When it comes time to buying a new graphics card, most will often adhere to the most powerful product available within their price range. While this is generally the sensible thing to do as greater performance turns in faster frame-rates and a higher visual quality, aspects such as looks, cooling and noise are just as important when it comes to the daily use of the machine. For almost every graphics card available to buy, there’s two variations to decide from, both of which will have the most noticeable affect on the thermal capabilities and audible tolerance to that of the buyer.
Known as reference designs and aftermarket coolers, both Nvidia and AMD graphics cards adhere to this format. Within this article we will explore the differences, benefits and drawbacks for each type of cooling solution.
Designed in-house by Nvidia and AMD, reference cards serve as a basis for the design of the graphics card in-question, which is then passed on to third-party vendors who may or may not be granted permission to produce cards of this design. Since these reference designs are just blueprints for the manufacturing process of the graphics card, they may be exclusive to the GPU manufacturer – available to buy either directly or from exclusive partnerships with retail outlets.
Nvidia’s current line-up of reference graphics cards feature a premium cooling solution comprised of an aluminium shroud, a modifiable backplate and a low-profile dual-slot installation. Cooling the GPU itself, a metal baseplate is fitted – keeping the chip, power phases, VRMs and component circuitry under thermal control. This is combined with a vapour chamber heatsink, which functions by transferring heat through a flat metal structure by the means of liquid being converting to gas as heat is dissipated throughout the heatsink. This is then expelled towards the rear of the graphics card using a blower-style fan which directs cool air across the entire PCB.
This method of cooling works great for those with a case of the small-form-factor variety where PCIe slots may be limited, as well as internal space, since the heat that’s dissipated from the card is exhausted towards the rear of the case. The construction of GPUs using the reference solution allows for great overclocking and excellent thermal control, with the GPU itself designed to target the maximum thermal limit for the highest possible clock-speed. As this is by design, these temperatures are rated by Nvidia and are extremely safe for operation with the incredible cooler taking care of unwanted heat.
Within AMD’s current series of graphics cards, the reference design holds much in common to that of Nvidia’s. Featuring a blower-style fan with a closed-off shroud, air is taken in from one end of the card and spread across the entire PCB. Doing away with the aluminium material for a plastic covering which extends past the length of the PCB, the internal cooling structure uses a traditional heatsink design. Holding the same cooling benefits to that of the Nvidia reference designs in regards to the chassis and rear exhaustion, AMD cards differ ever so slightly in that they will not target the maximum TDP.
Configured and built by AIB (Add-In-Board-Partners), companies such as Asus, Gigabyte, MSI and Zotac are provided with blueprints for the reference designs which they will then tweak and configure with their own custom PCB and cooling solutions. Making changes to the circuitry, VRMs, power phases and memory chips all serve to be spectacular improvements over the base designs. This allows for standard configurations featuring just 4GB of VRAM to be increased 8GB on specific cards. Along with power phases and PCB materials being further improved for the purposes of extra durability and greater overclocking, those looking for the fastest cards with additional headroom for overclocking should opt for an aftermarket solution.
As the configuration and quality of each graphics card will differ from one manufacturer to the next, the method of cooling which each partner chooses to include has been specifically designed to fit that specific PCB, since mounting points and screw locations will also differ from one card to the next. This may be comprised of heatpipes, vapour chambers, dual or triple fan solutions, and all-in-one liquid coolers. As it’s quite common for aftermarket cards using an air-cooling solution to exhaust the heat directly back into the case, overall airflow of the case itself should be configured appropriately.
Unlike reference cards which allow for third-party cooling solutions since they all retain to same design and layout, the heatsink and fan design of AIB cards means the possibility for changing the cooler will be much more limited. For those looking to install a custom water-cooling solution on their graphics cards they will best be suited to the reference designs. Along with additional features such as RGB lighting, fan control and overclocking software, aftermarket cards provide the widest array of options with the highest amount of performance and thermal improvements.
With a great number of aesthetic designs, performance differences and physical sizes which will all do well to fit a large number of cases and meet the needs of different consumers, there’s plenty of graphics cards to decide from. Check out the range at Dino PC.