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
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  • zanon - Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - link

    In the article:
    Alternatively, we're used to a higher resolution enabling us to see more on a screen at one time. In the case of the new iPad, the higher resolution just makes things look sharper.

    The higher resolution does make smaller fonts readable. For something like an SSH session, that really will mean significantly more stuff can be on a screen at once.
    Reply
  • MobiusStrip - Thursday, March 29, 2012 - link

    A more useful change would be abandoning the ridiculous glossy screens. It's sad that Apple takes its cues from the plastic schlock being peddled at Best Buy, and participates in this fraud of shoving glossy screens down customers' throats. Reply
  • repoman27 - Thursday, March 29, 2012 - link

    The plastic schlock at Best Buy has a glossy plastic film applied to a cheap TN panel. Apple puts a piece of glass in front of their much more expensive IPS panels to protect them. The only way to make that glass (or the glass of the LCD panel itself) matte would be to apply an antiglare plastic film coating to the glass. These films have drawbacks (they block and scatter light making small details and text blurry.) The drawbacks become more exaggerated the farther the front surface of the glass is from the plane of the actual LCD.

    But you're right, it's probably Apple copying the design language of sub $500 laptops in order to somehow defraud the general public and force their customers to buy the products they actually produce.

    And seeing as how this discussion is about the new iPad screen, I'd like to point out that you're complaining about the lack of an antiglare coating on a touchscreen device... Strong work.
    Reply
  • Sabresiberian - Thursday, March 29, 2012 - link

    How is it fraud? Apple isn't, like, saying their screens are anti-reflective and then giving you totally reflective glossy screens.

    Many people prefer a glossy screen and simply aren't bothered by background reflections.

    ;)
    Reply
  • Henk Poley - Monday, April 02, 2012 - link

    Yes, Apple really should use Schott Conturan/Amiran/Mirogard antireflective technology.

    btw, not-glossy does not mean matte. Air is not matte either. Glass can be see-through too ;)
    Reply
  • Watwatwat - Monday, April 02, 2012 - link

    Nope, steve gibson has tested even using screen protectors on the new ipad vs not, it seems to affect the resolution at that level, matte might not be a good idea at all for high density display. Reply
  • KoolAidMan1 - Thursday, March 29, 2012 - link

    I wasn't initially blown away, but then after a day of using it every other display seemed bad in comparison. It is one of those things you didn't realize was needed until using it, now I want very high DPI in all of my monitors. Reply
  • menting - Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - link

    Is it just me, or do Shadowgun and GTA screenshots look more detailed in Transformer Prime than in the iPad? Reply
  • menting - Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - link

    nm..i just noticed that it's scaled up in new ipad, so it's definitely not as sharp.
    However, how can fps be fairly compared in this case then?
    Reply
  • TheJian - Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - link

    Basically because of the way Nvidia and Apple approach games so far, you can expect games on Tegra3 to just look better as they seem to aim for more graphics and fewer games (they spend money on fewer projects that produce better results), as opposed to apple who spreads the wealth but just ends up with more cannon fodder if you ask me :) You should get more variety on Apple I'd guess, but a better experience with fewer choices on Tegra3/Android. I like QUALITY over QUANTITY personally and hope Apple leans the way of Nvidia in the future. I would rather have 10 games that I'd play for weeks or months (if I'm playing on my hdtv through one of these I want better water, buildings etc) rather than games I fire up for less than 20 minutes as their just another angry birds variant and arguably useless on your TV.

    I want these devices to KILL the consoles next year and make MS/Nintendo etc give it up in 2015 or whenever the next revs should come. I hope they just realize we won't buy them anymore. DirectX11 on my phone/tablet and probably standard 25x14 resolutions by then (won't all be retina by 2015?) make a console purchase STUPID. This could be the merging of console/pc we need since phones/tablets rev yearly like pc's instead of 10yr console's stuck in stone stagnating gaming. Your phone as a portable console with xbox/ps3/pc gamepad support would be excellent. Pump it out to a monitor and keyboard/mouse setup and you have a notebook replacement too...LOL Now if they'd just put in a few extra cores by then that will disable if on their own screen but turn on when on a larger display like TV/Monitor and we have exactly what we want in both cases :)

    Pipe dreams? Retina is here now, and gamepads sort of. Next stop cores that only turn on depending on display output :) Awesome battery on the road, and great power in the dock at home pushing your 27in monitor. :) The 28nm versions by xmas of everyone's chips should come close to console power or surpass them. Interesting times.
    Reply

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