ATI Radeon HD 4550 review

AMD has finally filled out the bottom-end of its HD 4000 range of graphics cards. The ATI Radeon HD 4550 is the cheapest card in the series, with a suggested launch price in the US of $55 – likely to translate to around £40 over here. Its RV710 core is a pared-down version of the 55nm RV770 core found in the flagship HD 4850 and HD 4870 models.

As usual, all that sets these cores apart is numbers. While the top-end cards get 800 stream processors to play with, the 4550 has to make do with just 80. Texture units and render outputs are also slashed, from 40 and 16 respectively right down to 8 and 4.

Those huge cuts are accompanied by modest reductions in clock speeds: the core runs at 600MHz, while the RAM clock runs at 800MHz. The frame buffer uses 512MB of DDR3 (with 256MB models on the way), rather than the more expensive GDDR3 found further up the range. AMD claims this doesn’t diminish actual memory performance, though the HD 4550’s 64-bit bus looks distinctly narrow.

With all these cutbacks, the HD 4550 is clearly positioned as a high-definition media card rather than a gaming workhorse. It supports HDMI and 7.1 audio, and AMD keenly points out that it has the full Unified Video Decoder system, exactly as found in its premium cards, so you can play dual-stream HD content and upscale DVD video even with a lightweight processor. Quoted power consumption is less than 25W, and there are also plans for passively-cooled models, confirming the HD 4550’s intended media centre role.

But if all you need is HD playback, there are cheaper options: the Nvidia GeForce 8400 GS and the Radeon HD 3450 (which remains on sale) both do an admirable job of HD decoding, and if you shop around you can find either one for under £20.

What makes the HD 4550 interesting is that, like the Radeon HD 4670 above it, it backs up its media credentials with a surprising amount of 3D oomph. We only had to turn the resolution down to 800 x 600 to get Crysis running with medium detail at an impressively smooth 31fps. The notoriously challenging Call of Juarez benchmark averaged 28fps at low detail.

Those scores certainly won’t excite die-hard gamers, but they blow the older cards out of the water (the Nvidia achieved a mere 9fps in the Call of Juarez test) and indicate that the HD 4550 is perfectly adequate for basic 3D gaming on a TV, in addition to its HD duties.

Whether there’s a real demand for that remains to be seen. Not many people buy games in order to play them with low detail, and we’re not sure PC gaming is well-suited to the living room anyway. But if you’re equipping an entertainment PC on a budget, the Radeon HD 4550 gives you bona fide 3D for not much more than a rudimentary media centre card.

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