MSI N550GTX Ti 1GB Review

airman - 2011-02-09 15:42:36 in Video Cards
Category: Video Cards
Reviewed by: airman   
Reviewed on: March 15, 2011
Price: $159.99


Today is the official launch of NVIDIA's 550GTX series, which is essentially the replacement for its previous 450GTX series. Of course, these cards aren't the powerhouse of graphic processing like you can find in the high-end video cards. For the price, however, you can expect a lot of bang-for-your-buck when it comes to the highly important price to performance ratio. MSI states that, in this generation of GPU, the PhysX performance is twice that of older cards, which is an impressive feat! This is due to a technology called "GigaThread scheduler", which is said to allow for up to ten times faster switching between graphics and physics processing. One big thing that MSI has begun to bring out is its cooling design. The "Cyclone" cooler, which is provided on this card retail, is said to allow for 23 °C cooler temperatures over the reference design. Another direction that MSI is heading is the use of solid, aluminum core capacitors and solid-state chokes, which boast silent operation and ultra long lifetime. The MSI N550GTX Ti is also provided in a pre-overclocked version, which I will be testing in this review.


Closer Look:

The MSI packaging is easy to pick out amongst a group of other manufacturers — the flagship black, blue, and silver make it an easy target to spot. A picture of the Cyclone II cooler is the main centerpiece of the front cover, with the N550GTX-Ti text beneath it. There is a small sticker at the top that states it is the OC edition, which is to the left of the other icons that show certain features. Some of these features include PhysX, SLI, CUDA, and others. The front of the box flips open to display more about the card, specifically mentioning the solid capacitors and chokes, MSI Afterburner overclocking software on the bottom of the flap, and again, highlighting the Cyclone II design on the front of the box beneath the flap. There is a small window on the front of the box that allows you to see a dim outline of the card, which is safely wrapped in an anti-static bag.








The card is secured between a layer of stiff, styrofoam packaging and is shielded in an anti-static bag underneath a sheet of plastic. Removing this styrofoam will reveal a compartment that contains the accessories, which includes the user's guide, a manual, a mini HDMI to HDMI adapter, a DVI to VGA adapter, and a molex to a 12v 6-pin adapter, which the card requires. Overall, this is an effective packaging method and certainly worked to keep the MSI N550GTX out of harm's way! The next page will feature a closer look of the card, including a complete disassembly of the card and a close-up look of the MSI Cyclone II cooler.


Closer Look:

The MSI N550GTX Ti 1GB video card is nearly dwarfed by the cooler that is attached to it. Although the cooler makes the card look tiny, it's only about eight inches long. The interfaces are protected with blue plastic covers, which can prevent these delicate parts from becoming damaged during shipping and handling. Even though it is a relatively small card compared to what is out there today, it is still uses a dual-slot platform — although I do believe it could have been crammed into one. Nevertheless, that's not what MSI was after with this card. The text across the top of the cooler reads "N550GTX-Ti" on the left side, and "Cyclone II" on the right side. Two heatpipes can be seen wrapping around the back of the card and underneath the fan blades. Underneath, the card looks like most others, this one with a black PCB. The four screws in a square pattern secure the cooler to the card, which I will be peeking under momentarily.














Across the front of the card (looking at the long side of it) is a black plastic strip with the MSI logo printed on it. This is one of the first times I've seen this and it seems to be there purely for aesthetics. To the right of this logo, which is hard to read, seems to be something like a date/time stamp. The N550GTX Ti has three outputs, two DVI slots and one mini HDMI slot. As listed, this card is capable of triple monitor displays, which is quite impressive for a lower-end card! With the rising popularity of dual and even triple screen setups, this card fits the bill!



As usual nowadays, there are two slotted connects on this card. The main one, obviously, is a PCI Express x16 slot, with the SLI connector at the top of the card — nothing new here. Running two of these in SLI would be a pretty sweet and relatively affordable setup! However, there was no SLI bridge included with this card, so check the box that your motherboard came in if you're trying to find one!



An area that I am very familiar with is cooling technology, based off of my experience with CPU coolers and other basic knowledge. The main feature of this Cyclone II cooler is the "propeller" blades, which have a different definition in their shape compared to standard fan blades. This small alteration in their shape is said to increase airflow by approximately 20%, due to the additional turbulence induced by them. The base of the cooler and the fins are made from aluminum and the heatpipes seem to be aluminum-plated copper. Something new that is mentioned by MSI on this cooler is the rounded edges on the fins of the base of the cooler. These rounded edges can help prevent dust buildup. Having dealt with coolers like this getting clogged with dust, this is a welcome idea!



Removing the cooler is a very simple task with a small(ish) phillips-head screwdriver. The four screws on the rear of the PCB that I mentioned earlier can be removed, which releases the cooler. The small, metal springs that are built into these screws help provide backpressure and evenly distribute the mounting force over the surface area of the GPU core, which is very important. An uneven distribution of the mounting force over the core can cause "hot spots", which cause the overall temperature to increase.



The contact base of the cooler is made of nickel-plated copper and sandwiches the heatpipes between itself and the middle, lower fin array. These heatpipes then conduct heat to the outer fins, which are cooled by the radiating airflow from the "propeller blade" fins on the fan. The fan is PWM controlled and has a maximum RPM of around 3200 and flows about 23CFM, as listed by MSI's specifications.



With the MSI N550GTX-Ti dissected, it's now time to get ready for the testing scenarios.





Testing of the MSI N550GTX-Ti will consist of running it and comparison cards through the suite of games and synthetic benchmarks. This will test the performance against many popular competitors. Comparisons will be made to cards of equal and greater capabilities to show where they fall on the performance ladder. The games used are some of today's newest and most popular titles to give you an idea of how the cards perform relative to each other.

The system specifications will remain the same throughout the testing. No adjustment will be made to the respective control panels during the testing, with the exception of the 3DMark Vantage testing, where PhysX will be disabled in the NVIDIA control panel. I will test the cards at stock speeds, then overclocked in order to see the effects of any increases in clock speed. The cards are placed in order from highest to lowest performing in the graphs to show where the cards fall by comparison.


Comparison Cards


Overclocking this guy is done through the widely available MSI Afterburner software, which allows for full control over graphics hardware. It allows core frequency adjustment, shader clock adjustment, voltage tweaking and fan speed adjustments. With this highly efficient cooler on this card, I should expect to see a good bit of overclockability of out it. With the ability to adjust voltage, this opens up an entirely new world in the limits of overclocking this card, while keeping the temperatures within reason. I was able to get the MSI N550GTX-Ti to hold stable at 1051MHz on the core, 2224MHz on the shader, and 2560MHz on the memory — all which scaled very well. The MSI N550GTX-Ti actually obtained the highest core clock out of all the comparison cards and in the top five on memory. I was very impressed!


Maximum Clock Speeds:

In the past, I had used MSI's Kombuster utility to check for stability coupled with the ability to run through the entire test suite. I have found that some game tests would still fail with this utility, so I have moved to testing with several games at maximum settings through several resolutions to verify the clock speeds that are listed below. Why the change? I have found some cards will play fine at a 4xAA setting, but fail when using 8xAA due to the increased graphics load. If it fails, then the clock speeds and tests are rerun until they pass.



  1. Aliens vs. Predator
  2. Metro 2033
  3. Crysis Warhead
  4. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
  5. Just Cause 2
  6. Battlefield: Bad Company 2
  7. 3DMark 11 Professional
  8. 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.

















The AvP benchmark is one of our most challenging tests and even though the MSI N550GTX Ti may struggle at the high resolutions, it still hangs in there and sits right where I expected in comparison to the GTS450 and has quite a bit more performance. Overclocking in this benchmark extracted an extra 3 FPS per resolution.

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.

















Metro 2033 definitely "takes the cake" for the most difficult benchmark in the OCC suite — it even brings the top dogs, the HD5970 and GTX580 to their knees. The N550GTX struggles to keep up, but for what it's worth, it does well. In lower resolutions it kept a good distance between itself and its older sister, the GTS450. However, in higher resolutions, their results seem to converge.

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.

















At lower resolutions, Crysis Warhead is along the lines of playable, but does slow down at resolutions of 1920x1200 and above. Keep in mind that this test is performed at 4xAA and 16xAA, which can cause performance degradations over time as the resolution is increased. At lower resolutions, even with some eye candy turned on, this card is capable of running Crysis Warhead.

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.


















This was probably one of the more fun benchmarks as MW2 is one of my favorite games. Full resolution, eye candy all the way up, bombs exploding, smoke everywhere, and everything else in a fully immersive first person shooter game are nailed flawlessly by such an affordable card. Sure, it only makes 40 FPS overclocked at 2650x1600, but that's still absolutely playable and even moreso at 1920x1200. However, I did notice that the MSI N550GTX-Ti did not offer much of an improvement over the GTS450 in this test.

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.

















Again, the MSI N550GTX-Ti and the GTS450 are at the back of the pack, but comparing price differences we see a proper correllation between these numbers and the numbers produced by the more expensive cards. Overall, I probably couldn't play this game at only 20 FPS, but realistically, folks with 30" monitors wouldn't prefer to run games at full resolution on a ~$160 card.

Unigine Heaven Benchmark 2.1 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, DirectX 10 and OpenGL. Visually, it features beautiful floating islands that contain a tiny village and extremely detailed architecture.

















The MSI N550GTX-Ti pulls ahead of the GTS450 again in this benchmark, full of luscious scenery and very detailed architecture. This was certainly enjoyable to watch, although it did find itself to be a little sluggish towards 2560x1600. Overclocking in this test netted about three to four extra frames per second.

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.


















BFBC2 obviously likes being overclocked! I saw up to a 10 FPS increase in some tests. This was also a fun benchmark and it makes me want to load up the multiplayer and go pub-stomping. At low resolutions, a big increase in performance over the GTS450 can be seen.

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.















The MSI N550GTX-Ti dishes out upwards of a 10% gain in performance in these tests. What you get over the GTS450 for the small price difference definitely makes it worth the extra coin.

Featuring all-new game tests, 3DMark Vantage 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.




















Even moreso with Vantage than I found with 3dmark11 is the performance increase over the GTS450, which increases to almost 15% at lower resolutions. With these numbers, along with the high performance cooler, stock overclock, and MSI's high-end components, this looks like a great choice for the sub $160 market!

Temperature testing will be accomplished by loading the video card to 100% using MSI Kombuster, which is paired with MSI Afterburner overclocking utility for temperature monitoring. I will be using the stability test set to a resolution of 1920x1200 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 MSI N550GTX-Ti, I will use Crysis Warhead run at 2560x1600 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.















These graphs here are where the performance of the Cyclone II cooler really shines. At idle, we don't really see an impressive number, but when this card is loaded and that fan whirs up, the numbers really take off. The MSI N550GTX-Ti with the Cyclone II cooler had the coolest stock load temperature and the second coolest load overclocked temperature. That's very impressive!

Power Consumption of the system will be measured in both idle states and loaded states and will take into account the peak wattage 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.













There's not a whole lot of spectacular things to see in these graphs, though there is an important factor here — even with the slight increase in power that this card offers over the GTS450, it only uses about 3-5% more power at full load. That seems like the high efficiency components are showing off!


So, I'm going to jump on out there and say that for those looking for a sub $160 video card with the capabilities to run the latest games at moderate resolutions and medium to medium-high quality settings, this is far from a bad choice. It offers excellent cooling performance, great overclockability, and rightfully takes the spot in place of the soon-to-be phased out GTS450. The performance was right where I expected, as typically we see replacement generation cards in this situation hit a little bit higher than their predecessors. I saw performance jumps between 5% and up to almost 15% in graphics tests, and way better cooling than the GTS450 reference cooler.

As far as the physical card itself, MSI states that the solid capacitors make no noise, but I did hear a noticeable "cricket chirp", as I like to call it, while playing games and even through Photoshop (uses GPU acceleration). It's not an annoyance as it can be expected with most video cards now, but I did find it more noticeable than other cards that don't advertise quiet capacitors. However, the overclockability of this card amazed me! I was able to reach into the fastest three core clocks on the graphs with stock voltages and drove it all the way up to the number one position with adding a slight increase in voltage — all while staying cool. For what this card is worth, it is an excellent buy. We see noticeable increases in performance over the GTS450 and no drawbacks in sight. Even though I might be spoiled with higher-end hardware, I'll be recommending this card to the next budget build for sure!