Nvidia’s RTX series of graphics cards are the most powerful GPUs in the market right now, and they’ve made it into laptops as well. Nvidia GeForce RTX laptops are extremely powerful gaming and content creation machines and thanks to the Max-Q variants, the power of the RTX cards can now come in slimmer, thermally-efficient laptop models for added portability and improved battery life.
Yet they cost plenty, and everyone is still on the fence about ray tracing technology. Laptop graphics cards can’t run at the speeds and offer the kind of performance desktop ones do, and all but the most powerful desktop GeForce RTX cards struggle with ray-tracing in the few videogames that support the technology.
Buying an RTX Laptop – Worth It?
Whether you should buy a gaming laptop with an RTX graphics card or give a hard pass will depend on your budget and your needs. RTX laptops come with similar CPUs, memory, and storage to the ones with older generation Nvidia cards from last year. Most of them will be powered by an 8th Generation Intel Core i7, have high-speed DDR4 memory, and come with a combination of high-speed storage like a PCIe NVMe SSD and a mechanical drive for plenty of space.
We look at three reasons why you might want to buy an RTX powered laptop, and three reasons why you might opt out. In the end, we’ll reach a conclusion of what may be the best course of action. Let’s get started.
Why You Should Consider RTX Powered Laptops
1. Massive Performance Improvement Over Last Generation
There’s no sugarcoating it: the RTX line of graphics cards is the fastest out there. Sure, AMD’s Radeon VII may have challenged some of the cards in the performance department, but the Turing technology used by Nvidia is flexible, efficient, and fast. It transitions extremely well to gaming laptops as well.
As with the previous generation Nvidia graphics cards, the newer Turing RTX cards are also coming in the Max-Q variant. For those who don’t know, the Max-Q variation of the graphics card is designed to be slimmer in form factor when compared to the full and fat versions. They’re not as powerful as mainstream versions, but they’re powerful, nonetheless.
And Nvidia’s RTX 2080 Max-Q comfortably beats the previous king of the hell in laptop graphics, the GeForce GTX 1080 Max-Q. It does so with additional benefits as well – RTX cards draw a lot less power and run cooler (more on that later). The RTX Max-Q 2080 even comfortably beats the full-tilt GeForce GTX 1080, and with the full RTX 2080 version coming in some laptops such as the beefy Alienware Area-51m, you can expect it to blaze past anything from the previous generation with absolute ease.
2. RTX Max-Q Laptops are Super Slim Yet Powerful
The main difference between the RTX Max-Q and non-Max-Q versions of Nvidia GPUs in laptops is that the former run at lower clock speeds. However, that’s not where the differences end. The ray-tracing cores in the Max-Q version are also fewer, so there’s a significant difference in performance between ray-tracing capability.
The RTX 2080 is the most powerful graphics card that any laptop can feature at the moment. The full-fledged one (non-Max-Q) features 16 more RT cores and runs at faster clock speeds. However, this also makes it run at a TDP of 150 watts and above, whereas the Max-Q version has a TDP of only 80-90 watts.
What this translates to is giving the laptop manufacturers an option to make extremely thin gaming laptops. Slim and portable laptops are all the rage right now, and this article has also been written on one of the thinnest laptops ever made (HP Spectre 13).
With Max-Q variants, companies like Razer are able to make incredibly thin and lightweight yet powerful gaming laptops. As mentioned earlier, RTX 2080 Max-Q despite its lower clock speeds still manages to comfortably beat the last generation full-tilt GTX 1080 despite much lower power consumption and coming in a better form factor. Who would say no to better performance in a slimmer package?
3. RTX Laptops Mostly Run Cooler and Quieter
The Max-Q variants of the GeForce RTX graphics cards are surprisingly quiet when compared to the previous generation ones. Thanks to a smaller die and better efficiency, RTX cards generally run a lot cooler than previous Nvidia cards in desktops. While that allows for some serious overclocking in desktop computers, it translates to better thermal performance and lower noise levels in laptops.
Of course, a lot will still depend heavily on the design of the laptop. The manufacturer’s cooling implementation and laptop chassis design will still play a major role in how quiet your RTX powered laptop functions. We can definitely say that the MSI GS75 Stealth though runs super-quiet with its beefy RTX 2080 Max-Q. And all that comes with much better performance than the previous louder, hotter, and more power hungry 10-series cards in laptops.
Why Buying an RTX Laptop is a Bad Idea
1. RTX Laptops Cost a Lot
It’s expected that newer technology will cost plenty to own, and that’s truer than ever if you’re purchasing a product made by Nvidia. RTX powered laptops cost a lot, and by a lot we mean often too much. Unlike the sudden disappearance of most high-end older generation desktop graphics cards from the market, laptops with the Nvidia GTX 10-series graphics cards still exist, and they provide incredible value when compared to the newer RTX cards.
You can get an extremely powerful gaming laptop with a GTX 1070 or even 1080 for a lot less than what you’ll have to pay for owning an RTX powered laptop. Even a laptop with RTX 2060 will cost you a lot more than what you’ll pay for an older GTX 1070 one. It’s true that RTX 2060 is more powerful in laptops than the GTX 1070, but the difference doesn’t justify the increased price you’ll have to pay. For this reason, it’s not advisable to go to down the RTX route if you’re not interested in ray-tracing (more on that below) and don’t feel the need to buy the latest technology.
2. RTX Technology is at its Infancy
When Nvidia launched its RTX cards, there was quite a bit of backlash from consumers. Nvidia itself has admitted that RTX sales have been a lot lower than expected, with the main reason being the lack of RTX technology implementation in actual games.
And they’re absolutely right. While ray-tracing technology is simply fantastic and perhaps even a natural evolution in gaming graphics, it’s not quite here yet. There are only a handful of videogames that support it. Furthermore, Nvidia recently conceded to the lack of interest in ray-tracing technology by releasing support for ray-tracing on its older generation and non-RTX cards, such as the GTX 1660 Ti.
This makes RT cores seem like a cash-grabbing strategy from Nvidia. While it’s true that ray-tracing cores (RT cores) do boost the performance of ray-tracing in videogames, the lack of content and the massive hit on all but the most powerful desktop graphics cards mean this technology is simply not worth it.
In a nutshell, RTX technology has flopped for now. Whether it continues to flop is anybody’s guess at the moment but given that older graphics cards can now ray-trace to some degree as well, it seems Nvidia has accepted that its ray-tracing narrative was a tad premature at best.
3. Ray Tracing Performance in Laptops is Poor
You might deny everything we’ve said about ray tracing technology above and claim that ray-tracing is the immediate future and we’ll see a lot more games use it. You might be right, and we’d concede to it if it happens, but that still may not warrant spending so much to own an RTX card.
Before we tell you why exactly, it’s important to know the main difference between a full desktop graphics card and a laptop variant of the same model. For simplicity’s sake, let’s take the RTX 2080 as the card. In the desktop version, the RTX 2080 runs at a TDP of 225 watts. That’s a lot of juice for a laptop. To compensate, Nvidia essentially alters the GPU to make sure it reduces its power draw. There are a few ways to do this, but the most common method is to underclock it and reduce certain operations.
With the RTX cards, this translates to fewer RT cores than the desktop versions. Furthermore, the base and boost core clock speeds are also significantly lower than the desktop variants. We’re talking lower by nearly 40-50%, depending on whether you go for the Max-Q version or the regular. That’s a significant decrease in the clock speed, and it translates to significantly inferior performance in videogames.
But what is affected most from this trimming is not general game performance, but performance with ray-tracing. Ray-tracing is extremely taxing even on desktop RTX cards in the few games that support it, resulting in massive drops in frame-rates even in the likes of the RTX 2080 Ti.
The difference in laptops is even more significant. Of course, a lot of it will depend on the laptop’s design and cooling system (which dictates how stable the clock speeds remain), but in general, you can expect a drop of up to 50% in frame-rates with ray-tracing on. And yes, we’re talking about the RTX 2080 Max-Q here. The non-Max-Q version might fare slightly better, but it will still be a huge drop.
This once again shows that even with ray-tracing cores, laptop technology is simply not ready to take on RT games. Heck, we still believe that ray-tracing technology isn’t even viable for desktops at the moment. All that money you spend to own those 30-40 odd RT cores will essentially mean little if the frame-rates are affected so badly.
So where do we stand in all this? Our opinion is that if you can buy a laptop with a GTX 1080 Max-Q for a decent price, go for that instead. The CPU technology in laptops hasn’t changed since last year – nor has memory or storage, so the only sacrifice you’ll be making is a slightly older graphics card that can still comfortably run most games at max settings without much trouble.
If you have the cash though for something like the Razer Blade 15 RTX and want a mobile rig that is future-proof, then, by all means, go for it. It’s your money, after all, and no one should stop you from spending it on what you want.