Sapphire HD 4550 512MB Review
Reviewed by: ajmatson
Reviewed on: January 13, 2009
There is so much hype around the biggest and baddest video cards around, but what about more mainstream cards? Not every computer needs a video card that smokes the competition in frames per second. Some computers are built for media viewing, encoding or even for casual home use with little or no gaming, so why go out and spend a fortune on a video card with too much power that is not needed? ATI has been releasing a series of cards targeted towards this very use and one of them is the HD 4550 series. Aimed at the more budget conscious user the HD 4550 cards are not to be taken lightly. With Support for DirectX 10.1 and Shader Model 4.1, just because you are buying for less doesn't mean you get less.
Today we are going to be taking a look at the Sapphire HD 4550 which is a low profile, actively cooled graphics card. The HD 4550 is based on the RV710 core and is priced to be competitive among system owners with various uses.
As we are seeing with most mainstream cards being shipped from Sapphire they are coming in smaller more eco friendly boxes. These boxes reduce waste and save on shipping costs helping the environment. The HD 4550 arrived in an attractive box featuring a Sapphire mascot and some of the logos of the features offered on the card. The back of the box expands on the features included in the Sapphire HD 4550 video card as well as how you can play the "Vista way". Another thing of note is how Sapphire always includes the system requirements and what external ports are available on the card on the left spine of the box, so you can find them easily.
Inside the box is a wealth of goodies included by Sapphire. They are one company who always makes sure anything you might need to operate your new hardware is there, so you do not need to go finding adapters elsewhere. Included with the HD 4550 card is a manual, driver CD, low profile bracket converter, component video dongle, S-Video dongle, DVI to VGA adapter, and a DVI to HDMI adapter.
Now that everything is out we can get a better look at the card itself.
First thing you will see is the low profile size of the Sapphire HD 4550 card. The size will make this a perfect choice for that HTPC you have always wanted to build. Sapphire has chosen to go with a blue colored PC board instead of the usual red ones we see on a lot of ATI based cards. They also chose to actively cool the HD 4550 for better performance in smaller cases like an HTPC case which has restricted air flow. The HD 4550 features 80 stream processors and operates on a 64-bit memory bus. This card complies with PCI Express 2.0 specification which increases bandwidth and performance.
There are a wealth of connections available on the Sapphire HD 4550 for being such a small card. Directly there is a DVI port, an S-Video port, and a VGA port. Using adapters you also have Component video, HDMI, and another VGA port. One thing of note is if you use the low profile bracket for a small case, you lose the directly connected VGA port. However, Sapphire has included a DVI to VGA adapter for you to use in this case.
Like I stated earlier, this card uses the RV710 core clocked at 600MHz. It is manufactured using a 55nm process and has 242 million transistors and 80 stream processors. There is a total of 512MB of GDDR3 memory which runs on a 64-bit memory interface and has a peak memory bandwidth of 12.80GB/s. The modules are manufactured by Samsung, which are rated at a minimum frequency of 800MHz at 1.8v, so I am worried about how much headroom we have for overclocking since these are already sitting at 800MHz.
Sapphire has chosen to actively cool the HD 4550 which will help reduce temperatures in tightly cramped cases. The cooler is a small flower like heatsink with a small fan to blow cooler air over the heatsink reducing the temperatures of the GPU and surrounding area.
Now that everything is out we can install the card at take a look at the drivers.
Sapphire makes the install a simple process with its install all menu. When the CD is inserted into the CD drive the auto start program takes over, launching the Sapphire installation menu. There are two options: one for Windows XP and one for Windows Vista. You need to select the option for the operating system you are installing the card on. To the left, there is a list of the cards supported by this driver.
Once you select the Driver Install option then the programs hands the install off to the Catalyst Control Center Installer, which will actually install the ATI drivers and get you all set up. You choose the install location and the options you want included in the install and the Catalyst Control Center Installer does the rest. Once the installer is finished then you are prompted to restart the computer to finalize the install process.
Now that the drivers are installed we can get a better look at the Catalyst Control Center.
The Catalyst Control Center is where all of the settings for the Sapphire HD 4550 are available. There are plenty of options and settings available depending on the capabilities that you choose to use. Each group of settings can be adjusted to your specific viewing preferences and image quality.
Information Center: In the Information Center you can view extensive hardware information as well as driver, CCC and DirectX versions.
Monitor Properties: In the Monitor Properties section you can set and view display information such as monitor attributes, adjustments, and color correction.
3D: In the 3D tab you can adjust general image quality settings as well as Anti-Aliasing, Anisotropic Filtering and color schemes. There are also a few settings for DirectX and OpenGL.
AVIVO Video & ATI Overdrive: AVIVO settings allow you to alter the color settings for better viewing. ATI Overdrive gives the user control of the GPU and memory frequencies. For novice users there is an automated clock configuration utility that will find the best overclock for your system settings.
Now, how about we get some testing going on the Sapphire HD 4550?
ATI Radeon HD 4550
PCI Express 2.0
|Small flower style cooler|
DVI, VGA, S-Video
|Yes, Dual Mode|
|Yes, via adapter|
- ATI Radeon™ HD 4550 – 512MB of DDR3 memory
- DirectX® 10.1
- 80 stream processing units
- 12x custom filter anti-aliasing (CFAA) and high performance anisotropic filtering
- PCI Express® 2.0 support
- Dual mode ATI CrossFireX™ technology multi-GPU support for highly scalable performance
- ATI Avivo™ HD video and display technology
- Unified Video Decoder 2 (UVD 2) for Blu-ray™ and HD Video
- DVD Upscaling & Built-in HDMI with 7.1 surround sound support & Integrated DisplayPort with audio
- Dynamic power management with ATI PowerPlay™ technology
To put the Sapphire HD 4550 to the test I will be running a series of benchmarks designed to stress and push the card to its limits testing how far it can go. I will then be putting the scores up against other cards from a low range to a high range to show you exactly where it sits. All hardware will be run at their stock speeds, timings, and voltages so that there are no interferences that might effect the outcome of the scores.
- Processor: Intel Core2 Quad Q9450
- Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-X48-DQ6
- Memory: Mushkin XP2 Redline 8000 2 x 2GB 5-5-5-12
- Video Card: Sapphire HD 4550
- Power Supply: Mushkin 800w Modular Power Supply
- Hard Drive: Seagate 750GB SATA
- Optical Drive: LG DVD-RW
- OS: Windows Vista Ultimate
Comparison Video Cards:
- Sapphire HD 4650 Overclocked Edition
- Powercolor HD4670 PCS
- Palit HD4850
- Gigabyte 9800GT
- Asus 8800GT
- Asus EN9800 GTX
- Palit GTX260
- Asus HD4870
- Sapphire HD 4550 650/850MHz
Overclocking the Sapphire HD 4550 has been a test in itself. I opened up the Catalyst Control Center and noticed the speeds were capped at 650 for the GPU and 850 for the memory. I thought that can't be all so I started to use ATI Tool and RivaTuner to try to get past that barrier. Boy was that a mistake. Anything above those caps resulted in the screen either losing video all together or multi-colored artifacts that flood the screen. I was not expecting that at all. I went back to the CCC and maxed out the speeds for each and it passed just fine. Since I could not break the barrier the overclocked numbers will be run at 650MHz on the GPU and 850MHz on the memory
- Knights of the Sea
- Call of Duty 4
- World in Conflict
- Call of Juarez
- Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts
- 3DMark 06 Professional
- 3DMark Vantage
Crysis has been out for quite some time now. In that time, there has yet to be a single or multi GPU setup that can fully showcase the graphics performance of the game. The Crysis single player demo includes both CPU and GPU benchmarks to test the performance of your processor and video card.
- Anti-Aliasing: x2
- Advanced settings to High
As espected the HD 4550 scored about half of the more powerful HD 4650.
PT Boats: Knights of the Sea is a new DX10 title that features its own proprietary graphics engine currently in development. The game is a combination of Real Time Strategy and Simulation. You have the ability to control the entire crew or just a single member. Play as the German, Russian or Allied navies, and prove your mettle on the open seas.
- Anti-Aliasing: x0
- Image Quality: High
- DirectX Version: 10
- All resolutions: 60Hz
The HD 4550 could not hold on in the PT Boat test, not even being playable at the lowest resolution.
BioShock is one of the creepier games out the wild. The building of a perfect Utopian society undersea gone horribly wrong. Its inhabitants driven mad with the introduction of tonics and genetic modifications. Now Rapture is just a shadow of its former glory with little girls looting the dead of what little they have left while being shadowed by guardians known as "Big Daddy's" It is a demanding game that will make your hardware scream for mercy. This First Person Shooter allows for an infinite number of weapons and modifications to provide a unique experience each time it is played. The environment as well as the story line will wrap you up for hours on end.
- All settings to maximum
- V-Sync: Off
BioShock, while even the slowest, remained playable even as the resolution grew.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is the successor to the Call of Duty crown. This iteration of the game is fought in many of the world's hot spots with modern armaments and firepower. You can play as either a US Marine or British SAS trooper. Since this game does not feature an in-game test, I will run through a section of the game and measure average FPS using Fraps 2.9.3.
- Anti-Aliasing: x4
- Anisotropic Filtering: Max
- Texture Quality: Extra
- All settings max
Again the HD 4550 was slow but had decent framrates for casual play at medium to low resolutions.
World in Conflict Released last year World in Conflict is a Real Time Strategy game that simulates the all-out war the world hopes never comes. The difference in this RTS game is that it is not the typical "generate wealth and build" type of game. Instead, you advance by conquering your foe with limited opportunities to replenish your troops..
- Anti-Aliasing: x4
- Anisotropic Filtering: x16
- Graphic Detail: Very High
World in Conflict, which pushes even the high-end cards, was completly unplayable throughout the testing.
Call of Juarez is a DX10, first-person shooter set in the Wild West of the late 1800's. The game is inspired, in part, by the movies of the Wild West genre of the seventies and eighties. The game can be played in both single player and multiplayer modes. The game focuses on realistic graphics and gameplay designed to take advantage of the latest video cards on the market.
- Details: High
- Shadowmap Size: 2048x2048
- Shadow Quality: Normal
- Anti-Aliasing: MSAA x4
Again this game is unplayable, and the HD 4550 could not match the higher cards which was expected.
Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts is the latest chapter in the Company of Heroes series. The scene is WWII. The mission is Operation Market Garden, the first allied attempt to break into the Third Reich. Play as the British or Germans. This Real Time Strategy game is brought to us by Relic Entertainment.
- Anti-Aliasing: x8
- All other settings to maximum
The pattern repeats with the HD 4550 running about half of the bigger brother, the HD 4650.
3DMark06 is one of those benchmarks that always comes up when a bragging contest breaks out. 3DMark06 presents a severe test for many of today's hardware components. Let's see how this setup fares. The settings we will use are listed below.
- SM2.0 Graphics Tests: GT1- Return to Proxycon, GT2- Firefly Forest
- CPU Tests: Cpu1- Red Valley, CPU2- Red Valley
- HDR/SM3.0 Graphics Tests: HDR1- Canyon Flight, HDR2- Deep Freeze
The HD 4850 came in last place compared to the higher end cards.
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 1024x768 progressing to 'Extreme' at 1920x1200. 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.
- All default settings in each preset level
- Entry 1024x768
- Performance 1280x1024
- High 1680x1050
- Extreme 1920x1200
3DMark Vantage put the HD 4550 to its knees.
So you ask yourself how will this card perform in my HTPC. Lets just say you will not be let down. ATI includes in their cards now, two technologies designed to make your media vieweing experience the best it can be. The first is ATI AVIVO Technology, which allows for smooth playback with vibrant colors of your video media so that you have the best viewing that is possible. When coupled with the second part the Unified Video Encoder 2, you have seemless playback and quality for all of your BluRay and HD videos. With these new technologies now integrated into the video card it is off-loaded from the CPU leaving it to take care of the system instead of decoding the video. Below I took a screenshot of an HD video clip of "Traitor" showing the CPU usage during playback. Notice it is only 2% which shows that the GPU is doing all of the work.
Well after some time testing the HD 4550, I found its strengths and weaknesses. First, this card is excellent for video use, whether it be for a workstation PC, a casual use PC, or even a home theater PC. Since it is a low profile card with the bracket included for smaller cases, you will not have any problems getting this card to fit. Being actively cooled will keep the operating temperatures down when inside a small case such as a cramped HTPC case. The Sapphire HD 4550 however should not be taken lightly because of its size. While it was last in all of the video benchmarks, some of the tests were actually playable at the settings tested at. Lighten up on the settings between low and medium and you should be able to pull off reasonable frame rates for some casual gaming. Don't expect to crush any records though. With only 80 stream processors and a 64-bit memory BUS, you are limited on how fast you can perform in games in benchmarks. Trying to overclock this card was like hitting a brick wall, literally. I could not get past the limits of the Catalyst Control Center, no matter what overclocking tool I used. It would just lock up and I had to reboot.
The key to this card is the media playback capabilities. Having ATI AVIVO technology you can now watch those high definition videos with no more lagging or hiccups that you once saw back in the days when the CPU did the majority of video processing. This allows you to have a small, low profile card that you can place in your computer that will allow you to play high definition video with no problems in quality. With a price tag of around $60.00, the Sapphire HD 4550 will allow you to add this card to your system to handle the video instead of using the motherboard's integrated video and freeing up that memory that would otherwise be used by the onboard GPU. If you are looking for an inexpensive card for a workstation or HTPC and gaming is not your top priority, the Sapphire HD 4550 should be on the top of a short list.
- ATI AVIVO and UVD 2
- CrossFireX capable
- Actively cooled
- Low profile design
- Inadequate gaming performance
- Slow 64-bit memory BUS
- Poor overclocking headroom