Ray Tracing Graphics Cards Explained & The Best Picks

Ray Tracing Graphics Cards Explained & The Best Picks

With all current generations of graphics cards (GPUs) capable of ray tracing, there are many options for a playable ray tracing experience from AMD, Nvidia, or Intel. Besides the marketing buzz of “ray tracing on vs. off,” what pieces of hardware have stood the test of time and still perform well on at least 1080p monitors?

To those unfamiliar, ray tracing is a form of image generation that simulates how light moves through space, including ambient occlusion, light diffusion, and subsurface light scattering on rendered subjects, which all contribute to creating a life-like image as close to real-time as hardware allows.

This is all well and good, but what does this mean? It cements that we are moving away from the more traditional way of drawing “graphic tracing” and moving to “ray tracing” built on the newest iteration of GPU core and AI developments.

This article covers the best and worst of ray tracing and what you should look for when choosing a prospective RTX or X/XT variant from Nvidia or AMD.

A Brief Explanation of Ray Tracing in Gaming

Ray tracing relies on light paths to simulate realistic lighting on objects. Much like the sunlight in real life. Before ray tracing, graphics tracing would use a shader to achieve a certain light affect which constricted certain aspects of light within video games or workload simulations. 

It was not until the mid 2000s where ray tracing became a viable solution for rendering feature length films, but the concept of computer ray tracing goes as far back as 1968. 

Nvidia announced the first readily available ray tracing card with the RTX 20 series back in 2018. “Tensor Cores” or GPU cores can be utilized for technology like Deep Learning Super Sampling (DLSS) or another AI-dependent rendering, allowing for faster render times at an increased detail depending on the card specification.

This was amazing for the time as ray traced demos could only be completed with consumer grade hardware. Most notably the storm trooper real time ray traced demo that took the world by storm.

Ray Tracing Graphics Cards: Next-Gen Hardware

Now, after the inception and introduction of ray tracing to the consumer market, AMD and Nvidia compete with each other generation after generation in developing more powerful and capable graphics cards for the gaming market, which continues to grow, especially after the 2020 pandemic.

Of the 3 initially viable generations able to support ray tracing, the RTX 30 and 40 series are still in the spotlight. The original RTX 20 series shows its age as demands for games running DLSS (Deep Learning Super Sampling) and put more stress on the GPUs to deliver.

Best Graphics Cards for Ray Tracing Games

Looking at what graphics cards have held up over the years, getting a ray tracing GPU from the RTX 30 or 40 series or the RX 60 or 70 series is the best option, as performance has marginally increased and has developed into one of the most stable platforms.

NVIDIA vs. AMD Ray Tracing GPUs

Between the two major competitors in the GPU industry, both companies have drifted to certain stances with their products appealing to different people. 

Nvida’s pricing in recent months has been less than desirable for their RTX 40 series, with markup up 50% or more for their graphics cards than their competition at AMD. In performance, they win hand over fist, but from a price-to-performance perspective, only some of their newer GPUs and most, if not all, of their previous generation cards make sense to buy as of writing.

AMD, on the other hand, appeals to the budget side of the market with its GPUs. With the introduction of the most recent RX 70 series of GPUs, a significant price cut proceeded to follow for the RX 60 series (a direct competitor to the Nvidia RTX 30 series), allowing for more entry-level enthusiasts to include AMD GPUs (Ourselves included.)

What We Recommend

For the best performance to cost for a ray tracing graphics card right now, we recommend either the RTX 3060 or RTX 3060ti for 1080p or 1440p monitors. This recommendation falls under our “under $500” category and is still predominant in its performance at the time of writing compared to RTX 40 and RX 70 series.

For a higher spec card, we recommend the RTX 4070ti due to its current price-to-performance ratio compared to the RTX 3090 is, on average, 15% faster between games using ray tracing or DLSS.

For a more comprehensive recommendation, check out our article on finding the right graphics card!

Not All Games Support Ray Tracing 

Depending on the studio and intensity of the game, ray tracing may or may not be supported. In more recently released games in the last four years, ray tracing is typically more common, along with AI-assisted technologies like DLSS and DLAA. Here are a few examples of some popular games that support ray tracing.

  • Cyberpunk 2077
  • F1 22
  • Halo Infinite
  • Warhammer 40,000: Darktide
  • Call of Duty®: Modern Warfare® II | Warzone™ 2.0

For a complete list, check out this article for ray tracing and DLSS-capable games and at what resolutions are recommended for each.

How the Future Looks for Ray Tracing

The future of ray tracing is promising if the hardware can rise to meet the demand. Since its inception in 2018, game developers have been retrofitting or moving to engines that can better support ray tracing for this newest generation of games.

This is why over 250 games and projects support ray tracing and other AI-assisted tools like DLSS and DLAA. That number should exponentially grow in the coming years as the RTX and RX GPUs accommodate more demanding games.

Should You Consider Upgrading Your GPU for Ray Tracing?

Going with a ray-tracing-capable card is the best solution depending on how much you want to spend and what monitors you use. However, with most mid to high-end hardware, there's a catch behind all the marketing.

A majority of the GPU processing for ray tracing abilities goes into DLSS in addition to ray tracing. The GPU renders a smaller resolution, then upscales and corrects each image displayed with DLSS enabled. This is a clever trick to streamline the number of frames generated and allows for other tools, like resizable bar, to increase the GPU and CPU utilization further. 

Summary of Ray Tracing GPUs

Whether you are looking at creating a new system or swapping out the GPU for another model, upgrading to a ray tracing capable card capable of impacting resolutions from 1080p to 4k is a good choice for the games in the coming years.

At Apex Gaming PCs, we offer the most ray tracing-capable GPUs in our custom configurator or mainline. We offer RX 60 series cards for our entry-level systems giving you an excellent price-to-performance ratio. Whatever your ray tracing needs, we hope to be of service at Apex!

Written By William Wilson

Header Photo: Pavan Bhakta

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