The GPU: Apple's Gift to Game Developers

The GPU side of the A5 is really what's most exciting. As we mentioned in our iPad 2 GPU Performance analysis, the A5 includes a dual-core PowerVR SGX 543 - also known as the SGX 543MP2. In our earlier article we showed the SGX 543MP2 easily beating both an iPad 1 and the Tegra 2 based Motorola Xoom.

To understand why the SGX 543MP2 has such a performance advantage we need to first remember that NVIDIA's Tegra 2 is nearly a year late. NVIDIA's first competitive ultra mobile GPU was supposed to be shipping in products in the first half of 2010, instead it found itself shipping in 2011. While NVIDIA is good at designing GPUs, it's not good enough that it can release a product and maintain a two year performance advantage over the competition. Let's look at the architecture, shall we?

NVIDIA's Tegra 2 features a DirectX 9-class GPU. NVIDIA used to call it the GeForce ULP (Ultra Low Power) but now it's just GeForce. As a DX9 class GPU we're dealing with a conventional, non-unified shader architecture. While all OpenGL ES 2.0 GPUs can execute pixel and vertex shader instructions, the GeForce in Tegra 2 runs pixel and vertex shaders on separate groups of hardware.

NVIDIA calls each pixel and vertex shader ALU a core. The Tegra 2 has four pixel shader cores and four vertex shader cores. The four pixel shader ALUs make up a single Vec4 and the same goes for the four vertex shader ALUs. NVIDIA wouldn't elaborate on what limitations exist when dispatching operations to the cores. All pixel shader operations happen at 20-bits per component precision while all vertex shader operations happen at 32-bits per component.

Each core is capable of executing one multiply+add (MAD) operation per clock. Do the math and that works out to be a peak rate of 8 MADs per clock for the entire GPU. The maximum operating frequency for the Tegra 2 GeForce GPU is 300MHz, however device vendors may run the GPU at a lower frequency to save on power. At 300MHz this works out to be 4.8 GFLOPS (counting a MAD as two FLOPs).

Imagination Technologies' PowerVR SGX 543MP2 is fundamentally a bigger GPU than the GeForce in NVIDIA's Tegra 2. Let's go through the math.

The SGX 543 features four USSE2 pipes. This is a unified shader architecture so both vertex and pixel shader code runs on the same set of hardware. The benefit of this approach is you get better performance in peaky situations where you're running a lot of vertex or pixel shader code and not a balance that's perfectly tailored to your architecture. The Tegra 2 will only run at peak efficiency if it encounters a mix of 50% vertex and 50% pixel shader code. The PowerVR SGX series will never have any of its execution pipes idle regardless of the instruction mix.

Each USSE2 pipe has a 4-wide vector ALU capable of cranking out 4 MADs per clock. Two of these pipes is enough to equal the peak throughput of what NVIDIA built in Tegra 2, but the PowerVR SGX 543 has four of them. As for the MP2? Go ahead and double that number again. The SGX 543MP2 is simply two 543s placed next to one another.

All of this works out to be 16 MADs per clock for the SGX 543 and 32 MADs per clock for the SGX 543MP2. At 200MHz that's 12.8GFLOPS and at 250MHz we're talking about 16 GFLOPS.

Mobile SoC GPU Comparison
  PowerVR SGX 530 PowerVR SGX 535 PowerVR SGX 540 PowerVR SGX 543 PowerVR SGX 543MP2 GeForce ULP Kal-El GeForce
# of SIMDs 2 2 4 4 8 8 12
MADs per SIMD 2 2 2 4 4 1 ?
Total MADs 4 4 8 16 32 8 ?

At its lowest expected clock speed, the 543MP2 already has over twice the compute power of the Tegra 2's GPU at its highest operating frequency. Take into account the fact that the A5 likely has more memory bandwidth than Tegra 2 and the SGX 543MP2 is a tile based architecture with lower bandwidth requirements and the performance numbers we talked about last time shouldn't be all that surprising.

The real competition for the SGX 543MP2 will be NVIDIA's Kal-El. That part is expected to ship on time and will feature a boost in core count: from 8 to 12. The ratio of pixel to vertex shader cores is not known at this point but I'm guessing it won't be balanced anymore. NVIDIA is promising 3x the GPU performance out of Kal-El so I suspect that we'll see an increase in throughput per core.

GPU Performance

Taken from our iPad 2 GPU Performance Preview:

As always we turn to GLBenchmark 2.0, a benchmark crafted by a bunch of developers who either have or had experience doing development work for some of the big dev houses in the industry. We'll start with some of the synthetics.

Over the course of PC gaming evolution we noticed a significant increase in geometry complexity. We'll likely see a similar evolution with games in the ultra mobile space, and as a result this next round of ultra mobile GPUs will seriously ramp up geometry performance.

Here we look at two different geometry tests amounting to the (almost) best and worst case triangle throughput measured by GLBenchmark 2.0. First we have the best case scenario - a textured triangle:

Geometry Throughput - Textured Triangle Test

The original iPad could manage 8.7 million triangles per second in this test. The iPad 2? 29 million. An increase of over 3x. Developers with existing titles on the iPad could conceivably triple geometry complexity with no impact on performance on the iPad 2.

Now for the more complex case - a fragment lit triangle test:

Geometry Throughput - Fragment Lit Triangle Test

The performance gap widens. While the PowerVR SGX 535 in the A4 could barely break 4 million triangles per second in this test, the PowerVR SGX 543MP2 in the A5 manages just under 20 million. There's just no competition here.

I mentioned an improvement in texturing performance earlier. The GLBenchmark texture fetch test puts numbers to that statement:

Fill Rate - Texture Fetch

We're talking about nearly a 5x increase in texture fetch performance. This has to be due to more than an increase in the amount of texturing hardware. An improvement in throughput? Increase in memory bandwidth? It's tough to say without knowing more at this point.

Apple iPad vs. iPad 2
  Apple iPad (PowerVR SGX 535) Apple iPad 2 (PowerVR SGX 543MP2)
Array test - uniform array access
3412.4 kVertex/s
3864.0 kVertex/s
Branching test - balanced
2002.2 kShaders/s
11412.4 kShaders/s
Branching test - fragment weighted
5784.3 kFragments/s
Branching test - vertex weighted
3905.9 kVertex/s
3870.6 kVertex/s
Common test - balanced
1025.3 kShaders/s
4092.5 kShaders/s
Common test - fragment weighted
1603.7 kFragments/s
3708.2 kFragments/s
Common test - vertex weighted
1516.6 kVertex/s
3714.0 kVertex/s
Geometric test - balanced
1276.2 kShaders/s
6238.4 kShaders/s
Geometric test - fragment weighted
2000.6 kFragments/s
6382.0 kFragments/s
Geometric test - vertex weighted
1921.5 kVertex/s
3780.9 kVertex/s
Exponential test - balanced
2013.2 kShaders/s
11758.0 kShaders/s
Exponential test - fragment weighted
3632.3 kFragments/s
11151.8 kFragments/s
Exponential test - vertex weighted
3118.1 kVertex/s
3634.1 kVertex/s
Fill test - texture fetch
179116.2 kTexels/s
890077.6 kTexels/s
For loop test - balanced
1295.1 kShaders/s
3719.1 kShaders/s
For loop test - fragment weighted
1777.3 kFragments/s
6182.8 kFragments/s
For loop test - vertex weighted
1418.3 kVertex/s
3813.5 kVertex/s
Triangle test - textured
8691.5 kTriangles/s
29019.9 kTriangles/s
Triangle test - textured, fragment lit
4084.9 kTriangles/s
19695.8 kTriangles/s
Triangle test - textured, vertex lit
6912.4 kTriangles/s
20907.1 kTriangles/s
Triangle test - white
9621.7 kTriangles/s
29771.1 kTriangles/s
Trigonometric test - balanced
1292.6 kShaders/s
3249.9 kShaders/s
Trigonometric test - fragment weighted
1103.9 kFragments/s
3502.5 kFragments/s
Trigonometric test - vertex weighted
1018.8 kVertex/s
3091.7 kVertex/s
Swapbuffer Speed

Enough with the synthetics - how much of an improvement does all of this yield in the actual GLBenchmark 2.0 game tests? Oh it's big.

GLBenchmark 2.0 Egypt

Without AA, the Egypt test runs at 5.4x the frame rate of the original iPad. It's even 3.7x the speed of the Tegra 2 in the Xoom running at 1280 x 800 (granted that's an iOS vs. Android comparison as well).

GLBenchmark 2.0 Egypt - FSAA

With AA enabled the iPad 2 advantage grows to 7x. In a game with the complexity of the Egypt test the original iPad wouldn't be remotely playable while the iPad 2 could run it smoothly.

The Pro test is a little more reasonable, showing a 3 - 4x increase in performance compared to the original iPad:

GLBenchmark 2.0 PRO

GLBenchmark 2.0 PRO - FSAA

While we weren't able to reach the 9x figure claimed by Apple (I'm not sure that you'll ever see 9x running real game code), a range of 3 - 7x in GLBenchmark 2.0 is more reasonable. In practice I'd expect something less than 5x but that's nothing to complain about.

The Right SoC at the Right Time: Apple's A5 Battery Life


View All Comments

  • Azethoth - Monday, March 21, 2011 - link

    No! 22 seconds is not fast enough. That is 20 seconds wasted each time you do that in a day. Reply
  • benonemusic - Monday, March 21, 2011 - link

    Excellent writing and content as usual. As a longtime reader (this is my first post) with an editorial eye, I had a suggestion for future articles such as this with multiple authors but in which the main review is written in the first person singular. It was slightly disorienting to see three authors (Brian, Anand, Vivek) but then much of the article written with "I" (presumably Anand), you might want to avoid listing all three authors as "ands" in that case. One idea would be make the first author the one who is speaking in the first person voice (presumably Anand in the case) and the other two to be listed as "with." If the review is written as "we" then having all three of the authors as "ands" makes sense. There are multiple solutions. You can simply keep the "ands" and then indicate who the "I" is in the first instance. You could obviously say "one of us" in the first instance and indicate "Anand" in parentheses. And so on. Sorry for going on this long, but I'm big on bylines. Keep up the great work with the articles! Reply
  • embeddedGPU - Monday, March 21, 2011 - link

    Can you clarify the floating point precision for your GPU GFLOPS figures ? You mention 20-/32-bit for nVidia, but I think the SGX is only 16-bit precision. If so, it's not a totally fair comparison... Reply
  • wellortech - Monday, March 21, 2011 - link

    "If you fell in love with the original iPad, the iPad 2 is a significant upgrade."

    Really? Since when is thinner and a crappy camera a significant upgrade?
  • mcnabney - Monday, March 21, 2011 - link

    You guys missed noticing something when documenting the huge step forward with the iPad2 GPU power.

    We now have iOS fragmentation.

    The entire iPad1 generation was obsoleted in the graphics department. Now developers have to choose between writing for the iPad1 or iPad2. There is far too large of a gulf between the two platforms. To benefit from the GPU advancement, the massive installed base of the iPad1 will have to be written-off.
  • kmmatney - Monday, March 21, 2011 - link

    I don't think this is true. First, we are only talking about 2 models, and second, they can just enable more graphics features for iPad 2. I can see where some truly advanced games might only be written for the iPad 2 in the future, but there is really no way to avoid that. Reply
  • Azethoth - Monday, March 21, 2011 - link

    There always was and always will be iOS fragmentation since the 2nd iDevice shipped.

    As for what it means in a practical sense: check out Infinity Blade on multiple devices (iPhone and iPad). See, not a big deal, content providers are used to scaling artwork and design.

    Furthermore, iOS will suffer less from this than Android (fewer device specs). It is one of the aspects of the competition at this form factor that makes me think that Apple will do better than it does at the PC level. (Not that Apple PC profits are not insanely good for their industry: over 50% of entire industry by some accounting).
  • araczynski - Monday, March 21, 2011 - link

    if you're after a notebook/pc replacement, you're kidding yourself with any tablet.

    if you're after a gaming device, you're golden :) especially if you think gaming on phone sized screens (this includes psp/ds/etc) is plain stupid.

    mine is filled to the brim with games, no room for audio/video/etc, just pure games.

    i love it, my daughter loves it, even my technophobe wife loves it.

    its for entertainment, nothing more.
  • Azethoth - Monday, March 21, 2011 - link

    It is for more than entertainment:

    You can amuse your cat with it as well!
  • coolio68 - Monday, March 21, 2011 - link

    Great review Anand,regarding this comment though:

    'The real competition for the SGX 543MP2 will be NVIDIA's Kal-El. That part is expected to ship on time and will feature a boost in core count: from 8 to 12. The ratio of pixel to vertex shader cores is not known at this point but I'm guessing it won't be balanced anymore. NVIDIA is promising 3x the GPU performance out of Kal-El so I suspect that we'll see an increase in throughput per core.'

    Worth bearing in mind a couple of things:

    SGX 543MP can already incorporate 2 to 16 cores

    The even higher performance SGX 554MP cores have also been announced in December

    Power VR Series 6 (Rogue), the next-generation, can scale from 210 GFLOPS to 8 TFLOPS , and is already licensed by the usual suspects.
    The A9600 chip announced by ST-E at MWC ,containing Rogue, is sampling in H2 2011.

    Nvidia are gonna have their work cut out methinks, but the competition is great for the industry and consumers.

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