GeForce RTX Ray Tracing On A $300 To $500 Budget: What To Expect

Mainstream PC Ray Tracing Performance Explored

geforce rtx 2060 box 2
When NVIDIA's GeForce RTX graphics cards first launched, there weren't many games on the market that could take advantage of Turing's new bells and whistles. Over time that's changed, however, and some of this year's biggest hits—titles like Control and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare—can take full advantage of stunning ray-traced visual effects. NVIDIA's high-end Turing cards include some of the fastest GPUs around with equally eye-watering pricing, but it doesn't have to be that way if you want to take a more modest approach. The $299 - $329 GeForce RTX 2060 6 GB and $499 GeForce RTX 2070 SUPER are more than capable in their own right without breaking the bank.

We wanted to check out how a few top games perform on the average PC, with ray tracing enabled. The Core i5-9600K equipped test bed we've put together is decidedly mid-range. While it's not the most powerful system on the planet, it's still pretty speedy for gaming purposes. Minus the graphics cards, building this system (or an equivalently priced Ryzen 5 3600X-based PC) would cost right around $800. Take a look at our test setup...

Mainstream Ray Tracing Test Bed
Specifications & Features
CPU Intel Core i5-9600K (6 cores / 6 threads, 3.7 GHz base / 4.6 GHz max turbo)
Motherboard MSI MPG Z390 Gaming Plus
Memory Corsair Vengeance LPX DDR4-3000
CPU Cooler Cooler Master Hyper 212 Black Edition 120 mm heat sink + fan
Graphics Cards NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2060 6 GB
Storage Samsung 970 Evo Plus 500 GB NVMe SSD
Power Supply Corsair CX-M Series 650W 80+ Bronze semi-modular
Case Cooler Master MB530P

The wild card in this build are the graphics cards. We've got two cards on the bench here, and they represent two of the lower rungs of the hardware accelerated ray tracing ladder: the GeForce RTX 2060 and the GeForce RTX 2070 SUPER. In between that, but not available for testing today, is the GeForce RTX 2060 SUPER which is outlined here for comparison's sake in the table below. Let's see how our contenders stack up...

GeForce RTX 2060 GeForce RTX 2060 SUPER GeForce RTX 2070 SUPER
CUDA Cores 1920 2176 2560
RTX OPS (Trillion/sec) 37 41 52
Giga Rays/sec 5 6 7
Max boost speed 1680 MHz 1650 MHz 1770 MHz
VRAM 6 GB 192-bit GDDR6 8 GB 256-bit GDDR6 8 GB 256-bit GDDR6
Price $299 - $304 $399 $489 - $509

Right out of the gate, you can see that the GeForce RTX 2070 SUPER costs ~ 66% more than its smaller sibling but seemingly doesn't add quite so much to the theoretical specifications. We'll see if the faster SUPER card is capable of distinguishing itself in practice, though. Sandwiched in the middle is the GeForce RTX 2060 SUPER which basically splits the difference in terms of both specs and cost, ringing in at a $399 MSRP. If you're keeping score at home, our testbed complete with graphics card rings up at between $1,100 and $1,300, depending on which GeForce RTX you might select.

Today we're testing three top game titles that are ray tracing-enabled: the aforementioned Control and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, as well as RTX launch title Battlefield V. All three make use of DirectX Raytracing (DXR) and GeForce RTX ray tracing capabilities. When Turing launched, not many games could employ these capabilities, though there was a lot of promise in the technology. Now, many developers are making good use of real-time ray traced effects, so let's see how these games perform.

Oldest House-Cleaning Performance
Max Payne and Alan Wake creator Remedy's latest title, Control, is a thrilling adventure following new Federal Bureau of Control director Jesse Faden as she figures out her new role and powers. Control also features some of incredibly stunning ray tracing effects that really add to the atmosphere. Every room is a virtual lighting playground waiting to be explored, particularly the levels set in the glossy, marble-laden Astral Plane. Check out these stills from the game with and without ray tracing enabled.

glass reflections full rt
Ray tracing enabled. Check out the reflections in the glass areas...

glass reflections no rt
Without those reflections, Control doesn't feel nearly as immersive.

Remedy built a ton of effects into this game. Our favorite are the translucent reflections, which allows glass and other shiny surfaces to reflect objects that aren't present on the screen. Above, you can see that Jesse is standing in a hallway with some glass windows near an office. With ray tracing enabled, not only do you see a reflection of that cart in the middle of the hall, but you can also see the wood paneling wall on the other side, obfuscated from view. It adds a lot more immersion to the game, and if it wasn't for the fact that enemies aren't very stealthy, it could even give a gameplay advantage by literally allowing you to see around a corner. We'd love to see this tech make it into a stealth game like Splinter Cell or Metal Gear. Let's take a look at how the game performs in our test system.

chart control w dlss ray tracing for the masses

We went for the best possible in-game settings while maintaining playability, which for us means that the 99th percentile frame rate remains above 30 frames per second, and preferably getting as close to a 60 fps average as possible. For roughly $300, the GeForce RTX 2060 was able to maintain a High setting for ray tracing at 1920x1080 as its best playable settings. Not bad at all. The other interesting thing about this chart is that setting-for-setting, the GeForce RTX 2070 SUPER gets close to the same performance at 1440p as the GeForce RTX 2060 did at 1080p. So while 66% more cost doesn't buy us 66% more performance, it does buy us around 80% more pixels (3.6 megapixels at 1440p vs 2.0 megapixels at 1080p) for the same performance. It's certainly a tangible benefit. 

Not to be forgotten is NVIDIA's Deep Learning Super Sampling anti-aliasing method. With this method, a Turing-based GPU can use its Tensor cores and a pre-computed algorithm to upscale lower-resolution images to fit the native resolution of your display. This comes in handy in supported games when the graphics card can't push pixels at the display's native resolution, and Control is one such optimized title. We explored the image quality of DLSS in our in-depth performance review. The mix of performance and image quality looks pretty good to our eyes on the 1440p test system's Dell UltraSharp monitor. In this case, the GeForce RTX 2060 renders the image at 1706x960 and then upscales to 2560x1440. Performance is really nice, too; since the graphics card is rendering at a lower resolution, there's less ray tracing work to be done and as a result, the GeForce RTX 2060 sped past 60 frames per second on average with medium ray tracing, and got up over 50 fps with those effects maxed out. 

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is the sixteenth entry in Activision's seminal first person shooter series, which reboots the original Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Infinity Ward produced a brand new game engine for this title that allows for more detailed objects, advanced rendering techniques, and of course DirectX Ray Tracing technology. The first section of the game takes place at night in a fictional rebel camp.

cod dxr on
With DirectX Ray Tracing enabled, the shadows are attached to their casters, like the weeds in the cement

cod dxr off
When DXR is disabled, some of those shadows aren't connected to anything, and don't look nearly as nice

It's kind of dark in these screenshots, but they do a good job of showing off shadows cast by multiple light sources. Most importantly, the shadows look much more natural with DXR enabled. Our squadmates' shadows were nice and soft without the typical spottiness, and the weeds poking up through the crack in the concrete cast a shadow that looks like...well, weeds instead of blotches. It's not obvious here, but in motion, the smoke coming off the fire also looks much nicer with the effects enabled, thanks to being lit from below.

chart cod modern warfare ray tracing for the masses

Similar to the relative performance was saw in Control, the GeForce RTX 2070 SUPER can max out graphics settings and maintain a very playable frame rate at 2560x1440. Unlike Control where it required dialing back some of the ray traced effects, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare allows us to max out those graphics settings and still attain just about 60 frames per second while doing it. Meanwhile, the GeForce RTX 2060 continues to shadow the faster card and performs very nicely at 1080p. The 99th percentile frame rate is particularly nice, barely budging from a smooth 60 fps.

If you're curious, enabling DXR incurs approximately a 50% performance penalty: the GeForce RTX 2070 at 1440p was pushing around 115 frames per second throughout our run without these effects. The GeForce RTX 2060 was similarly affected at 1080p, where it ran closer to 125 fps without ray tracing. If you're a competitive player, you might want to turn these effects off to get the most frames possible, but everyone else should just bask in the glory of ray traced landscape.

Battlefield V
War Stories With RTX Performance
Unlike previous years, EA DICE hasn't churned out a new Battlefield game for 2019. Instead, the company has focused on keeping Battlefield V's combat and maps feeling fresh, and Chapter 5: War in the Pacific launched late last month. This title is one of the first games to make use of hardware-accelerated ray tracing with NVIDIA RTX, and the results look quite nice. Coming in hot after launch, and in waves, Battlefield V's application of DXR effects was gradual and performance was kind of rocky. Today, DXR is everywhere in the game title and has been well-optimized.

bf5 france rt on
DXR on. Note the puddle next to the truck and shadows in the distance as we make our way to the forest.

bf5 france rt off
DXR off. The puddle reflects the sky when it should reflect foliage, and tree shadows lack definition.

To test this game title, we used CapFrameX to grab frame times from the opening cross-country skiing section of the Tirailleur war story. This level has some beautiful forests, and tons of ray traced shadows in the trees. In the images below, you'll notice that the tree shadows are stark, dark entities without ray tracing, where the DXR effects make the shadows blend better into the landscape. In the screenshots above, you can see reflections in the water and shadows into the forests. Both see significant upgrades for different reasons. The puddle reflections only show what's on screen when DXR is off, and as a result the section closest to the truck doesn't have any foliage. If you strafe to the right, that section gets filled in with the trees and leaves that should have been reflected from the start. This isn't a problem with DXR, and DXR also gives better definition to the shadows as you make your way into the woods. On the whole, turning on these effects is very worthwhile.

chart battlefield v ray tracing for the masses

One of the things that shocked us this time out, is that maxing out ray tracing didn't have a critical impact on performance for the GeForce RTX 2060. Previously, such as in Control, we had to turn the ray tracing effects down at this resolution to hit close to a 60 frames per second threshold. The baby Turing had no problems at all with Battlefield V, however, with all of the settings cranked as high as they'd go. Much like Call of Duty, without DXR enabled, Battlefield V's performance was stratospheric—CapFrameX registered an average of 129 fps at 1080p without otherwise changing any settings.

Our "one resolution better" theory continues to hold weight for the GeForce RTX 2070 SUPER, too. 1440p with all of the settings maxed out edged awfully close to that 60 frames per second average. The slightly more disappointing result is our 99th percentile frame rates, which were around half that on the average. Fortunately, CapFrameX reports that the 95th percentile, not represented on the graphs, was still around 43 fps for the 2070 SUPER at 1440p, so Battlefield V's performance is still pretty smooth at this setting.

Mainstream Ray Tracing Performance Summary

We saw throughout our testing that both of these midrange cards are capable of delivering more than acceptable performance at their target resolutions with all of the latest ray tracing technology enabled across a good sampling of top tier DXR-enabled games. The GeForce RTX 2060 is fully capable of driving any ray tracing game at 1080p, while the GeForce RTX 2070 for $200 more can do the same thing at a higher resolution of 1440p. While each title puts these effects to use in different ways, they all made the most out of what NVIDIA has provided in Turing's ray tracing hardware.
msi geforce rtx 2060 gaming z
MSI's GeForce RTX 2060 Gaming Z used in our tests today

Both Battlefield V and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare task DXR and GeForce RTX cards with creating believable shadows and reflections, and they do a nice job of it but there are so many more ways to explore ray tracing. Out of the titles available today, we're still drawn to Control's generous helping of eye candy, which adds so much detail to the game's world. Remedy obviously built Control's environment to showcase DXR technology. Still, all three titles are gorgeous and excellent titles to play through in their own right.

concludeThe best part of all this is that a very pedestrian desktop PC can be upgraded today to get the most out of DXR titles. Our test bed is a very affordable PC, and it doesn't take a ton of CPU horsepower to drive these games hard enough to make the graphics cards sweat. If you've got something similar but are sitting on an older graphics card from the Pascal or Polaris families, it might be time to take the leap. Beyond these titles, there are plenty more available, like Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Quake II RTX, and Metro Exodus, and many more are on the way in the form of Cyberpunk 2077, Doom Eternal, and Dying Light.

DirectX Ray Tracing is here, it's beautiful and it just might be what you want to spice up your gaming life. The good news is, as our numbers prove out, you can achieve decent performance with even the lower end of NVIDIA's GeForce RTX GPU spectrum. 

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