AMD Radeon RX 5500 XT review: Bleeding-edge on a budget

It'd be a lot better if it cost $30 less.

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Meet the Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 5500 XT and Trixx Boost

We’re reviewing the $180 4GB Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 5500 XT today. The more mainstream sibling to the enthusiast-class Nitro graphics cards, Sapphire’s Pulse series delivers solid features and performance at an affordable price, charging a mere $10 premium over MSRP. We loved the Pulse iterations of the Radeon RX 570 and 580, as well as the Pulse Radeon RX 5700.

sapphire pulse radeon rx 5500 xt 4 Brad Chacos/IDG

The Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 5500 XT continues the tradition and the same basic design. The card includes a pair of large fans atop a decently sized heatsink, which help to keep temperatures low and sound minimal. It’s even quieter on the desktop thanks to the much-welcome inclusion of idle fan stop, which prevents the card’s fans from spinning when the GPU isn’t under load. Translation: The Pulse Radeon RX 5500 XT is utterly silent during normal desktop usage. You can send sound levels plummeting even further by flipping a BIOS switch on the edge of the card over to a secondary Quiet profile.

Dual BIOSes and idle fan stop are rare features in custom graphics cards that hover around MSRP, as is the full-length metal backplate this card ships with. It’s little touches like these, at such affordable prices, that help Sapphire’s Pulse series stand out from the masses.

sapphire pulse radeon rx 5500 xt 1 Brad Chacos/IDG

The metal backplate and dual BIOS switch are rare niceties for graphics cards that stay close to MSRP.

The other thing? Software, at least now that the Navi generation is here. Sapphire introduced the outstanding Trixx Boost feature to its Trixx software in the Pulse RX 5700, and it continues in fine form with the Pulse RX 5500 XT.

Check out the Trixx Boost section of our Pulse RX 5700 review for a fuller walk-through, but basically, Trixx Boost weaves together AMD’s superb Radeon Image Sharpening feature with slight resolution downscaling to give you more performance with minimal visual compromises. You tell Trixx Boost how much you’d like to scale down the resolution, click Apply, and after a few screen flashes, you’ll be able to select those new, scaled-down resolutions in games. 

Trixx Boost defaults to 85-percent scaling. That works wonderfully for the 1440p and 4K resolutions that the more powerful Radeon RX 5700 hangs around in, but we found it a bit too aggressive at the 1080p resolution that the Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 5500 XT was built for. The 85 percent scaling created a new resolution of 1632x918; with far fewer pixels to work with than in the downscaling options for higher resolutions, it appeared just a bit too shimmery and pixelated to our eyes. Some games, like Strange Brigade, also resorted to framing the image in a letterbox at that resolution.

trixx 2 Brad Chacos/IDG

Screenshot of an early prototype version of Sapphire’s Trixx Boost functionality, captured with a Nitro+. The current version also supports DX11 with Radeon Image Sharpening, which was added in the Radeon Software Adrenalin 2020 Edition update.

Bumping the scaling up to 90 percent—1728x972 resolution—got rid of those problems. Some pixelization can be seen if you really examine the image, but it’s barely perceptible during actual gameplay. Of course, reducing the downscaling also reduces Trixx Boost’s potential performance benefits, but as you’ll see in our benchmarking session, it can still deliver a meaningful difference depending on the game. We benchmarked every game with the Pulse’s out-of-the-box performance as well as with Trixx Boost set to 90-percent scaling.

Don’t confuse Sapphire’s unrivaled Trixx Boost with AMD’s new Radeon Boost feature. Trixx Boost is available only for Sapphire graphics cards, but it works with any game running any graphics API. Radeon Boost, introduced in the huge Radeon Software Adrenalin 2020 Edition update just two days ago, works with any modern Radeon graphics card, but only in a small handful of games, and only if those games are running in DirectX 11 mode. Radeon Boost dynamically downscales the game’s resolution when you move your mouse or control stick in-game to improve performance during action scenes.

radeon boost support AMD

AMD’s own Radeon Boost provides very different functionality than Sapphire’s Trixx Boost, tying dynamic resolution scaling to your mouse movement in-game.

Trixx Boost provides its benefit much more consistently. You could theoretically use both Boost technologies at the same time for even faster performance, but given the limited pixels available at 1080p resolution, combining downscaling tricks below that could get real grainy, real fast. It’s worth a shot in Radeon Boost-compatible games that you want to try at 1440p resolution, though.

Next page: Our test system, performance benchmarks begin

At a Glance
  • AMD's Radeon RX 5500 XT brings its next-gen navi GPU architecture to the masses, with mixed results. It's a good budget gaming option that's priced slightly too high.

    Pros

    • Good 1080p gaming performance
    • Fast GDDR6 VRAM, PCIe 4.0 support
    • Great power efficiency
    • Bundled with Monster Hunter World: Iceborne Edition and 3 months of Xbox Game pass
    • Sapphire's cooler is whisper quiet and very cool
    • Sapphire Pulse has great features for the price
    • Trixx Boost software uses smart downscaling for FPS gains

    Cons

    • Doesn't outperform RX 580 or GTX 1650 Super in many games
    • Costs more than GTX 1650 Super and 8GB RX 580
    • Some cutting-edge Navi features aren't beneficial in budget GPUs
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