Are Nvidia RTX Cards and Ray Tracing Worth it?
Nvidia’s been on a roll since 2016, with their main competitor, AMD, failing to catch up to the Titans (no pun intended) that are Nvidia’s Pascal architecture cards. Sure, the AMD Vega series competes, but only with the midrange GTX 1060s and 1070s.
Last year, Nvidia enlarged the gap with the announcement, and subsequent release of their new RTX graphics cards, powered by the new Turing architecture. These cards promised to revolutionize graphics through their titular flagship feature, ray tracing (RTX for short).
Well, did the cards deliver on their promise? Well, not necessarily. At the time of writing, only 3 games support ray tracing at all (Battlefield V, Shadow of the Tomb Raider and Metro Exodus). Its been 8 months since the RTX cards’ release date, and we’ve yet to see this promised revolution.
Ray tracing Explained
First things first, why is ray tracing even necessary? Games already look amazing, so why rock the boat?
Well, games have been using the same tech to produce the image you see on your monitors since the Super Nintendo era. This tried and true method is known as rasterization.
Basically, imagine a ball in front of you. You instinctively know it’s a ball, and that its spherical. Our two eyes overlay two images together to create the perception of depth. Now, if you close one of your eyes, you don’t get the sense of depth, and you’re essentially getting a flat image, no different from the pictures you snap on your smartphones.
This ‘flattening’ process is the basis of rasterization. Even in 3D games, this process is used. This means a lot of graphical processing happens at the screen-space level, rather than on a world-space level. For instance, water reflections aren’t drawn in on the water surface, instead, the reflections are drawn at the screen layer. Imagine having a transparent layer in front of your eyes, where effects such as reflections and shadows are drawn.
Ray tracing serves as an alternative. This works by having objects cast rays from their surface, then simulating the behaviour of light. The interesting part is that these rays are subject to light interference, which results in an accurate representation of the digital world space.
Actual fully raytraced images take hours, or days to fully render, making it unviable for gaming, where at least 60 frames need to be rendered per second for a fluid experience.
The Turing architecture uses a combination of rasterization and ray tracing to make gameplay possible. Essentially, the gameplay is still rendered using rasterization, but certain elements in the game world get the ray tracing treatment. In Battlefield V for instance, reflections are ray-traced.
Why does this matter? Well, rasterization and previously used techniques only render objects in that can be seen, which means that if, say, a tree is out of your peripheral vision, you won’t see it reflected on the in-game lake. On the other hand, ray tracing takes everything into account.
The ray-tracing process is computationally intensive, and the RTX cards use dedicated RT cores that handle the workload.
There you go, a simplified explanation of ray tracing.
Are RTX Cards the only option for ray tracing?
Short answer, no. Nvidia’s recent drivers have enabled ray tracing on some older cards, like the GTX 1080 Ti. Since ray tracing is handled with Microsoft’s DirectX Ray tracing, its theoretically independent of card choice.
Keyword here is theoretically. Since older cards aren’t made to handle ray tracing, your performance gets halved, or worse. Based on benchmarks, its clear that non-RTX cards aren’t viable, especially not in their current state.
Is Ray Tracing Necessary?
Again, the answer is no. While you can argue that having more reflections gives you the competitive edge in Battlefield V, it’s a fringe case at best. Though, playing through Metro Exodus really shows off what raytracing is capable of, and it looks downright gorgeous.
Its worth asking yourself if graphics are that important for you, as most games still look good without specifically implemented ray tracing features. There’s been multiple AAA releases since the RTX’s release in 2018, yet only 3 games have ray tracing features. Even then, these games still look great without ray tracing, and you’re getting better performance as well.
Is the trade-off for extra eye candy worth the price hike and performance hit? I’d say not really. However, this may change in the future when more games start supporting ray tracing.
It’s Still Early On.
We’re now in the infancy stages of ray tracing technology, and buying in now makes you an early adopter. While it’s exhilarating to live on the bleeding edge of current technology, you can’t deny the risks.
The nature of technology means that newer products improve on the previous ones, building on the basis of prior tech advancements. As you’ve probably seen with smartphones, this means later products are more powerful, and even have a lower price point.
Basically, I’d recommend waiting a bit before buying into the craze. There’s still time before raytracing becomes the norm, and as the tech becomes a mainstream necessity, you can be sure that there’ll be more affordable options out there when the time comes.
So, it’s not worth it?
Definitely. The new RTX 2080 comes at a whopping $799 in MSRP, whereas you can get a brand new GTX 1080 for nearly half the price. Unless you really want to enjoy the raytracing now, there’s no rush to upgrade.
Performance-wise, benchmarks are showing performance gains of nearly 25% in both gaming and development applications, which is definitely a worthwhile step up over the GTX 1080. However, when it comes to whether or not it’s worth it? I’d say the increases don’t make this a must-buy.
Will raytracing become more mainstream?
We think so. The recent announcements of the new PS5 highlighted the implementation of raytracing through hardware support. Nvidia has also been working with Epic games on a simple raytracing feature, that allows developers to implement raytracing in their lighting engines without rewrites to their codebase.
Since graphical fidelity has always been in the pursuit of photorealism, raytracing is almost certainly the way forward. Expect to see a slow, but steady adoption of the tech over time.
At the time of writing, the RTX cards are not worth it. The prices are way too high for the performance gains they provide over the previous generation GTX Pascal series, and their flagship feature of raytracing isn’t supported by most games or programs yet.
With that said, if you’re reading this at a later date, where prices have fallen, then do indeed look into the RTX series. As they are right now, the RTX cards don’t provide enough incentive to justify the upgrade.
Check out the RTX 2080’s metascore and critic reviews here. You'll find that critics cite the price as a massive downside, failign to justify the admittedly significant performance gains.
Also, look into the GTX 1080 here. It's old news that the GTX 1080 is excellent, and if you're looking for the best price to performance ratio, then the GTX 1080 should definitely be on your list.
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