PowerVR SGX 554MP4 and iPad Retina Display: A Balanced Platform

For app and game developers, modern day tablets are treated much like game consoles. Although the hardware does see yearly updates, developers aim for a fast experience on as many platforms as possible (within reason). This is particularly true for mobile game developers. I pointed this out in our 3rd gen iPad review as big reason why Apple's significant advantage in GPU performance doesn't actually translate into better frame rates in games compared to Tegra 3 based tablets. Instead what we see game developers doing a lot of is playing around with detail settings and resolutions in order to scale performance across various hardware platforms.

Like almost every first generation Retina Display equipped Apple product, the 3rd generation iPad was ahead of its time in some areas. Although Apple did a great job enabling Retina support in first party applications, the hardware driving the display wasn't necessarily up to snuff. The PowerVR SGX 543MP4 delivered twice the shader performance of the iPad 2's GPU, but it had to drive a display with 4x the pixel count. Apple needed a quadrupling of GPU performance (and potentially a similar increase in memory bandwidth) in order to allow the most demanding games to run at the iPad's native resolution.

As a compromise, some game developers rendered titles at an intermediate resolution and simply upscaled the frame buffer to the iPad's native display resolution. Epic's Infinity Blade 2 rendered internally at 1.4x the resolution of the iPad 2. Infinity Blade 2 relied on AA to make the lower resolution look better. In the case of Infinity Blade 2, the game played pretty similarly on the iPad 2 and 3 and looked better on the 3rd gen model, which delivered much of what Epic was hoping to accomplish there. The 3rd gen iPad looked better and played at a similar frame rate to its predecessor. It just didn't look as good as it could have.

Where the 3rd generation iPad fell short, the 4th generation model stepped up to the plate. By once again doubling shader performance over its predecessor, games that aren't bound elsewhere should finally be able to run at the iPad's native panel resolution. Games limited by memory bandwidth on the 3rd gen iPad may still run into issues as the new iPad doesn't bring much of an increase in memory bandwidth, the same goes for ROP and texturing limited scenarios as neither count increases over the A5X. Given the current trend in gaming evolution, investing in additional shader performance makes sense.

I've been playing a lot of games on the new iPad and generally found that they fall into one of three categories. In many cases, the developer simply delivers the same experience on the 3rd and 4th generation iPads. The internal rendering resolution remains the same, as do texture filtering and detail settings. In this (fairly common) scenario, a game may continue to render at a non-native resolution or even the native panel resolution depending on the performance demands of the title.

In some cases, the developer will use the added GPU horsepower to deliver added detail on the 4th generation iPad. Finally, there are some games where the developer will put the A6X to use in delivering a higher native resolution and/or AA mode. I put together some screenshots showing most of these scenarios. If you want the original, high-res sources for most of these shots I've zipped them up here.

Dead Trigger

Dead Trigger doesn't seem to change resolution at all between the 3rd and 4th generation iPads, but we do see an increase in filtering quality on the latest iPad. Performance remains unchanged between the two, but if you look at distant surfaces you'll see a distinct difference between the 3rd and 4th gen models. Whether or not you notice the increase in filtering quality in actual gameplay really depends on the user. Dead Trigger is fast paced enough where I didn't notice an appreciable difference between the iPad 3 and 4, but if you spend your time doing a lot of image quality analysis you'll likely appreciate the newer iPad.

For this test we're looking at the far end of the left wall, highlighted above. The crop below is enlarged - I also scaled up the iPad 2/mini output so you can easily compare the difference in detail. Click on the buttons below to switch the crop source:


    

With a faster GPU and more video memory, the iPad 3 looks better than the iPad 2/mini output. The iPad 4 enjoys an edge over the 3 in filtering quality.

Batman: The Dark Knight Rises

The latest Batman game shows a mild difference in image quality between the iPad 3 and 4, although a tangible increase in resolution compared to the iPad 2/mini. Like all of the games I'm showing here, there doesn't appear to be a huge performance difference between any of the tablets. The game developer simply varies image quality in order to keep performance as consistent as possible across iPad versions:

In this scene we're looking at a crop of the railing to the right of Batman, giving us a good look at differences in resolution as well as texture quality in the background.


    

This is a fairly common situation for a lot of the newer titles. There's a resolution advantage on the Retina iPads, with a slight image quality advantage for the iPad 4 over the 3rd gen model.

N.O.V.A. 3

Our next title is yet another first person shooter: Near Orbit Vanguard Alliance (N.O.V.A. 3). The NOVA games have done a good job of staying up to date with the latest Apple hardware, and the latest installment is no different. On the iPad 3, the game seems to run at the same resolution as on iPad 2/mini but with a fairly blurry upscale. With the 4th gen iPad however, the developer was able to render at a higher native resolution which significantly improves image quality.

For this test we're looking at the green sign in the middle of the scene. Lining up all of the screenshots identically proved to be pretty difficult, so you'll notice the crops below shift around a bit. The difference between platforms is dramatic enough however to get the point across. Once again I scaled the iPad 2/mini output to the same output resolution as the Retina iPads for easier comparison:


    

The improvement is substantial. The game looks a lot better on the iPad 4 than on the 3.

Infinity Blade 2

Epic's Infinity Blade 2 needs no introduction, it remains one of the best looking games on the app store. A consequence of really pushing the envelope on mobile hardware meant that Epic couldn't run the title at the iPad 3's native resolution upon its release, instead settling on an intermediate resolution. Infinity Blade 2 gives us a good showing of resolution progression from the iPad 2 all the way through the iPad 4.

Here we're looking at two separate crops: one from the roofline in the upper left hand corner and another looking at the top of the trees in along the left of the scene.


    

There's an obvious improvement here, but you can really see the added resolution at work in the extreme crop below.


    

I should add that how apparent the added resolution is really depends on how much you're looking for it. The difference between the iPad 2/mini and the iPad 3 is pretty significant, the move to the 4 is more incremental. Such is the nature of the beast. With annual hardware updates, many of the improvements you see going forward will be more incremental visually. As very few software vendors are interested in alienating a large install base of older iPads, they will hesitate to only support the absolute latest and greatest. It's the same issue we have in PC gaming. That's not to say that we won't see a Crysis equivalent appear in mobile to coincide with major hardware launches down the road, it just won't be the norm.

It's clear that the PowerVR SGX 554MP4 was the right match for the iPad's Retina Display. I highly doubt that Apple will stop increasing GPU performance going forward (Rogue cometh), but it finally does have a much better balanced SoC/display setup in the 4th generation iPad.

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  • darkcrayon - Friday, December 07, 2012 - link

    Ok that was pretty funny. "When you need paper that gets stuff done".

    Most documents in existence electronically are closer to a 3:4 aspect ratio. I'm sorry, but it's true. And they will fit an iPad sized screen more conveniently. But please, feel free to show me the treasure trove of ready made documents that are 9:16 or even 10:16 long.

    Also, show me the benchmarks where the Nexus 10 GPU is better than the iPad 3 - not that that disproved my point. The one in the iPad 4 is quite a bit more powerful, so it's a legitimate area where the Nexus 10 is *not* a "much better tablet". And of course don't even get us started on 10" Android tablet apps.
    Reply
  • ltcommanderdata - Thursday, December 06, 2012 - link

    Any estimate on the SGX554MP4 clock speed? Since the 16% pixel fill performance difference is supposed to be largely clock speed related and the iPad 3's SGX543MP4 was clocked at 250MHz, that works out to 290MHz. Previous Apple SoC used a 4x multiplier between CPU and GPU. If the A6X changed to a 5x multiplier, then a 1.4GHz CPU works out to a 280MHz GPU, which seems to match what is being seen here.

    And process improvements for SoC power and thermals don't have to wait for 20 nm. Samsung has a 28 nm process, which they claim uses the same design rules as their 32nm process allowing a quick and easy transition, while offering power or performance benefits over their 32 nm process. I'm guessing 2013 iDevices will use a combination of shrinks and new SoC on the 28 nm Samsung process, which with all the TSMC rumours, may be the last SoC Apple makes with Samsung. 2014 iDevices would then use TSMC 20 nm.
    Reply
  • Krysto - Thursday, December 06, 2012 - link

    So it seems that in terms of gaming performance (which is really what matters when you evaluate a GPU), the devices compare as it follows:

    Ipad 4, Nexus 4 and iPhone 5 have the same performance in games - compared as devices, running at their own native resolution.

    http://images.anandtech.com/graphs/graph6472/51760...

    As for the GPU's themselves, it seems the A6X GPU is 42% faster than Mali T604, while Mali T604 and Adreno 320 are about 10-20% faster than the A6 GPU (iPhone 5), and than the A5X GPU (iPad 3)

    http://images.anandtech.com/graphs/graph6472/51761...
    Reply
  • coder543 - Thursday, December 06, 2012 - link

    from one perspective. Honestly, benchmarks are just benchmarks. I'd agree with that assessment as far as these benchmarks go though. I'm not sure how much it matters -- suffice it to say they're all very fast. Reply
  • Alucard291 - Sunday, December 09, 2012 - link

    Very slow surely? As this is STILL about 10 years behind desktop gpu's Reply
  • ltcommanderdata - Thursday, December 06, 2012 - link

    Well the Nexus 4 having the same gaming performance as the iPad 4 and iPhone 5 depends on how often people take their phone into a freezer to play games. Reply
  • michal1980 - Thursday, December 06, 2012 - link

    amazing. Apple must be paying for this coverage, and it was a week or two ago I was told that something was coming soon.

    should have figured, another sligthly updated apple product
    Reply
  • darkcrayon - Thursday, December 06, 2012 - link

    Just as we should've figured you'd be in the comment section whining about it ;) Reply
  • vision33r - Thursday, December 06, 2012 - link

    Why would Apple be interested in marketing to PC enthusiasts on a site like this? It's a waste of money if they did pay Anand.

    In case you ever opened a male or female fashion mag or financial magazine, Apple advertisements are everywhere. Clearly they are more interested in marketing towards rich casual computer users.

    So your theory of Apple paying for this coverage as usual trolling and Apple hating. That's ok, they don't mind you hating them on a website they have little interested marketing on.
    Reply
  • pliablemoosethebanned - Thursday, December 06, 2012 - link

    Yep, Anand needs to focus more on crap products like the Surface tablet. Reply

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