Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080 review: 4K PC gaming finally makes sense

- Published: 16 September 2020

4K for less than $1K

Nvidia is promising big things with its new generation of graphics cards. The GeForce RTX 3080 is supposed to deliver twice the performance of the RTX 2080 at the same price. It’s even supposed to surpass the RTX 2080 Ti, providing solid 4K gaming performance for much less than Nvidia’s last-generation cards cost. This is all while taking advantage of ray tracing and Nvidia’s special AI-powered DLSS tech that boosts frame rates while maintaining image quality. Nvidia had similar promises before for 4K gaming with the RTX 2080. But with the RTX 3080, it’s delivering on them.

The RTX 3080 is part of Nvidia’s 3000 series of graphics cards, all powered by the company’s new Ampere architecture. There’s the RTX 3070 (starting at $499), the RTX 3080 (starting at $699), and the RTX 3090 (starting at $1,499). You can’t preorder any of these latest cards, and the RTX 3080 will arrive in stores on September 17th, with the RTX 3090 following on September 24th. While the RTX 3070 doesn’t arrive until October 15th, it also promises performance that exceeds both the RTX 2080 and RTX 2080 Ti.

I’ve spent the past week putting the RTX 3080 through its paces at both 4K and 1440p, and I’m impressed with what I’ve seen. 4K gaming arrived with the RTX 2080 Ti, but $1,199 was far beyond most people’s budgets. The RTX 3080 does the same and more at a much more affordable price point.

Hardware

Nvidia could have stuck with the big changes it made to the RTX 2080 cooling, but it’s gone a step further with its hardware on the RTX 3080. The first noticeable change is that the dual-fan setup has shifted so there’s one fan on either side of the card. Nvidia is using a push-pull system here, with the bottom fan pulling (hopefully cool) air into the card, then exhausting the warm air on the opposite side close to your CPU cooler and rear case fan. A traditional blower cooler also exhausts the hot air out of the PCIe slot and thus out of your case entirely.

This creates a more optimal airflow, reducing GPU temperatures and delivering a quieter card. I didn’t hear any noticeable differences against the RTX 2080 that I’ve been comparing the RTX 3080 to this week, as both are quiet cards. There had been some concern that this cooling system could negatively affect CPU temperatures, but I didn’t observe any issues during my tests. It’s possible that, in some rigs, it could affect CPU temperatures, but I think for the vast majority of cases, it will be a non-issue.

Nvidia’s RTX 3080 design includes a new pennant-shaped board.

The second major change to the RTX 3080 is the addition of a 12-pin single power connector, as opposed to the separate 6- and 8-pin or twin 8-pin connectors on prior cards. I like what Nvidia has done here, but the early implementation means you have to use an included adapter that’s ugly and awkward. You connect two 8-pin PCIe power connectors to it, and the adapter then dangles out of the side of the card. Thankfully, power supply vendors like Corsair are planning single cables that will plug directly into Nvidia’s new 12-pin connector. I’d highly recommend ordering one of these if you (like me) care about cable management. Third-party cards are sticking with the regular dual 8-pin connectors, too.

The third big change that might not be immediately noticeable is Nvidia’s switch to a new pennant-shaped board for the RTX 3080. Combined with the new cooling shroud, this pennant shape makes for a really good-looking graphics card. There are no visible screws, and even the regular FCC and regulatory notices have been moved to the output end of the card to keep its appearance clean.

Speaking of outputs, there’s a single HDMI 2.1 port and three DisplayPort 1.4a ports. Nvidia has dropped the USB-C VirtualLink port found on the RTX 2080, which never saw any real adoption for VR. The RTX 3080 LED also lights up in pure white now, instead of the green found on the 2080. There’s even a subtle white glow around part of the top fan. I’m impressed with this new design, and it looks great sitting in a case if you have a side window.

The only bad part of this new hardware is the power requirement. Nvidia is recommending at least a 750W power supply for the RTX 3080, as it can draw up to 320 watts by itself. That’s a 42 percent jump from the 225-watt draw with the RTX 2080, which is understandable for the performance improvement but also disappointing for its impact on the environment and electricity bills.

1440p testing

I’ve been testing the RTX 3080 on the same machine I used for the RTX 2080 review two years ago. While it doesn’t have the latest and greatest CPU, I found Microsoft Flight Simulator, which is incredibly CPU-intensive, was the only game that was difficult to test on this rig.

For 1440p tests, I hooked up the RTX 3080 to a 27-inch Asus ROG Swift PG279Q monitor. This monitor supports refresh rates up to 165Hz plus G-Sync, so it’s an ideal match for an RTX 3080 at 1440p resolution. I’ve also been testing 4K performance, which you can find below.

I’ve been playing a variety of AAA titles all week to get a feel for what the 3080 is like. I’ve also performed average frame rate testing and used built-in benchmarks across a variety of games, including Fortnite, Control, Death Stranding, Metro Exodus, Call of Duty: Warzone, and Microsoft Flight Simulator. All games were tested at max or ultra settings, and most regularly exceeded the 100fps average mark at 1440p.

Fortnite hit an average of 161fps with maxed-out settings, and even Warzone hit 116fps on average. Both of these games are competitive shooters where you’d typically lower settings to hit these types of averages on other cards, but the RTX 3080 was able to deliver a smooth high frame rate experience consistently.

Even when playing more demanding titles like Control or Metro Exodus, the RTX 3080 improved performance at 1440p by nearly 60 percent or more from the previous RTX 2080 card. That put Metro Exodus to a far more playable average of 57fps with the RTX 3080, compared to the 36fps average on the RTX 2080 at extreme settings.

Gaming on the RTX 3080 at 1440p meant I could easily take advantage of the higher refresh rates on the Asus ROG Swift PG279Q monitor; if I was willing to drop image quality just a little, I could get the full 165Hz. The RTX 3080 feels like a very comfortable option for 1440p, even for some of the most demanding AAA titles.

If you’re upgrading from a GTX 1080 or something older and thinking of moving from a 1080p monitor to 1440p, you won’t be disappointed with the RTX 3080 at all. If you’re aiming to be as competitive as possible and delving into the esports side of gaming, then a 1080p resolution monitor with the RTX 3080 would obviously provide even higher frame rates. For most people, though, the RTX 3080 provides solid headroom for a move to 1440p.

Nvidia’s 12-pin power connector on the RTX 3080.

4K testing

The RTX 2080 was supposed to deliver 4K gaming at a more affordable $699 price point, but it wasn’t able to handle 60fps or more in demanding games with all of the settings maxed out. That’s why I’ve focused the majority of my RTX 3080 testing on 4K, pairing the card with Acer’s 27-inch Nitro XV273K, a 4K monitor that offers up to 144Hz refresh rates, G-Sync, and even HDR support.

In nearly every game I tested with the RTX 3080 at 4K, I was able to hit or exceed 60fps.

I’ve been truly amazed that I can run around in Call of Duty: Warzone with everything maxed out at 4K and still get 85fps on average. There were certainly times when action briefly dipped below 60fps, but this was rare and mostly when I was parachuting in rather than in combat situations.

The performance increase at 4K from the RTX 2080 to RTX 3080 is significant. In most games, it was 60 percent or more, transforming Shadow of the Tomb Raider from just 32fps on average on the RTX 2080 to 57fps on the RTX 3080.

Control was unplayable a lot of times with the RTX 2080 at max settings on 4K resolution, thanks to its physics-defying gameplay and the game’s demanding specs. Control is very GPU-intensive and uses a variety of graphics techniques to produce some visually stunning gameplay. That’s why gameplay regularly dipped below 30fps on the older RTX 2080, adding horrible input lag to the fast-paced shooting scenes. But on the RTX 3080, it averaged 72fps, with only occasional dips below 60fps. It’s an 80 percent jump, which is staggeringly good.

I also saw huge improvements in Fortnite, with average frame rates jumping 85 percent from the RTX 2080 to the RTX 3080. You can run Fortnite with maxed-out settings and still maintain 98fps on average. That’s an impressive jump over the 53fps average on the RTX 2080.

I wish I hadn’t borrowed a 4K monitor for the RTX 3080 testing because now I want to spend money and upgrade from the 1440p display I own. The level of performance and detail has genuinely left me impressed, even as someone who typically prefers the higher frame rates available at 1440p or 1080p for competitive shooters.

The only slight pause I have here is the 10GB of memory available on the RTX 3080. While Nvidia says the average game uses 4 to 6GB of memory at 4K at the moment, I do fear this will jump a lot closer to maxing out the RTX 3080 memory for future games if you want the very best settings. I might not normally have such a concern with a new card, but given the next-gen consoles are pushing 4K gaming, improved CPUs, and ray tracing, we’re bound to see game developers push recommended specs even further in the years ahead. Max settings and performance are always a delicate balance, but I would have loved to have seen 12GB here.

Nvidia says it’s using 10GB, as most games don’t need the additional memory right now, and the company had to get the right balance of extra memory and the pricing of the RTX 3080. It does leave the door very open for Nvidia to introduce an RTX 3080 Ti in the future with additional memory, particularly as the RTX 3090 will ship with 24GB of memory.

The RTX 3080 also doesn’t allow me to take full advantage of the 144Hz refresh rates on Acer’s XV273K at 4K, once again leaving the door open for a card with a little more performance to take us firmly into 4K gaming at even more impressive frame rates.

Still, 4K gaming is absolutely here at playable frame rates for a much more affordable price. That’s a big jump, and it will hopefully influence the price of 4K monitors to improve the affordability aspect even further. You had to pay $1,199 for just a graphics card to even get close to this level of performance with the RTX 2080 Ti, and the RTX 3080 offers impressive 4K performance for its $699 price point.

Screws aren’t exposed on Nvidia’s RTX 3080.

Ray tracing and DLSS

While the door is left open for something a little more powerful than the RTX 3080, Nvidia has some special tricks to improve performance and even image quality. When I originally reviewed the RTX 2080 two years ago, I wasn’t able to test ray tracing or DLSS, Nvidia’s AI super sampling technology. Back then, Nvidia was promising these tricks would eventually improve visual quality and frame rates, and add prettier cinematic effects in games. But there weren’t any games at the RTX 2080 launch to back up Nvidia’s claims, so they sounded like vague promises for the future.

That future has now started to arrive, and more games are now supporting both ray tracing and DLSS. Nvidia’s DLSS technology uses neural networks and AI supercomputers to analyze games and sharpen or clean up images at lower resolutions. In simple terms, DLSS allows a game to render at a lower resolution and use Nvidia’s image reconstruction technique to upscale the image and make it look as good as native 4K or better.

I’m surprised at how good DLSS works and the performance benefits it provides. Every game implements it slightly differently, offering both performance modes and quality modes so you can opt for better frame rates over image quality. In Control, I was able to enable its ray-tracing mode to improve visuals while also enabling DLSS and maintaining the same frame rate I would with both options turned off. I found it incredibly difficult to notice any image quality reductions from DLSS in Control. You’d have to compare them side by side to really dig into the differences, as DLSS is just that good.

I enabled ray tracing in Call of Duty: Warzone and didn’t notice a significant performance hit. But I have to be honest: it was hard to spot the difference. In Control with just ray tracing enabled, the performance hit was more significant at 4K, rendering at 45fps on average and lots of dips below 30fps. In Metro Exodus, it made the game unplayable unless I enabled DLSS, too.

I saw similar results in Fortnite, which has only just implemented ray tracing and DLSS. The ray tracing in Fortnite offers a lot more obvious improvements, including shadows and reflections around trees and lakes and just a general layer of polish on top of the game. Fortnite looks a lot more alive with ray tracing on.

Unfortunately, the performance hit in Fortnite with ray tracing is significant if you max out all of the ray-traced effects. I went from 98fps on max settings all the way down to just 20fps with the maximum settings and maximum ray tracing. Even DLSS couldn’t help bring things up much further, improving the average frame rate to 39fps with ray tracing turned on.

DLSS without ray tracing offers a huge performance benefit in 4K for Fortnite, though. I tried the performance DLSS option, and I got around 135fps average frame rates, up from the already impressive 103fps average without DLSS.

DLSS was also able to bump Metro Exodus up to much better frame rates. Performance went from 35fps to 61fps with DLSS enabled, making the game a lot smoother to play. In Control, DLSS also pushed frame rates beyond 100fps on average to 114fps. That’s an impressive 58 percent jump.

Ray tracing still feels like it’s in its infancy, and I think game developers will really need to implement it across entire games instead of selectively to make a far bigger difference to the experience of a game. The performance hit is also often too big to enable ray tracing alone, but combined with DLSS, it makes it more of an option. DLSS is so good that it takes the huge performance hit from ray tracing and counteracts it to make games playable again.

I think DLSS is going to be the option most people will want to enable, though. We’ve seen a variety of image reconstruction techniques over the years to improve image quality from lower-render resolutions. A variety of PS4 Pro and Xbox One X games use checkerboarding techniques to hit 4K resolutions at reasonable frame rates. DLSS is equally impressive on the PC side, delivering some notable results at the simple flick of a switch.

Nvidia has also improved DLSS with a version 2.0, supported on its range of RTX cards, which makes it easier to train and should mean even more games support it in the future. Nvidia is promising improved visual quality and better performance gains for games that support DLSS 2.0, and the best thing is that games will be able to offer a variety of options for picking between performance and quality modes.

Some of the biggest games launching later this year — including Cyberpunk 2077, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, and Watch Dogs: Legion — will also include both ray-traced effects and DLSS support.


Nvidia’s big promise of 4K gaming at 60fps for the RTX 2080 didn’t hold up. The only viable option was the $1,199 RTX 2080 Ti, which was a serious investment for 4K gaming two years ago. The RTX 3080 will help transform the reality of 4K gaming on PC at a much more affordable $699 price point. Nvidia is also promising big jumps for performance with the RTX 3070 at just $499, so it certainly feels like 4K gaming on PC is about to be a lot more affordable even if the RTX 3070 means you need to lower some settings.

The RTX 3080 ushers in the next generation of 4K gaming, thanks to some raw horsepower and a lot of the promises that Nvidia made with the RTX 2080 finally starting to materialize. DLSS and ray tracing were merely promises of where the future of PC games would move two years ago. But with games like Minecraft, Control, Fortnite, and Call of Duty supporting Nvidia’s latest technology, it’s a reality that’s here with the RTX 3080. The next generation of consoles will also start to support ray tracing, meaning we’re bound to see even more games throughout 2021 and beyond that can add ray tracing and soften its blow with DLSS.

Nvidia tells me the RTX 3080 cards are in volume production with “great” yields, and that it’s “making them as fast as we can.” I still can’t help but feel there’s going to be a lot of pent up demand here, so the biggest problem might be actually buying one of these cards in the coming weeks.

The RTX 3080 will be will a staggering leap in performance if you’re upgrading from something like a GTX 1080, especially at 1440p or if you’re moving to 4K. That could tempt a whole host of people to upgrade, especially those who avoided the RTX 2000 series.

If you’re interested in making the jump to 1440p instead of 4K, then the RTX 3080 will give you so much headroom I don’t think you’ll need to upgrade your PC for years. On the 4K side, you’ll be upgrading to a card that provides solid frame rates with all of the settings maxed out without putting a hole in your wallet. 4K PC gaming is here, and it’s finally a lot more affordable.

Photography by Tom Warren / The Verge

Source: theverge.com