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Conclusion: GDDR5-Equipped Cards Show Promise

Radeon HD 5550 And 5570: Pumped Up With GDDR5
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Before we draw any conclusions, let’s talk about the Radeon HD 5000-series’ claims to fame: DirectX 11, triple-monitor Eyefinity gaming, and bitstreaming HD audio. We’ve glossed over these features in the rest of this review, but they deserve proper mention here.

As for DirectX 11, it’s currently not what we'd call an essential part of the gamer’s diet. In fact, there are no games yet that take advantage of DirectX 11 in such a way that makes the feature a must-have. I’m sure it’ll happen, but development cycles are long, the API is relatively new still, and we're just not there yet. At any rate, the performance numbers suggest that DirectX 11 features are probably best turned off for sub-$100 cards, so support is less critical for this price range.

Triple-monitor Eyefinity gaming is nice, but let’s be frank. If you’re going to spend $350 or more on three monitors and the necessary hardware for an Eyefinity-based configuration, do you really want to go cheap on your graphics card and buy one of these entry-level boards, rather than a Radeon HD 5750 (at the very least)? That doesn’t make any sense. The mainstream Radeons might handle graphically-forgiving games like World of Warcraft at triple-screen resolutions with detail levels emasculated, but no, Crysis 2 isn’t an option. On the other hand, if productivity is your thing, the sub-$100 Radeon HD 5000-series cards might be apropos. 

That brings us to AMD's entry-level cards in an HTPC environment. The entire sub-$100 Radeon HD 5000-series is really ideal for Blu-ray playback in a home theater, and it’s about time we revisited this arena. To that end, we'll have HQ video-quality testing in an upcoming piece.

After all of this feature-heavy talk, we come to the inevitable bottom line: price versus performance. This is where the new Radeon HD 5550 models and the Radeon HD 5570 GDDR5 fight an uphill battle, since the market is so congested.

When this article was written, you could get a Radeon HD 4650 in the $50 range, a GeForce GT 220 DDR3 in the $70 range, a GeForce GT 240 DDR3 in the $75 range, a Radeon HD 5570 GDDR3 or GeForce GT 240 GDDR5 in the $80 range, and a Radeon HD 5670 or GeForce 9800 GT in the $90 range. Within this compact pricing structure, it’s almost impossible to recommend anything other than the Radeon HD 4650 at $50 and the GeForce 9800 GT at $90. It’s just as likely that by the time this article is published, the pricing will have changed again because it’s so volatile. Is there room in this spread for the new Radeon HD 5550 and 5570 GDDR5?

Let’s talk about each card and where it needs to be priced in order to offer solid value:

Radeon HD 5550 DDR3

This new card has impressive stock performance compared to the Radeon HD 4650, combined with strong overclocking potential. This card would be priced perfectly at $60, and even though it’s a new model, it can already be found online for as low as $65. The Radeon HD 5550 DDR3 deserves to take the Radeon HD 4650’s place as the budget gamer’s starting point. It’s a little card with enough muscle to play games at 1280x1024 or 720p, it makes a great HTPC candidate for folks who value low-power usage and great video playback, and it’s ideal for budget overclockers who want to get the most out of their hardware.

Radeon HD 5550 GDDR5

Take everything positive that I said about the Radeon HD 5550 DDR3 and say it with a bit more vigor. The Radeon HD 5550 GDDR5 would be a great buy in the current market at a $70 price point, thanks to its higher-bandwidth memory subsystem.

Radeon HD 5570 GDDR5

The Radeon HD 5570 GDDR5 is good competition for the GeForce GT 240 GDDR5, and should therefore be priced similarly at $80 or so. Note that the Radeon HD 5570 DDR3 is currently priced at this level, but compared to the GeForce GT 240 GDDR5, it is still somewhat overpriced. The Radeon HD 5570 DDR3 should be knocked down a few dollars to make space for an $80 Radeon HD 5570 GDDR5.

That’s the price/performance assessment. And despite the inevitable inflated prices that new cards have on release, we should see things settle down after a brief bout of ample availability.

Frankly, the $70-$90 graphics card market is oversaturated with too many options. In this climate, the new Radeon cards will be fighting off not only competing GeForce boards, but also other cards from AMD. Choice is better than the alternative, though, and as old models are retired, we look forward to the arrival of new low-end GeForce cards based on Nvidia’s Fermi architecture.

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