AMD Radeon RX 550 review: A thrilling budget graphics card with a perplexing price

The laser-focused Radeon RX 550 could have been the graphics card e-sports enthusiasts were waiting for.

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Our test system

Even though the PowerColor RX 550 is the most entry-level of entry-level video cards released in a long while, we’re still testing it on PCWorld’s dedicated GPU benchmarking PC, which is brimming with high-level hardware to eradicate bottlenecks and show unfettered graphics performance.

  • Intel’s Core i7-5960X with a Corsair Hydro Series H100i closed-loop water cooler ($120 on Amazon).
  • An Asus X99 Deluxe motherboard ($230 on Amazon for an updated version).
  • Corsair’s Vengeance LPX DDR4 memory ($125 on Amazon), and 1,200-watt AX1200i power supply ($310 on Amazon).
  • A 480GB Intel 730 series SSD ($280 on Amazon).
  • Phanteks’ Enthoo Evolv ATX case ($190 on Amazon).
  • Windows 10 Pro ($158 on Amazon).

This review’s going to be a bit unusual, as the stripped-down Radeon RX 550 simply isn’t intended to play AAA games at a decent clip like most graphics cards. It’s designed as a step-up from CPU integrated graphics, and heck, it doesn’t even have any direct competition in dedicated graphics. No Nvidia GeForce cards have targeted this segment since 2014’s GT 740, and AMD hasn’t offered a comparable Radeon in the U.S. since the Radeon R7 250 launch in 2013.

So instead of our usual benchmarking suite, I turned to some of the top e-sports games to test the Radeon RX 550, taking advantage of the replay feature in Dota 2 and League of Legends. For each, the charts show the last 10 minutes of a professional match, with all players leveled up and action coming fast and furious. Here are the options I used for Dota 2, which resulted in an attractive overall image:

dota 2 settings Brad Chacos/IDG

Meanwhile, I tested Counter-Strike: Global Offensive using the FPS Benchmark mod from the Steam Workshop. All e-sports performance results were captured using FRAPS.

Radeon RX 550 benchmarks

Unfortunately, I don’t have a PC with integrated graphics on hand to compare the Radeon RX 550 against. But I tested an AMD A10-7860K APU-powered machine with relatively strong integrated graphics last year, and while it was definitely capable of playing e-sports games, it required some severe compromises. You can see below how that PC held up in the games we’re testing today. Take particular note of the resolution and graphics settings listed next to each game, which were the combination required to get the games running close to the hallowed 60 frames per second standard.

amd apu machine Brad Chacos/IDG

The previous results from an e-sports PC powered by a high-end AMD APU.

By comparison, here’s how the PowerColor Radeon RX 550 fared in those same games. All games were tested at 1900x1200 resolution and High graphics settings. We also tested a pair of traditional AAA games at Low graphics settings to see how the card rolls outside of e-sports.

perf Brad Chacos/IDG

As you can see, the RX 550 delivers a vastly superior experience to even the Radeon integrated  graphics in a pricier AMD APU, surpassing 100fps at far higher resolutions and graphics settings in the tested games. Not too shabby! Also not too shabby: the Radeon RX 550’s ability to handle The Division and Rise of the Tomb Raider, two of the most gorgeous games in recent memory, albeit at low settings. You’re definitely going to want a more potent graphics card if you plan on playing anything but e-sports regularly. But the Radeon RX 550 can do in a low-quality pinch.

Even better, this modest card uses modest amounts of power and generates modest amounts of heat. (Clarification update: Power measurements represent whole system power, not the GPU alone.) 

temps Brad Chacos/IDG

Next page: Bottom line

At a Glance
  • The Radeon RX 550 delivers tremendous value to e-sports gamers and home theater PC owners, but high pricing compared to the RX 560 renders it borderline irrelevant.

    Pros

    • Huge e-sports performance leap over integrated graphics
    • Cool and quiet
    • Offers modern ecosystem and media features

    Cons

    • No small form factor versions at launch
    • Priced too high
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