Sapphire Pulse RX 5500 XT Review: Is 4 GB VRAM Enough?

Just before Christmas last year AMD launched its budget-friendly, 1080p-focused RX 5500 XT GPU in two different variants. There’s an 8 GB model which will run you $200.00 and up, then we have the 4 GB models starting around $170.00. So the question; Is 4 GB enough VRAM for today’s gaming environment?

In addition to our normal testing, we’ll take a slight detour today to help shed some light on this. Instead of comparing similar cards performance which we typically do. We’ll be testing a Sapphire Pulse 4 GB and comparing it to a Gigabyte RX 5500 XT Gaming OC 8 to see what impact, if any, having only 4 GB of VRAM may have on gaming. Since these cards are physically wired at PCIe x8 We’ll also test PCIe 4.0 against PCIe 3.0 performance to see if opening up the PCIe bandwidth has any impact on the results.

Specifications and Features

Both of these cards are based on AMD’s “NAVI” core, using their all-new RDNA architecture which is built around the new 7 nm process from TSMC. For details concerning the GIGABYTE 8 GB card, you can refer to our RX 5500 XT  launch review but other than the amount of VRAM the specifications are the same.

The RX 5500 XT is intended for 1080p gaming and the core has been pared down to 22 Compute Units (CU) and 1408 Stream Processors (SP) from the 40 CU and 2560 SP found in the RX 5700 XT. The sample we are comparing is the Sapphire Pulse which has 4 GB of GDDR6 memory. The card uses four Micron 1 GB IC’s running over a 128-bit bus delivering 224 GB/s of total bandwidth.

As with all the new NAVI based AMD GPUs, the RX 5500 XT is PCIe 4.0 compliant. What separates this card from its siblings is the fact that it is wired for PCIe 4.0 x8 which carries the same bandwidth as PCIe 3.0 x16. The impact of this will limit the available bandwidth by half when running the RX 5500 XT at PCIe 3.0 x8.

The RX 5500 XT clocks are set at 1685 MHz base and 1845 MHz maximum boost speed. You’ll also notice a Game Clock listed in the specs below. The boost clocks on the RX GPUs are determined on a per GPU basis and dependent on thermal and electrical conditions as well as die to die variances (and rarely reached). The Game Clock is the minimum expected GPU speed while gaming under standard thermal and electrical conditions. This is not set in the BIOS and should be used as a guide to set expectations while running a typical gaming workload. The sample provided by Sapphire typically ran at or near to its maximum rated boost speed of 1845 MHz when using the performance BIOS.

More details in the list below.

Specifications RX 5700 XT and RX 5700 and RX 5500 XT
GPU RX 5700 XT RX 5700 RX 5600 XT RX 5500 XT
Architecture NAVI (RDNA)
Process 7 nm
Transistors 10.3 Billion 6.4 Billion
Die Size 251 mm² 158 mm²
Compute Units 40 36 22
Stream Processors 2560 2304 1408
ROPs 64 32
Texture Units 160 144 88
Base Clock 1605 MHz 1465 MHz 1235 MHz 1685 MHz
Game Clock 1755 MHz 1625 MHz 1375 MHz 1717 MHz
Boost Clock 1905 MHz 1725 MHz 1560 MHz 1845 MHz
Memory 8 GB GDDR6 6 GB GDDR6 4 or 8 GB GDDR6
Memory Bandwidth 448 GB/s 288 GB/s 224 GB/s
Memory Interface 256-bit 192-bit 128-bit
Peak Texture Fill Rate 304.8 GT/s 248.4 GT/s 224.6 GT/s 162.4 GT/s
Peak Pixel Fill Rate 121.9 GP/s 110.4 GP/s 99.8 GP/s 59 GP/s
TDP (Watts) 225 W 185 W 150 W 130 W
MSRP $449.00 $379.00 $279.00

$169.99 4 GB Model

$199.99 8 GB Model

Features


Sapphire Pulse Graphics Card FEATURES

Explore all the incredible features that come with the Sapphire Pulse RX 5500 XT Graphic Card. We’ve split our features into 3 categories so you can easily see all the features we pride ourselves in designing to create the best gaming experience possible for you

COOLTECH

Our superior cooling technology to keep your temperatures low at a high frame rate

  • Intelligent Fan Control
  • Precision Fan Control
  • Robust VRM Cooling
  • Robust Memory Cooling
  • Dual-X Cooling Technology

DNA

Our core parts that elevate the life of our products through quality, robustness & reliability

  • Backplate (Tough Metal Backplate)
  • Two-Ball Bearing
  • Fan Quick Connect
  • Fuse Protection
  • Dual BIOS

PLUS

All of the extra features that make our Sapphire Boards so special and unique

  • Power Design
  • Free Flow
  • TriXX Supported
  • TriXX Boost


Here’s a GPU-Z screenshot of the Sapphire Pulse RX 5500 XT. As you can see we have 4 GB of GDDR6 and boost clock speed of 1830 MHz. This was one of the lowest boost clocks observed during testing – it typically boosted to 1840 MHz

Retail Packaging and Accessories

The packaging for the Sapphire Pulse RX 5500 XT 4 GB card has a black and red theme with a white and purple diagonal stripe. On the front, we find the Pulse model name and we see it is the “OC” version. On the right of the packaging we see it’s a 4 GB card, PCIe 4.0, and a band of red designating the Radeon RX 5500 XT.

Turning the box over reveals a few more details and a system requirements list. We also find a list of some of the key features such as Dual X cooling with dual ball-bearing fans and dual BIOS.

Sliding out the inner box we have a plain cardboard box with a top flap opening. The inner box only had a quick installation guide and a card with Sapphire’s address aside from the GPU itself.

Inside we see the card is wrapped in an anti-static bag and packed in a tight-fitting cardboard insert with some foam padding on one end. Sapphire is typically minimalistic when it comes to packaging but it’s enough to protect it from accidental damages.

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Meet the Gigabyte RX 5500 XT Gaming OC 8G

The RX 5500 XT from Sapphire has two 100 mm fans with black plastic shrouding. It also has a protective backplate which is made from aluminum, this aids in cooling and also protects the PCB. The majority of the coloring is black with a hint of silver-grey in a “pulse” wave and white branding on the backplate and outward-facing side.

A Closer Look

Taking a look at connectivity, the Pulse from Sapphire has the same I/O layout as both the RX 5700 and RX 5700 XT reference cards. It has three DisplayPort 1.4 outputs with support for display stream compression. It also has one HDMI output with 4k60 support.

The Pulse RX 5500 XT 4 GB from Sapphire has ample power available considering it’s only a 130 W card. It comes with an 8-pin PCIe power connector allowing up to 225 W of power when combined with the PCIe slot.

Below you can see the Pulse disassembled with a nice close-up of the NAVI 14 GPU die to the left. It came with plenty of TIM but this is fairly typical with graphics cards. To the right is Sapphire’s Dual X cooler which has thermal tape and contact points for the memory and VRM as well as a copper heatsink for the GPU keeping things nice and cool during use.

Up next we can see the power section of the Sapphire Pulse RX 5500 XT with its 6+1 phase design, this is also the same as the reference 5700s. To the right, we have the IR 35217 PWM controller for the seven 30 A On Semi power stages. The Pulse 4 GB comes with four Micron GDDR6 IC’s if you notice in the picture above, the thermal tape was being stubborn and wanted to tear so we don’t have a close up of these.

GIGABYTE RX 5500 XT Gaming OC 8 GB on the test bench:

Test System and Benchmark Methods

Our test system is based on the mainstream Intel platform, Z370, and uses the i7-8700K 6c/12t CPU. The CPU is overclocked to 4.7 GHz on all cores/threads with cache set to 4.3 GHz. The clock speeds used provides a good base to minimize any limitations the CPU may have on our titles, particularly when using the lower resolutions, and should be attainable with a good air cooler or better. The DRAM is in a 2×8 GB configuration at 3200 MHz with CL15-15-15-35-2T timings which is a middle of the road option that balances performance and cost.

As mentioned earlier for additional testing we utilized an AMD Ryzen system based on the R9 3900X and the X570 chipset to provide PCIe 4.0 results. The system was at stock settings with PBO (performance boost overdrive) enabled. We also used 2×8 GB of CL 16 3600 MHz RAM which keeps the IF (infinity fabric) at its optimal speed of 1800 MHz.

This time around our testing only includes the two RX 5500 XT variants — the Sapphire Pulse 4 GB and the Gigabyte Gaming 8 GB models. Our goal is to see what differences 4 GB of VRAM may make in performance versus 8 GB of VRAM and secondly if PCIe 4.0 affects performance in any way. If you’d like to see how the RX 5500 XT compares to its siblings and NVidia cards you can check out our launch review, Gigabyte RX 5500 XT Gaming OC 8G: 7 nm on a budget.

The Sapphire Pulse 4 GB was tested at stock and overclocked in both the Intel and AMD systems while the GIGABYTE Gaming was only tested at stock in both systems.

Intel Test System Components
Motherboard ASUS ROG Maximus X Apex
CPU Intel i7 8700K @ 4.7 GHz / 4.3 GHz Cache
CPU Cooler EVGA CLC 240
Memory 2×8 GB G.Skill Trident Z 3200 MHz CL15-15-15-35
SSD Toshiba OCZ TR200 480 GB (OS + Applications)
Power Supply EVGA 750W G3
Video Card Sapphire PULSE RX 5500 XT 4 GB
AMD Test System Components
Motherboard MSI X570 MEG GODLIKE
CPU AMD Ryzen R9 3900X PBO
CPU Cooler EVGA CLC 240
Memory 2×8 GB G.Skill Royal 3600 MHz CL16-16-16-36
SSD Toshiba OCZ TR200 480 GB (OS + Applications)
Power Supply EVGA 750W G3
Video Card Sapphire PULSE RX 5500 XT 4 GB

Thanks go out to EVGA for providing the CLC 240 CPU Cooler and 750 W G3 Power Supply to cool and power the system, G.Skill for the Trident Z DRAM, and Toshiba OCZ for the 480 GB TR200 SSDs storage running the OS, benchmarks, and games. With our partners helping out, we can build matching test systems to mitigate any differences found between using different hardware. This allows for multiple reviewers in different locations to use the same test system and compare results without additional variables.

   

Below are the tests we run with a brief description of the settings. We have made some significant changes since the last update adding a few new titles and dropping some of the older games. More details can be found in the GPU Testing Procedure article which we have updated with our latest benchmarks.

  • UL 3DMark Time Spy – Default settings
  • UL 3DMark Fire Strike (Extreme) – Default settings
  • Shadow of the Tomb Raider – DX12, “Highest” preset (will add RTX when it has been patched)
  • The Division 2 – DX12, Ultra preset, VSync Off
  • Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation – DX12, Crazy preset, GPU focused
  • Far Cry 5 – Ultra defaults
  • F1 2018 – Very High defaults, TAA, and x16 AF, Australia track, show FPS counter
  • World of Tanks: Encore Benchmark – Ultra defaults

Synthetic Benchmarks

Our first set of benchmarks hails from Underwriters Laboratories who acquired Futuremark back in 2014. Earlier in 2018, a rebrand occurred and since that time, Futuremark is now UL. The benchmarks have not changed, just the name. We chose to stick with 3DMark Fire Strike (Extreme) and 3DMark Time Spy as these tests give users a good idea of performance on modern titles.

3DMark Fire Strike (Extreme) is a DX11-based test that UL says the graphics are rendered with detail and complexity far beyond other DX11 benchmarks and games using 1920×1080 resolution. 3DMark Time Spy is a DX12 benchmark designed for Windows 10 PCs. It supports new API features such as asynchronous compute, explicit multi-adapter, multi-threading, and runs at 2560×1440 resolution.

The results above are based on the Graphics score only not the overall score to best represent the GPU and not the system. As you can see in both the Fire Strike Extreme and Time Spy tests the stock and overclocked scores are all in the same ballpark.

Gaming Benchmarks

Moving on to the gaming benchmarks, we have updated our testing suite to bring more modern titles into the mix. Gone are GTA V, Crysis 3, and Rise of the Tomb Raider, which were replaced with Shadow of the Tomb Raider, World of Tanks: enCore benchmark, F1 2018, Battlefield V, and Far Cry 5. We also updated to The Division 2 and Ashes of the Singularity to AOTS: Escalation. The games should provide a good view of the overall performance of the card.

Here we see the RX 5500 XT performing the same regardless of VRAM or PCIe configurations. The 4 GB Pulse came out slightly ahead of the 8 GB variant.

Testing of Far Cry 5 gave very similar results to the testing above but moving to the Division we start to see a bit of deviation. The variance isn’t much but it looks like 4 GB at PCIe 3.0 x8 is starting to show some limitations. It’s most noticeable when the card is overclocked comparing 59 FPS (PCIe 3.0) to 62 FPS (PCIe 4.0). For reference, the results of the overclocked 4 GB Pulse at PCIe 4.0 x8 were identical to the overclocked results of the 8 GB Gaming at PCIe 3.0 in our launch review.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a more demanding title and it’s apparent by the results above that the 4 GB Sapphire Pulse is showing some limitations. Although it still manages to reach almost 60 FPS, it’s still falling 10% short of the 8 GB RX 5500 XT. Running in PCIe 4.0 manages to bring the performance up to that magical number but the 4 GB needs an overclock and PCIe 4.0 just to match the 8 GB card at stock. We also see a bit of a hit in Battlefield V although not nearly as noticeable as SOTR.

8 GB Vs 4 GB

Here’s what AMD has to say about the differences between the two models when it comes to performance. The differences will depend on the titles and quality settings. We didn’t have all the titles to test so we’ll just reiterate some of AMD’s internal testing. As you can see by the graph below the impact can be significant with up to a 20 % performance hit in some scenarios.

Overclocking

Overclocking of the Sapphire Pulse RX 5500 XT was all done using AMD’s Adrenalin 2020 software which does include a tuning section. Sapphire did a fine job on its own adjusting the fan for cooling and keeping the noise levels down. The RX 5500 XT doesn’t put out a lot of heat so even at low RPMs the DUAL X cooler easily kept the temperatures in check.

The GPU core was raised from 1845 MHz boost up to 1961 MHz which was as high as it would go and remain stable. The memory, on the other hand, was also limited to a speed of 1820 MHz which was a bit disappointing. This sample from Sapphire fell a bit short in overclocking when compared to the Gigabyte but the real world difference in performance is practically non-existent.

Fire Strike Extreme

Time Spy

Software

Sapphire does offer proprietary software for their GPUs, the latest version is TriXX 7.3.0 but it no longer has any overclocking options. On a personal note, this is very disappointing. Sapphire TriXX, at one time, was my go-to software for AMD GPUs because it was a small, lightweight overclocking utility that always seemed to work with any AMD card.

Today TriXX is mostly a monitoring and RGB control utility. Since the Pulse doesn’t have any RGB LEDs, the RGB screen wasn’t available. One other option available through the software is TriXX Boost. The Boost function works in conjunction with Radeon Image Sharpening to boost FPS while maintaining visual quality. To do this, it renders the game at a lower resolution to increase the FPS, then upscales the output to the desired resolution.

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Temperatures and Power Use

We test power consumption by running through the game benchmarks of Shadow of the Tomb Raider and F1 2018 at stock speeds. We monitor temperatures throughout this testing with the peak temperature what is listed in the data below. To more accurately simulate real gaming conditions, the benchmarks are extended (time) to allow the card to settle.

As we can see above the temperatures of the Sapphire Pulse RX 5500 XT 4 GB were very well controlled reaching a maximum of 61°C during Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Thanks to the Dual X cooler and Sapphire’s fan profile the maximum temperature was 6° lower while overclocked at a steady 55°C.

Power use on this 130 W card peaked at 225 W (system) overclocked and 215 W while at stock both during our SOTR test, during stock operation this is only 5 W less than the 8 GB model we reviewed previously. A quality 500 W PSU should be plenty including overclocking both CPU and GPU and still allowing for headroom and quiet operation.

Conclusion

Overall, the performance from the Pulse RX 5500 XT was right where it should be slipping into the upper end of 1080p gaming. Despite the fact that it has half the VRAM of the Gigabyte Gaming it still performed on par in many titles. Also, as we took advantage of AMD’s PCIe 4.0 availability, the performance variations between the two narrowed considerably. We have to keep in mind here that this is the lowest cost GPU in AMD’s bargain segment and was still capable of running our tests using ‘ultra’ settings.

The Dual X cooler on this Sapphire GPU performed very well as expected, and managed to keep the temperatures controlled nicely at both stock and while overclocked. Sapphire also did a great job feeding power to this 4 GB model with an 8-pin PCIe connector and the 6+1 power stage arrangement there was more than enough clean, stable power to push this 130 W card.

So, back to the original question is 4 GB of VRAM enough for today’s gaming? Generally, we say yes. However, there are already titles out today which can eclipse the 4GB capacity and have a negative effect on performance. As gaming and technology progress, the demand placed on the hardware is constantly increasing. Ten years ago, the GTX 580 top-of-the-line GPU had a whopping 1.5 GB of VRAM which seems almost laughable today.

With the launch of the next-generation consoles just around the corner, we need to step back and look at their specifications. Both the next-gen Playstation and XBOX will come with 12 GB plus of GDDR6 from what we have been gathering and typically the consoles drive game development. This makes us wonder how much longer 4 GB or even 6 GB of VRAM will be viable.

If you’re buying a GPU today which you hope will last for years to come I wouldn’t recommend buying anything with less than 8 GB of VRAM. On the other hand, if you need a decent card at a lower price to get your gaming rig off the ground, the Sapphire Pulse RX 5500 XT 4 GB will fill that need.

– Shawn Jennings (Johan45)

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  1. I found this interesting in that most people have generally discounted the impact of PCIe gen 4 on video card performance:
    "Overall, the performance from the Pulse RX 5500 XT was right where it should be slipping into the upper end of 1080p gaming. Despite the fact that it has half the VRAM of the Gigabyte Gaming it still performed on par in many titles. We have to keep in mind here that this is the lowest cost GPU in AMD’s bargain segment and was still capable of running our tests using ‘ultra’ settings."
    I think this is especially significant in view of the fact that this is not an upper tier video card which would seem to dictate less advantage with PCIe gen 4 over hungrier upper tier cards.
    This happens because the card runs out of VRAM and it pages out to system RAM. The data travels through the PCIe bus to get there. To many, this could be considered a design flaw considering the big hits the card takes on several titles. It forces it to a 1080p medium 60 (res/settings/fps) card instead of 1080p ultra 60 . If they would have simply used an x16 connection, the difference would be a lot less pronounced.
    Basically, if you do not run out of VRAM and have a gimped x8 interface on your GPU, the significant differences are minimized to a few percent.
    I'm actually surprised that 4GB is now showing signs of strain at 1080, as shown by double digit gains with 8GB VRAM in certain titles. But I guess it had to happen at some point. Guess it's another reason to upgrade my laptop, which is running a 970 with "4" GB.
    I figure $150-$200 is probably the "Sweet Spot" for the average Joe. Just grab a mid-range card to slap in a cheap Dell, and BAM! "Gaming" PC. At least that's how a lot of friends did it back in HS. So I guess it comes down to if that $30 difference is worth the extra frames and some future proofing, or if the 1-2 games you play runs well enough with 4GB.
    freakdiablo
    I'm actually surprised that 4GB is now showing signs of strain at 1080, as shown by double digit gains with 8GB VRAM in certain titles. But I guess it had to happen at some point. Guess it's another reason to upgrade my laptop, which is running a 970 with "4" GB.
    I figure $150-$200 is probably the "Sweet Spot" for the average Joe. Just grab a mid-range card to slap in a cheap Dell, and BAM! "Gaming" PC. At least that's how a lot of friends did it back in HS. So I guess it comes down to if that $30 difference is worth the extra frames and some future proofing, or if the 1-2 games you play runs well enough with 4GB.
    Unless one just simply can't afford it, you need the 8GB card here IMO. That or look at the GTX 1660 Super which is way faster and priced the same as the high end 5500 XTs 8GBs.