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Why you should wait on Nvidia’s newest graphics cards

Ray tracing is the focus, but it’s not everything

Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang holding Nvidia RTX GPU
Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang holding up an Nvidia RTX GPU at Gamescom 2018.

Nvidia announced its line of next-generation graphics cards, the RTX 20-series GPUs, during a pre-Gamescom 2018 press briefing Monday in Cologne, Germany, and suddenly, everyone is talking about what real-time ray tracing will bring to PC gaming.

But it’s important to pump the brakes on the hype, so that we can remind you of what’s always the best strategy for new technology: Wait a little bit before jumping in.

What Nvidia showed

So what’s ray tracing, and why is Nvidia focusing on it? Here’s an explanation from our own Samit Sarkar:

In the real world, everything that we see is essentially the result of light bouncing off of the objects in our vision. The varying degrees to which that light is absorbed, reflected and/or refracted — and fluorescence is the fourth possibility — determines how it looks to us. “Ray tracing” is essentially the reverse process, and the name is very literal: It refers to a method of generating an image with a computer by “tracing” the path of light from an imaginary eye or camera to the objects in that image. A ray tracing algorithm will account for elements such as the light sources in the scene and the materials that the objects consist of.

You can watch this video of Battlefield 5 to get a sense of what the technology can do:

Nvidia’s hope is that ray tracing by itself is enough to get you to spend the money on its RTX GPUs. And these cards will cost a lot of money. Prices for Nvidia-manufactured “Founders Edition” versions of its latest graphics cards are $599 for the RTX 2070, $799 for the RTX 2080 and $1,199 for the RTX 2080 Ti. The latter two cards are expected to ship “on or around” Sept. 20, while Nvidia has not given us an estimated release date for the RTX 2070.

That’s not the price floor, however. Third-party versions of the RTX 2070 will start at $499, the RTX 2080 at $699 and the RTX 2080 Ti at $999.

Our note of caution isn’t just due to the cost, although this is a huge jump at the high end. The issue is that Nvidia’s entire reveal focused on ray tracing — to the exclusion of just about everything else.

Nvidia RTX presentation - slide comparing performance between Pascal and Turing cards
The leap in power is only being shown one way in this image.

Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang said during his keynote that the RTX 2070, the least expensive card in the RTX lineup, delivers better performance than 2017’s GeForce GTX Titan Xp — Nvidia’s most powerful 10-series GPU. However, slides in Huang’s presentation featured charts that measured the power gap in terms of something called “RTX operations.” On multiple occasions, Huang said that the company had to use new measurements because traditional GPU metrics don’t capture the performance of these RTX cards — an explanation for why Nvidia came up with RTX-ops. But how do the new cards compare to existing GPUs in industry-standard performance metrics? We don’t know, and likely won’t until the RTX cards are released and people are able to run their own benchmarks.

Based on the Twitter reaction, we weren’t the only people who noticed the lack of traditional benchmarks.

Nvidia shared some beautiful demonstrations of what real-time ray tracing can give you in the games that support it. But not every compatible game will support RTX at launch, and it doesn’t seem like we know enough to get a sense of the real-world power of these cards when they’re used under more traditional circumstances.

Maybe the cards really will be a huge leap from existing products in every way, but we need actual, hard numbers first. That’s the information that will help us make informed purchasing decisions.

The smart play may be to pick up one of the existing 10-series graphics cards once the RTX line causes demand, and thus prices, to drop in the near future. Give more developers time to implement ray tracing, and hang back until we understand what these cards can and can’t do.

Nvidia is trying to change the conversation by explaining one thing its new cards do very well, but it’s important to remember that Nvidia isn’t focusing on how most of us play the majority of our PC games. Ray tracing may be a big deal to the company, but it’s not everything. And everything else is what we need to know.