ASUS GTX550 Ti DirectCU TOP Review

RHKCommander959 - 2011-03-11 20:04:01 in Video Cards
Category: Video Cards
Reviewed by: RHKCommander959   
Reviewed on: March 15, 2011
Price: $159

Introduction:

NVIDIA has finally worked its way toward a mid-range offering for the 500-series with the new GTX 550 Ti. The GTX 550 has the same CUDA core count of the GTS 450 with 192, which is half that of the GTX 560 Ti. The memory bus is increased to 192-bit combined with the now common 1GB of GDDR5 and the increased bus size directly correlates to more memory bandwidth. The memory controller can also use mixed density memory ICs, which is how 1GB was managed with a 192-bit memory bus. NVIDIA has designed the GTX 550s to overclock up to 1 GHz core speed without increasing voltage, with the reference speed being at 900 MHz core. The new design is claimed to provide 28% faster performance and 20% more performance per watt over the GTS 450. The new cards are aimed at casual gamers using 1680x1050 resolution and 4xAA opposite the Radeon HD 5770s. NVIDIA has created an Optimal Playable Settings list of 714 games to suggest good settings for each card.

ASUS has already designed a DirectCU TOP version of the GTX 550 for the launch and this beast has two large 8mm copper heatpipes in direct contact with the core that is clocked at 975 MHz. The card also has software voltage controls that can increase overclockability further! The DirectCU edition cards from ASUS also come with many nice features. This card has a stiffening bracket to help keep the PCB straight and the GPU core is reinforced with glue on each corner to help keep it anchored to the board while also helping to keep it from bending. In addition,high quality chokes, MOSFETs, and capacitors are used on the card for better operation and efficiency. Cheaper chokes often emit an annoying high-pitched buzzing sound, whereas the Super Alloy Power chokes are solid. Connectivity shouldn't be a problem for most gamers at this level, as the card has VGA, DVI, and HDMI outputs available.

 

Closer Look:

The dark knight theme is shared among many of the new ASUS cards, with NVIDIA getting green and AMD getting red, fittingly. This makes it very obvious which brand is which on the shelves. The front of the box boldly and proudly states the overclocked speed of 975 MHz, with some feature icons shown below, as well as the card type. Flipping over to the back covers most things that the front left out and explains key elements like the Super Alloy Power that improves performance 15%, leads to a 2.5x longer lifespan, and results in 35 °C cooler operation. The back also shows that the card has voltage modulation built into the ASUS SmartDoctor overclocking and card settings program. The card has one VGA, DVI, and HDMI output to be highly connectible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the four sides of the box has bar codes and recommended system requirements listed in several languages to guide potential customers on proper installation basics. The other three sides are all the same and show the ASUS logo, "GTX550 Ti DirectCU TOP", 1GB GDDR5 memory, and 975 MHz factory overclock.

 

 

The graphics card is protected in the standard anti-static polyethylene bag that is coated with a metallic film that creates a Faraday cage around it. The card sits on top of a cardboard platform that holds the only accessory, a power cable adapter comprised of a pair of male Molex connections to a female 6-pin PCI Express connector. Underneath the platform are the installation guide and driver disk.

 

 

With everything unpacked, let's get a look at the new card!

Closer Look:

DirectCU means that the GPU core is in direct contact with copper (element symbol Cu) heat pipes. The GTX 550 Ti has two 8mm heat pipes to wick heat away from the core to the fins where the heat is dissipated to air that is then circulated back into the case. With proper case ventilation, temperatures won't be a problem. The TOP nomenclature means that the card is a level above normal ASUS cards with the core, in this case, overclocked to 975MHz on the GTX 550 Ti, with the best edition dubbed ULTIMATE having a clock speed of 1015MHz.

The GTX 550 Ti GF116 core is built on the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Companies' 40nm node, carrying 1.17 billion transistors with it and 192 CUDA cores, 32 texture units, and 24 ROP units. The memory bus is 192-bit from three 64-bit controllers and the architecture supports mixed memory densities, thus allowing this card to have 1GB of GDDR5 memory whereas prior generations were limited to either 768MB or 1536MB of memory. The cards are capable of two dual link DVI-I ports, but ASUS chose to swap one for a D-sub VGA output for direct compatibility with older monitors. Personally I'd rather see two DVI ports with an adapter for VGA output, but most people looking at this card won't need two DVI ports anyway. The top of the card shows the translucent smokey gray fan impeller centered on the card with a black plastic cover over the fin array. Rotating to the back shows that the card has a stiffening bar to help keep the PCB from flexing. Many small components are on the back along with empty BGAs where more memory ICs could be installed. All six memory ICs that add up to 1GB are on the other side, underneath the heat sink. ASUS included blue covers for the SLI and PCI Express slots to help protect the gold pins from corrosion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 6-pin PCI Express power connection is mounted on the side and only one is needed as the card barely consumes more than the output of just the slot (75W), with reference cards having a TDP of 116 watts. The stiffening bar has a unique shape to it, where it starts thick at the back to help guide airflow and thin the rest of the way with curves to dodge the heatpipes and leave space for a SLI connector. The other side shows the 4-pin PWM fan header near the video outputs. A few memory ICs can also be spotted, which are exposed, but do receive some airflow from the fan, GDDR5 is efficient enough to not need direct cooling at rated speeds. The heat sink assembly clears the components with room to spare.

 

 

The card supports HDMI, D-Sub VGA, and DVI-I outputs. The HDMI port is bolted to the slot bracket to strengthen it since those cables simply slide in and out, whereas the VGA and DVI ports lock in and provide structure through the two hex head mounts. The back of the card shows the exhaust vents cut into the fan shroud and some capacitors and chokes. The card takes up two slots of space. The fan is able to take in air through two low spots on the shroud as well as pushing air from all around.

 

 

The single SLI port is located in the standard location at the edge of the card near the outputs. The power connection is at the opposite corner of the card exiting the side, this makes it easier to install the power cable, especially in cramped systems.

 

 

The base of the heat sink is quite rough, enough so that it could be used as an Emery board. Thermal performance is still terrific with this heat sink and lapping the base would be simple after removing the four mounts. The heat sink design is intended for use on other cards as well, that is why there are four alternative holes drilled and tapped for the mounting hardware. The thermal paste used was quite solid and didn't appear to adhere completely with the core — I had to scrape it off before cleaning the base plate. Swapping the thermal “paste” to Shin Etsu dropped the operating temperature by a few degrees Celsius. Six memory ICs are soldered in and add up to 1024MB of memory, which doesn't divide evenly by 6. NVIDIA used two 256MB ICs and four 128MB ICs to get the total amount since the new architecture allows for mixed densities. All ICs used are Hynix modules, while the GPU die was made at TSMC. The ASUS GPU Guard feature can be seen at the corners of the GPU core — glue helps bond the chip to the PCB and also protects the area from stress cracks or damaged traces caused by heat cycling and heat sink flex.

 

 

The card is equipped with ASUS Super Alloy Power (SAP) components that use a specially concocted in-house alloy developed by ASUS. These components consist of a Super Hybrid Engine IC, MOSFETs, chokes, and capacitors for improved efficiency in several regard. For instance, the card should operate without emitting any sort of squeal or buzz since these parts are higher quality — the chokes have concrete cores so that the coil cannot vibrate and thus create noise, which is a common issue on many AMD and NVIDIA cards that employ cheaper, hollow-casing chokes. The Super Hybrid Engine is a chip that throttles the graphics card for optimal power consumption by swapping between high- and low-power profiles. The components increase the card's thermal efficiency with a claimed 35 °C reduction in temperatures, which aids in overclocking. Headroom has also been increased with sturdier and higher voltage-capable MOSFETs and capacitors, with ASUS claiming a 15% performance boost from the SAP components. The capacitors have a much higher expected lifespan in comparison to typical capacitors, rated for a 2.5x MTTF over traditional styles. The photo shows all the components: at the top center is a big black square, this is the Super Hybrid Engine; next the MOSFETs, they are the small black squares with four pins coming off one side and a large metal base coming out the other side; the chokes are the larger gray solid squares that say SAP; and the cylinders are the capacitors. The SAP photo also illustrates each component in the same order that I listed them.

 

 

Next up are the detailed specifications and features listing.

Specifications:

Graphics Engine
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 550 Ti
Bus Standard
PCI Express 2.0
Video Memory
1GB GDDR5
Engine Clock
975 MHz
Memory Clock
4104 MHz (1026 MHz GDDR5)
Shader Clock
1950 MHz
Memory Interface
256-bit
Resolution
D-Sub Max Resolution : 2048x1536
DVI Max Resolution : 2560x1600
Interface
D-Sub Output : Yes x 1 (Native)
DVI Output : Yes x 1 (Native DVI-I)
HDMI Output : Yes x 1 (Native )
HDCP Compliant
Yes
Accessories
1x Power Cable
Software
ASUS Utilities & Driver
Dimensions
9.54" x 5.5" x 1.54"

 

Features:

ASUS Exclusive Innovation

Graphics GPU Features

All Information courtesy of ASUS

Testing:

The testing consists of running Aliens vs. Predator, Metro 2033, Crysis Warhead, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Just Cause 2, Unigine Heaven Benchmark 2.1, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Battlefield: Bad Company 2, 3DMark 11 Professional, 3DMark Vantage, and temperature/power consumption testing. Three common resolutions are used for all the tests with 4AA and 16AF settings, but the 3DMark tests have four resolutions/runs. After a run through all the tests, the card is overclocked to roughly its maximum stable capabilities and then tested again. Settings stay the same for each card tested so the results can be compared. All testing is done on similar hardware running 64-bit Windows 7. The charts are all organized in terms of best to worst performance.

 

Comparison Video Cards:

 

Overclocking:

Using the stock voltage of 1.1V, I was able to push past 1 GHz without even trying. The maximum voltage that SmartDoctor allowed was 1.185V. With the voltage around 1.165V to 1.175V, I was able to test over 1.1GHz up to 1.15GHz or higher, although it wasn't stable enough for testing even with maximum voltage. Some games would run for quite a while, yet others would freeze moments in. 1.1GHz was fairly stable, although there was a hiccup or two. Temperatures were great the whole time and changing thermal paste shaved a few more degrees off. I tried for over 1300MHz on the memory, but I wasn't able to tune it to the maximum as it hard locked when testing at higher speeds. So I ran it with a fairly stable 1100MHz core and 1300MHz memory, earning first and third out of the whole group!

 

 

Maximum Clock Speeds:

To find the maximum clock speeds I test overclocked settings through a few games with high settings, giving the card extended exposure to verify stability. If the settings are unstable then speeds are backed off and the process repeated until no artifacts or crashing occurs. Then the card is put through the OCC test suite.

 

   

 

  1. Aliens vs. Predator
  2. Metro 2033
  3. Crysis Warhead
  4. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
  5. Just Cause 2
  6. Unigine Heaven Benchmark 2.1
  7. Batman: Arkham Asylum
  8. Battlefield: Bad Company 2
  9. 3DMark 11 Professional
  10. 3DMark Vantage
  1. Temperature
  2. Power Consumption

Aliens vs. Predator, developed by Rebellion Developments, is a science fiction first-person shooter and is a remake of its 1999 game. The game is based off the two popular sci-fi franchises. In this game, you have the option of playing through the single player campaigns as one of three species, the Alien, the Predator, and the Human Colonial Marine. The Game uses Rebellion's Asura game engine that supports Dynamic Lighting, Shader Model 3.0, Soft Particle systems, and physics. To test this game I will be using the Aliens vs. Predator benchmark tool with the settings listed below. All DirectX 11 features are enabled.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

   

Higher = Better

 

Aliens vs Predator shows the GTX 550 sitting between the GTX 465 and GTS 450 in all the tests except for the last one. The only nearby AMD card in the charts is the 6850, and the overclocked ASUS GTX 550 nearly matches the stock 6850.

Testing:

Part first-person shooter, part survival horror, Metro 2033 is based on the novel of the same name, written by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky. You play as Artyom in a post-apocalyptic Moscow, where you'll spend most of your time traversing the metro system, with occasional trips to the surface. Despite the dark atmosphere and bleak future for mankind, the visuals are anything but bleak. Powered by the 4A Engine, with support for DirectX 11, NVIDIA PhysX and NVIDIA 3D Vision, the tunnels are extremely varied — in your travels, you'll come across human outposts, bandit settlements, and even half-eaten corpses. Ensuring you feel all the tension, there is no map and no health meter. Get lost without enough gas mask filters and adrenaline shots and you may soon wind up as one of those half-eaten corpses — chewed up by some horrifying manner of irradiated beast that hides in the shadows just waiting for some hapless soul to wander by.

 

Settings:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

   

Higher = Better

 

Similar to the last benchmark, Metro 2033 has the GTX 550 between the GTS 450 and GTX 465, leaning more toward the GTS 450. Performance is bad with these settings although with them lowered some, the game becomes quite playable.

Testing:

Crysis Warhead is a standalone expansion pack situated in time with the story line of the original Crysis. As Sergeant "Psycho" Sykes, you have a secret mission to accomplish on the far side of the island. Along the way there are EMP blasts and aliens to contend with, as you hunt down the KPA chief. This game uses an enhanced version of the CryEngine 2.

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Higher = Better

 

The same story yet again, with the cards lining up. Overclocking brings the ASUS GTX 550 card close to the performance of the stock GTX 465.

Testing:

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is an iteration of the venerable first person shooter series, Call of Duty. Despite its long, successful pedigree, the game is not without substantial criticism and controversy, especially on the PC. Aside from the extremely short campaign and lack of innovation, the PC version's reception was also marred by its lack of support for user-run dedicated servers, which means no user-created maps, no mods, and no customized game modes. You're also limited to 18-player matches instead of the 64-player matches that were possible in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Despite all this, the game has been well received and the in-house IW 4.0 engine renders the maps in gorgeous detail, making it a perfect candidate for OCC benchmarking. You start off the single player missions playing as Private Allen and jump right into a serious firefight. This is the point where testing will begin. Testing will be done using actual game play with FPS measured by Fraps.

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

   

Higher = Better

 

Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 is definitely playable with these settings at 1680x1050 resolution and this is the segment where the card was designed to be used. As the resolution climbs, there are scenes in the game that can cause lag, such as the soft particle dust plumes.

Testing:

Just Cause 2 is a third-person shooter that takes place on the fictional island of Panau in Southeast Asia. In this sequel to 2006's Just Cause, you return as Agent Rico Rodriguez to overthrow an evil dictator and confront your former boss. When you don't feel like following the main story line, you're free to roam the island, pulling off crazy stunts and causing massive destruction in your wake, all beautifully rendered by the Avalanche Engine 2.0. In the end, that's what the game basically boils down to — crazy stunts and blowing things up. In fact, blowing things up and wreaking havoc is actually necessary to unlock new missions and items.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

   

Higher = Better

 

Just Cause 2 can be playable, but for optimal performance, the settings would need to be bumped down a little. As the resolution climbs, all but the high end offerings struggle.

Testing:

Unigine Heaven Benchmark 2.0 is a DirectX 11 GPU benchmark based on the Unigine engine. What sets the Heaven Benchmark apart is the addition of hardware tessellation, available in three modes — Moderate, Normal and Extreme. Although tessellation requires a video card with DirectX 11 support and Windows Vista/7, the Heaven Benchmark also supports DirectX 9, DirectX 10 and OpenGL. Visually, it features beautiful floating islands that contain a tiny village and extremely detailed architecture.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

   

Higher = Better

 

Unigine is harsh on the mid-range cards, but overclocking brought the GTX 550 to the level of the stock 6850 performance in the first few resolutions.

Testing:

Battlefield: Bad Company 2 is a first-person shooter developed by EA Digital Illusions CE (DICE) and published by Electronic Arts for Windows, PS3 and XBox. This game is part of the Battlefield franchise and uses the Frostbite 1.5 Engine, allowing for destructible environments. You can play the single player campaign or multiplayer with five different game modes. Released in March 2010, it has so far sold in excess of six million copies.

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

   

Higher = Better

 

The pattern continues with Battlefield Bad Company 2 — the three NVIDIA cards line up in terms of performance and overclocking brings the GTX 550 to the level of a stock 6850. The game is definitely playable at the lower resolutions.

Testing:

3DMark 11 is the next installment for Futuremark in the 3DMark series with Vantage as its predecessor. The name implies that this benchmark is for Microsoft DirectX 11 and with an unintended coincidence, the name matches the upcoming date in number (which was the naming scheme to some prior versions of 3DMark nonetheless). 3DMark 11 is designed solely for DirectX 11 so Windows Vista or 7 are required along with a DirectX 11 graphics card in order to run this test. The Basic Edition has unlimited free tests on performance mode whereas Vantage only allowed for a single test run. The advanced edition costs $19.95 and unlocks nearly all of the features of the benchmark and the professional edition runs $995.00 and is mainly suited for corporate use. The new benchmark contains six tests, four of which are aimed only at graphical testing, one to test for physics handling and one to combine graphics and physics testing together. The open source Bullet Physics library is used for physics simulations and although not as mainstream as Havok or PhysX, it still seems to be a popular choice.

With the new benchmark comes two new demos that can be watched, both based on the tests but unlike the tests, these contain basic audio. The first demo is titled "Deep Sea" and have a few vessels exploring what looks to be a sunken U-Boat. The second demo is titled "High Temple" and is similar to South American tribal ruins with statues and the occasional vehicle around. The demos are simple in that they have no story, they are really just a demonstration of what the testing will be like. The vehicles have the logos of the sponsors MSI and Antec on their sides with the sponsorships helping to make the basic edition free. The four graphics tests are slight variants of the demos. I will use the three benchmark test preset levels to test the performance of each card. The presets are used as they are comparable to what can be run with the free version so that results can be compared across more than just a custom set of test parameters.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

Higher = Better

 

The results are the same with 3DMark 11, the GTX 550 consistently beating the GTS 450 that it is based on. Overclocking helped some, but not enough to make a real difference here.

Testing:

Featuring all-new game tests, this benchmark is for use with Vista-based systems. "There are two all-new CPU tests that have been designed around a new 'Physics and Artificial Intelligence-related computation.' CPU test two offers support for physics related hardware." There are four preset levels that correspond to specific resolutions. "Entry" is 1024 x 768 progressing to "Extreme" at 1920 x 1200. Of course, each preset can be modified to arrange any number of user designed testing. For our testing, I will use the four presets at all default settings.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

   

   

Higher = Better

 

3DMark Vantage saw decent gains from overclocking and in certain tests the overclock allowed the GTX 550 to match or beat the 6850 at stock clocks.

Testing:

Temperature testing will be accomplished by loading the video card to 100% using MSI Kombuster, which is paired with MSI's Afterburner overclocking utility for temperature monitoring. I will be using the stability test set to a resolution of 1920 x 1200 using 8xAA. I will use a 15 minute time frame to run the test, ensuring that the maximum thermal threshold is reached. The fan speed will be left in the control of the driver package and video card's BIOS for the stock load test, with the fan moved to 100% to see the best possible cooling scenario for the overclocked load test. The idle test will be a 20 minute cool down with the fan speeds left on automatic in the stock speed testing and bumped up to 100% when running the overclocked idle and load testing. For load testing the GTX 580 and GTX 570, I will use Crysis Warhead running at 2560 x 1600 using the Gamer setting with 8xAA looping the Avalanche benchmark scenario, as I have found this to put a load close to that of Kombuster on a video card. This is needed as a way around the current limiting ability of the GTX 500 series when it detects programs that put an unrealistic load on the GPU, which Kombuster does.

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

  

Lower = Better

 

The temperatures that were achieved are remarkable! Even though the base of the heat sink is rough, it manages to beat all the other cards. Flatness matters more than smoothness, and the base is flat, thus that is why it was able to achieve such good cooling. With such low temperatures, the card could likely go further if more voltage was allowed, although the silicon likely couldn't handle the strain for long, especially considering that NVIDIA has stated that they've reduced voltage leakage. NVIDIA has lowered idle heat output greatly — even the GTX 580 was able to run at 30 °C on idle, overclocked.

Testing:

Power Consumption of the system will be measured in both idle states and loaded states and will take into account the peak voltage of the system with each video card installed. I will use MSI Kombuster to load the GPU for a 15 minute test and use the peak load of the system as my result for the maximum load. The idle results will be measured after 15 minutes of inactivity on the system. For load testing the GTX 500 series, I will once again use Crysis Warhead run at 2560 x 1600 using the Gamer setting with 8xAA looping the Avalanche benchmark scenario.

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

Lower = Better

 

Power consumption is low for most of the cards. The GTX 480 shows its inefficiency in load testing. The Sapphire 5850 also exhibits odd power consumption at stock clocks, along with the rest of the AMD single GPU crowd consuming more power than the dual-GPU card. The rest of the NVIDIA crowd consumed similar amounts.

Conclusion:

The ASUS GTX550 Ti DirectCU TOP performed terrifically. It achieved some of the highest overclock speeds and lowest temperatures, and even with the fan set to full speed, was not very loud, especially when compared to the cooling designs that use blower motors versus fan impellers like this card employs. With the fan left to auto, I could not discern the card from any other fans in the case. The ASUS Super Alloy Power circuitry seems to do its job well, as I never heard any high-pitched squealing from the chokes that I have heard on other cards from both AMD and NVIDIA. The card is small in size and power requirements, but can still game decently and provides many of the media bells and whistles that the higher end cards offer for significantly less. Users that don't require the highest resolutions with the best graphics but still enjoy gaming could benefit greatly from this card! The stiffening bracket combined with a feature ASUS calls GPU Guard technology (a glue that reinforces the bond of the GPU package to the PCB that doubles the overall strength and helps protect the surrounding PCB from stress damages), along with the highly efficient and well-rated lifespan of the Super Alloy Power components should allow this durable card to last a very long time in any system.

The only cons that I could come up with are that ASUS chose to swap a DVI-I port out for a D-Sub VGA port rather than just include an adapter. Dual monitors can still be used, but the setup requires mixed cables and such. The only other con would be how rough the machining grooves were in the heat sink base, although it still performed terrifically! These points are minor, but worth noting for potential consumers.

Extreme overclocking capability combined with great operating temperatures and quiet noise production make this a great card for home, office, or casual gaming usage. Considering this card is aimed at the AMD Radeon HD 5770 line while being priced between them and the Radeon HD 6850s, customers may have a hard choice due to price vs. performance. Either way, this card is solid, but pricing could make or break it in the market.

 

Pros:

 

Cons: