Introduction, Design Features
[Editors’ Note: Be aware that pricing and features for video cards based on a given graphics chip can vary, depending on the actual card maker. AMD and Nvidia make video “reference cards” based on their graphics processors, which they sometimes send out for review. Third-party partners—Asus, MSI, Sapphire, Gigabyte, and others—make and sell cards that often adhere closely to those reference designs (“stock boards”), as well as versions with slight differences in port configuration, clocking, onboard memory, and fans or heat sinks installed. Be sure the specs and ports/connections on any “partner” board you’re looking at match what we’ve reviewed before making any assumptions. Here, we’re reviewing an Asus version of AMD’s Radeon RX 550, for which we did not see an AMD reference board. Versions of the RX 550 are available with 2GB and 4GB of memory, as we’ll discuss below.]
The video-card market has been enmeshed in chaos of late, due to the ongoing Ethereum/Bitcoin-mining craze. Although this current wave seemed to be cresting at the time of this late-August 2017 writing, would-be miners were still snatching up most midrange cards on the market, causing card prices to rise and reducing availability to essentially zero on certain classes of card for some stretches of time.
However, both the high-end and the low-end market have remained mostly unaffected, because they aren’t optimal mining cards; either too pricey for their calculation output, or too underpowered. The Asus Radeon RX 550 we are looking at today is one of the low-end crypto-dodgers, so if you’re looking for the perfect card for coin mining, you’ve come to the wrong place. This is a budget desktop graphics card that’s meant as an affordable upgrade over integrated graphics, or to replace an older budget card.
In general, cards based on AMD’s Radeon RX 550 chip, with 4GB of memory, were priced at or around $110 at this writing, with 2GB versions hovering around $90. Radeon RX 550 cards are definitely aimed at budget gamers: perhaps cash-strapped, first-time PC builders, or more experienced builders who wish to upgrade from an aging budget card. In this market, the main competition is made up of cards based on AMD’s slightly older Radeon RX 460Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050Radeon RX 570Radeon RX 480, getting close to the older card’s numbers on most of our benchmark tests. In theory, that might mean the Radeon RX 550 could be not too far behind the RX 460, although how it might stack up against the GTX 1050…well, we’ll have to wait until we get to our benchmark testing to answer both of those questions.
We’ll see how the Asus Radeon RX 550 performs against these and other cards we’ve tested in a bit. But first, let’s take a look at the physical features of this GPU.
Of all the graphics chips in AMD’s Radeon RX 500 series, the RX 550 is the most trimmed-down version we’ve seen so far. Due to this, Asus only needed to include a single fan for cooling on this card. Here, it’s a fairly compact spinner, surrounded by a small red-and-black shroud that covers only about half the card’s PCB…
The single-fan design helps keep this card small. At 7.2 inches long, 4.4 inches wide, and 1.7 inches deep, this RX 550 should fit in all but the smallest PC cases. It’s still a full-height, dual-width card, though, so keep that in mind if you’re considering a small chassis or have a compact tower you’re looking to upgrade.
In terms of power requirements, this Asus card has no secondary PCI Express connectors, instead drawing its power straight from the motherboard. The card comes with three video connectors: one DVI, one HDMI 2.0, and one regular DisplayPort…
A trio of ports is pretty standard for a budget graphics card like the RX 550, and the three here should provide a connection option for most monitors, old and new.
The AMD Radeon RX 550 comes in two memory flavors: 4GB and 2GB versions. Our Asus Radeon RX 550 is of the 4GB variety, with memory clocked at an effective 7,000MHz. As mentioned previously, right now the price difference between 4GB and 2GB Radeon RX 550s is about $20. Doubling the amount of memory should lead to noticeable performance gains, particularly at higher resolutions.
We haven’t yet had the opportunity to test a 2GB Radeon RX 550, so how much of a difference there is between the two we can’t say for sure. More memory is, again, primarily a benefit for those gaming at high resolutions. But given this card’s mainstream bent and modest abilities, it’s really only suited for gaming at 1080p or lower resolutions.
This card, and many others from Asus, are compatible with the company’s GPU Tweak II software. The software can be grabbed for free from the company’s Web site. It allows for one-click overclocking. Running the software will display the Home menu, with a focus on three preset modes: OC mode, Gaming mode, and Silent mode…
In Gaming mode, the card runs at a base clock speed of 1,183MHz. Putting the card in Silent mode drops the clock by 20MHz, while OC Mode raises it by 20MHz. We were able to confirm this in the Info tab, which displays the current GPU clock speed, the default clock speed, and other details about the card…
The relatively small speed increase from one mode to the next should result in very small performance differences, which is what we got stepping up from Silent to Gaming. However, the switch from Gaming to OC actually resulted in performance decreases in our testing, instead of the expected increases. This obviously isn’t what we’d expect, but can probably be mostly chalked up to the budget nature of the chip and its compact cooling apparatus. Power draw may be an issue as well, given that the card has no secondary power connectors from which to draw extra juice. The moral of the story: This is a $110 card that really isn’t meant to be overclocked.
There is, though a Professional mode, in which you can fine-tune aspects such as memory speed, voltage, and temperature/power targets…
It’s possible that fiddling with these settings will result in some better overclocking outcomes. But really, if you’re looking for better performance than this card’s out-of-the-box settings can get you, you should step up to a higher-powered card. Even if it were carefully overclocked, we can’t see this card and its modest cooling getting you to the next level.
Also available from Asus in connection with this card is XSplit Gamecaster software, which allows for streaming and recording game play. It enables an overlay that shows live info about your graphics card, such as clock speed and temperature. The software also integrates GPU Tweak II controls into the overlay interface. Users who purchase this Radeon RX 550 or certain other qualifying cards from Asus can get a 14-day free trial. Other (generally higher-end) cards come with a free one-year Gamecaster license after a redemption process. If this interests you, we recommend checking the details on Asus’ Web site, as the offer could change between when we wrote this and when you might be reading it.
Just as we did while using this software with the Asus GeForce GTX 1060 OC Edition (9Gbps GDDR5), we found GPU Tweak II to be intuitive and easy to use. However, given the lower performance we experienced when switching to OC mode, and the fact that the card is at stock settings (thus reducing the need to switch it to Silent Mode), most users can probably skip the GPU Tweak II software altogether.
A Few Words About Testing
As we’ve mentioned in other recent video-card reviews, things are in flux these days when it comes to testing graphics cards, because two key technologies—despite being available in some form for over a year now—are proving difficult to test definitively.
The first of these is DirectX 12 (DX12). DX12 is just now starting to become common in AAA titles, though there are still relatively few real-world benchmarks for it. Still, DX12 will likely be the standard graphics API in the future, and this card was designed to last for, at the very least, a few years. So it’s important to know if a card can handle DX12 well before buying. We tested the Asus Radeon RX 550 with the newest DX12-capable games we had on hand, including Hitman (the 2016 edition), Rise of the Tomb Raider, and Tom Clancy’s The Division, as well as Futuremark’s DX12 benchmark, 3DMark Time Spy. We tested a bunch of games using DirectX 11, too, because that API will still be in wide use for at least another year, and probably much longer.
The second technology that’s a little tricky to test, at present, is support for virtual reality. At this writing, there are two major competing VR headsets, the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, with more coming to market soon, and it’s difficult to establish a lone test that is applicable to all VR scenarios. At the moment, we’re using Futuremark’s new VRMark test to measure VR capability. It consists of an “Orange Room” test designed to measure a card’s ability to handle today’s games, and a “Blue Room” test for theoretical extremely demanding future titles. The Blue Room test is so tough, no card we’ve tested to date gets a passing grade in it. So, for the moment, we’ll only report Orange Room results.
The key thing to know about VR, though: It’s just a non-starter here. At the moment, baseline VR support for the Rift and Vive headsets starts with the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060AMD Radeon RX 480Radeon RX 580Radeon RX 570. That means this Asus RX 550 is not intended for VR use. If being VR-ready is a must, you’ll need to purchase a more powerful card.