Are Custom GPUs Worth Buying Over Reference Cards?

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Are Custom GPUs worth the extra expense?

Story Highlight
  • Both Custom and reference cards come with nearly identical base specifications; however, custom cards might be factory-overclocked.
  • Custom cards generally come with better cooling solutions, higher boost clocks, and additional features.
  • Reference cards are usually far cheaper than custom variants, making them a better overall value. 

There’s no denying that custom cards can offer a lot more than the reference variants. However, is the difference drastic enough to pay extra for these custom variants, or are reference cards just as capable as their custom counterparts?

Not A Significant Performance Advantage

Don’t get me wrong, you can get a performance advantage from the increased clock speeds of custom cards; however, in most cases, the difference is going to be negligible. 

Reference vs Custom RTX 2070 (Image Via Optimum)

As seen in benchmarks by Optimum, the custom RTX 2070 only managed to get 8 more fps than the reference variant, which isn’t substantial by any means.

Of course, a larger performance difference is possible; however, that would require you to spend a lot more on the custom variant.

4080 FE vs 4080
4080 FE vs 4080 Neptune (Image Via JayzTwoCents)

In JayzTwoCents’ video comparing the founders edition RTX 4080 with a water-cooled variant, there was a notable difference between the scores of the two cards, with the water-cooled one leading the chart. However, that variant will set you back $300-400, which means the higher price isn’t necessarily justified.

Reference Cards Have Gotten A lot Better

Blower Style Graphics Cards
Blower Style Graphics Cards By Nvidia (Image Via Linus Tech Tips)

Just a couple of years ago, both Nvidia and AMD’s reference cards struggled to maintain low temperatures during demanding situations. In fact, Nvidia’s Blower-style 1000 series Founders Edition cards became notorious for producing a lot of noise while also reaching higher temperatures, which made custom cards a much more compelling option.

Things have changed a lot since then, and both Nvidia and AMD have completely revamped the design of the reference cards. With those changes, most complaints about reference cards have almost entirely vanished.

As seen in the graphs shown in O!Techonology’s channel, the reference cards of these newer cards compete on an equal level with the custom variants in terms of noise levels and temperatures, which is a huge improvement from older cards.

Why Pay More For A Custom Card?

Price Comparison between founders edition and custom 4080
Price Comparison (Image Via JayzTwoCents)

In my opinion, the biggest advantage you get with custom variants is the variety of options you get to choose from. Want an over-the-top design that matches the theme of your build? You’ll get plenty of cards with varying design languages. Interested in reaching insanely high clock speeds? You can find water-cooled cards designed specifically for overclocking.

The point is, that custom cards can cater to your needs a lot better than reference variants. Here are some of the advantages you can expect from a custom GPU.

  • More options: With custom graphics cards you get a lot more options and form factors to choose from, including low-profile cards.
  • Better Cooling: While better cooling isn’t exactly guaranteed with custom cards, there are some variants that provide beefy air or liquid cooling solutions, achieving lower temperatures than the reference variants.
  • Extra Features: Dual BIOS, better overclocking potential, and an improved VRM design are some extra features you can benefit from in a custom card. Aesthetic elements such as LCD screens and additional RGB can also be found on some variants.

That said, none of these are necessarily guaranteed when buying a custom variant of a card, since the feature set mostly depends on the variant. Take the RX 7900 XTX for example, which comes with a similar VRM configuration for most of its variants. 

VRN Setup Of RX 7900 XTX
VRN Setup Of RX 7900 XTX (O!Technology)

If you do intend on utilizing the custom cards, make sure to check the manufacturer’s website for the available features.

While I personally don’t think that the higher price is justified for your average buyer, some builds can definitely make good use of them. For instance, if someone is interested in reaching sky-high clock speeds, they can do that with a custom liquid-cooled card.

Similarly, small form factor builds might not be possible without custom cards such as the Gigabyte RTX 4060 Low Profile.

Save Your Money

To me, the small performance advantage or extra features you get with custom card cards don’t really make a lot of difference, which is why the better value of the reference cards stands out a lot. Combine that, with the improved designs of recent reference cards, and the decision to opt for one becomes a no-brainer.

Unless you are going for an enthusiast-grade build that simply isn’t possible with the reference design, I would recommend saving your money by going with a reference card.

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