Judging by all the hullabaloo around their latest, fastest graphics cards, you might think that companies like ATI and nVidia are only interested in the high-end, mega-fast, expensive cards. But this is far from the truth. These high-end cards are only sold in small numbers, and what really sells are the lower-end cards, the entry-level to mainstream cards that the majority of users can afford.
What do tend to filter down to the lower-end cards are some of the high-end cards’ features, such as more efficient cooling, DirectX support and so on. And despite every new motherboard and graphics card supporting PCI-Express, AGP is not dead. Far from it; there are several new cards around using it to good advantage.
ATI’s R9550 graphics core (R350) is positioned between the 9600SE and 9600 Pro, offering DirectX 9 support at an entry-level price using the AGP interface. With a core speed of 250MHz, a memory speed of 200MHz DDR (effective 400MHz) and a 128MB bit bus, the resulting 6.4GB/sec memory bandwidth and four pixel pipelines means that R9550 isn’t going to set the world on fire with its performance. But that’s not the point: it’s aimed at a price segment that the majority of end users inhabit.
Abit’s take on the R9550 is the Radeon R9550 Guru, based on the ATI reference design with Abit’s own cooling solution, which gives away what makes this R9550 stand out from the rest; it was designed to be overclocked. Instead of the small, simple fan usually found on this type of card, which just covers the GPU, Abit has added a large heatsink around the processor with its own design of fan, and all the memory chips have heatsinks on them too; again, something not needed on the standard card.
The card also comes with all the vGuru features found on more expensive cards in Abit’s range; XTurbo technology, OC Guru, BlackBox and Fan EQ. XTurbo technology adds a second BIOS chip to the card, with a jumper to switch between modes, so you can overclock the card using one BIOS chip while the second acts as backup should anything go pear-shaped.
OC Guru is a Windows-based utility that allows adjustment to the core and memory frequency and voltage settings, and fan speeds. The good thing about this utility is its safety options which either sound a warning buzzer or re-boot the system should your overclocking attempts put the card in danger.
Fan EQ is a useful tool, and not just for overclockers. Using it you can pre-set high, medium and low thresholds for the cooling fan, so when the temperature reaches one of these presets, Fan EQ automatically adjusts the fan speed according to the GPU temperature. So you can go from a noisy fan for overclocking to a nearly silent one for everyday use.
At its default clock speeds the Radeon R9550 Guru gave a 3DMark05 score of 1,058 and a FarCry frame rate of 20.4fps. This was at a 1,024 x 768 resolution with all details set to minimum and is too low for enjoyable game playing. However, if you drop the resolution to 800 x 600 the frame rate score rises to 31.56fps, which is a marked improvement. By using the vGuru utility we managed to increase the core speed to 297MHz and the memory clock to 233MHz, and got an increased 3DMark05 score of 1,250, while the FarCry frame rate went up to 25.75fps at a 1,024 by 768 resolution.
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