With its Radeon HD 4000 graphics card series now spanning the high-end, mid-range, and mainstream segments, AMD has decided to fill the bottom of that lineup with a pair of bargain-bin-priced cards. The new Radeon HD 4550 and Radeon HD 4350 are both coming out today, and AMD quotes launch prices of just $59 and $39, respectively.
At the heart of both cards is a new GPU, the RV710, obviously part of the R700 generation like other Radeon HD 4000-series GPUs. The RV710 is manufactured via a 55nm fabrication process, but at roughly 242 million transistors and only 77 mm², it's quite a bit smaller than its siblings. Internally, the RV710 has two SIMD partitions with eight execution units each. Since those superscalar execution units each have five ALUs, the chip has a total of 80 "stream processors" onboard. Each SIMD partition has a texture unit attached, giving the RV710 the ability to filter eight texels per clock. The chip's single render-back end can then output four pixels per clock to the frame buffer, and it has a single, 64-bit memory controller. Like other members of the Radeon HD 4000 family, the RV710 supports DisplayPort, HDMI, and AMD's Unified Video Decoder 2 high-def video playback acceleration.
The more expensive card based on the RV710, Radeon HD 4550, has a GPU clock of 600MHz, packs 512MB of memory, and draws "less than 25 watts under full load." AMD claims a peak of 12.8 GB/s of memory bandwidth for the 4550 and points out that the memory used is more economical 800MHz DDR3 system RAM, not specialized GDDR3. Taking advantage of its low power draw, the 4550 has only a passive, single-slot cooler.
Despite its low price tag, the 4550 can purportedly handle games like Call of Duty 4, Devil May Cry, and Company of Heroes at 1280x1024 or 1024x768 with some of the detail turned down. AMD claims the card averages more than 30 frames per second in those titles, while Nvidia's ~$55 GeForce 9400 GT allegedly scores less than 30 FPS. In addition, some 4550 cards may boast between five and 15% higher performance thanks to faster 900MHz RAM and GPU clocks tweaked up to 700-750MHz. As DDR3 memory prices drop over time, AMD expects the 4550's price to sink below $50.
Meanwhile, the Radeon HD 4350 couples 80 stream processors with just 256MB of memory (AMD says it takes GDDR3, DDR3, and DDR2 RAM types), and draws less than 20W at load. Many 4350 cards will ship with 500MHz DDR2 memory, which AMD says should yield 8 GB/s of memory bandwidth, although some board makers will opt for cheaper 400MHz DDR2 memory. Passive cooling is a possibility here, but AMD's reference design employs a small fan, instead. The 4350 might seem like a nice card for a home theater PC, but cards this cheap have their limits. AMD forthrightly admits the 4350's lower memory bandwidth will prevent it from handling dual-stream video decoding (for Blu-ray disc movies and picture-in-picture commentary tracks) at higher resolutions. Also, the RV710's enhanced DVD upscaling feature is questionable on the 4350. As a result, home theater PC builders may want to look to the 4550 for their needs.
The RV710 may be a good candidate for deployment in laptops, as well, and AMD says it's "ready to go" with the Radeon HD 4550 and 4350 in mobile applications but is waiting on partners to adopt the GPU and announce products based on it. Also, intriguingly enough, the Radeon HD 4550 and 4350 will not support AMD's Hybrid CrossFire technology on current chipsets with integrated graphics processors. The main reason: the performance mismatch between today's IGPs and these faster discrete graphics cards would complicate performance scaling. Hybrid Crossfire may make a return when chipsets with newer IGPs make it to market, but AMD isn't promising anything yet.
For its part, Nvidia has responded to these new Radeons as a keen observer might expect these days: with a mail-in rebate. The firm says its GeForce 9500 GT with DDR2 memory is the best answer to the new Radeons and points out this EVGA card at Newegg, which is $64.99 up front but offers the opportunity for $15 back on Tuesday, if you buy the hamburger today. We tested the DDR3 version of the 9500 GT in our recent value video card roundup; the DDR2 variant should be slower than it.
Speaking of which, none of these low-cost cards seem all that compelling for cash-strapped gamers. The much more capable Radeon HD 4670 costs just $20 more than the 4550, and you can get a full-blown GeForce 9600 GT for not too much more than that.