I'm new to watercooling and am about to try my first build (final parts should be delivered today). I have bought two EK full cover blocks for my 500 series sli graphics system. I used EK because they have a configurator tool and could provide blocks which matched my Pallit cards which have non reference (custom) pcb's.
Thinking about the future, when I buy my next graphics cards is it best to simply get the cheapest version of the model I want with reference pcb and cooler? This should overcome any compatibility problems but are there any real advantages to non reference pcb's?
Also do any companies sell cards without any cooler at all as it is simply going to be removed (which may prove difficult/dangerous) which should be a bit cheaper?
As you probably already know EK has a verified compatibility list for each of their GPU waterblocks, and from what I can tell its a rather expansive list. Possibly just verify there is a waterblock to fit the cards you're about to buy beforehand. Even if you wait to order the GPU block at least youll know it does exist.
As for cards coming all naked and ready for the addition of a waterblock...youre not likely to find one directly from a manufacturer, and ill make a wager they dont exist in the newer high end type cards youd take the trouble to watercool because lets be honest no one is gonna watercool an 8400gs. However some companies make cards that already have the waterblock on them, EVGA comes to mind.
You'll likely never find a video card being sold without a cooler on it; you run into the issue where someone would try to use it without any cooling and ruin the card. We've seen some people on here that have absolutely no sense that will buy a card with a water block on it thinking 'well, that's it...now I have watercooling' and then in turn fry the card because the block is dry and they do not in fact have any sort of cooling loop.
Taking the cooler off a GPU is really easy, you shouldn't worry about it.
I personally would rather choose a full cover block and card I want and install it myself. Those card/block combos are typically well overpriced for the price of the card and block separately; a high price for someone on an assembly line to apply cheap TIM goop and slap a block on a card. Hydro blocks are a bit more restrictive than most other full-covers as well.
It's really just a matter of economics. The absolute cheapest route to go is reference card + universal waterblock. If you want full covers, the easiest route to go is with reference cards since they are rarely made for non-reference cards. For frequent upgraders, universals are the easiest since they're reusable.
The only reason non-reference PCBs exist is to mount the aftermarket cooler (and occasionally some stuff with better power supply and the like, but those are really limited).
I use universals since I upgrade a lot - I just need a $10 bracket and I'm ready to go on another card. No struggling to sell the GPUs and FC blocks (which I've done - took well over 3 months to sell my second block, and at 50% of the cost of a new one even though it was factory sealed).
A lot of the preattached block GPUs are overpriced. Powercolor's HD 7970 is $670, which is $70 over the price of a 7970 + EK FC block. Some of those blocks aren't as good as some of the others on the market, and you can always find some better looking ones from Heatkiller, Aquacomputer, etc.
In theory, I'd rather have the best performing reference PCB card and full cover block for it.
Next best-case-scenario (could also replace #1) would be best performing card (period) and universal block w/ RAMsinks, VRM and MOSFET cooling.
The availability of full-cover GPU blocks is relatively new; you could only buy universal blocks back in the days when I watercooled my Radeon 8500 and only started seeing full covers around the time of the nVidia 6800/ATI 800&900 series.