The PS5 and Xbox Series X are just around the corner at this point, and will focus on delivering a 4K 60 fps experience in as many games as possible – though that may not be many at launch. However, while there are graphics cards on the horizon that should theoretically be able to handle 4K 120 fps+, the PC gaming world has such a wide range of experiences that it may just take a different path than consoles altogether over the course of this next generation.
We are at a point where the best gaming PCs are more prolific than ever before. In a TweakTown post, it was reported that Steam had 95 million monthly average users – which is way more than Xbox Live's 65 million, and just under PlayStation's 103 million.
Unlike consoles, however, the magic of PC gaming lies in the capability to custom tailor your hardware to the types of games you play and get the experience you want or need out of those titles.
All budgets are welcome
Just looking at the top selling games on Steam at the time of this writing, there's a wide spread between recently-released blockbusters like Microsoft Flight Simulator and Control Ultimate Edition, and easy-to-run multiplayer titles like Ark: Survival Evolved and Fall Guys.
And while those high-performance games are definitely going to punish even the most advanced gaming rigs on the market, those last two will run on pretty much anything. Then, when you consider other ultra-popular games that aren't even on Steam, like Overwatch, League of Legends and World of Warcraft, there is this massive audience of PC gamers that simply don't need that ultra-high-end level of hardware.
For games like this, you don't even need to wait for the new hotness to come out. If you're going to just play at 1080p with high framerates, something like the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1660 Ti or the AMD Radeon RX 5600 XT are more than enough to provide that experience for you.
We even reached out to AMD Radeon Product Manager Mithun Chandrasekhar, and asked him whether or not folks should pick up something like, say, the Radeon RX 5700 XT or wait around for the new hotness in a few months. And, according to him "products like the RX 5000 series, here and now, and for at least the near future, are very much set up to provide the ultimate 1440p and the ultimate 1080p gaming experiences"
He continued, saying "there are great ray traced titles out there on the horizon, but the ground reality is that even with the upcoming generation of ray traced content, it's going to be selective in the sense that it's a hybrid approach".
We're going to dive a little bit more into that here in a bit, but the fact remains that the absolute top-end graphics cards like the Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti – and its soon-to-be-announced successor – won't be necessary for a very huge portion of games for quite a while.
Chandrasekhar agrees, saying "one of the core tenets of PC gaming is that it scales so well from thin and lite notebooks and entry-level machines, all the way up to five, six, seven, $10,000 multi-GPU, 64-core monsters."
"So what this means is that depending on what it is that you want to extract from your gaming experience, a 4GB GPU might actually be good enough".
At the end of the day, when you're planning out your PC build, even with all of this sexy next-generation hardware on the horizon, you have to take into consideration what you're playing and whether or not super-high resolutions are worth it for you. If you're content with your 1080p monitor and you're just playing some Valorant with friends, you don't need that next-gen GPU you're waiting for. The GTX 1660 or Radeon RX 5500 XT will get the job done.
Ray tracing is coming, too, don't worry
Don't take this to mean that the ultra-high-end part of the PC gaming spectrum doesn't matter, because it totally does. There are a ton of people – ourselves included – that love not only to have the most powerful hardware available at any time, but to see new technologies start to come to the forefront in mainstream gaming.
Nvidia Turing graphics cards like the RTX 2080 were some of the first GPUs on the market that could perform real-time ray tracing workloads in game without producing unplayable framerates – at least until you started cranking that resolution up. And while there are definitely some that think the technology has been some kind of scam – PC Gamer said as much already – there's a lot to be said about the democratization of technology.
When we asked Mithun Chandrasekhar about this issue specifically, he told us "It was a very calculated move on our part to ensure that the introduction of RDNA 2 GPUs is lined up with the next generation of consoles, because as we all know, time and again, it's the console that helps democratize a lot of these technologies." For as much as some PC gamers out there loathe the fact that game consoles hold back technology, they're just as key to driving technology adoption further.
When there's only a slight handful – relatively speaking – of PC gamers that have shelled out the cash for an RTX card, it's unlikely that we're going to see any meaningful adoption of the technology beyond what are essentially proofs of concept. For as good as something like, say, Control looks, the game is still almost entirely rendered through rasterization rather than ray tracing, with some ray traced effects thrown in to boost image quality.
However, that's not always going to be true. Going back to our conversation with Mithun, "leading into the RDNA 2 launch, we as AMD and the Radeon team in specfic, formally and wholly believes in ray tracing technology. It is the next logical step for rendering. Rasterization has hit some of its limits."
What may be distressing to some folks expecting an overnight change to all-ray tracing, however is "that doesn't mean [rasterization] is going to go away overnight. It won't, not for quite some time to come, but ray tracing is that next logical step". And, if you look back to the Gamescom 2018 presentation where Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang took the stage and told us all about how ray tracing is the future, it sounds incredibly similar – Nvidia and AMD actually agree on something.
What this circles back to, of course, is that element of choice that makes PC gaming what it is. If you want to be on the forefront of technology and you want to turn on all of those fancy graphics settings, that option is open to you. And, if that sounds like what you'd be into, it's probably best to wait for Nvidia and AMD to show their next-generation graphics hands.
More than just graphics
If you look back to March 2020 when Mark Cerny went in depth on the Playstation 5's specs, a huge portion of that presentation was centered around the revolutionary SSD – even if we didn't think it was super important at the time (it is).
Since then, we've heard countless game developers talk about how the SSD is going to be one of the most important parts of the next generation consoles, thanks in large part to the fact that they can use that PCIe 4.0 interface which debuted on AMD Ryzen 3rd Generation processors in July 2019.
While some game developers like Ed Boon are talking about the benefit to raw loading times that these next-generation SSDs will bring, that's not even the best part. Tim Sweeney of Epic Games has gone on record saying that PC gamers are going to want an NVMe SSD if they don't want to fall behind what consoles are capable of.
In his words, "you can bring in [the demo’s] geometry and display it despite it not all fitting in memory." That's a pretty broad statement, but AMD was thankfully able to expand on what this means for us.
We connected with AMD Chief Architect of Gaming Solutions Frank Azor, and he gave us a bit more context about the importance of next-generation storage.
He said "today, the slowest storage is your HDD, but storage is becoming more important for a number of reasons, so that'll need to change. In graphics, for example, memory is becoming faster on the card itself, and you need faster system memory t feed that". But, something like DDR5, which should be out within the next couple of years may not be enough.
"With more complex textures, 4K, 8K, more intricate physics, better graphical effects, bigger environments – so much needs to be loaded by the GPU at once. The rest of that info needs to be stored on the SSD, so the pipeline between the SSD and GPU will become more important".
That's a big reason why Sweeney specified that gamers are going to want an NVMe SSD for next-generation PC gaming, but Azor goes on to reiterate the importance of PCIe 4.0.
"With PCIe 4.0, that pipeline is more like a highway. So much more information can be moved from idle storage to active memory on the graphics card, so load times, for example will be reduced. You'll see the benefits scale with the expansion of gaming technology overall – more complex games will require that complex memory support."
Storage technology, especially when it comes to consoles, has been pretty much the same for a long period of time. Spinning mechanical drives reached their limit more than a decade ago at this point, and the introduction of SSDs into consoles is going to complete the democratization of that technology. It's too early to say it for sure, but we see gaming on a hard drive being a thing of the past over the next few years.
What the next generation of PC gaming looks like
If we're talking about raw hardware specifications, the computer we used to write this article is already on top of the Xbox Series X and PS5 in terms of raw horsepower. However, with the massive – and it is massive – boost in technology that the next-generation consoles bring over the aging Xbox One and PS4, the bar is going to lift across the board.
If you're building a PC right now, it's time to start thinking about what future games are going to look like, if you want to continue to be able to play games, especially mainstream ones, to their fullest potential. Stuff like 8-core, 16-thread processors and top-end SSDs are about to become a lot more important, where they were pretty much luxuries just a year ago.
At the end of the day, as things stand right now, games are largely single-threaded on PC, but when the PS5 and Xbox Series X start becoming ubiquitous – probably something like 2 years after their launch – that will likely change.
Gaming PCs are going to need faster storage and more cores going forward. And, as a result, we're going to get massive, hyper-realistic game worlds. And, really, we can't wait to see it realized.
- TechRadar’s PC Gaming Week 2020 is celebrating the most powerful gaming platform on Earth with articles, interviews and essential buying guides that showcase how diverse, imaginative, and remarkable PC games – and gamers – can be. Visit our PC Gaming Week 2020 page to see all our coverage in one place.