A5X vs. Tegra 3 in the Real World

Even with the inclusion of GLBenchmark data, we're still arguing over theoretical advantages. Any 3D game developed for Android or iOS is going to target 30 or 60 fps and try its best to stay there. Similar to a console, on an Android or iOS tablet there's no disabling vsync and there's (almost) no tinkering with image quality settings to impact performance. The trick on Android is really ensuring that experience across all available SoCs, but if we cull the list down to the best of the best—chances are you'll have a good experience on both sides of the fence.

NVIDIA's Tegra 3 is at the heart of our current favorite in the Android tablet space: ASUS' Transformer Prime. There also happen to be some games that are available on both Android and iOS. Take Modern Combat 3, available on both iOS and Android—do we see the same ~2x performance advantage from Egypt in this title compared to ASUS' TF Prime?

NVIDIA makes two counter arguments against Apple's claim that the A5X delivers superior gaming performance. The first is that despite any theoretical performance advantages the A5X may hold, they don't manifest in games today. The second NVIDIA argument is that via Tegra Zone, Android titles can look better than their iOS counterpart. Both of these are potentially valid claims, but let's test them.

Shadowgun is an NVIDIA favorite. It's a first person shooter that's available via NVIDIA's Tegra Zone app. The Tegra specific version offers support for gamepads and stereoscopic 3D with enhanced graphics specifically for Tegra 2 and Tegra 3. It works for our little experiment here because it's also available on iOS.

Shadowgun also ends up being a great example of what the Android/iOS divide looks like for many Tegra Zone games. This particular title appears to still render at 1024 x 768 on the new iPad, we simply get an upscaled image rather than a higher resolution. In turn it means we get more aliasing and a less sharp image compared to what we get on ASUS' Transformer Prime, where the game runs at 1280 x 800.


Shadowgun—iPad (3rd gen)


Shadowgun—Transformer Prime

Apple's A5X delivers an extremely smooth frame rate in Shadowgun. Although there's no built in timedemo, frame counter or benchmark functionality, the game runs subjectively smoother on iOS compared to on the TF Prime running Ice Cream Sandwich. Although the frame rate is higher on the iPad, I wouldn't consider it unacceptably low on the TF Prime—both are definitely playable.

Where the Tegra Zone version of the game has an advantage is in its visuals. The NVIDIA enhanced version uses higher resolution textures and features what appears to be CPU accelerated cloth physics in objects that simply don't exist in the iOS version. Some scenes also include other additional details (e.g. water on the floor) that aren't present in the iOS version. None of these additions fundamentally change the gameplay at all, but they do make for a better looking game.

Is it physically possible to have the same experience on iOS? Quite possibly. What we're seeing here is a mobile representation of what NVIDIA has done in the PC industry for years. By lending its support to smaller Android developers, their games are made prettier on NVIDIA hardware, and in turn NVIDIA helps promote those games via Tegra Zone and other channels. Obviously Apple could do the same, but thus far it hasn't needed to. Apple instead prefers giving its partners what someone very smart once referred to as most favored nation status. As a MFN, these game developers get additional exposure in the app store and elsewhere in Apple's promotions. It's very similar to what NVIDIA is doing, except on a much larger scale and without the iOS specific visual enhancements.

The comparison becomes even more complicated when you take into account the iPad's Retina Display looks better than the panel on the TF Prime. It's not really the higher resolution but rather the improved color reproduction on the iPad.

Riptide GP is another example of a Tegra Zone title available on both iOS and Android, although here the Tegra optimizations are less impressive while the Retina Display's advantages are more pronounced. There's no perceivable difference in frame rate here either, making it a much closer call:


Riptide, iPad (3rd gen)


Riptide, Transformer Prime

Grand Theft Auto 3 was recently ported to both Android and iOS, and with this title we find ourselves in a unique position: the Android version offers customizable visual quality. The iPad version of the title renders at 1024 x 768 regardless of hardware generation and performance is understandably smooth. Visual quality is configurable, only on the Android version, with draw distance, screen resolution and effects quality vectors:

These sliders/options have different defaults depending on what SoC they are running on. The Transformer Prime is capable of running GTA3 at the highest quality settings with a tangible but livable drop in frame rate. The end result is a significantly better looking game on Android, although to be honest it's something that you really only notice if you are doing a side by side comparison. If all you have is an iPad or TF Prime, you'd likely just grow used to whatever platform you had.


GTA 3, iPad (3rd gen)


GTA 3, TF Prime (max quality)

The TF Prime experience doesn't map as well to other tablets unfortunately. While playing GTA 3 on a Xyboard 10.1 (OMAP 4430) even at its default settings of 50% draw distance, 60% resolution and low effects quality, there's unusual stuttering during gameplay. The frame rate is otherwise smooth, but the periods of stutter significantly impact the overall experience.

Unfortunately the Android vs. iOS gaming comparison isn't always this easy. While some apps won't run on older Apple hardware, there are only three generations of iPad to worry about. Furthermore, within a single generation there aren't multiple performance levels to worry about as Apple only offers a single SoC. By comparison, there's a far larger selection of Android devices. Simply having the latest and greatest hardware isn't a guarantee that you'll be able to play every game in the Google Play store. Take Modern Combat 3 for example. Modern Combat 3 is a Call of Duty clone available on both iOS and Android. The game won't install on an ASUS Transformer Prime or a Motorola Xyboard 10.1:

The Play store keeps track of all of the devices I've used with my Google account and the compatibility list doesn't look good. Obviously this isn't Google's fault directly as the responsibility falls upon the game developer to ensure broad platform compatibility, but it is a problem for anyone who purchases a flagship Android device like the Transformer Prime. Either Google has to enforce compatibility across all of its devices or it needs to at least force developers to support a single, flagship platform. Perhaps one reason I'm seeing this today is because there is no Nexus tablet yet. If that's the route Google is going to count on, the first iteration of any major platform needs to be a Nexus device. In other words, the Transformer Prime should have been a Nexus to begin with.

GPU Performance Gaming Conclusion & Controller Support: An Android Advantage
POST A COMMENT

233 Comments

View All Comments

  • antef - Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - link

    Yes it's nice, no one will argue that. But I don't see it as the huge advancement the authors indicate. Using it in the store it seemed fine, but honestly just walking right up to it, I wasn't even sure if I was using the new or old iPad. I had to go over to the iPad 2 to recognize the difference. And even then, after being back at the new iPad for a couple minutes, I completely forgot about it. If you are looking for pixels, sure, you'll notice. If you're just using your device and thinking about other things, probably not so much. Reply
  • PeteH - Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - link

    Eh, I think it depends on what application you use the iPad for. Web browsing and Tweeting? You're probably right, you wouldn't notice the difference in displays. But if you use it to view images I could see it being a big deal. Reply
  • zorxd - Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - link

    I am pretty sure extra resolution is more noticeable when reading text than when looking at images Reply
  • PeteH - Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - link

    I didn't mean "notice" as in you couldn't tell the difference, just that the difference wouldn't be something that you would constantly be aware of if you were simply web browsing.

    If you were reading an e-book? Absolutely, but if that's your only use case I'd get a Kindle and save the money.

    Regularly viewing quality images is something that can't be done on an e-ink reader, but for which the improved display would make a huge difference.
    Reply
  • Sabresiberian - Thursday, March 29, 2012 - link

    I would say this is a perfect example of why it's better to use "I"" statements than say "YOU won't notice, YOU won't care, there isn't that much difference" - those kinds of statements. "I didn't notice much of a difference, it wasn't a big change in MY experience. . .)

    Displays can very very personal in experience, and things that bug the heck out of me may not be a problem to someone else. For example, a pixel pitch of around .270mm is just too big for me, in a monitor, and it bugs me. Always.

    Frame rates are a good example of something I'm not consciously aware of all the time, but I can sure tell the difference on some level, and some displays are more effected than others. There are extra factors in LCD screens that can make the problem worse for some of us - others don't notice so much, or it's just not a problem for them.

    One thing I believe, is that as more people use really better screens, they'll understand more why some of us call for them every chance we get.

    ;)
    Reply
  • darkcrayon - Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - link

    I can *immediately* notice the difference in web browsing, which is primarily focused on reading text... Reply
  • tipoo - Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - link

    I found it a noticeable difference, just not neuron melting like some reviews led me to think. For 100 or more less I'd still be plenty happy with an iPad 2, especially given the CPU and battery life performance are about the same. Reply
  • MobiusStrip - Thursday, March 29, 2012 - link

    Unfortunately the iPad 2's camera is a disgrace. It should've had the iPhone 4 camera, which was already out by that time. Reply
  • repoman27 - Thursday, March 29, 2012 - link

    The iPad 2 was also thinner than the iPhone 4. Now that it is the same width, it has the same camera. It's not really Apple's style to add thickness to a device just to support one feature that isn't heavily used anyway (tablets are not a very good form factor for a camera.) Reply
  • zanon - Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - link

    Human vision varies significantly from person to person, as do use patterns for machines. Someone who is more near sighted or simply has better vision in general, and/or uses their system at a closer distance, may see a truly dramatic change. To take my personal example, I have excellent color vision and am also near sighted, and tend to hold my devices relatively close (or use glasses at my machine). I can see the pixels on the iPhone 4 screens (326 ppi) if I focus a bit, and for the older screens (or old iPads) they're massively pixelated to me (not that that made them useless). The High DPI screens are a night/day difference personally, making all types of reading in particular (be it on a terminal session, the web, PDF manuals, ebooks, or whatever) massively more functional (and everything else more beautiful).

    But that's just me, and is that awesome? No, it's kind of meh, I'd love it if I didn't need glasses to use my desktop without being hunched over the keyboard to drive. But understand that you'll see raves about the screen that are completely justified, just not for you. 20/20 vision puts the critical distance around 13" I think, but in the end everyone will need to take a look for themselves.
    Reply

Log in

Don't have an account? Sign up now