What is Ray Tracing and DLSS

Ray tracing and DLSS 2.0 are two standout features of the latest RTX 30 graphics cards that make them perform significantly better than their predecessors.

In this post, we’ll discuss what both of these features are, what they do, and whether you should enable them.

Ray Tracing

Ray tracing is a technique related to 3D image rendering, and it calculates how virtual (in-game) light hits different objects in a particular frame. Before ray tracing, rasterization was the main technique for rendering computer graphics.

It’s an object-oriented approach where scenes are rendered by drawing 3D polygons/objects and then rasterizing them onto a 2D plane. After this, lighting, textures, colours, and other effects are applied on each pixel of those polygons, using a shader, and you get the finished frame on your screen. The main flaw with this technique is that it cannot accurately measure how light rays should travel in a specific scene.

Ray tracing solves this issue by directing the GPU to simulate how light rays reflect or refract in a scene, as they do in the real world, which results in better-looking and natural scenes.

The main disadvantage of ray tracing is the computational cost. Compared to rasterization, it’s slow – for a good reason. Ray tracing can get exponentially difficult.

For example, tracing a single ray is easy, but it can turn into 10 rays after bouncing off an object, and now you have to trace these subsequent rays as well. And if we have 10 rays hitting an object, they can turn into more than a hundred after bouncing off it. More rays there are to be traced, more time will be required for rendering a scene and more powerful hardware will be needed.

Nvidia was the first to introduced ray tracing in 2018 with the release of their RTX 20 GPUs. These cards come with special RT cores dedicated to light rays algorithms. Some older GTX cards like 1080 Ti, 1660, and 1660 Ti also support ray tracing but only at the software level. All the hardware-based work is done by regular GPU cores which results in relatively poor performance.

If we talk about AMD, they introduced DirectX 12 ray tracing support much later with their RX 6000 graphics cards. This, and the fact that RX 6000 GPUs only come with ray accelerators, not RT cores, means that Nvidia is a clear winner as far as RTX implementation is concerned.

That being said, even modern GPUs aren’t capable of rendering an entire game in ray-tracing. There are very few titles supporting this feature right now, and even the ones that do support this only do so for certain effects such as lights and shadows, with the rest of the frame being rasterized.

This is why we don’t see rasterization getting fully out of fashion any time soon.

DLSS 2.0

DLSS stands for Deep-Learning Super Sampling and it’s a technology used to reduce the performance hit that occurs when you enable ray tracing.

For those who don’t know supersampling, it’s a type of anti-aliasing that is used to remove jagged edges of different objects by increasing the frame resolution beyond what’s supported on a monitor and then downscaling that frame back to fit your display. It provides better results than other anti-aliasing methods but puts more stress on your graphics card.

On the other hand, DLSS uses the computational power of Nvidia’s data centres to accurately estimate how any frame of a particular game would look like. Using this technique, you can take a 1080p image and upscale it to 4K resolution to have almost the same results as a natively rendered 4K image.

This AI-based information is then sent to your RTX graphics card through driver updates so that your GPU can use it. The main benefit of this technique is that most of the hard work is already done at Nvidia’s data centres and all your GPU needs to do is implementing those calculations. This way you can have a better-looking frame without putting too much load on your graphics card.

In April 2020, Nvidia released DLSS 2.0 that offers some key improvements over its predecessor such as superior image quality and more game support with a swift turnaround for future titles.

In this latest version, gamers can choose between three different levels of DLSS: Performance, balance, and quality. While performance mode prefers higher frame rates, the quality mode prioritizes image quality – with balanced mode in-between these two.

Like ray tracing, not all games can benefit from DLSS. Moreover, this is an Nvidia-only feature and works only with RTX 20/30 graphics cards.

Are Ray tracing and DLSS 2.0 worth it?

While ray tracing and DLSS serve different purposes, it makes sense to use both of them simultaneously.

Like said earlier, enabling ray-tracing can decrease FPS by more than 50% in the titles like Metro Exodus, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and Wolfenstein: Youngblood. By enabling DLSS, you can ease some of the load on your GPU and recover 20-25% of the FPS you lost earlier.

But things get slightly tricky if we use them separately.

Yes, if you already own an RTX 20/30 graphics card then DLSS is worth it as you’re getting a free performance boost.

But since this technology is far from mature, many older titles don’t support it. As of now, there are roughly 130 titles that support DLSS, which is not a huge number by any means. And considering the huge price hike we’ve seen in GPU prices over the last 12 months, it’s not recommended to get a new card just for DLSS.

The same goes for ray-tracing. While makes games more cinematic, the performance decrease means you won’t be able to enjoy high FPS as you do typically. Moreover, most people can’t distinguish between well-implemented rasterization and ray tracing, meaning it’s not wise to buy a premium GPU just for ray tracing – at least for now.

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Brandon Dudley is a PC gamer, builder, and writer. He has been building PCs for over 10 years and has written extensively about the topic. He is a self-taught expert in the field and enjoys helping others learn about PC gaming and building.
Photo of author
Brandon Dudley is a PC gamer, builder, and writer. He has been building PCs for over 10 years and has written extensively about the topic. He is a self-taught expert in the field and enjoys helping others learn about PC gaming and building.