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The cards
Owing to the prevalence of video cards with higher-than-normal clock speeds in the Nvidia camp, neither of the GeForce GTX 550 Ti variants that found their way into our labs follow Nvidia's base specification.

The lowest-clocked of the two is MSI's GeForce GTX 550 Ti Cyclone II, named after its rather flamboyant cooler. MSI runs this card's GPU and memory 50MHz quicker than Nvidia's prescribed base speeds, resulting in a 950MHz GPU clock, 1900MHz shader clock, and 4300 MT/s memory transfer rate. In spite of those fairly substantial increases and the fancy cooler, the Cyclone II carries a $154.99 price tag—only five bucks above Nvidia's suggested price.

Zotac's GeForce GTX 550 Ti AMP! Edition takes things to the next level with core, shader, and memory speeds of 1000MHz, 2000MHz, and 4400 MT/s, respectively. The cooler provided here isn't as extravagant as the MSI design, but it's a custom one nonetheless. (Nvidia's stock GTX 550 Ti cooler resembles the rather bland one strapped to the GTS 450.) The Zotac card also costs $154.99.

Update: We originally wrote that the Zotac GeForce GTX 550 Ti AMP! Edition would retail for $169. That information, which we received from the manufacturer, turned out to be incorrect, as listings at Newegg and other e-tailers show. We've updated this review accordingly.

A little competish'
Now, what's cooking on AMD's side of the fence?

Ladies and gentlemen, give a big hand to Gigabyte's Radeon HD 5770 Super Overclock. The Super Overclock label is admittedly be a bit of a misnomer, since all this card has to show for it is a 50MHz GPU speed hike to 900MHz. Still, with a $139.99 asking price at Newegg, this card could prove to be a compelling alternative to the GeForce GTX 550 Ti—if it can keep up, that is.

Another alternative is the vanilla Radeon HD 6850, which AMD says is now available for as little as $149.99 after mail-in rebates. Newegg indeed sells one such card for $169.99 with a $20 MIR, but other variants will set you back at least $175 (or $160 after rebate). Depending on whether you mind waiting weeks for a rebate check that may just end up behind a dumpster somewhere, the 6850 could turn out to be a better choice than either Nvidia's newcomer or Gigabyte's riced Radeon HD 5770.

Alongside these mail-in rebates, AMD is fighting back against Nvidia's onslaught with publicly available Catalyst 11.4 preview drivers, which promise meaty performance increases in a number of titles for owners of Radeon HD 6800- and 6900-series cards who play at high resolutions with antialiasing. AMD talks of increases of as much as 70% in Civilization V, 49% in Call of Duty: Black Ops, and 33% in Left 4 Dead 2, to name a few. We'll be using this driver to benchmark our Radeons over the next few pages.

  Peak pixel
fill rate
Peak bilinear
integer texel
filtering rate
Peak bilinear
FP16 texel
filtering rate
Peak shader
GeForce GTS 450 12.5 25.1 25.1 601 783 57.7
GeForce GTS 450 AMP! 14.0 28.0 28.0 672 875 64.0
GeForce GTX 550 Ti 21.6 28.8 28.8 691 900 98.5
GeForce GTX 550 Ti Cyclone 22.8 30.4 30.4 730 950 103
GeForce GTX 550 Ti AMP! 24.0 32.0 32.0 768 1000 106
GeForce GTX 460 768MB 16.2 37.8 37.8 907 1350 86.4
GeForce GTX 460 1GB 21.6 37.8 37.8 907 1350 115
GeForce GTX 560 Ti 26.3 52.6 52.6 1263 1644 128
Radeon HD 5770 13.6 34.0 17.0 1360 850 76.8
Radeon HD 5770 SOC 14.4 36.0 18.0 1440 900 76.8
Radeon HD 6850 24.8 37.2 18.6 1488 775 128
Radeon HD 6870 28.8 50.4 25.2 2016 900 134
Radeon HD 6950 25.6 70.4 35.2 2253 1600 160

This wouldn't be a TR graphics review without a geeky chart showing all of the key contestants' raw theoretical speeds. As you can see above, the GTX 550 Ti's high clock rates and still-healthy ROP count allow it to keep up with the GeForce GTX 460 1GB's peak pixel fill rate. Otherwise, it sits more or less between the GTX 460 and the old GeForce GTS 450 on the theoretical scale—pretty much where you'd expect.

In the AMD camp, the Radeon HD 5770 looks somewhat outmatched overall, especially since AMD's peak theoretical numbers tend to be less representative of real-world performance than Nvidia's. The Radeon HD 6850 looks to be in a better position to give the GeForce GTX 550 Ti a whupping, though. Let's see how that potential translates into real-world frame rates.