Reinvented graphics. Nvidia presented its first RTX graphics cards as early as 2018, which came onto the market for the first time three years ago this week. And a lot has happened in the meantime, but the promises of this new era of Nvidia GPUs still keep and what has changed since then?
Three years is a long time in PC hardware, but somehow it still feels like the introduction of the first RTX series of Nvidia graphics cards was a recent phenomenon. But the RTX 30 series has been with us – often more in our minds than in any physically real form – for a whole year. However, it was the first RTX 20 series that brought us the promise of a whole new era in PC gaming GPUs.
And this promise? In short, it all seemed to be about ray tracing, at least that was the piece of the puzzle that felt most tangible when presented to us as tech journos in an old beer factory in Cologne. Ray tracing was one of the first things on display that separated the Turing architecture from the older Pascal design.
The little green “RTX On” badge has since been used on screenshots as a symbol for graphic size. But almost buried in the same presentation, after highlighting the still unproven potential of variable rate mesh and shading, we saw the first faltering steps of DLSS. The real gift for PC gamers, born from the advanced RTX graphics silicone.
Three years later, it’s safe to say that ray tracing hasn’t gone away. In fact, it’s everywhere on virtually every gaming platform except for certain handhelds. Despite the negative Nelsons out there denouncing the computationally intensive nature of real-time ray tracing, it has been widely adopted.
It’s just not necessarily as transformative a feature as it may seem at first. I mean, it’s just simulated lighting, after all. It has not always been used with the greatest impact, either.
(Image credit: 4A Games)
But when they hit the market over a year later, both Sony and Microsoft next-generation consoles decided they needed to have ray tracing as an element in their respective datasheets. And how well that went down with his AMD hardware partner. As a result, AMD’s RDNA 2 GPU architecture – the graphical heart of the latest generation of consoles – now has its own implementation of ray tracing that supports the same Microsoft DirectX ray tracing API that accelerates Nvidia’s RT technology.
Intel, too, starting as a third way with PC graphics cards, also supports hardware ray tracing with its upcoming arc-based Alchemist GPUs.
And yet after three years Microsoft still insists that “ray tracing” is a word. Gah.
The fact remains, though, that while the latest Nvidia RTX 30-series cards have reduced much of the silicon load of ray tracing, it’s still computationally intensive and you’ll see a performance hit if you get the realistic lighting effects in-game. This applies in particular to AMD and thus to the implementation of the technology in the consoles.
DLSS is almost the opposite of real-time ray tracing
I still believe that ray tracing is just getting started and will eventually become such a ubiquitous part of the rich feature set of games that the idea of listing a game as “ray traced” will be as pointless as that List that it takes 3D acceleration.
However, this generation of game consoles, despite their feature lists that suggest otherwise, will never promote the cause in a meaningful way. In fact, developers are actively disabling it from their PS5 or Xbox Series X / S versions in favor of higher frame rates, with Far Cry 6 likely not to be the last.
(Photo credit: future)
But DLSS is almost the opposite of real-time ray tracing. Ray tracing is about enhancing the visual reality of a scene using computationally intensive algorithms on specific silicon blocks, while deep learning super sampling is all about using other silicon blocks to speed up performance while making a scene almost as good as normal to look like.
It doesn’t take a genius to see why a feature that offers higher gaming performance for virtually free has become far more popular with gamers than something that can increase frame rates to replace the pre-baked and fake lighting we are all used to look at it.
Although it took DLSS 2.0 to really get to the point, it offers those higher frame rates without the hazy graphics that often accompanied the initial implementation.
AMD, which is catching up on ray tracing, may not have had the impact Sony or Microsoft hoped for, but developing FidelityFX Super Resolution (FSR) as a pseudo-DLSS in its own right could really pay off should console developers use it more regularly. FSR isn’t exactly the same as DLSS, but it follows a similar pattern; Take a lower resolution input, scale it to a higher resolution, and improve the output to make it look better than would be possible using traditional methods.
And there are gimmicks with a high frame rate.
Intel has also followed suit. The Xe Super Sampling (XeSS) feature that comes with the new Alchemist graphics cards actually offers two methods. One agnostic that looks very similar to AMD’s FSR and another that is rooted in the Arc GPU silicon itself and bears a striking resemblance to DLSS.
As much as AMD and Intel want to suggest, I can hardly believe that either FSR or XeSS would have come about without DLSS.
(Image credit: XeSS)
Tips and advice
(Photo credit: future)
How do I buy a graphics card: Tips for buying graphics cards in the barren silicon landscape in 2021
We can’t talk about the years since the first RTX cards were launched without mentioning the woolly mammoth in the room in the form of a GPU flaw. Ray tracing does provide some nice pictures, but is in no way necessary. And when new high-end GPUs are more expensive and harder to come by than ever, a technology that will require you to sacrifice the limited processing power of the card at your disposal in the name of more accurate lighting is always struggling.
But a feature that the RTX 2060 takes from the past and gives it a healthy performance boost until it actually makes modern games playable has to feel like a winner.
However, DLSS is obviously not perfect. It has to be built into a game by the developers themselves, and while that has gotten easier with subsequent iterations, it’s not a feature that you can just turn on in every game and get free FPS bumping.
But it’s undoubtedly Nvidia’s RTX-era legacy that ended up having the most direct impact on PC gamers. And that applies regardless of whether you use DLSS, FSR or end up trying a new Alchemist GPU with XeSS.