Since the ascension of the new card king the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 it’s been a super time to be a PC gamer, with audacious versions of the 1080 starting to appear from Nvidia’s partners. Even though Nvidia launched its newest flagship graphics processor (GPU) with its futuristic-looking Founders Edition card, it’s still the usual-looking reference design of GeForce card we’re used to seeing in recent years, and Nvidia always plays it relatively safe with clock speeds on its own version of a card. The usual routine: We have to wait for Nvidia’s partners to deliver boards with maxed-out overclocking, over-the-top cooling, fancy/kooky lighting, and other additions.
We are happy to report that the wait is over. We’ve not only had the pleasure of sampling MSI’s beastly top-end GTX 1080 card, but now we have a formidable new flagship card from Zotac, the GeForce GTX 1080 Amp Extreme, on the test bench.
For those not familiar with Zotac’s line, its “Amp Extreme” cards are very appropriately named, as they are the company’s no-compromise, no-prisoners version of the GPU du jour. The last one we reviewed, the GeForce GTX 980 Ti Amp Extreme$444.72 at Amazon, was the fastest version of that GPU we tested, almost ludicrously huge and powerful. Now Zotac is back with a new Amp Extreme, this time based on Nvidia’s all-new “Pascal” architecture and the fastest gaming graphics chip on the market at the moment. Based on our past experiences with this line of card, this should be one heck of a GPU.
Design & Features
First things first: How is the Amp Extreme different from Nvidia’s Founders Edition (FE) version of the GTX 1080? Well, it’s actually different in every way possible, so we’ll start from the actual board surface on up.
First of all, it uses a custom PCB with 8+2 power phases, as opposed to the 5+1 design implemented by Nvidia. Having more phases allows for smoother power delivery, which helps when the card is overclocked. The other big part of this power equation is that the Zotac board uses two eight-pin PCI Express power connectors, whereas the Nvidia Founders Edition uses only a single eight-pin. To put some consumption numbers on that, the Founders Edition is rated to consume up to 180 watts according to its thermal design power (TDP) rating, whereas the Amp Extreme uses up to 270 watts. See what we mean when we say this card really is extreme?
As you can see above, the ports are the usual mix for a recent dual-slot card: three DisplayPorts, an HDMI, and a dual-link DVI. The Amp Extreme also features a wrap-around shroud made of metal that Zotac calls (a bit dramatically, perhaps?) “Carbon ExoArmor.” It’s a mixture of metal and plastic that helps increase the card’s rigidity (important, given its massive size), and Zotac claims it reduces vibration, which helps keep the card running quietly. Though the Founders Edition has a metal backplate and is quite stiff, it lacks the multi-fan design and the shroud continuing from front to back. The Zotac design is much larger, with the metal covering most of the card instead of just the back.
The “armor” holds the card’s fans in place, as well. The fans are made by a company named EKO and use what Zotac calls a “dual-blade” design that increases airflow and downward pressure without extra noise. (Note the cut-throughs and fins on the blades near the fan hubs.) This is in comparison to the single fan used on the Founders Edition, which blows air through a tunnel to exhaust the heat out of the chassis. The Amp Extreme is decidedly not that type of “blower” cooler, so it’s a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison, especially since the Zotac card uses three fans. The fans sit atop an aluminum heat-sink array fed by six copper heat pipes.
Perhaps the biggest improvement over the Founders Edition is the Amp Extreme’s clock speeds, which are the highest of any GTX 1080 card we’ve seen so far. Right out of the box, the card features a boost clock speed of 1,911MHz, which isn’t an overclocked speed or due to any software. It’s like that in any PC it gets plugged into, with no need to tweak, overclock, or click any special buttons to hit this speed. This is a bit different from how GPUs normally work, as we saw with the MSI GeForce GTX 1080 Gaming X 8G, which requires an included app to get the card to max-overclock, as it ships at retail. To put it into context, the Founders Edition GTX 1080 has a boost clock of 1,733MHz, so going all the way up to 1,911MHz out of the box is quite a jump. You can overclock even further with the included Firestorm overclocking utility. (More on that later.)
As is the custom these days, the Amp Extreme also includes fancy lighting, though it’s not full RGB-customizable, like we’ve seen with other cards. Instead, you can choose from seven colors; you don’t get millions of them, but you do get the popular ones: red, orange, blue, white, pink, typical gamer green, and a lime green. You can also have the lights perform animations, with options that include static, breathing, strobe, and cycle. The much more stoic Founders Edition has no lighting at all. Seeing how light-up hardware components have become so common in the PC industry, we wouldn’t be surprised to see this trend change on Nvidia’s stock cards in the near future. The lights are on the card’s leading edge, and on the card back, shining through the words “ZOTAC” and “PUSH THE LIMIT.”
The Zotac card is also quite a bit larger than the Founders Edition, as you’d expect. Whereas the FE card is a “mere” 10.5 inches long, the Amp Extreme measures an astonishing 12.8 inches, so you’ll need to check the clearance in your PC’s chassis prior to ordering one, if you are so inclined. It’s also a 2.5-slot card, which is a half-slot thicker than the FE card. The cooler is massive and thick.
The GeForce GTX 1080 Amp Extreme has an MSRP of $719.99, though at this mid-July 2016 writing, it wasn’t in stock anywhere. If it were, it’s hard to guess what the actual street price would be, as GTX 1080 cards generally have been priced quite high—even higher than MSRP, due to limited supply and overwhelming demand. For what it’s worth, the MSRP of the Founders Edition is $699, so the Amp Extreme costs only $20 more for some very considerable improvements, though in theory GTX 1080 cards from Nvidia’s partners should start at $599, once availability opens up. That will make for a bigger price delta, but the Amp Extreme still delivers a good bit of premium value for the extra bucks, including the overclocking being done for you. One thing to note: Its warranty period is only two years, which is a bit short considering how long you’d expect to keep a card this powerful in service.
The software provided by Zotac for tweaking the GPU is called Firestorm, and though the name is a bit over the top (who wants to associate overclocking with heat and fire?), the software is much improved. Unlike other software packages we’ve seen, such as EVGA’s PrecisionX and MSI’s Gaming App and Afterburner, Firestorm lets you control both the card’s lighting and the granular overclocking in one place, as opposed to needing separate apps to do both. Here’s what it looks like…
When we used the software to attempt an additional overclock, we weren’t too successful. Right out of the box, without touching anything, the card ran at 2,012MHz, which is wildly high for a GTX 1080 to be running without any manual adjustments. That’s about as high as we were able to get MSI’s GeForce GTX 1080 Gaming X 8G by manually adjusting everything.
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to go much beyond that with the Amp Extreme card, and we ended up with a final overclock of 2,037MHz. That’s certainly crazy-fast, but not enough over the out-of-box settings to make it worth the effort. The screenshot below shows a clock speed of 2,050MHz, which we thought was stable, since we were able to run a synthetic benchmark at that setting. However, as soon as we fired up a game, it locked up, so we backed it down one notch to 2,037MHz, and all ran fine.
It’s possible we could have gone higher by upping the voltage, but we weren’t sure how far we could go with that parameter before damaging the card. (The controls allow up to a 100 percent voltage increase, which seems, needless to say, kind of scary.) We should also mention the Zotac GeForce GTX 1080 Amp Extreme ran at 67 degrees C under full load at full overclock, which is superb cooling performance given the speeds we’re talking about here. The card was also whisper-quiet.
It’s tough to get any real sense of DirectX 12 performance at this point. When we wrote this in mid-July 2016, only a few titles were available with DirectX 12 support. And running these games, anecdotally we saw no graphical differences between the titles running at DX11 versus DX12 settings. In some instances, titles running under DX12 offered performance gains, but elsewhere we saw lesser performance. Also, under DX12, the 2016 Hitman title locked up more than once in our testing of competing cards. And we saw a few instances in Rise of the Tomb Raider in which chunks of the world failed to render.
In other words, you should take the below results with a hunk of salt. DirectX 12 is still in its extremely early stages, and those developers who have implemented it have yet to throw on the spackle and smooth over the cracks. We’ll have to wait some months to say for sure how much of an advantage DX12 offers, and whether it sways things in favor of AMD or Nvidia in any substantive way. Still, because this is a cutting-edge card and DX12 is cutting-edge tech, it’s worth taking a look at what the GTX 1080 and its competition can do with Microsoft’s latest gaming API today.
Credit : Josh Norem