MSI N550GTX-Ti Cyclone II SLI Video Card Review

Packing a GeForce GTX 550 Ti GPU each, we have a pair of N550GTX-Ti Cyclone II video cards that we are going to evaluate against a Radeon HD 6950, GeForce GTX 570 and even an overclocked GeForce GTX 560 Ti. At a total cost of only $260 we will find out if this dual-GTX 550 Ti action has what it takes to compete.


Established in 1986, MSI has become one of the top motherboard and video card manufacturer's in the world. From its base of operations in the capital of Taiwan, its product lines have grown to include optical drives, notebooks, netbooks, barebones computers, tablets, servers, and many others. At its peak, its annual motherboard and video card production capacity reached 32.6 million units combined.

Today, we are examining a combination of MSI video cards. Specifically, we are looking at the MSI N550GTX-Ti Cyclone II 1GD5/OC in an SLI configuration. The goal of this evaluation is to determine whether or not a pair of overclocked GeForce GTX 550s operating in SLI can compete with single-GPU video cards in the $250 to $300 range, since they are price comparable.

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NVIDIA GeForce GTX 550 Ti

Launched on March 15th of 2011, and codenamed GF116, the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 550 Ti is the most affordable member of the GeForce GTX 500 series of GPUs. It was built on a 40nm fabrication process, and is comprised of 1.17 billion transistors packed into a 238mm square ASIC. GF116 features 192 CUDA/shader cores, 32 texture units, and 24 Render Output (ROP) units arranged into 4 shader Streaming Multiprocessors. NVIDIA recommends that the graphics core be clocked at 900MHz, the shader core be clocked at 1.8GHz. The GeForce GTX 550 Ti has a maximum theoretical pixel fill rate of 21.6 billion pixels per second, a maximum texture fill rate of 28.8 billion texels per second.

The GPU was initially designed to be shipped on a video card with 1024MB of GDDR5 memory on a 192-bit bus clocked at 1026MHz for a data rate of 4.104GHz and memory bandwidth totaling 98.5 GB per second. At least one 2GB model has become available since the GTX 550 Ti launched. The video card sports a TDP of 116 Watts and an MSRP of $149 USD.

By itself, the GF116 could not hope to compete in the same space as video cards like the AMD Radeon HD 6950 or NVIDIA GeForce GTX 570, or even the GeForce GTX 560 Ti. But we noticed that two GeForce GTX 550 Ti based video cards cost about the same as the aforementioned products. SLI performance scaling shouldn't be expected to be 100%, but it may scale well enough to seriously compete with the current round of $250 - $300 video cards.

MSI N550GTX-Ti Cyclone II 1GD5/OC

The MSI N550GTX-Ti Cyclone II is based on NVIDIA's GeForce GTX 550 Ti GPU, but is most definitely not a reference board. Available in retail at $144.99 USD ($129.99 after a rebate), it is overclocked beyond NVIDIA's reference specification and packed onto a custom PCB with a custom cooling device. The graphics core on this video card is configured to run at 950MHz, bringing the shader core up to 1.9GHz, while its 1GB of onboard GDDR5 memory runs at 1075MHz (or 4.3GHz DDR). That is a 50MHz increase for the GPU core, a 100MHz increase for the CUDA cores, and a 49MHz increase on the memory (or 196MHz DDR).

The N550GTX-Ti Cyclone II features MSI's exclusive Propeller Blade technology fan, featuring specially designed fan blades that MSI claims increases airflow by 20% compared to NVIDIA's standard fan. The cooler features a 9cm fan on a nickel-plated copper heat-sink base with many very thin aluminum heat-sink fins. MSI claims the cooler is able to keep the GPU 23 degrees cooler than NVIDIA's reference cooling device for this GPU. It also features some of MSI's Military Class Concept Components. The Military Class components on this video card include Solid State Chokes (SSC) to prevent buzzing coils, and solid capacitors to reduce the possibility of blown caps.

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We received two review samples for this evaluation. The outer box features a stylized image of the Cyclone cooling device as well as quite a lot of branding stickers and badges. Prominently displayed on the front of the box is a decal indicating that a free copy of a full game is included with this video card: Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. Also featured on the front of the box are badges indicating that this video card is an "OC Edition" product with a 3 year warranty, as well as most other pertinent details about the video card.

Inside the top flap is found some information about the video card's Solid Capacitors and Solid State Chokes as well as MSI's Afterburner software. Also displayed are some blurbs reflecting reviewers' comments about the Cyclone cooler design. Lower on the inside flap is more information about the cooling device.

The back of the box features the usual minutiae. There is a features list, and a system requirements section indicates that this video cards requires at least a 400 watt power supply with a minimum 12V current rating of 24A. There is another smaller features list reprinted in 29 different languages.

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This video card's accessory bundle includes a dual 4-pin Molex to single 6-pin auxiliary power supply adaptor, a DVI to VGA adaptor, and a mini-HDMI to HDMI adaptor. The soft bundle includes a product guide, an installation guide, a driver/utility CD-ROM disc, and a redemption coupon for a free copy of Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light via Steam.

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The MSI N550GTX-Ti Cyclone II has a pair of large, painted black aluminum heat-sink shrouds with the video card's branding covering the bonded aluminum heat-sink fins. Situated between the two fin wings is a large aluminum heat-sink atop a nickel plated copper plate. On top of the heat-sink is a single 9cm cooling fan. There are two heat-pipes sprouting from the copper bases of the cooler, which is underneath a machined aluminum heat-sink. The heat-pipes emerge from the base and curve around to run through a large number of very thin bonded aluminum fins. The cooling device is secured to the video card by four spring-loaded screws. The exposed PCB itself is matte black in color. It features a single SLI bridge connector, indicating that this video card does not support triple-SLI. It has a black aluminum brace along the top edge of the video card to help keep the PCB rigid and it requires the use of a single 6-pin auxiliary power supply connector.

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The back of the video card is not shrouded and features a very large number of surface mounted components. It appears as though there is space for six additional GDDR5 memory modules on the back of this video card, perhaps indicating that we may see more endowed models in the future.

For connections, the MSI N550GTX-Ti Cyclone II has two dual-link DVI-I connectors and a single mini-HDMI connector.

The Competition

The MSI N550GTX-Ti Cyclone II is available online for $129.99 after a rebate, and without the rebate it would be $144.99. The total cost for two of these video cards is $260, and when the rebate expires on 8/31 it will be $290 plus shipping. For this evaluation, we are comparing the twin MSI N550GTX-Ti Cyclone II video cards operating in SLI against three other video cards. First is the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 570. Though they generally sell for more than $300, there are several models available right now with mail-in rebates bringing them as low as $274.99. Next we will be comparing performance with an AMD Radeon HD 6950. Prices on the HD 6950 have been dropping lately, and the 2GB models are currently available from $244 to $299, depending on model selections. Here is one at $249.99 after rebate. Lastly, we'll be seeing how the GTX 550 Ti SLI option compares to a highly overclocked GeForce GTX 560 Ti. The GTX 560 is NVIDIA's $200 - $250 option, but some of the overclocked models have been creeping up into the price territory of the Radeon HD 6950. The model we happened to have on hand is the MSI N560GTX-Ti Hawk, which we evaluated back in April. This particular model goes for $239.99 right now with a rebate, when the rebate expires on 8/31 it will be $259.99.

It is worth noting here that the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 570 has 1280MB (1.25GB) of memory on-board, the AMD Radeon HD 6950 has 2048MB (2GB), the MSI N560GTX-Ti Hawk has 1024MB (1GB), and each MSI N550GTX-Ti Cyclone II video card has 1024MB (1GB). Remember than in an SLI configuration, the video memory of each video card contains copied data. So the total 2GB technically present with the two N550GTX-Ti Cyclone II can only be effectively utilized as 1GB.