We have done many articles devoted to graphic cards, some focused on the technical level and others focused as a shopping guide, but we had never dedicated one to talking about reference designs, custom designs, and form factors.
These are interesting topics because they are part of the issues we must solve when choosing a graphics card, and we have also found that many users have some doubts about them that it is necessary to clear.
That is why we have decided to make this article, where we will talk about the reference and personalized designs, we will see the keys of both and we will also touch on the theme of the form factor when choosing a graphics card. As always, we invite you to leave any doubt in the comments.
What are the reference designs?
It is those graphics cards that serve as a model or base for manufacturers. Normally these have three great options:
Follow the reference model outright, something that has always been quite common and is currently maintained in both NVIDIA and AMD solutions.
Follow that base but introduce small differences that are normally limited to the aesthetic section. A recent example we would have in this GTX 1080 TI that Manli announced.
Completely change the reference designs and launch “real” custom models. This implies changes that can be more or less profound, although we will talk about it later on.
As a general rule, assemblers are committed to offering a catalog as complete as possible, and this implies that we can find both graphic cards faithful to the reference designs and other custom designs.
This also has another explanation, and that is that it allows them to market solutions based on the same graphic core but at different prices. These price differences are justified by the finishes and the quality of construction that each card has.
In short, the reference designs are the base model that is usually released by NVIDIA and AMD from a specific graphics card, and the customized adaptations carried out by the assemblers, introducing various novelties that can range from the PCB to the cooling system.
What are the advantages of customized designs?
We already know what basic differences exist between what we consider as graphic reference cards and personalized, but within that apparent simplicity there is a world of variations that end up painting a very complex panorama, and that can end up complicating the selection to a great extent.
At this point we are going to talk about the most important modifications that a graphic card can bring before a reference design, we will comment on what this may mean for the user and we will analyze the real value it offers.
Personalized PCB: this can range from aesthetic changes (a color different from that of the reference model) to power designs with different phases and additional connectors. It has been gradually losing importance and today even the reference designs have an excellent quality and fulfill more than enough.
Power connectors: we wanted to dedicate a separate section because they are very important. Normally a graphics card with reference design uses a fixed number of connectors, but custom versions can alter it. A clear example is the GTX 1080 TI, which uses a six-pin connector and another eight in its reference version, but many of the custom ones will go up to two 8-pin connectors. The fact that it requires fewer connectors means that it adapts to simpler sources.
Connection ports: we talk about the external connectors offered by a graphics card. The most common is that most of the personalized versions keep those of the reference design, but some can add specific ports, both on the back and on the sides. An example is the GIGABYTE GTX 1080 AORUS, which brings two additional HDMI in the front area. More connections are not always better, everything depends on what we need.
Work speeds: it is one of the best ways to add value to a personalized graphic card, upload work frequencies. The most common is to find increases in the GPU, although in some cases there are assemblers that also increase the speed of memory. These increases can mean a considerable increase in performance, so as we said is an interesting value. More is always better, in this case, and the fact that they come factory rises gives us security.
Memory: it has always been one of the great points of differentiation that have been used by the assemblers, although lately there is a bit of a falling layer. Keep in mind that the graphic memory is important, but the total performance of the card depends mainly on the graphic core that you mount and the range in which it is framed. By this, we mean that for example an RX 470 of 8 GB will not yield more than a GTX 980 of 4 GB by the fact of having twice the graphic memory. With everything is an interesting value, since in models like the RX 460 marks a clear difference in certain games.
Dissipation systems:it is one of the points that gives assemblers more game. The models with reference designs usually come with dissipation systems very simple and not too effective. On the other hand, the custom models come with large radiators with two or three fans, or even with liquid cooling, which means they offer better working temperatures even with overclocking. It is a great value and we must take it into account, especially if we live in hot areas.
Rear metal plate: is an element that has become almost essential in high-end solutions that mount large dissipation systems. It provides solidity to the PCB and helps to cool the graphics card. It is synonymous with quality and adds a clear value.
Other things to keep in mind: this section includes decorative elements, such as LED lighting for example, and software that helps to control such lighting or that allows us to monitor card temperatures or even overclock. Neither is essential for most, but they also add value.
We want to close this point before moving on to the form factors with a series of important conclusions that we believe will help you to better assimilate everything we have seen so far.
When choosing a graphics card it is best to go for a model with custom design, especially if we are going to bet on a high-end solution, since the price difference is usually minimal and we will take a solution that will have:
A more careful and efficient ventilation system.
Factory overclock in most cases.
We will have a greater margin to overclock without reaching worrying temperatures.
At the time of selling it second hand will lose less value.
However you must be clear that it is never a good idea to pay an excessive price for a customized model, saving the case of liquid cooling, since we will be making an investment that will not be profitably profitable.
An example of a custom-designed graphic card at a good price would be this GTX 1080 ARMOR OC from MSI.
We close the article with a reference to the issue of formats and sizes. There is no fixed standard and we can find graphic cards of very different sizes that adapt to both microATX and miniITX formats, even in high range.
We can also find versions that occupy one, two or three expansion slots (thickness of the card), depending on the dissipation solution they use.
Usually, the performance of the smaller graphics cards is usually identical to that of their older sisters or even a little higher, a clear example we have it in the GTX 1070 miniITX of GIGABYTE.
We must bear in mind that its price is also very similar to that of reference models, although they are accompanied by custom dissipation systems that work very well and keep temperatures under control without problems.
When choosing a card is essential that you value first of all the size of it and your box, the power connectors and the source you need, and from there you can start to assess the rest of the key requirements.