NVIDIA's GeForce GTX 550 Ti: Coming Up Short At $150by Ryan Smith on March 15, 2011 9:00 AM EST
This is ultimately an underwhelming launch for NVIDIA, but perhaps it’s best we first start with the positives.
The GTS 450 was the first Fermi launch that didn't result in some immediate fanfare for NVIDIA. With performance treading between a Radeon HD 5750 and 5770, the GTS 450 didn’t look good. So if they could be a “most improved” award for a GPU, GF116 and the GTX 550 Ti would most certainly get it. Even though all NVIDIA did was enable a 3rd memory controller and ramp up the clocks, it’s enough to increase performance by 20% - at other segments of the market we regularly settle for less. With these improvements the GTX 550 Ti is finally almost consistently ahead of the Radeon HD 5770.
So what’s the problem? The same problem NVIDIA normally runs in to: pricing. The GTX 550 Ti seems destined to sell based on NVIDIA’s name and market presence more than it will sell based on performance characteristics. Not having a reference card muddles our results some, but ultimately it’s clear that AMD’s pricing has caught NVIDIA flat-footed.
Indeed the GTX 550 Ti is faster than the 5770 - by around 7% - but then the GTX 550 Ti costs 36% more. At the other end of the spectrum is the 6850, which is 7% more expensive on average for 25% better performance. Even the GTX 460 768MB is going to gnaw at NVIDIA here so long as it’s still on the market; it’s 15% faster and yet it’s $20 cheaper. It’s with a dash of Alanis Morissette irony that while having so-so graphical performance the GTX 550 is a remarkable compute card compared to similar AMD cards, but at the same time a CUDA memory bug sliped by before the product shipped.
In these situations NVIDIA reminds me of Intel in the sub-$200 market before Sandy Bridge was released: gross margin first, competition second. AMD is quite willing to cut prices to the bone, NVIDIA is not. As a result on these lower-end products AMD has quite the performance lead for the price. This of course is NVIDIA’s choice, but so long as they choose to go about pricing products this way they’re going to play catch-up to AMD.
In the end the GTX 550 Ti just isn’t a compelling product at $149. At that price you’re much better served by ponying up the extra $10 to pick up a 6850 for much better performance – and if the Zotac GTX 550 Ti AMP is similar to other GTX 550 Ti cards – lower power consumption and less noise. Alternatively the GTX 460 768MB is an absolute steal while it’s still available.
Meanwhile partners like Zotac are left in a rough spot. At
$169 $155 the GTX 550 Ti AMP closes the performance gap with the 6850 by some, and at $5 more than a stock clocked GTX 550 Ti is quite a good deal for 10% better performance. But ultimately it's only $5 less than a notably better performing card, the 6850. However the fact that so many partners are doing overclocked cards speaks well of GF116’s overclockability. More significantly it’s quite remarkable that these overclocked GTX 550 Ti’s can get so close to the GTX 460 768MB – a card with a much bigger GPU with many more functional units to work with. With these factory overclocks, the GTX 550 Ti could almost be a decent replacement for the GTX 460 768MB. Pricing is the enemy however – these guys can only lower prices if NVIDIA lets up on the $149 MSRP for the stock clocked GTX 550 Ti.
Finally, we certainly haven’t forgotten about NVIDIA’s interesting memory arrangement with the GTX 550 Ti. It’s a shame that they won’t tell us more about how they’re interleaving memory accesses on this unique design, but hopefully they’ll open up in the future. It’s something we’re definitely going to revisit once the CUDA memory bug is dealt with, and hopefully at that time we’ll be able to learn more about how NVIDIA is accomplishing this. If this is the start of a long term change to memory layout by NVIDIA, then getting to better understand how they’re interleaving memory accesses here will be all the more important to understanding future products.