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(03-07-2012, 06:11 PM)
mkenyon's Avatar
Reposting my Video Card Guide here for OP linkage.

The video card world is a far cry from where it was even a few years ago. Just about every card released was based on the reference design given by AMD and Nvidia. Really, the only reason to buy one OEM over the other was brand loyalty and customer service. Recently though, there has been a trend towards non-reference designs. The plethora of ‘Extreme Editions’ or ‘OC edition’ can leave many buyers completely confused as to what cards they should be looking at purchasing. In some instances, you could see three cards from the same manufacturer that look exactly the same, yet have a great disparity in cost between them. The idea of this guide isn’t to push you towards buying a specific card, but to provide you with the knowledge to make your own decision.

Right now there are basically three classifications of cards to choose from. These classifications generally only exist in the top 4 or 5 best performers from either AMD or Nvidia. For budget type cards, there may be only a few non-reference designs if any at all. For clarity, I will be using the EVGA line of GTX580s to compare the different models.

The first is standard reference design. These are built to Nvidia’s spec with the standard design cooler on it. In the past, this was a good thing as when manufacturers deviated from reference, it was to add in sub-par capacitors and parts to make the card less expensive. Currently, the only solid reasons to buy a reference card is because you just simply can not wait for the non-reference designs to come out, or you want ease of compatibility for after market coolers and water blocks.

The current trend on reference coolers is a ‘blower’ design where the fan sucks air in from the front of the case, pushes it over the heatsink, and exits out of the back of the case. Though it tends to cause higher noise levels and a reduced cooling capacity over many non-reference cards, it has the added benefit of keeping the hot air created by your video card out of your case. This type of card can also sometime include factory overclocks applied, which to be perfectly blunt, is almost always a complete waste of money. The settings are at levels that are easily achieved in thirty minutes of your own tweaking in programs like MSI Afterburner or Sapphire TriXX.

The second class is the non-reference designs. Each third party manufacturer generally has their own proprietary cooler which requires a specific PCB (Printed Circuit Board – the silicon portion of the card) making aftermarket coolers and water blocks generally incompatible. Depending on the brand and quality of the cooler though, this is a minor drawback. Almost all of the non-reference coolers handily outperform the reference coolers.

The better coolers have two major benefits, the first being a much quieter card due to increased fan size and cooling performance. The second is increased overclocking headroom. It’s the same principle of buying a big heatsink for your CPU. More volts means more heat, and with an increased ability to dissipate heat, you can achieve higher clocks.

Some manufacturers go a step further in adding improvements like higher quality capacitors and better voltage regulation. This again leads to higher clocks. If you want to get a great performing card, overclock to higher levels, and keep the noise down in an air-cooling build, this is generally the type of card you want.

The third class of card is a heavily modified version of the base card meant entirely for enthusiasts and overclockers. We’ll call these the ‘extreme edition’ cards. The Classified GTX 580 pictured above takes the original PCB and completely throws out the reference design, keeping only the base chip and memory. Everything from the capacitors It even accepts a third PCI-E power plug to put over 100oW through it to feed voltage levels that would otherwise brick most cards.

Needless to say, these cards have features that generally won’t be taken advantage of by the vast majority of gamers, instead aimed at the overclocking and benching crowd. If you absolutely must have the top of the line card where money is no concern, these can still outperform even the non-reference cards fairly easily even in the hands of an amateur.

Keep in mind, these classifications are generalizations. In some cases the aftermarket coolers can perform worse than the reference design, such as the new XFX R7950 BEDD. There are four manufacturers that time and again bring the absolute best to the table. Like EVGA focuses on Nvidia cards, Sapphire focuses entirely on AMD cards. As a result, they generally get access to the tech sooner than other companies and deliver high quality products. ASUS’s DCII and MSI’s Twin Frozr designs are also consistently good performers.

Really though, as with any major purchase decision, you will want to look at every review possible of the cards you are interested in to compare and contrast benefits. It is a decision that should be weighed heavily, as there is no single component more important than a video card for a gamer.