Nvidia’s big announcement during its CES press conference yesterday — mobile RTX GPUs for gaming laptops — was an expected one. The company has always worked to find the balance of power consumption, heat production, and the delicate GPU-CPU dance required to fit a desktop graphics chip into the slim, portable package of a notebook. Yet with the RTX 2060 / 2070 / 2080 series, we’re starting to see the delta between what’s been considered “desktop” and laptop gaming performance shrink to unprecedented levels.
But there’s a catch.
At Nvidia’s showroom here in Las Vegas, I was able to try out a small handful of the more than 40 confirmed RTX laptop models coming from its hardware partners starting later this month. The one I was most impressed with was the new Razer Blade 15 featuring a 4K display and a mobile RTX 2080. Not only was it easily the most performant gaming laptop I’ve ever laid my hands on, it was able to play Overwatch at 4K / 60 fps with no issues whatsoever. (Although I will say the laptop got plenty hot during this exercise.)
Now, Overwatch is obviously not the most demanding PC game out there, and the Blade 15 with a 4K display and an RTX 2080 costs $2,999. For less than a third of the price, you could get yourself a desktop RTX 2080 as an upgrade to your standard gaming machine. But that’s not really the point worth stressing. The mobile RTX 2080, and to a lesser extent the 2070 and 2060 variants, suggest there is a moment on the horizon where gaming primarily on a laptop will involve only minor performance drawbacks — and maybe that moment is imminent.
Now, an Nvidia representative did clarify that you’re not getting the same performance out of a mobile RTX GPU as you would on the desktop. To be fair, that’s usually been the case for laptop-fitted graphics chips, but Nvidia made a big deal last generation about some GTX 10-series chips sometimes being just as powerful as their desktop counterparts. That’s not the case now.
Nvidia says a lot of factors go into what might influence the performance drop, but it will likely depend heavily on the game you’re playing and the CPU you have. In most cases, Nvidia expects about a 20 to 30 percent drop in performance from the maximum you’d get on a desktop RTX.
As far as laptop vs. laptop numbers go, Nvidia says an RTX 2080 Max-Q achieves 20 percent more performance and 40 percent more power efficiency than last generation’s 1080 Max-Q, and about the same for an RTX 2070 Max-Q vs. GTX 1070 Max-Q.
The RTX 2060 actually offers a larger 50 percent performance boost over GTX 1060, though. That could mean more bang for the buck in midrange gaming laptops.
The lower numbers are important because Nvidia’s promise of groundbreaking ray-tracing lighting effects in games — which require a lot of horsepower — has barely come to pass. If the desktop chips aren’t quite powerful enough to add that huge dose of realism without compromises, the laptop chips are that much less likely to.
But it’s still astounding that something you could barely pull off with the last generation of desktop GPUs is now available on a 15-inch laptop. It’s a truly impressive leap we’ve seen in just a few years’ time to have native 4K gaming, not just widespread and accessible on desktops, but on portable machines as well.
Of course, pricing is still the big hurdle here. Most gamers, save the hardcore enthusiasts with money to burn, aren’t using RTX chips yet and won’t be for quite some time, let alone buying a $2,000 to $3,000 gaming laptop specifically to get a mobile version of the GPU. But the prices will come down, and this year’s fancy new graphics chip might be next year’s mainstream model. What the RTX series makes clear is that 4K PC gaming is finally within relatively easy reach, and that’s a pretty great milestone.