Real-time ray tracing has been a far-off dream for decades, and now NVIDIA’s RTX 20-series graphics hardware will finally deliver it. But what does that mean, and is it everything it’s hyped up to be?

Why Real-Time Ray Tracing is Cool

Ray tracing is a better way to render light and shadow effects. With this technique, the graphics engine traces the rays of light in the scene as they bounce from object to object, calculating how they would move. Ray tracing produces much more realistic looking shadows, reflections, and refractions.

This technique has been around for a long time, and it’s commonly used when creating CGI scenes for movies and TV shows. But ray tracing requires a lot of computational power, so it hasn’t been possible to pull it off in real time while still offering a playable framerate. With NVIDIA’s new RTX platform, real-time ray tracing is finally arriving in consumer-level hardware.

Be sure to check out our explanation of what exactly ray tracing is for more details.

RELATED: What Is Ray Tracing?

The Stormtrooper Demo Was Running on a $60,000 Computer

If you’re interested in this topic at all, you’ve probably seen NVIDIA’s “Reflections” demo, which features stormtroopers. This video demonstrates real-time ray tracing, and it looks amazing.

But, while ray tracing is exciting, that demo was rendered on the NVIDIA DFX Station, a $60,000 “personal supercomputer.” It’s very cool and still shows ray-tracing technology in action, but you should check your expectations. Games aren’t going to look this good on your home computer any time soon.

Update: While the original demo video featured here was running on a $60,000 supercomputer, NVIDIA did manage to run it on a single Quadro RTX 6000 graphics card. This card will cost $6300 when it’s released later this yet. That’s an improvement, but it’s still far away from the mainstream gaming market. The Quadro series of cards are for professional workstations.

Also, it’s important to bear in mind that the stormtrooper scene was an ideal situation for showing off ray tracing. The scene features a lot of simple surfaces and outfits. More complex scenes will still look better with ray tracing, but you’d need a lot more high-resolution textures to make a forest or city street look so perfect.

Here’s What You Can Expect From GeForce RTX 20-Series Cards

Stormtrooper demo aside, we do have some idea what real-time ray tracing will bring to the table. NVIDIA showed off real-time ray tracing running on consumer GPUs in modern games, too. These demos show what it will look like if you buy one of these RTX 20-series cards.

The Shadow of the Tomb Raider demo provides a good look at what you can expect from real-time ray tracing today. Pay attention to the lights and shadows in the scene. For example, look at the children waving the sparklers around at the 50-second mark, paying attention both to the lights and their shadows.

That’s what ray tracing gets you—much better, more realistic lighting and shadow effects. It isn’t a magic bullet that provides the kind of detail you see in the stormtrooper demo, but it’s still a nice improvement.

Which Games Will Support Ray Tracing?

Real-time ray tracing technology will not improve your graphics in all the games you play. They only help you in games that support NVIDIA RTX technology, and only if you enable ray tracing at the cost of some FPS.

Here’s the list of games that NVIDIA announced will support NVIDIA RTX. More games will support it in the future, of course—but these are the first ones:

  • Assetto Corsa Competizione
  • Atomic Heart
  • Battlefield V
  • Control
  • Enlisted
  • Justice
  • JX3
  • MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries
  • Metro Exodus
  • ProjectDH
  • Shadow of the Tomb Raider

Trailers are also available for Atomic Heart, Battlefield V, and Control, but they don’t show gameplay in the same way the Shadow of the Tomb Raider video does.

RTX Hardware Starts at $499

NVIDIA announced three different GPUs in the GeForce RTX 20 series. RTX 2070 cards will start at $499, RTX 2080 cards start at $699, and RTX 2080 Ti cards start at $999. These are higher-end enthusiast GPUs, but they’re much more affordable to the average gamer than a $60,000 supercomputer.

You can preorder the “Founders Editions” of these cards from NVIDIA, but they’ll cost you $599, $799, and $1199, respectively.

Cryptocurrency prices have gone down, and GPUs aren’t as useful for mining as they used to be, so hopefully, it will be easier for gamers to get their hands on this hardware.

These Cards Offer Improved Performance, Too

These cards are now the fastest NVIDIA GPUs you can buy, so it’s not all about ray tracing.

Specifically, NVIDIA says that the RTX 2080 is 50% faster than the GTX 1080 when running at 4K resolution in games like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and Wolfenstein II. NVIDIA says this should result in a performance of 60 frames per second at 4K resolution in games like Call of Duty WW2, Destiny 2, Far Cry 5, and Battlefield 1.

Also, NVIDIA announced a new Deep Learning Super-Sampling (DLSS) technique that uses the Turing cores on the RTX GPU. DLSS uses deep learning and AI to predict pixels, and NVIDIA says this can improve performance by 75% in games like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and Final Fantasy XV. The game developer has to add support for the technology, however, so it won’t work in all games.

These cards haven’t made their way to review sites yet, so we don’t know exactly how much performance penalty you’ll see from enabling real-time ray tracing in games like Shadow of the Tomb Raider. However, ray tracing is optional, so you can disable it if you’d rather have faster performance in games that use it.

In other words, you can elect not to use real-time ray tracing, and you’ll still have the fastest NVIDIA GPUs around.

Should You Buy It?

Should you buy one of these new RTX GPUs? Hey, that’s up to you. Ray tracing is cool, but it’s only one feature of these new cards—they’re also the newest, fastest NVIDIA GPUs. If you want the latest, fastest GPUs—then yes, you should buy one.

If you’re on the fence, we recommend waiting a bit. Keep an eye on review sites for benchmarks after these cards are released to get a better idea of how fast they are and see just how much ray tracing slows things down in the handful of modern games that support it.

This is the way it always goes with new GPUs and other computing hardware. A company like NVIDIA introduces awesome new devices that cost a pretty penny, and the enthusiasts buy in at a premium price. Then, the equipment gets better and less expensive, and it gradually becomes something more and more people buy.

Even if you aren’t sold on ray tracing yet, this new hardware gives game developers time to integrate ray tracing into their games. Many more games will support ray tracing when this graphics hardware becomes more mainstream.

Ray tracing is awesome, and the future is bright. That doesn’t mean you should drop money on a first-generation product, but this is a crucial first step for the industry.

Image Credit: NVIDIA, NVIDIA, NVIDIA

Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor in Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for nearly a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than 500 million times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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