Understanding the iPhone 3GSby Anand Lal Shimpi on July 7, 2009 12:00 AM EST
The GPU and its Performance
We’ve gone through, in great depth, the CPU in the new iPhone 3GS. But the GPU is arguably the more interesting upgrade. I’ve already covered the GPU pretty well so I present you with a blatant copy/paste of what I’d already written:
Now that we’re familiar with the 3GS’ CPU, it’s time to talk about the GPU: the PowerVR SGX.
Those familiar with graphics evolution in the PC space may remember Imagination Technologies and its PowerVR brand by their most popular desktop graphics card: STMicro’s Kyro and Kyro II. The Kyro series used the PowerVR3 chips and while STMicro ultimately failed to cement itself as a NVIDIA competitor in the desktop, the PowerVR technology lived on in ultra-mobile devices.
The SGX is on Imagination Technologies’ fifth generation of its PowerVR architecture, and just like the Kyro cards we loved, the SGX uses a tile based renderer. The idea behind a tile or deferred renderer is to render only what the camera sees, not wasting clocks and memory bandwidth on determining the color of pixels hidden by another object in the scene. Tile based renderers get their name from dividing the screen up into smaller blocks, or tiles, and working on each one independently. The smaller the tile, the easier it is to work on the tile on-chip without going to main memory. This approach is particularly important in the mobile space because there simply isn’t much available bandwidth or power. These chips consume milliwatts, efficiency is key.
The MBX-Lite used in the original iPhone was also a tile based architecture, the SGX is just better.
Also built on a 65nm process the PowerVR SGX is a fully programmable core, much like our desktop DX8/DX9 GPUs. While the MBX only supported OpenGL ES 1.0, you get 2.0 support from the SGX. The architecture also looks much more like a modern GPU:
Pixel, vertex and geometry instructions are executed by a programmable shader engine, which Imagination calls its Universal Scalable Shader Engine (USSE). The “coprocessor” hardware at the end of the pipeline is most likely fixed-function or scalar hardware that’s aids the engine.
The SGX ranges from the PowerVR SGX 520 which only has one USSE pipe to the high end SGX 543MP16 which has 64 USSE2 pipes (4 USSE2 pipes per core x 16 cores). The iPhone 3GS, I believe, uses the 520 - the lowest end of the new product offering. Update: Thanks to BlazingDragon and psonice for pointing out that the 3GS may in fact use a PowerVR SGX 535 based on drivers on the iPhone 3GS. It could still use a lower end SGX core and use the 535's driver, but there's at least the possibility that the 535 is under the hood of the 3GS.
A single USSE pipe can execute, in a single clock, a two-component vector operation or a 2 or 4-way SIMD operation for scalars. The USSE2 pipes are upgraded that handle single clock 3 or 4 component vector operations, have wider SIMD and can co-issue vector and scalar ops. The USSE2 pipes are definitely heavier and have some added benefits for OpenCL. For the 3GS, all we have to worry about is the single USSE configuration.
|iPhone 3G (PowerVR MBX-Lite)||PowerVR SGX @ 100MHz||PowerVR SGX @ 200MHz|
In its lowest end configuration with only one USSE pipe running at 200MHz, the SGX can push through 7M triangles per second and render 250M pixels per second. That’s 7x the geometry throughput of the iPhone 3G and 2.5x the fill rate. Even if the SGX ran at half that speed, we’d still be at 3.5x the geometry performance of the iPhone 3G and a 25% increase in fill rate. Given the 65nm manufacturing process, I’d expect higher clock speeds than what was possible on the MBX-Lite. Also note that these fill rates take into account the efficiency of the SGX’s tile based rendering engine.
Obviously all games on the app store were designed for the PowerVR MBX-Lite and the SoC in the iPhone/iPhone 3G/iPod Touch. Some do run faster/smoother on the 3GS thanks to the faster CPU and GPU, but the new hardware should enable an entirely new class of game in the future.
Developers will have to deal with a segmented user base, since there are around 20 million PowerVR MBX-Lite based phones and a bit over 1 million SGX based 3GSes in the market.
The GPU Comparison
There are obvious limitations to the iPhone 3GS being used as a gaming platform. But there are also obvious limitations to the 3GS being used as a camera or a video player. The point isn’t that the 3GS could replace the Nintendo DS or the Sony PSP, it’s that the iPhone could get you maybe 80 - 90% of the way there.
There are serious control and battery life limitations, but the platform has the right combination of hardware, a software delivery system and ubiquity to at least be considered a viable gaming system. It has a much more powerful CPU/GPU combination than a Nintendo DS, now what it needs is the iPhone equivalent of Mario. Perhaps Apple should buy a game developer.
The obvious smartphone GPU comparison here is the Palm Pre. The TI OMAP 3430 used in the Pre (good job Palm on full disclosure there, just add clock speeds and you’ll get an A+) is a very similar SoC to the Samsung chip in the iPhone 3GS. As such, it also has a PowerVR SGX core.