Nvidia GeForce RTX 4090 Review: Queen of the Castle

Ada Lovelace delivers the goods, at a steep price.

Nvidia GeForce RTX 4090
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 GeForce RTX 4090: 1440p Gaming Performance

The RTX 4090 makes 1440p ultra the new 1080p ultra. Or in other words, CPU and other system bottlenecks now become much more of a factor even at 1440p. The 4090 still holds onto an average lead of 28% compared to the 3090 Ti, and 25% over the RX 6950 XT, but clearly it's being held back. The DLSS results also prove this, where performance at best matches the native result and at worst drops frame rates by 5%.

In the individual game charts, Flight Simulator clearly isn't performing as well as it could — it's 10% slower on the 4090 than on the 3090 Ti. Normally, CPU bottlenecks would apply equally to all GPUs from the same vendor, but since Ada is a new architecture it likely requires some changes to the drivers, and at least in this one instance the Ada pathway isn't as optimized as the older Ampere architecture pathway.

That's the only game where performance is worse on the 4090 than on the 3090 Ti, but Far Cry 6 and Horizon Zero Dawn are now down into single-digit percentage advantages, and Watch Dogs Legion only averages a 23% improvement.

Ray tracing games on the other hand don't really mind the drop to 1440p, at least if you're not using DLSS. The RTX 4090 still outpaces the 3090 Ti by 69%, so only a 9% drop compared to 4K. The gains from DLSS 2 Quality mode shrink a lot, however, adding just 43% to the overall performance — that's a 35% drop compared to 4K.

Other GPUs continue to lag significantly behind, with the 4090 beating the RX 6950 XT by 160%, the 3090 by 90%, and the 3080 Ti by 95%. Remember last year when the RTX 3080 Ti launched at $1,199 and immediately sold out? Now you're able to get double the performance for 33% more money, at least in heavy DXR games. 

GeForce RTX 4090: 1080p Gaming Performance

The standard rasterization results at 1080p ultra are mostly to show that, yes, some games still show modest scaling of performance while others are clearly CPU bottlenecked. The RTX 4090 now only leads the RTX 3090 Ti by 16% on average, and a couple of games (Far Cry 6 and Flight Simulator) run faster on the previous generation card.

AMD's RX 6950 XT gains some ground as well and now only trails the 4090 by 9%, which is sort of interesting. Both the 6950 XT and the 4090 have lots of cache, which previously helped AMD's performance a lot more at 1080p than at 4K. Nvidia's caching architecture is of course different, and both GPUs are hitting CPU bottlenecks. But if we further reduce the workload to 1080p medium (not shown here), the 6950 XT ends up with a slight 1% lead overall.

The point being: Don't buy an RTX 4090 if you only plan to game at 1080p. Seriously, just don't, even if you have a 360 Hz gaming monitor, you're likely running reduced quality settings to get framerates up, and at that point, the 4090 won't offer much more than a previous generation card.

Ray tracing again shows reduced gains at 1080p, though the 4090 is still 59% faster than the 3090 Ti overall. That's in the most demanding titles currently available, though some are clearly not quite as demanding as others (we're looking at you, Metro Exodus Enhanced Edition).

The RTX 4090 still more than doubles the performance of the RX 6950 XT, so AMD's soon-to-be previous-gen RDNA 2 architecture definitely isn't keeping up. It's going to be interesting to see what if anything AMD does with the RDNA 3 architecture to potentially close the gap. Intel's Arc A770 for example nearly matches the DXR performance of the RX 6800 and beats the RX 6750 XT, and it only has 32 RTUs compared to AMD's 60 Ray Accelerators (40 on the 6750/6700).

DLSS only improves performance by 21% on average at 1080p. It's also worth noting that if you're using DLSS in Performance mode (4x upscaling), native 1080p is what the Nvidia GPUs have to render, which then gets upscaled to 4K. There's a slight performance hit from DLSS (smaller on Ada Lovelace than on Ampere), so the native 1080p results also provide a good hint of what to expect from Nvidia's DLSS Performance mode. 

Jarred Walton is a senior editor at Tom's Hardware focusing on everything GPU. He has been working as a tech journalist since 2004, writing for AnandTech, Maximum PC, and PC Gamer. From the first S3 Virge '3D decelerators' to today's GPUs, Jarred keeps up with all the latest graphics trends and is the one to ask about game performance.

  • -Fran-
    Shouldn't this be up tomorrow?

    EDIT: Nevermind. Looks like it was today! YAY.

    Thanks for the review!

    Regards.
    Reply
  • colossusrage
    Can finally put 4K 120Hz displays to good use.
    Reply
  • brandonjclark
    colossusrage said:
    Can finally put 4K 120Hz displays to good use.

    I'm still on a 3090, but on my 165hz 1440p display, so it maxes most things just fine. I think I'm going to wait for the 5k series GPU's. I know this is a major bump, but dang it's expensive! I simply can't afford to be making these kind of investments in depreciating assets for FUN.
    Reply
  • JarredWaltonGPU
    -Fran- said:
    Shouldn't this be up tomorrow?

    EDIT: Nevermind. Looks like it was today! YAY.

    Thanks for the review!

    Regards.
    Yeah, Nvidia almost always does major launches with Founders Edition reviews the day before launch, and partner card reviews the day of launch.
    Reply
  • JarredWaltonGPU
    brandonjclark said:
    I'm still on a 3090, but on my 165hz 1440p display, so it maxes most things just fine. I think I'm going to wait for the 5k series GPU's. I know this is a major bump, but dang it's expensive! I simply can't afford to be making these kind of investments in depreciating assets for FUN.
    You could still possibly get $800 for the 3090. Then it’s “only” $800 to upgrade! LOL. Of course if you sell on eBay it’s $800 - 15%.
    Reply
  • kiniku
    A review like this, comparing a 4090 to an expensive sports car we should be in awe and envy of, is a bit misleading. PC Gaming systems don't equate to racing on the track or even the freeway. But the way it's worded in this review if you don't buy this GPU, anything "less" is a compromise. That couldn't be further from the truth. People with "big pockets" aren't fools either, except for maybe the few readers here that have convinced themselves and posted they need one or spend everything they make on their gaming PC's. Most gamers don't want or need a 450 watt sucking, 3 slot, space heater to enjoy an immersive, solid 3D experience.
    Reply
  • y2kmady
    can this be used in aorus b550 pro ac ?
    Reply
  • spongiemaster
    kiniku said:
    Most gamers don't want or need a 450 watt sucking, 3 slot, space heater to enjoy an immersive, solid 3D experience.
    Congrats on stating the obvious. Most gamers have no need for a halo GPU that can be CPU limited sometimes even at 4k. A 50% performance improvement while using the same power as a 3090Ti shows outstanding efficiency gains. Early reports are showing excellent undervolting results. 150W decrease with only a 5% loss to performance.

    Any chance we could get some 720P benchmarks?
    Reply
  • LastStanding
    the RTX 4090 still comes with three DisplayPort 1.4a outputs

    the PCIe x16 slot sticks with the PCIe 4.0 standard rather than upgrading to PCIe 5.0.

    These missing components are selling points now, especially knowing NVIDIA's rival(s?) supports the updated ports, so, IMO, this should have been included as a "con" too.

    Another thing, why would enthusiasts only value "average metrics" when "average" barely tells the complete results?! It doesn't show the programs stability, any frame-pacing/hitches issues, etc., so a VERY miss oversight here, IMO.

    I also find weird is, the DLSS benchmarks. Why champion the increase for extra fps buuuut... never, EVER, no mention of the awareness of DLSS included awful sharpening-pass?! 😏 What the sense of having faster fps but the results show the imagery smeared, ghosting, and/or artefacts to hades? 🤔
    Reply
  • chalabam
    This card is for AI. Where are the tensorflow and AI benchmarks
    Reply