Review: Nvidia RTX 3080 Ti is a powerhouse—but good luck finding it at $1,199 MSRP

Nearly nine months ago, the RTX 3000 series of Nvidia graphics cards launched in a beleaguered world as a seeming ray of hope. The series’ first two GPUs, the RTX 3080 and 3070, were nearly all things to all graphics hounds. Nvidia built these cards upon the proprietary successes of the RTX 2000 series and added sheer, every-API-imaginable rasterization power on top.

An “RTX”-optimized game ran great on the line’s opening salvo of the RTX 3080, sure, but even without streamlined ray tracing or the impressive upsampling of DLSS, it tera’ed a lot of FLOPs. Talk about a fun potential purchase for nerds trapped in the house.

Even better, that power came along with more modest MSRPs compared to what we saw in the RTX 2000 series. As I wrote in September 2020:

RTX 3080’s impact on the market will hopefully push the average GPU value proposition into reasonable territory. Its $699 price may not be your cup of tea, but if prices for everything beneath the RTX 3080 (and its sibling, the RTX 3070, slated to launch in October at $499) adjust according to the below benchmarks, that means a rock-solid 1080p or 1440p GPU may finally land within your budgetary reach.

…so, yeah. About that…

At the time, I was too busy running benchmarks to ask my crystal ball about an imminent future of exploding crypto values and diminishing chip and silicon supplies. The graphics card market went kablooie, and that left me holding the bag of a ridiculous claim about future GPU prices. Anyone who’s been paying attention has witnessed many instant GPU sell-outs and staggering eBay listings.

Yet somehow, even though the series’ existing cards are already difficult to track down, Nvidia’s RTX 3000 series continues to expand—as seen in the recent announcement of two new models, the RTX 3080 Ti and RTX 3070 Ti, which start at MSRPs of $1,199 and $599, respectively. (When fans asked you to make more graphics cards, Nvidia, I’m not sure this is what they meant.)

If you’re surprised by that news, you’re not alone. Last week, I learned about the new models via an unannounced knock at the door and an 11-pound box, packed with one of each new GPU as provided by Nvidia. This is the first time I can recall getting a graphics card sample from a supplier without an email letting me know that I should prep my front porch’s netting to catch eager cryptomining package thieves.

An asteroid-sized asterisk, as usual

Today, the embargo has lifted on reviews of the 3080 Ti. And as has become increasingly common at Ars, this review comes with an asterisk the size of an asteroid that will likely smash your hopes of buying this card in the near future. Nvidia didn’t offer any briefings about company efforts to stabilize supply, nor did the company try to guarantee that actual humans will be able to buy the RTX 3080 Ti beginning tomorrow, June 3, “starting at” $1,199. It remains anyone’s guess if, when, or how a mild-mannered tech enthusiast like yourself will get a fair shake in the current market.

Should a genuine opportunity to buy this card surface, I can say that the RTX 3080 Ti finishes what the RTX 3080 started, at least for this GPU generation. Its gains over the 3080 are interesting: They’re substantial, yet they aren’t necessarily worth another $400 in MSRP. But on a pure gaming basis, this week’s new card renders the RTX 3090, and its $1,499 MSRP, absolutely moot.

Specs for the RTX 3080 Ti land closer to the 3090 than the 3080, with the biggest difference being a gulf in VRAM. This card has 2GB more than the 3080, yet a whopping 12GB less than the 3090. That’s a big VRAM differential, yet between the spec table above and the performance results below, the 3080 Ti is clearly a better choice than the 3090 if high-res gaming is your GPU priority.

That makes sense, as the 3090 was a showcase VRAM card, perfect as either an entry-level option for high-end video editing or something to attach to an 8K display. If you don’t fall into either of those camps, rest assured that the 3080 Ti is a better option for GPU overspending, especially when your system is tuned to rev games at 4K resolutions and solid frame rates with very few compromises. Meanwhile, if “only 12GB of GDDR6X VRAM” is a sentence that you might say out loud with a tear falling out of your video-processing tear duct, the RTX 3080 Ti likely won’t charm you.

Identical build, with one notable difference

Enlarge / 3DMark’s testing suite, including the RT-intensive Port Royal benchmark, is a good starting point to make comparisons, although AMD’s latest cards get bigger wins in certain use cases than these might imply. At the very least, they show the narrow gap between the 3080 Ti and the 3090.

Last year’s RTX 3080 certainly isn’t chopped liver. If you find anything between the 3080 and 3090 priced near MSRP and are eager to fill your favorite 4K display with as many pixels as possible, buy first and ask model-number questions later. Depending on your ideal use case, you may want to add AMD’s RX 6800XT to that list of ideal high-end GPUs, as it still has significant victories in our battery of tests. But the newer 3080 Ti does face off remarkably well against every high-end option listed in this paragraph (especially if price for you is a wholly arbitrary concept; in this marketplace, that’s sadly likely).

I received the Nvidia-produced “Founders Edition” of the 3080 Ti, and its physical case and fan build look identical to the 3080 right down to its twin-fan build and “blow-through” cooling process. But one thing is definitely different this time around—the noise.

I’ve tested every RTX 3000-series Founders Edition up until this point, and most have done a tremendous job balancing heat, airflow, and fan speed to perform efficiently and quietly. These things rarely rev their fans to extremes. But the 3080 Ti’s physical structure accommodates a more densely packed board of chips, with default power draw jumping from 320 W to 350 W. That means push has come to decibel shove in terms of keeping this GPU performant and cool.

To clarify, the 3080 Ti’s decibel level does not exceed its non-Ti sibling. Rather, the 3080 Ti’s gains come at the cost of the increased likelihood that its fans will rev up at default tunings, triggered by what appears to be an 81°C-ish threshold.

Average gains over 3080: 10-12%

For this review, my benchmarking tests compare the 3080 Ti against two of its nearest neighbors: the 3080 and AMD’s RX 6800XT (MSRP: $649). I enlisted Ars’ Senior Technology Editor Lee Hutchinson to chip in a few GPU-specific tests of the RTX 3090 FE, but these were on a different rig. As such, those RTX 3090 FE results only appear in selective tests.

Any weaker cards in my tables were tested on the same rig, which has an Intel i7-8700K CPU overclocked to 4.6 GHz, 32 GB of DDR4-3000 RAM, an 850 W power supply, and SSD storage. These tests were done in older reviews on older drivers, so their counts come with a mild margin-of-error warning.

The easy part of the review is confirming that the 3080 Ti outperforms the 3080 across the board. In rare cases, the gain over the 3080 is mild, with Gears 5 4K performance looking nearly identical between the two cards and lower gains when resolutions drop from 4K to 1440p (as is to be expected in less CPU-limited scenarios). But usually, the gains approach 10-12 percent.

Additionally, the 3080 Ti’s beefy stats don’t come at the cost of frame rate volatility. I’ve tracked most benchmarks with MSI Afterburner’s “one percent lowest” frame rate count, and this time-intensive double-check answers a crucial question: whether the reported frame rate average comes with hidden frame time spikes. As the above stats show, this card holds up. (My testing rig’s CPU is getting a bit long in the tooth, so your one percent stats using any of these GPUs may look even better than mine.)

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