Nvidia GeForce RTX 3090 Founders Edition: It works hard, it plays hard

The 24GB of VRAM makes it a stunning value for prosumers.

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Power draw, thermals, and noise

We test power draw by looping the F1 2020 benchmark at 4K for about 20 minutes after we’ve benchmarked everything else and noting the highest reading on our Watts Up Pro meter, which measures the power consumption of our entire test system. The initial part of the race, where all competing cars are onscreen simultaneously, tends to be the most demanding portion. 

This isn’t a worst-case test; we removed the Core i7 8700K’s overclock and specifically chose a GPU-bound game running at a GPU-bound resolution to gauge performance when the graphics card is sweating hard. If you’re playing a game that also hammers the CPU, you could see higher overall system power draws. We saw Borderlands 3 hit 590W on our system. Consider yourself warned.

power Brad Chacos/IDG

The GeForce RTX 3090 Founders Edition is the first graphics card to top 500W of total system power draw in this test. Considering the RTX 3080 FE drew 482 watts, this isn’t so bad given the RTX 3090’s higher performance. Still, you might want to replace your power supply for RTX 30-series GPUs if your current one is on the modest side. They draw significantly more juice than previous GeForce generations.

We test thermals by leaving GPU-Z open during the F1 2020 power draw test, noting the highest maximum temperature at the end.

temps Brad Chacos/IDG

At this level of performance, raw power draw probably isn’t a major consideration. Thermals and acoustics very much matter for enthusiasts, though, and Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 3090 Founders Edition excel in those departments.

While the 2-slot 3080 FE proved cooler enough and quiet enough, it was bested by beefier 3-slot custom designs like the MSI Gaming X Trio. It’s clear that the 3090 was Nvidia’s true focus though. The massive 3-slot design of the 3090 Founders Edition runs ice cold at a full 11 degrees cooler than its 3080 sibling. Nvidia’s radical cooler goes toe-to-toe with the best custom coolers we’ve ever tested, aside from over-the-top liquid-cooled models. Better yet, it’s utterly silent. You won’t hear it whatsoever even running the most strenuous 4K games or GPU-heavy DaVinci Resolve workloads.

Bravo. Nvidia’s RTX 3090 Founders Edition cooler is an engineering marvel, albeit a gigantic one. Custom-cooled third-party versions of the RTX 3090 will be hard-pressed to beat Nvidia’s thermals and acoustics.

Should you buy a GeForce RTX 3090?

It depends on what you’re doing.

dsc01050 Brad Chacos/IDG

There’s no doubt that the $1,500 GeForce RTX 3090 is indeed a “big ferocious GPU,” and the most powerful consumer graphics card ever created. The Nvidia Founders Edition delivers unprecedented performance for 4K gaming, frequently maxes out games at 1440p, and can even play at ludicrous 8K resolution in some games. It’s a beast for 3440x1440 ultrawide gaming too, as our separate ultrawide benchmarks piece shows. Support for HDMI 2.1 and AV1 decoding are delicious cherries on top.

If you’re a pure gamer, though, you shouldn’t buy it, unless you’ve got deep pockets and want the best possible gaming performance, value be damned. The $700 GeForce RTX 3080 offers between 85 and 90 percent of the RTX 3090’s 4K gaming performance (depending on the game) for well under half the cost. It’s even closer at 1440p.

If you’re only worried about raw gaming frame rates, the GeForce RTX 3080 is by far the better buy, because it also kicks all kinds of ass at 4K and high refresh rate 1440p and even offers the same HDMI 2.1 and AV1 decode support as its bigger brother. Nvidia likes to boast that the RTX 3090 is the first 8K gaming card, and while that’s true in some games, it falls far short of the 60 frames per second mark in many triple-A titles. Consider 8K gaming a nice occasional bonus more than a core feature.

dsc01069 Brad Chacos/IDG

NVLink is a major deal for some professional workloads, and only the GeForce RTX 3090 offers it.

If you mix work and play, though, the GeForce RTX 3090 is a stunning value—especially if your workloads tap into CUDA. It’s significantly faster than the previous-gen RTX 2080 Ti, which fell within spitting distance of the RTX Titan, and offers the same 24GB VRAM capacity of that Titan. But it does so for $1,000 less than the RTX Titan’s cost.

The GeForce RTX 3090 stomps all over most of our content creation benchmarks. Performance there is highly workload-dependent, of course, but we saw speed increases of anywhere from 30 to over 100 percent over the RTX 2080 Ti in several tasks, with many falling in the 50 to 80 percent range. That’s an uplift that will make your projects render tangibly faster—putting more money in your pocket. The lofty 24GB of GDDR6X memory makes the RTX 3090 a must-have in some scenarios where the 10GB to 12GB found in standard gaming cards flat-out can’t cut it, such as 8K media editing or AI training with large data sets. That alone will make it worth buying for some people, along with the NVLink connector that no other RTX 30-series GPU includes. If you don’t need those, the RTX 3080 comes close to the RTX 3090 in raw GPU power in many tests.

Listen: You know if you need a card this powerful for professional tasks. You know if you need a 24GB memory buffer or NVLink. If you do, this is the card to get, full stop. The GeForce RTX 3090 indeed offers Titan-class performance, but without the Titan-brand price tag, and it’s the best gaming GPU in the world on top of that.

dsc01076 Brad Chacos/IDG

Nvidia’s highly customed GeForce RTX 30-series Founders Edition design worked very well with the 3080, but the expanded 3-slot version used with the GeForce RTX 3090 excels. It looks gorgeous, maxes out at a frigid 68 degrees Celsius under full load, and stays utterly silent the entire time. This unique “flow-through” cooler is exceptional here.

Enthusiast-priced hardware needs to meet enthusiast-class demands, though, and I have a couple of minor quibbles with the otherwise exceptional FE. The card’s bulk means you can only fit a couple in a standard PC case, and while the rear fan blows most of the hot air out of your case, the front fan exhausts some heat back into your case. Those could both be an issue if you plan on packing a system full of these for professional tasks, though workarounds definitely exist for each. (Gigabyte plans to offer a 2-slot RTX 3090 with a standard blower design that fully exhausts hot air.) Since this card also targets price-is-no-object gamers, I wish Nvidia equipped the Founders Edition with two HDMI 2.1 ports for enthusiasts who want to use both an 8K display and a VR headset. (The Asus TUF 3090 does exactly that.) I still don’t like the look of the short, ugly 12-pin power adapter either.

Those gripes may be big issues for some people, but they’re nitpicks in general.

Nvidia calls the RTX 3090 a “BFGPU,” and it’s just as potent as the BFG it takes its name from. If you need the ultimate graphics card for work and play, the GeForce RTX 3090 earns our hearty recommendation, along with our Editors’ Choice award. It topples Titans for $1,000 less and chews through 4K gaming with nary a whisper. Buy it if you can put that massive 24GB VRAM buffer and NVLink to good work—or save a bunch of money with the RTX 3080 if you’re only looking to get outrageous gaming frame rates.

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At a Glance
  • The extravagant GeForce RTX 3090 is a poor value for pure gamers, but a stunning value for creators who can use its massive 24GB of memory. Nvidia's Founders Edition cooler is exceptional.

    Pros

    • Amazing value for professionals
    • Fastest graphics card for gaming
    • Massive 24GB memory capacity
    • Exceptionally cool, quiet Founders Edition design
    • NVLink support
    • HDMI 2.1, AV1 decode makes some 8K gaming possible
    • Nvidia CUDA and OptiX supercharge content creation

    Cons

    • Poor value for pure gamers
    • Very large, potentially limiting multi-GPU deployment
    • 8K gaming is very hit and miss
    • Only 1 HDMI 2.1 port
    • 12-pin power adapter is ugly
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