A Big Gun Limited By A Small Magazine
Zotac's GeForce GTX 980 AMP! Omega edition card stirred up mixed feelings. Its hardware is undeniably impressive, giving us the impression that it was designed by engineers who want to push past the reference GeForce GTX 980's limits. It's built solidly, looks great and comes with the highest factory overclock we can find at the $580 price point. You get all of that for $30 more than the entry-level GeForce GTX 980s out there. Based on those attributes, it looks like a no-brainer.
But power users are sure to be disappointed by a 111% power target ceiling. Considering that the reference card can be cranked up to 125%, such a limitation is almost offensive. It's clear that the hardware team poured its heart into crafting enthusiast-class hardware, so the software-imposed redline makes no sense to us.
When we asked Zotac about the low power limit, we were told "...the Zotac GTX 980 AMP! Omega is using a custom PCB solution that differs from the reference GTX 980 board, which allows us to provide a stable higher factory clock setting without reducing the lifespan of the components of the graphics card". That tells us the company is concerned about giving the hardware a long life span, which is fine. But it doesn't sync with the AMP! Omega's aggressive hardware design. Perhaps the product is hamstrung to keep it from competing with Zotac's more expensive AMP! Extreme edition card, though from what we understand that product is also limited to the same 111% power target. Could it be an Nvidia-mandated restriction?
On the software end, we certainly wish that Zotac's Firestorm utility had interface labels that made sense, and that it didn't suffer from odd limitations. It's usable once you learn to launch it as an administrator and understand its quirks, but it's not intuitive. While Firestorm's issues are irritating, they'd be more tolerable if the software could somehow circumvent that overclock-hampering 111% power ceiling. Serious enthusiasts are left with a choice to either live with this barrier or install a warranty-voiding custom BIOS that might destroy the card. It's an especially tragic situation because the hardware makes you think it has so much untapped potential.
As bothersome as this state of affairs might be, we know the vast majority of gamers are not extreme overclockers. For folks who fancy a custom GeForce GTX 980 design that stands out, or even armchair overclockers who stick with the aggressive Quick Boost presets, Zotac's GeForce GTX 980 AMP! Omega edition is one of the best $580 graphics cards we've ever seen. We have no reservations about giving this card a recommendation on those grounds. But anyone who enjoys squeezing out a maximum overclock through good old fashioned trial and error will be frustrated by what we feel to be an artificial cap.