, it's certainly not going to "dominate your games". On the sides are detailed specifications, features, and a list of included items. The box definitely does a good job of laying out what a user should expect, but I hope that people don't see the information about DirectX 11 and expect the HD 5550 to do more than run StarCraft 2 on medium settings without Anti-Aliasing.
Inside the Packaging:
Opening the flap on the side of the box reveals the packaging's cardboard innards. Inside of that, is a cutout that holds the HD 5550, manual, and an installation disc. The video card is packaged inside of a pink foam bag and is definitely secure for transit. I am, however, terribly disappointed at the barren accessory package that VisionTek has created. While they don't need game coupons, advertising pamphlets, and could even do away with the installation disc by including a link to the latest AMD driver in the manual, they definitely need to include one crucial accessory - a low-profile PCIe bracket. Most of the HD 5550 cards on the market, while small, aren't don't follow AMD's reference design and aren't low-profile. The VisionTek HD 5550, however, keeping with the reference design, is both small and low-profile. The top of the bracket is used for the VGA connector, a connector that can be unplugged from the actual card via a ribbon cable and header pins. With the VGA output disconnected from the card, converting this to a low-profile card would be incredibly easy. You'd have to unscrew the HDMI and VGA pins, remove the old bracket, install the new bracket, and screw the pins back in. It would make for one heck of a selling point that would drive potential HD 5550 purchasers directly to the VisionTek branded card. VisionTek definitely fumbled; including a few cent low-profile metal bracket coupled with the card's low wattage requirement could have led to a miniature computer revolution. Although, even without the bracket, the HD 5550 leaves a whole lot of clearance inside of a computer case, making it an ideal multi-monitor card.
The HD 5550 Itself:
It's hard to judge just how small the VisionTek HD 5550 is from pictures. What helps is to consider the size of a known object like the DVI port. The card is two HDMI ports in height and barely longer than the PCIe x16 slot that the card inhabits, making for one impressively engineered piece of hardware. The board, which deviates from most HD 5550s, features an adequately sized heatsink with a quiet fan. The fan is definitely helpful, as the card can run surprisingly warm while outputting video over HDMI. Also, unlike most of the other HD 5550 heatsinks, the VisionTek's HSF doesn't wrap around the unit, so it won't interfere with other expansion cards. Looking at the card, I'm impressed by the quality of the components used. The heatsink is very securely mounted, the capacitors are of decent quality (none of those leaky jamicons), and the GDDR2 isn't third-party (like the commonly used Hynix chips), but cryptically pre-branded from AMD (I tried to source the part without any luck). You might also notice that I listed the card as being Crossfire compatible. It doesn't use a Crossfire bridge, but instead buffers data solely over PCIe. I wasn't able to test scalability, but running two HD 5550's should make for an interesting build. The HDMI port supports 7.1 audio (thanks to an onboard chip), making it solid for a HTPC. Also important, the GPU core is a Redwood with 627 million transistors on 40nm, and this card, unlike other HD 5550 cards, is 100% single slot. Finally, this card uses absolutely no external power connector.
For benchmarking purposes, I ran the generally accepted "semi-synthetic" tests. All benchmarks ran under stock settings, with 1280x1024 as the selected resolution. Most of the tests are highly demanding DX11 benchmarks geared towards the highest tier video cards. I, however, selected to still use these benchmarks, because most other review websites use similar settings and conditions, allowing you to compare a multitude of products. My test system is configured as shown below:
Intel i7 920 HT @ 3.8 GHz, 1.35 V
Western Digital 500 GB Black
Asus Rampage Gene II
HT Omega Claro Plus
4 GB DDR3
The results are completely expected, and aren't anything to be particularly concerned about. To give you a general idea about my testing platform, my GTX 275 ran the Unigine test and received 60 frames per second. To also help you compare the HD 5550, I ran the full 3D Mark Vantage GPU test, and created a graph showing other video card scores within the same price range. The VisionTek HD 5550 is the lowest of the group (within the sub $100 range). You do, however, have to remember that the HD 5550 is the smallest and quietest of the cards (being nearly silent). The GTS 250 is incredibly noisy and hot, and the other cards don't come close to the efficiency of the HD 5550. You can see how obvious this is in the temperature graph. Running an incredibly demanding GPU stress test resulted in a maximum temperature of 53C. Most of the other cards run north of 70C, a fact that is important for someone building an incredibly compact computer. Also, while I didn't test it myself, you can, through AMD's AOD, easily overclock the card to 670 MHz on the core, netting a potentially solid performance gain. If you'd like to know what you can expect from gaming (non-overclocked), most DX9 applications will run very nicely (as evidenced by the benchmarks). Older games like CSS, L4D2, and TF2 will be easily maxed out, but newer games like Star Craft 2 and BFBC2 will have to be run at medium settings without Anti-Aliasing (at 1280x1024) and extra shading / shadow features. It, however, packs a surprising punch, and will satisfy most users that explicitly require a silent, low-power video card. But, it would have been nice to see how well this card could have performed with GDDR3 or GDDR5.
Most users that are interested in this card want to know how well it works in a HTPC (home theatre personal computer). To say it's perfect would be a bit of a misnomer. It performs well, but isn't without its flaws. The HD 5550, like the 5450 has some problems with interlacing. When outputting video to a television, "Motion Adaptive Deinterlacing" compensates for the lack of processing power needed for AMD's AVIVO. What results is slightly jagged lines during motion video on large monitors. It's only really noticeable during sports, but it's definitely present. Another concern, is how warm the video card can get during HDMI output, but VisionTek's cooling solution does a good job at keeping artifacts at bay. Also, the audio over HDMI is much improved over the older generation cards. In terms of video playback, this card has absolutely no problem handling GPU accelerated 1080P playback (Blu-ray videos at 24P, et cetera), and the color quality is absolutely fantastic. If you can get past the interlacing issue, it's a very nice HTPC card (and an even better workstation card) that clearly knocks out any other low power solution (including integrated video cards).
To you, the end user, this review may have been somewhat confusing. You might be wondering if this product is indeed the right video card for your computer. This video card, however, targets a very specific audience. If you're on a tight budget and need a card just for 1080P HTPC usage, you can get a less expensive card (you'll just miss out on 3D performance). If you, however, want one of the coolest, low-profile cards that can handle both 3D and HTPC usage, the VisionTek HD 5550 is definitely for you. It's a bit pricey, but fits in perfectly with slimline, workstation, and small HTPC builds, and is still able to handle an occasional gaming session.
Low power usage
Incredibly small size
DirectX 11 support
Audio over HDMI
Runs quiet even at load
MSRP is a bit steep
Performs worse than other similarly priced cards
I would have liked to see this card with GDDR3 or 5
Lack of a low-profile / half-height bracket
Slight interlacing problems
Thanks go to VisionTek for the opportunity to take a look at their HD 5550!