This roundup focuses on graphics cards that manufacturers have sent to the THG lab in retail boxes. Retail, in this case, means that the card reaches us in one of the colorful boxes buyers would find at the store, not in a "plain brown box" as a system OEM would buy. It also means that the card itself is shipping with its full final bundle, as opposed to a pre-production sample without software.
Experience has taught us that getting a retail bundle of a newly introduced product is not always possible. Indeed, hardware testers usually find it much easier to get the reference card of a certain graphics card generation instead. The trouble is that these are usually hand-picked pre-production samples, and they come without any extra features or software. In some cases, the final shipping cards will actually use a different board layout or cooling solution - in short, reference cards are not always representative of the final product when it comes to feature set, software bundle and, in some cases, even performance.
Of course, hardware reviewers and card makers alike prefer that flagship and reference boards be reviewed as early as possible - albeit obviously for different reasons. Once the reference cards are out, the smaller cards can then ride on the success of the bigger models. The more recommendations the flagship models receive, and the higher their new performance results are, the better the middle-class cards will sell.