Understanding Ray Tracing for Gaming Computers

February 28, 2024

New technology continues to take the gaming and high-level computing worlds by storm, and one recent example is the rise in popularity of a technique known as ray tracing. Referring to a specific rendering technique that makes light and shadows look more realistic, ray tracing was only introduced to the world at Gamescom back in 2018 — but even in a period of barely three years, it has already become immensely popular and is being utilized more often by game developers.

At Xidax, we’re proud to offer not only a diverse range of the best limited edition gaming computers available in the industry, but also assistance with all the technological developments that impact your CPU design and usage. What is ray tracing, why is it becoming more popular, and what kinds of considerations do you need to make for your gaming or other computers to account for games or other programs that utilize ray tracing? Here’s a primer.

What is Ray Tracing?

Within the world of computer graphics, ray tracing refers to a specific rendering technique that makes light and shadows look more realistic. This is done by following the ray, or path of a light as it hits an object and then influences the way in which everything else around it appears on screen — an algorithm guides the way a given program follows the light ray during this process.

Ray tracing works under the assumption that light from a source will be reflected by surfaces that it hits until it eventually reaches an observer. The observer can be a camera or the human eye — with the latter, this is how we’re able to see from our eyes.

Although ray tracing has been in use in some form for decades, it wasn’t until recently that it became common practice because of modern computing power. However, even though its introduction could be pegged as recent, the concept has been around for longer than you might expect. In fact, way back in 1788, Thomas Young became the first person to illustrate light being reflected via a mirror and actually experimenting with it.

Today, ray tracing is used to create incredible realism in various computer games and applications. It can produce several optical effects in addition to light and shadows, including reflection, refraction and global illumination. It can even be used to trace sound waves.

The Give-and-Take of Ray Tracing

Everything we just listed sounds great, right? Improved realism in several graphical areas is something all gamers and computer users should want. However, be aware that ray tracing comes with a flip side: It requires incredible amounts of computing power to perform.

For instance, general industry tests have found that involving ray tracing in a given game or application tends to create around a 30% drop in frame ate output, even when using some of the latest GPU models available. This is a massive drop in FPS, one that many gamers would be disappointed with regardless of how realistic the game looked overall.

On top of that, ray tracing isn’t utilized in the same manner across all games. Some aspects are often left out completely even though they make use of ray tracing — it’s not uncommon for games to forego reflection entirely. This makes sense, since reflections can be difficult to obtain at fast frame rates.

However, ray tracing will still be worthwhile in some cases. Even though FPS is affected dramatically, when gamers have a particularly high-end GPU or CPU with an extremely powerful graphics card, they’ll often see a huge advantage in their games by making use of the technology. For instance, those playing Overwatch on ultra settings will likely see a significant boost by turning on ray tracing.

Is Ray Tracing Coming to Consoles?

If you believe companies like Sony and Microsoft, the answer here is a resounding yes. Both companies have signaled they will provide ray tracing support for their latest XBOX and PlayStation consoles, and AMD — who manufactures parts for both these companies — has signaled the same.

However, the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X already have significant graphical power. As such, it’s hard to say if there is a need for ray tracing on these consoles — mostly because talk of the technology has been restricted to PCs so far.

What Will Make Ray Tracing More Popular?

Companies like NVIDIA and AMD have invested significant resources into the research and development of ray tracing over the last few years. NVIDIA, for instance, has developed a new RTX technology that is used in conjunction with its latest graphic cards. The goal behind this is to improve performance while still providing gamers and users with realistic graphics overall.

Should You Buy Games that Support Ray Tracing?

Generally speaking, the answer here depends on the quality of your graphics card and some related factors. The higher the quality of your GPU, the greater chance you’ll see a benefit from games that support ray tracing — thus making it worth the purchase.

However, be aware that there are factors involved beyond your graphics card model. For instance, some cards might not work well with specific games (just like how some CPUs perform poorly when paired with certain chipsets). Note that this will never be the case with every game, which is why it’s impossible to say if ray tracing should be a purchasing priority. Only you can decide whether or not the games support ray tracing before making up your mind on what to buy.

For more on ray tracing in the computer gaming realm, or to learn about any of our gaming computers, workstations or other computer services, speak to the staff at Xidax today.

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