When piecing together a custom computer—especially one that will be used for gaming—the graphics card choice is one of the most critical selections. It’s important to get the right card for your gaming needs. But unfortunately, selecting a GPU is one of the most complicated aspects of PC part selection. Not only are there different architectures to pick between, there are different vendors making graphic cards based off the same reference specifications.
Should you buy a reference or Founders Edition card made by the architecture's designer, Nvidia or AMD, or a card built around AMD or Nvidia's GPUs, but made by a third-party partner like MSI, Gigabyte or Asus?
There are so many variables to consider when purchasing a graphics card that we're going to break it down into bite-sized chunks instead of throwing it all at your at once. For this article, we’re not going to get into the different GPU performance tiers (you can find that on our GPU benchmarks page), and we’re not going to delve into the benefits of Nvidia’s cards compared to those from AMD.
Before you can make an informed purchase, you must first understand the differences between a factory reference or Founders Edition card and an add-in board (AIB) partner’s custom card. There are pros and cons for both options, which may not be evident at first glance.
What Is a Reference or Founders Edition Graphics Card?
When Nvidia or AMD design a new graphics processor, they define the minimum hardware specifications--known as the reference design--which manufacturers must follow to build graphics cards with the new GPUs.
Nvidia and AMD give the reference specifications to their partners, who build graphics cards that adhere to the unique specifications. Partners are also allowed to improve upon the reference design and create custom cards with overclocked GPUs and memory and with better components, such as higher-quality capacitors or more robust power phases. Custom graphics cards almost always include improved cooling solutions too. But they also carry higher price tags than reference cards, which were traditionally sold in limited quantities with lower profit margins.
When Nvidia launched its 10-series (based on the Pascal architecture) in 2016, the company also introduced the concept of the Founders Edition graphics card, which is slightly different than the reference approach. Founders Edition cards are sort of like reference design cards, but are meant to be sold to the general public with the Nvidia branding and, thus, compete with partner cards based off the same reference architecture.
Clock Speed Advantage
Nvidia cherry-picks the most robust GPU samples for its Founders Edition cards, which gives them a performance advantage over the basic reference configuration. Founders Edition cards offer higher boost clock speeds than the reference specifications.
However, custom cards from AIBs often offer even higher clock speeds for improved performance. Nvidia poaches the best GPUs for their Founders Edition cards, but partner manufacturers also sort their their GPU allotment based on overclocking ability and other performance factors (a process known as binning), giving the best chips to their top cards. The most-capable GPUs are usually paired with over-engineered power delivery systems, high-quality components and robust cooling solutions that enable you to squeeze a few more megahertz out of your chip.
If you’re shopping for an AMD card, you may or may not have the option of purchasing a reference card (the Radeon RX 580 isn’t available in a reference config), but if you can, it will almost always feature a lower clock speed than partner cards with the same GPU.
Winner: AIB. Nvidia bins its GPUs and keeps the best for itself, but that doesn’t stop the company’s partners from pushing their parts even further than Nvidia. AIBs often sell graphics cards with higher base and boost clocks than a Founders Edition card.
Choosing a graphics card with the intent to overclock is a mixed bag. On the one hand, AIB cards are often meant for overclocking, with PCBs featuring additional layers and extra copper in the circuity to handle increased power input.
AIBs will also improve the power delivery systems, sometimes offering as much as 12-phase power to stabilize the power draw. Some custom cards also feature additional power plugs to deliver the power required for extreme overclocking.
However, we can’t overlook the support for aftermarket water-cooling solutions that you get with reference cards. And in the case of Nvidia’s Founders Edition cards, the binned GPUs have potential to produce higher overclocks than some custom cards.
Winner: AIB. There’s no guarantee that either option will give you better performance. Ultimately, it all comes down to the silicon lottery. Any graphics card can be overclocked, but on average you should get the best results with a card that was engineered to be pushed to its limits.
Air Cooling Solutions
Traditionally, the included coolers for reference graphics cards get the job done but not efficiently. You often find blower-style coolers on reference cards, which are effective but loud. To draw enough air over the card and push it out the vents on the back, the blower fan must spin fast, which creates significant noise.
Blower-style coolers are suitable for cramped spaces where you need to exhaust the hot air out the back of the PC case. But if you have a chassis with good air flow, a dual- or triple-fan solution typically keeps temperatures down without creating as much noise.
Nvidia moved away from the blower-style fan for its 20-series Founders Edition lineup. The company’s new cooler features a dual-fan setup that pushes the hot air back into the case for the case fans to dump outside. Unfortunately, Nvidia valued aesthetics here more than cooling efficiency, as it blocked most of the heatsink’s exhaust area with a metal shroud that traps air inside.
Third-party AIBs often install superior coolers on their graphics cards that usually include thicker heatsinks with higher copper density than reference coolers and more massive fans than most reference coolers. Larger, more efficient coolers enable cooler GPU operating temperatures, which in turn allow higher factory overclocks. Third-party coolers also often feature quieter fans, a nice bonus.
In addition, custom cards usually include dual- or triple-axial fan configurations, rather than the traditional blower-style coolers. However, (as mentioned) the 20-series Founders cards also have a dual-axial fan configuration.
Winner: AIB. Reference coolers get the job done, but AIBs spend extra money on superior coolers that are better at dispersing heat while producing less sound. Just make sure the cooler solution you opt for fits in your existing case.
Liquid Cooling Options
With most water-cooling parts manufacturers stick with the reference or Founders Edition designs because more people have cards that feature the default PCB layout. That said, a handful of AIB partners offer graphics card options with pre-installed water blocks, such as EVGA’s Hydro-Copper series, as well as top-tier cards with closed-loop cooling solutions for their custom PCB cards.
AIB partner cards include superior air-cooling solutions, but reference and Founders Edition cards often have better aftermarket water cooling support than partner cards. EK Water Blocks is somewhat of an outlier in the water-cooling business in that it builds water blocks for custom AIB cards. Most other water-cooling companies don’t play with the custom PCB designs because the market is too small. Still, EK has forged partnerships with the likes of Asus, Gigabyte and MSI.
Winner: Reference / Founders Edition. You can find water-cooled custom cards and water blocks for some custom cards, but if you buy a graphics card with a reference design PCB, you’ll have options from every water-cooling parts maker.
It used to be that purchasing a reference card meant that you would save some money. Reference designs used to be the base platform for a graphics card architecture, while the AIB cards were higher-priced cards with improved designs and faster clock speeds. But when Nvidia introduced the Founders Edition series in 2016, that went out the window.
Nvidia decided to give the Founders Edition cards a premium price tag over the base MSRP for their cards, which eliminated them as the cheap alternative.
These days, you won’t find many examples of top-tier, third-party GeForce RTX cards, such as the RTX 2080 and RTX 2080 Ti, priced lower than Nvidia’s Founders Edition, which makes the base MSRP irrelevant. Though, it is possible to find RTX 2070 cards priced closer to Nvidia’s MSRP.
AMD still sells classic reference design cards, but only the ultra-high-end RX Vega and Vega Pro series are available with the reference blower cooler and PCB design. AMD doesn’t work with as many partners as Nvidia anymore, but Gigabyte, Asus, and Sapphire offer Vega cards with custom coolers, and most of them sell for significant premiums over the reference model.
AMD’s mid-tier RX 580 and RX 590 are available from a handful of AIBs, but AMD didn’t release a retail version of its reference design for those GPUs.
Winner: AIB. Reference design graphics cards used to be cheaper, but that’s not always the case anymore. Founders Edition cards can be more expensive than some AIB cards. AIBs also usually offer options at several different price points to suit anyone’s budget.
When Nvidia launches a new graphics card or GPU architecture, it’s a safe bet that you’ll usually have access to Founders Edition cards before the custom cards hit the market. Nvidia has the distinct advantage of knowing the hardware specifications before anyone else, which enables it to prepare its stock in advance.
AIB partners can bring reference design cards to market pretty quickly, and some of them include improved cooling solutions, but the custom cards with better components usually hit the market far later. For example, Nvidia launched the GeForce RTX 2080 and RTX 2080 Ti in September, but we saw new custom card announcements as recently as the CES tech show in January of 2019. This gives you a sense of how long it can take for AIBs to perfect their designs.
Winner: Reference / Founders Edition. If you’re the type of person who doesn’t like to wait, you’re far better off picking up a reference design. If you wait for custom cards to hit the market, your new GPU might be old news to early adopters of reference cards.
Purchasing the right graphics card comes down to identifying your needs. Early adopters who always want the latest and greatest as soon as possible will find value in buying a reference or Founders Edition graphics card because they’ll be able to get their hands on one sooner than a custom card. Liquid cooling enthusiasts may also be inclined to look for a reference or Founders Edition for the broader availability of water blocks.
However, if maximum performance is critical to you, a custom AIB card with a robust cooling solution and advanced power delivery system is a superior choice.
|Round||Reference/Founders Edition||AIB Custom Cards|
|Clock Speed Advantages||✗|
|Air Cooling Solutions||✗|
|Liquid Cooling Options||✗|