The tech world is one obsessed with specs and, from a marketing point of view, that is to be expected: new or even just refreshed hardware is all manufacturers need in order to call a product “better” (even if it practically isn’t in some cases) and sell it as such. If anything, though, the last two decades have proved that it is software and services — both connected through the Internet — that can make the biggest difference in people’s lives. Even in the PC market, for instance, where hardware defines what’s possible and what isn’t (especially in modern games), look at what happened with nVidia: the company managed to usher in a new era with its RTX graphics cards… just not in the way it intended to!
This is the only conclusion one can come to when putting into perspective the news about nVidia’s DLSS technology now used by more than 120 PC games. When the company announced its first graphics cards based on the RTX family of processors way back in 2018, DLSS — which smartly “upscales” PC games from a lower resolution to a higher one, effectively allowing for the same computer to play advanced titles in higher frame rates without sacrificing much in terms of visuall quality — was mentioned literally in passing. Since nVidia was extremely keen on promoting real-time ray-tracing as the Next Big Thing in PC gaming graphics, journalists focused on that technology as well.
DLSS remained in the shadows for a year, while ray-tracing was trying to woo us with shiny metals, cool reflections and ambient lighting (without much success to begin with). As a few notable PC games with ray-tracing support finally started offering some nice implementations, nVidia released DLSS 1.0. First impressions were not favorable: there were a number of problems in terms of image quality and frame rate gains were all over the place. But the promise and the prospect were both there: this was no “nice-to-have” effect. It was a game-changer (pun intended) with real, practical value.
It took a lot of work from nVidia and game developers to start implementing DLSS properly, yes, but it was worth it: fast forward to autumn 2021 and it’s obvious to everyone that the killer feature of RTX hardware in the nVidia 2xxx and 3xxx series of cards is not ray-tracing, despite the fact that they were specifically designed for that kind of graphics acceleration. It’s DLSS. There are around 60 games supporting ray-tracing at the time of writing and maybe 8 or 10 of those actually do the feature justice, making a tangible difference when compared to the non-raytraced graphics of the same games. The RTX hardware is solid, but it’s the software making use of it that matters and, well, that is clearly not there yet.
DLSS, on the other hand, is massively popular: not only does it allow PC owners to enjoy the latest demanding games on systems that wouldn’t be able to run them otherwise, but it greatly helps with titles where high framerates and fluid motion “make or break” the gameplay experience as a whole. Claiming that there’s now obvious disappointment among computer gamers whenever a PC game is launched without DLSS support is an understatement. The feature has simply become that important — and a definite argument for choosing an nVidia graphics card over an AMD one.
This is exactly why software is — and will always be — more important than hardware: the way the former makes use of the latter can (and does) make all the difference between offering something just flashy and something of value. Ray-tracing and DLSS prove that. It’s no coincidence that AMD introduced its own DLSS-like tech, FSR, despite its inferior results: not having an “answer” of sorts to DLSS is something AMD couldn’t afford. It’s also no coincidence that Intel will be launching its first Alchemist graphics cards in 2022 with its own DLSS-like solution, XeSS, onboard from day one. It’s all about software. Smart, focused, improvable software. Hardware will always be important, so will the specs describing it. But software will always define it.