Ray tracing is the future – but it's here now, and affordable even on gaming laptops thanks to Nvidia's RTX 2060

Ray tracing is the future of video game graphics. Don't believe us? Well, in this article we're going to discuss the reasons why ray tracing is incredibly important in the quest to advance with more realistic graphics, just in case you need any convincing that this technology is indeed very much the way forward.

Although perhaps it's not that you don't believe, but that you don't want to believe, because you've maybe heard that ray tracing is this niche thing that requires an overpowered and expensive graphics card and PC to be able to run. 

The truth is that very much isn’t the case, and there are wallet-friendly graphics solutions from Nvidia which are fully ray tracing-capable, like the GeForce RTX 2060 GPU.

Furthermore, you can even get affordable laptops which can run ray-traced games powered by the mobile variant of the RTX 2060. Yes, a slim and light laptop with a graphics card capable of delivering slick frame rates with ray tracing bells-and-whistles turned on is fully within the grasp of the average gamer, as we'll see later.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves here. To begin with, let's take a look at exactly what ray tracing is, and why it's the future. Although the history of ray tracing is actually buried perhaps surprisingly far in the past…

What is ray tracing?

Ray tracing was initially used to produce spectacular lighting effects in movies, and Pixar's Car in 2006 was the first movie to extensively use real-time ray tracing. As to what ray tracing actually is, on a basic level, it's a far more realistic way of depicting lighting and other effects. 

Ray tracing actually traces the paths of individual light rays and more accurately simulates how light works in the real world in terms of its interaction with objects, and the way light creates shadows, reflections in puddles and all sorts of other sophisticated effects.

In short, films look far more like real-life with ray tracing – and video games can, too. So why hasn't ray tracing been done with games before (aside from in very limited fashion with early demos)? Because it needs a lot more graphical grunt than rasterization, the traditional method of real-time rendering which it supplants.

Rendering a movie with ray tracing in advance is one thing, but doing ray tracing on-the-fly as someone plays a game and moves around a 3D environment in real-time is another matter, and considerably more demanding.

The power to do this hasn't realistically been available on a PC – until now, that is, after Nvidia launched its RTX graphics cards which have hardware acceleration to make ray tracing run much faster. This is what's made ray tracing with PC games a more than viable proposition.

However, let's put the brakes on for a moment here, in case we're giving the wrong impression, because ray tracing isn't some sort of Nvidia exclusive. It is, in actual fact, more of an all-pervading development in PC gaming, as Microsoft has built ray tracing right into DirectX 12 (which the company is pushing hard with Windows 10).

Indeed, Microsoft continues to improve its support for DXR or DirectX Raytracing, with DXR aiming to give more game developers the ability to use ray tracing with their graphics, and driving for a broader adoption of the tech among PC gamers as a result.

And those game developers aren't hanging around. A number of games which are already out support ray tracing, and many more 'AAA' titles in the pipeline also plan to make use of the technology to ramp up their visuals to another level.

The likes of Battlefield V, Metro Exodus, Control and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare are among the games that already support ray tracing, and many high-profile releases in the future will do so – most notably Cyberpunk 2077, Watch Dogs: Legion, Bloodlines 2 and Doom Eternal.

Furthermore, old games are being given a fresh new lease of life with their graphics getting ray tracing makeovers in some cases, like Quake II and the hugely popular Minecraft (the latter is still in the pipeline).

We won't bore you with big old lists, but the point is a lot of major developers are working on ray tracing, because they see it as the future of better looking video games with graphics that are much truer to real-life in jaw-dropping fashion. And not just on PC, but on consoles – yes, both Microsoft's and Sony's next-gen consoles will support ray tracing.

This is exactly why ray tracing is the future, but what will your PC need to cope with that future? Well, any GPU can run ray tracing in theory, but the issue is whether it can render those visuals smoothly, and that’s where Nvidia's latest GPUs have the advantage.

GeForce RTX graphics cards have hardware acceleration in the form of dedicated cores which are specifically designed to deliver fast real-time ray tracing. In other words, you get the stunning graphics with suitably smooth frame rates – even with the most affordable RTX GPU.

That would be the RTX 2060 which can very capably cope with the likes of Battlefield V or Metro Exodus with ray tracing on, or indeed more recent releases like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. The latter only has ray-traced shadows, which helps in terms of being less demanding when you’re playing competitively online, yet still wanting the best visuals.

The RTX 2060 is still good for tackling even more demanding titles that have a whole load of ray tracing goodies, such as Remedy’s Control, which looks truly amazing with transparent surfaces (like glass) benefiting from realistic real-time reflections, and ray-traced effects even applied to debris. However, the RTX 2060 can cope with these demands, particularly with the help of DLSS, another innovative Nvidia technology.

And perhaps the most incredible thing here is that the RTX 2060 boasts a mobile version of the GPU which can fit inside a laptop, meaning you can take all this ray tracing power with you on the move, wherever you're gaming.

Get a ray tracing laptop today

Indeed, a laptop running an RTX 2060 graphics card can be a great entry point into the world of ray tracing, because these machines are surprisingly affordable. Here’s an example: a supremely tempting Black Friday deal on an HP Omen 15.

This 15-inch gaming laptop is driven by one of Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 2060 graphics cards (with 6GB of video memory) in conjunction with an Intel Core i5-8300H quad-core processor. That powerful combination is backed by 8GB of DDR4 system RAM, with a 256GB M.2 NVMe SSD for lightning fast load times (partnered with a 1TB traditional hard disk for storage space).

It wouldn’t be a satisfactory state of affairs if the HP Omen 15 didn’t have an impressive screen to display those high quality ray-traced visuals on, but fortunately it does. The notebook has a Full HD 15.6-inch IPS micro-edge (very thin bezels) display that benefits from a refresh rate of 144Hz (meaning the powerful RTX 2060 GPU can push up to high and extremely smooth frame rates).

Other neat touches include an RGB backlit keyboard, Bang & Olufsen speakers for quality sound, and another cutting-edge element is the availability of Thunderbolt 3 connectivity on the Omen 15. Having been reduced to just under a grand – £999.97, which represents a £200 saving on the normal asking price – this laptop from Box is an absolute bargain-and-a-half.

So ray tracing doesn’t have to cost the earth – far from it, even on a notebook. And don’t forget a current promotion from Nvidia means that if you buy this RTX laptop, you get a free copy of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, so you can get started right away with your jaw-slackening exploration of next-gen visuals.

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