Nvidia GeForce RTX GPUs: Everything you need to know

Nvidia is slowly rolling out its next generation of GPUs. Here's what you need to know about them

RTX 2080
Riley Young/Digital Trends

After months of speculation, Nvidia finally revealed its next-generation graphics architecture at Gamescom, with CEO Jensen Huang hailing it as the greatest advancement in its GPU technologies since CUDA cores were introduced back in 2006. It adds new technologies that bring about lighting techniques thought to still be years away from being practically possible and overhauls Nvidia’s now-classic reference cooler design. But all of it comes at a price.

The new-generation graphics cards are an order of magnitude more expensive than their predecessors, even factoring in recent pricing problems faced by graphics card buyers all over the world. Here’s the breakdown on what these cards are and what they do.

The cards

Nvidia had three cards to show off at Gamescom: The RTX 2070, RTX 2080, and RTX 2080 Ti. That was somewhat of a surprise, as with generations past, Nvidia has staggered the showcase and release of these cards over a longer period of time. Where the 10-series saw the 1080 release first, followed by the 1070 a month later, and the 1080 Ti a year after that.

We have a bit of new information regarding those release dates. The powerful RTX 2080 is now available for $799, and the beefier RTX 2070 for $600. However, the 2080 Ti is still not yet available for purchase. Last checked, a forum post from a Nvidia representative said that the company expects pre-orders to ship by October 10.

As for the laptop version of these cards, rumors point toward a launch at CES 2019 in January. That’s just in time for when gaming laptop manufacturers to showcase new hardware. Leaked documents show the main lineup could include the RTX 2080 Mobility and RTX 2080 Max-Q Mobility cards. Interestingly, it also shows that Nvidia also could plan to offer the RTX 2070, RTX 2070 Max-Q, RTX 2060 Ti Max-Q, RTX 2060 Max-Q, RTX 2050 Ti Max-Q, and RTX 2050 Max-Q configurations as well.

Performance isn’t as impressive as Nvidia made out

After sticking to purely ray tracing performance comparisons in its Gamescom reveal, Nvidia soon followed up with some more real-world performance numbers in various games. It shoehorned DLSS into those results too, meaning they needed to be consumed with a grain of salt, but they gave us something to go on.

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However, since then we’ve been able to get our hands on the cards for our own testing. Though they do offer noticeable improvements over the last-generation of Pascal GPUs, they aren’t anywhere near as powerful as Nvidia’s marketing would suggest.

There’s no denying that the 2080 is more powerful than the 1080, and the 2080 Ti more powerful than the 1080 Ti, but that’s far from the whole story. The 2080 falls behind the 1080 Ti in some tests, perhaps most notably in our 4K ultra gaming test. If the 2080 was priced much more conservatively, this wouldn’t be so noteworthy, but when you can buy a 1080 Ti for $100 less than a 2080 at this time, it makes the 2080 a much less attractive purchase.

Ultimately, the 2080 and 2080 Ti are around 20-30 percent faster than their last-generation counterparts in the most stark of scenarios, but in many tests that gap can be as little as single-digit percentage points, so performance improvements will depend on the software being run.

These results seem to corroborate earlier suggestions that Nvidia has altered its naming conventions with the new Turing graphics cards. The 2080 Ti is the new name for the first iteration of this generation’s Titan GPUs, while the 2080 is a true 1080 replacement. With this in mind, we would expect Nvidia to release its typical “Ti” enhanced Turing card sometime next year, but may well call it a Titan instead, unless it leaves that moniker purely for prosumer and enterprise GPUs — like the Titan V.

Our hands-on performance numbers are around what we expected to see based on the raw specifications of each card.

RTX 2080 Ti RTX 2080 RTX 2070 GTX 1080 Ti
GTX 1080 GTX 1070
CUDA cores: 4,352 2,944 2,304 3,584 2,560 1,920
Base speed: 1,350MHz 1,515MHz 1,410MHz 1,480MHz 1,607MHz 1,506MHz
Boost speed: 1,545MHz 1,710MHz 1,620MHz 1,582MHz 1,733MHz 1,683MHz
Memory speed: 14Gbps 14Gbps 14Gbps 11Gbps 10Gbps 8Gbps
Memory interface: 352-bit 256-bit 256-bit 352-bit 256-bit 256-bit
Memory bandwidth: 616GB/s 448GB/s 448GB/s 484GB/s 352GB/s 256 GB/s
Power: 250 watts 215 watts 185 watts 250 watts 180 watts 150 watts

Note: Nvidia’s Founders Edition models will launch with slightly higher price tags, power requirements, and clock speeds than the reference models which will, in turn, be overclocked and tweaked by third-parties.

There are a number of interesting inter-generational changes at play here. The CUDA cores have increased by similar sort of numbers — although not percentages — as between the 9oo series and the 1000 series graphics cards, which is why we see a noticeable, if not significant, increase in general performance. Clock speeds have actually come down, which isn’t wholly surprising, but when shown in conjunction with an increase in power draw, is a little more so. It could be that those RT and Tensor cores require some juice of their own.

GDDR6 memory provides a solid bump in speed and bandwidth for the 2000-series, bringing both the 2080 and 2070 almost in line with the GTX 1080 Ti, though not quite. Now we know that whether the 2080 can compete with the 1080 Ti is really dependent on the software being run and at what settings. The 1080 Ti is going to fall behind when ray tracing is involved, but in more traditional lighting scenarios, it should be competitive, if not still more powerful than the RTX 2080.

Ray tracing and AI

While the number of traditional CUDA cores in the new graphics cards has increased across the board, the more exciting achievement of this new generation, we’re told, is the addition of dedicated hardware for ray tracing and AI. The Turing architecture includes RT cores which use clever tricks to accelerate ray tracing to make it possible to produce realistic lighting and reflections within games without much of an overhead.

Those RT cores will run alongside Turing’s Tensor cores, which utilize AI “trained by supercomputers” to fill in the blanks using a technique known as denoising — effectively a new form of advanced anti-aliasing. Huang also discussed the possibility of foveated rendering, which could help make virtual reality titles much less hardware-intensive by focusing the processing power where the gamer is looking and rendering everything in their peripherals at a lower detail level.

These new technologies at the heart of the 2000-series architecture mean that certain games will be able to leverage real-time reflections and advanced anti-aliasing techniques like never before. Demonstrations at Gamescom showed us explosions which would typically not be visible to the player, being rendered and reflected in materials like a car door or a character’s eyeball, which are visible.

It’s beautiful stuff. Ray tracing has often been considered by many as the end-goal of digital visuals, effectively rendering real light rays within a scene. Nvidia made it clear during its demonstration that its new cards are much better at handling that sort of rendering than any card that has come before it. The RTX 2070, was said to be faster than the Titan XP at ray tracing.

But as with every generation of graphics cards that have come before it, that one metric is not the only one we measure graphics cards by.

Ports, noise and cooling

While the hardware inside the 2000-series cards has changed, the exterior has received a major overhaul too. After decades of single fan, reference graphics cards, Nvidia has added a second to its design. It’s created a much more insular blower set up, no doubt to ensure that temperatures remain consistent with the higher-power requirements of the new RTX series graphics cards.

We’re assured by Huang though, that this also nets much quieter graphics cards too. Even when fully overclocked, we’re told that temperatures stay consistent and noise at a comfortable level. Proving such claims will require more than showing off an unpowered card on stage, but better cooling for reference cards will be a welcome addition for those who don’t want to wait for the third-party alternatives.

At the back end where you’ll connect up your display, the 2000-series offers a few port options. Alongside more typical DisplayPort 1.4 and HDMI 2.0b connectors, there’s also a VirtualLink; a USB-C-shaped port that is designed to provide power and video to virtual reality headsets. Although none of the major ones support that feature just yet, it could mean a cut down on cables and cable size for VR in the future.

Is the performance worth the price?

As exciting as all of the above features and specification improvements are, they must be taken in the context of cost. The RTX 2000 series cards are the most expensive new Nvidia GPUs have been at launch in a long time and by quite a margin. The RTX 2080 Ti will cost $1,200 for the Founders Edition and no less than $1,000 from third parties. The 2080 is priced at $800 and $700 respectively, while the 2070 will be $600 and $500.

That’s a lot of money, especially for what should be a mid-range card in the 2070. With its much closer specifications to the RTX 2080 though, Nvidia may be looking to price that card as more of a high-end offering, with more affordable GPUs, like a potential 2060 and 2050 coming later.

Ray tracing is unlikely to be adopted heavily by developers until there is a large enough number of RTX-capable cards out there and we still don’t really know how capable other GPUs like the 10-series or AMD Vega and RX cards will be at handling it themselves. It may be that those cards still compete with the 2000-series in games without ray tracing, which will be the majority for years to come.

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