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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Bottom line

So is a card this cut-down worthwhile? The benchmarks say yes, unequivocally, if your usage falls into its purview.

If you’re using a PC with integrated graphics and want to supercharge your e-sports experience (and dabble in other games) without topping $100, the Radeon RX 550 definitely delivers. The difference in performance is night and day, and with Polaris’s deep encoding support, you’ll be able to stream your adventures to Twitch with no problem—and streaming functionality’s built right into AMD’s Radeon Software Crimson. It’s like this card was made for e-sports or something.

There’s no reason to opt for a pricier 4GB version of the Radeon RX 550 once those become available, as none of the gaming this card is meant for would push the memory that hard. But if you wind up upgrading your monitor at some point down the line, a high refresh-rate FreeSync display like ViewSonic’s 24-inch, 75Hz VX2457-mhd ($140 on Amazon) would be a splendid, buttery-smooth companion.

dsc01709 Brad Chacos/IDG

On the other hand, the Radeon RX 550’s modern media features indeed make it an intriguing option for home theater PCs. Of course, many are built to be smaller rigs, something less obtrusive for the living room.

If your needs are compatible with the first wave of full-height cards, swell! If not, here’s hoping the Radeon RX 550 indeed starts rolling out in low-profile and (maybe, please?) single-slot variants. It’s a natural fit for that form factor—and quiet as hell.

The only fly in the ointment? Price.

At $80, the Radeon RX 550 certainly isn’t expensive, and it’s more affordable than Nvidia’s ancient $100 GT 740 was—but it’s only $20 cheaper than the $100 Radeon RX 560 cards coming in early May. And if you remember back to the beginning of this review, a Radeon RX 550 is half a RX 560 under the hood. A 20 percent discount for 50 percent less performance (roughly) doesn’t sit right, especially since the extra oomph provided by the Radeon RX 460 (and soon the RX 560) enables solid near console-quality gaming at 1080p resolution.

Sure, if you know you’re only going to use the Radeon RX 550 for e-sports or watching 4K videos, the card lets you save $20 off the price of the RX 460 or RX 560. Most people should just buy the $100 card though. Which is why I’m so disappointed here.  

dsc01710 Brad Chacos/IDG

The Radeon RX 550 is nowhere near as versatile as the RX 460. I actually consider that a great thing. Competitive gaming is only getting more popular, and extremely budget-focused graphics card buyers have been woefully underserved by AMD and Nvidia for years. The stellar e-sports performance of this GPU excited me during benchmarking—when I assumed it would cost somewhere between $60 and $70. Itches that have been lingering for years would finally be scratched! Instead, at $80, there’s little reason to buy it over an RX 460. We’re back at square one.

I still really, really like the Radeon RX 550 and its laser-focus on HTPCs and competitive gaming. It could’ve been something special if it was just a bit cheaper. But as it stands there’s little reason to buy it unless prices shift downward by $10 or $20. Cost is very important in the sub-$100 market, even if it’s been largely underserved until now.

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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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