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Nvidia's 'Founders Edition' graphics cards have been demystified

Nvidia's 'Founders Edition' graphics cards have been demystified

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Kyle Bennett of HardOCP has gotten to the bottom of one of this week's tech mysteries: what exactly is an Nvidia Founders Edition graphics card? When it announced its awesome new GeForce GTX 1080 and 1070 cards, Nvidia noted that each would be offered in a Founders Edition, costing $100 and $70 more than their typical retail prices — but it didn't explain what would be different about those variants of its new Pascal GPUs. Wherefore art thou more expensive, Pascal?

As it turns out, the Founders Edition (apostrophe frustratingly absent!) is Nvidia's new designation for the reference cards that it's been building for every new generation of chips. Think of it as equivalent to Google's Nexus line of Android smartphones. Typically, Nvidia only designs the graphics processing unit, memory architecture, and other basic elements of the graphics card, leaving the actual manufacture of the card and the particular cooling solution to its add-in board partners. The reference cards only show Nvidia's suggested overall design, and have generally been sold on a limited basis and without making any profit for Nvidia.

Reference cards get a fancy new name

As Bennett now reports, the Founders Edition turns Nvidia's reference line into its own profit driver, tacking on the extra cost as essentially a profit margin for the GPU designer. The reason why anyone should actually want to spend extra is something Nvidia hadn't mentioned in its graphics card launches before this week: craftsmanship. Bennett sounds reasonably satisfied that Nvidia's promise of crafting the best possible GeForce GTX card, with the most reliable components and cooling, has substance underpinning it. Prior reference cards have been, he says, widely accepted as the best versions, so it makes sense for consumers that want extra peace of mind to spend more and obtain Nvidia's own production rather than a variant from Asus, MSI, Zotac, or any of the other board customizers.

Beyond the consumer aspect, Bennett also notes that PC vendors are also eager for such a Founders Edition, with Falcon Northwest chief Kelt Reeves having apparently lobbied for the present change. Reeves is said to appreciate the certainty of quality that comes with validating a card for use just once for its entire lifetime as a retail product. In other words, he doesn't like the fragmentation of having to deal with multiple suppliers of the same part, each of them employing different designs and adhering to different engineering standards.

Not all good news

There are two significant downsides to the Founders Edition GPUs, however. Firstly, says Bennett, the launch cards for the GeForce GTX 1080 and 1070 will be only Founders Editions, so whether you're convinced by them or not, you'll have to pay the premium price to get one immediately. The other aspect is that there's no actual spec difference: Founders Editions run at the same clock speed as the stock design that's handed out to partners. Asus and EVGA make a habit of selling overclocked versions, which cost a little extra, so there may well be a scenario where Nvidia offers a slower card at a higher price, depending on how its partners react. That being said, Nvidia's reference cards have traditionally been among the best overclockers available, and the launch event included showing off a GTX 1080 running at 2.1GHz on air cooling.

Nvidia risks alienating some of its fans and some of its hardware partners with this Founders Edition move. At least part of the decision is motivated by the company's brand goodwill, which can be exploited to command a higher price, whether or not there's a benefit in terms of quality as well. Being more expensive than the standard card does mean that Nvidia will avoid cannibalizing its partners' market, although the reported launch of Founders Editions first would contradict that notion. In any case, at least we now know what Founders Edition cards are, even if we don't know where their missing apostrophe has gone.

Update, 6:14AM, 16th May 2016: Nvidia has provided a full statement of the differences between its Founders Edition cards and previous reference designs:

"Relative to previous NVIDIA designs, we have upgraded the following areas: The power supply has been upgraded from 4-phases to a 5-phase dual-FET design and tuned for bandwidth, phase balancing and acoustics. We added extra capacitance to our filtering network, and optimised the power delivery network on the PCB for low impedance. As a result, power efficiency increased by roughly 6% compared to the GTX 980, and peak to peak voltage noise was reduced from 209mV to 120mV for improved overclocking.

"The GTX 1080 uses a vapour chamber cooling, a first for a sub-250W NVIDIA designed graphics card. Finally, we have a new industrial design with a faceted body and a new low profile backplate. The backplate features a removable section to allow better airflow between multiple graphics cards in adjacent SLI configuration."