Sapphire Radeon X550 low-cost graphics card
Cheap as chips?
Review If you aren't a gamer, integrated graphics may seem the best imaging option to choose for your next PC. Integrated graphics engines may be cheaper than add-in cards, but they can hit system memory performance hard, and since on-board graphics are usually only available on budget chipsets and motherboards, you may also miss out on key features such as RAID storage or dual-monitor support, writes Andrew Miller.
A better option is to buy a cheap discreet graphics card, and at £52, you'll struggle to find one much cheaper than the Sapphire X550.
The X550 sounds like it should be an entirely new product range, but is incredibly similar to the X300. The X300 is built using a 110nm fabrication process and is incredibly small, kicking out very little heat. But with only four pixel pipelines and two vertex pipelines, it hardly sets itself up as a gamer's dream.
The X300 has a 325MHz core and a 200MHz (400MHz effective) memory speed. Not all X300s are the same, however. Some employ HyperMemory technology, which uses system memory to supplement the frame buffer. Most cards have a 128-bit memory bandwidth, but not all.
The X550 is essentially a speed-bumped X300. This one, from Sapphire, has 256MB of memory with 128-bit memory bandwidth. It runs with a 400MHz core and 250MHz (500MHz effective) memory.
Abit recently launched the X300SE, which uses 128-bit memory and is guaranteed to overclock to 405MHz on the core and 255MHz (510MHz effective) for the memory - higher, in fact, than the X550. Not only this but, at £37, it's cheaper. We decided to use this for comparison, to see if it was worth spending the extra £15.
We tested both cards with our standard benchmark suite, which includes Doom 3, 3DMark 03 and 05, Far Cry, and Half-Life 2. This was performed on an MSI K8N SLI Platinum motherboard, with an AMD Athlon FX-55 processor and 1GB of Crucial Ballistix PC3200 memory.
Across all these tests, on average the Abit X300SE was five percent faster than the X550, which accounts for the slight clock speed difference. The big question is whether this card is good enough for games, or is it destined to be displaying PowerPoint presentations for the rest of its unnatural life.
Overall, you can forget about putting any anti-aliasing or anisotropic filtering on - the performance impact is huge and puts all our test games into the unplayable bracket. You can also forget about any resolution over 1024 x 768. At that resolution with no AA or AF, Far Cry average of 38fps, which is certainly playable but you may get some jerky section in the game. Doom 3 proved less impressive with an unplayable 21fps - but then this has never been a strong point for ATI hardware. Half-Life 2 however, was fine with 46fps.
It is interesting to see the contrast between the ATI- and Nvidia-sponsored titles. It's also worth noting that the X300 card used was a 128MB model, illustrating how unnecessary the extra 128MB of memory on the X550 is - proving that a cheaper X550 could be achievable just by halving the memory complement.
Sapphire has bundled a two-channel version of PowerDVD and an adaptor for S-Video to composite output. The card has DVI, D-Sub and S-Video output which makes it ready for dual monitors and TV output.
This card is an obvious improvement over the original X300, but nothing spectacular. For the occasional (like once in a blue moon) game player, it just about suffices. In reality, it suits anyone who needs a stop-gap measure while waiting to save up for a next-generation card, or someone who needs a basic graphics card with dual-monitor and TV-out support.
If you want to play games, reach a little deeper in to your pocket and shell out for a GeForce 6600GT or a Radeon X800GT - either will suit your needs without breaking the bank, with the latter edging ahead of the former in our tests.
At £52, this X550 doesn't really offer a sufficient performance gain to lift it over the cheaper Abit RX300. They are both pretty poor at playing games and the extra £15 doesn't get you much closer. With cards like the Abit X300SE offering guaranteed overclocked speeds that better an X550, all hands point in the Abit direction for the best value for money.
|Sapphire Radeon X550|
|More info||The Sapphire site|