The inconvenient truth about Retina iPad gaming

By , May 29, 2012

Back in March, I analyzed whether the new iPad has enough oomph to drive graphics-intensive games natively at the new iPad’s 2,048-by-1,536 pixel resolution. The crux of the article: framer rates in Retina-optimized games can drop to well below what the iPad 2 delivers.

With no change on the CPU side and only 2x speed gain on the GPU side, the new iPad clearly has issues offseting the Retina display’s 4x pixel count increase.

Today, The Verge sheds more light on the matter by putting the device through its paces in real-world tests based on a handful of latest triple-A games. The findings may surprise even the most hard-core gamers among you…

Sam Byford, writing for The Verge, investigated how the A5X chip handles the demands of Retina-level resolution. He concluding that the Retina display is holding back iPad graphics in 3D-intensive titles.

Having played nearly all games Byford referred to in his article, I’m with him on every point.. As it turns out, the new iPad does exhibit worrying performance issues when graphics-intensive games render at its 2,048-by-1,5336 pixel resolution.

A good example is N.O.V.A. 3, Gameloft’s sci-fi shooter with console-quality graphics. Unfortunately, sacrifices had to be made on the new iPad.

The game is indeed much more effects-laden on the older tablet, with depth-of-field blurring and some particle effects such as burning buildings in the background completely removed on the new iPad. The iPad 2 also tends to handle the game at a steadier framerate.

That’s why not many titles support Retina iPad gaming natively. What most games do instead is they rendered in 1,024-by-768 with full detail and anti-aliasing to reduce jaggines then upscale individual frames to 2,048-by-1,536.

Though the results usually look pretty good, nothing really beats the crispness and sharpness of native Retina iPad gaming. By the way, 1080p games on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 often employ the same upscaling trick.

Of course, we’re talking about the cream of the crop here, meaning the very best 3D games that really push the envelope in the graphics department.

2D games and those that don’t push 3D graphics to the extreme don’t require as much grunt and look just fine at native Retina resolution. Typical examples would be games such as Cut the Rope HD or Angry Birds Space.

Here are some interesting takeaways:

 • “there’s no question” that Modern Combat 3 runs better on the iPad 2: according to Byford, “the framerate is a lot less stable, and there are missing effects such as motion blur when you move your camera and a shallow depth of field when looking through your rifle’s iron sights”
• surprise, surprise – Infinity Blade 2 uses resolution upscaling on iPad 3 and “the slightly haphazard up-conversion draws attention” to the device’s limitations
• In Riptide GP, Tegra-3 specific effects seen on the Asus Transformer Prime tablet “remain absent” on the iPad 3, an indication that Nvidia’s chip boasts juicer graphics hardware

Two notable exceptions here: Real Racing 2 HD and Shadowgun.

The former “runs at full resolution and full speed with anti-aliasing and some extra detail on the car models” and the latter doesn’t make any sacrifices to run on the Retina display, but it lacks the extra effects and physics modeling present in the Tegra 3 version on the Prime tablet.

As such, both games serve as a powerful demonstration of the new iPad’s capability.

Summing up, the author concludes that “it’s rare to see a demanding game run at Retina resolution without compromise”, which is consistent with my own observations.

The finding could surprise avid gamers. After all, Apple says its A5X chip is better than Nvidia’s Tegra 3 silicon found inside high-end Android phones and tablets.

While a non-scientific benchmark suggested Apple might have an edge over Nvidia, it’s nothing like the 4x performance increase the company bragged about during March’s iPad 3 unveiling.

If you know a thing or two about the graphics industry, you’ll be hardly surprised.

The A5X chip sports the same dual-core Cortex-A9 MPCore CPU with NEON SIMD accelerator from ARM Holdings like its predecessor.

The only differentiator is the improved graphics engine with four cores (two on the iPad 2). Compare this to Nvidia’s chip which boasts a four-core CPU and a whopping twelve graphics cores.

Let’s also not forget that graphics is Nvidia’s expertise.

As for me, I’ll believe Apple’s claims when I see some spectacular-looking games running smooth as butter on my new iPad, without laginess and jerkiness I often see in today’s triple-As.

Beg to differ?

Meet us in comments.

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  • http://twitter.com/Dongiuj DonGiuj

    Sorry about this, maybe I missed read something. Are you saying that apple bragged about the 4 times performance increase but it’s not performing as they bragged about?

    • http://www.facebook.com/antman217 Anthony Antunez

      It’s up to the developers to make their games run at those specs not Apple. They provide the hardware and developers are supposed to take advantage of it.

      • http://twitter.com/Dongiuj DonGiuj

        So, at the moment the new iPad is an American car under a Ferrari body and being pimped by child labor.

  • http://twitter.com/Dongiuj DonGiuj

    Sorry about this, maybe I missed read something. Are you saying that apple bragged about the 4 times performance increase but it’s not performing as they bragged about?

  • http://twitter.com/Cyril_ized Cyril Ized

    Great article, the Nova3 pictures are pretty impressive. I mean Nova is atm the best Game on the AppStore! I’m happy I don’t sell my iPad 2 for a New iPad :D
    What I’m missing are ingame pictures with Nvidia Tegra 3.

    • http://twitter.com/thehayhorse Hayden Jenkins

      really? nova 3? wow

  • Anonymous

    Just like I suspected, Apple rushed the high-definition screens. With the iPhone Apple waited until until the hardware could handle it and then began the “age” of Retina display phones (almost every high-end phone these days has upwards of 300 ppi). If you’ve noticed, no other tablets have the iPad’s resolution; it’s because there’s no content at such a high resolution, because the hardware can’t handle it, and because it isn’t as marketable; 1080p hits home with consumers much more than “high-definition Retina display.” Not to mention costs go way up, along with supply availability.

  • Anonymous

    Too bad hardcore gamers would never even remotely think about gaming on a tablet.

    Also, it’s probably the developers who are too lazy to take the time to properly optimize their games for the much higher resolution display.

    • Kok Hean

      Hi Brian :P

      • besweeet

        Hi random person!

    • MidianGTX

      I don’t think you know what a hardcore gamer is. It’s not an indication of the length of your imaginary e-peen. A “real” gamer would be playing as many games as possible, over as many platforms as possible, gaining knowledge and experience across the spectrum. The hard facts are touchscreens provide a mechanic controllers can’t replicate, and this allows for uniqueness in games. Not the same sort of games obviously, but new genres. If you don’t play them, you’re just not very knowledgeable about modern gaming.

      • besweeet

        Modern gaming? There’s nothing modern about using a touch-screen instead of a hardware button-based controller, a device that provides a much more practical and immersive experience. I’d consider your definition of a hardcore gamer as an “open” gamer more than anything else.

  • http://twitter.com/klouud Timothy Polumbo

    I still don’t see the point of gaming on an iPad; iPhone, yes… iPad, no. Plus we have the same CPU and only 2x more GPU power with a much higher resolution screen which we saw what happens when you don’t have enough power to propel an HD screen with the Nexus series of phones. You get a drop in frame rate and overall lower quality.

    But again… why would you want to game on a tablet?

    • http://twitter.com/prenz_t Prenz V. Tandoc

      Why game on an iPhone? The screen is sooooo small especially with your fingers covering half the screen.

    • http://twitter.com/DavEnglish3 MrE

      I personally prefer gaming on the iPad over the iPhone.

  • Dan

    really happy I kept my iPad 2, the new iPad realy doesn’t seem to be worth the investment

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Thomas-N-Shanna-Bernauer/100002948594321 Thomas N Shanna Bernauer

      Exactly what we have been saying from the start!!! These tablets are nowhere near consoles in performance. And the Xbox I believe can only do 720p gaming. iPad 2 is the pinnacle of the tablets in the near future exepeicialy when the ipad2 has a smaller chip design to increase battery life . And if you hold your ipad2 far enough away you can call it rentina display as well.

      • Anonymous

        Just sold my iAd 1 and paraded to a ore-owned 2 month old iPad 2. Saw not need for The New iPad.

  • Anonymous

    Well, I think it’s not a big surprise the results, given the very high resolution of the retina display.
    Even High-End Desktop GPUs can have difficulties to sustain constant good frame rates at 2048×1536 with a highly detailed scenario, smoke, fire and a lot of physics running behind (blowing things, dozens of enemies attacking, etc).

    And keep in mind that Desktop GPUs can consume hundreds of Watts and generates a lot of heat, two things that the quad-core SGX543MP4+ GPU of A5X is strictly prohibited to do.

    Maybe, I said maybe, the main reason to have the texture difference between Tegra 3 and A5X is the fact that most games are optimized to run over GeForce architecture, instead of PowerVR SGX architecture.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Thomas-N-Shanna-Bernauer/100002948594321 Thomas N Shanna Bernauer

      Well maybe if they didn’t boast and brag about performance and to justify another 500$ purchase price. Not a lot of people’s cup of tea. They are taking advantage of the incremental upgrades and people being less savy by shying away from “specs”

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Staff-Void/100001584076972 Staff Void

    This is nothing unusual in our industry!

    New iPad user benefit greatly in reading, web browsing, and similar static tasks, from retina display.

    For fast moving games… Well, even 800×600 resolution on 10″ screen would look really good, for that kind of usage. 1024×768 – is as good as it needs to be. Remember PS3 put 1280×720 on 40″+ screens in most games, and it is no big deal!

    I am not saying we don’t ever need games in that kind of resolutions, we need them, if nothing than for bragging :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/bslenter Bill Slenter

    I see this as another case of over-inflated expectations. The iPad retina display runs at a higher resolution than most high-end gaming desktop PCs. The main benefit of this display is not gaming, it’s clarity of text and photographs, and for that it absolutely excels. Games don’t NEED to run at the max resolution, especially fast-paced action games. Consider the Xbox 360. Many games for that platform get high accolades for graphics quality (Call of Duty, etc.), yet it’s been shown that none of these games run at 720p. They run natively in the 500 line range, then are scaled up in hardware. This is done to allow more special effects without a frame rate loss. No one is complaining about that. Yet the iPad is somehow expected to run at 1536 lines of resolution while maintaining 10 hrs of battery life. Mmmmkayy.

    For 2D games like Cut the Rope, the retina resolution looks amazing and has no impact on performance. For 3D games, scaling is a completely legitimate approach and still looks great.

    I don’t see an issue. I also don’t expect any tablets to crank high end 3D games at 3 MP resolution for a long time to come. It’s more optimal to crank back the resolution a bit and up the effects, number of on screen characters, and frame rates.

  • http://www.intel.com cosbin2

    I don’t play games, however in virtually all respects, my ipad2 is faster & more responsive than my ipad3. I wanted the better display for reading and photography, so I’m satisfied in that respect. I’m hoping an update or 2 will optimize the lagginess, but I’m not holding my breath.

    • http://www.facebook.com/bslenter Bill Slenter

      Odd, I also made the upgrade and if anything the performance is better and lag nearly imperceptible.

      Might want to try a Restore in iTunes.

      • http://www.intel.com cosbin2

        Been there, also been to the Apple Store for an official wipe n restore and still the same. Im also having issues with the wifi, so I’m thinking that its a defective iPad3. I’ll swap it out, if after ios6 is installed, and doesn’t fix it.

  • http://twitter.com/Nug_Soth Paul Mikhail Lavroff

    Hell they’re not even bothering on dedicated portable gaming systems either like the Vita. With the specs it has, it’s capable of doing much better than the piss-poor games we’re seeing right now on that console. (Reply to besweeet )

  • http://www.facebook.com/antman217 Anthony Antunez

    Not a big deal. Just look at ps3 and 360 most of them are 720p when they can very well go to 1080p but does it really matter? No. As long as it looks great it’s the content that really makes a great gaming experience. Also this thing came out about two months ago and you are already expecting every developer to just start pulling out these games at resolutions beyond 1080p?! You go make it then!

  • Anonymous

    Not only that, image heavy sites stutters when you scroll them in a browser. Although it’s not really apparent in Mobile Safari, other browsers like atomic and flipboards builtin browsers do stutter like crazy. The only gpu heavy game I play is realracing 2hd and that seems fine so Im okay for now lol

    But in the end, I can never go back to ipad 2. That would be like a horrible nightmare. When you get used to ipad3′ ppi, EVERYTHING on the ipad 2 looks blurry and nasty lol.

    • http://www.facebook.com/bslenter Bill Slenter

      The iPad 3 can load large image-heavy pages that the iPad 2 couldn’t even fully load, due to double the RAM. Try “The Big Picture”. I have noticed no drop in browsing performance going from the 2 to the 3.

      • Anonymous

        I’m glad you haven’t but im very perceptive of these issues. just google it, there are tons of people having issues with the stutters. even on my friends ipad 3 it is the same. like i said in mobile safari it’s fine but in other browsers, the lag is very apparent and bugs the crap out of me. Why do I still keep the ipad? Because that’s pretty much the only issue I have and in terms of day to day use, everything else is buttery smooth, even games that I play. (Real Racing 2 HD) And retina is something I can never give up.

  • Anonymous

    Wow I’m embarrassed for you Christian. You have NOOOOO idea what you are talking about here.

    • sschoen

      i would agree with you but then we would both be wrong

  • http://twitter.com/thehayhorse Hayden Jenkins

    Well honestly I have played IB2 on an iPad 2 and the new iPad, and I haven’t noticed a difference

  • http://twitter.com/DavidBarajasJr David Barajas

    I repeatedly see my iPad lag when playing some of the high-end games. I didn’t believe Apple when they said how much more powerful this tablet is compared to the competition. Apple should have made the tablet more powerful. As for gaming. It’s way more enjoyable to play a game on a tablet than a 3.5″ display. Having to use both thumbs on the screen takes up so much of the small display.

  • http://twitter.com/ashraz05 Ash

    Im starting to regret buying the new ipad, sure it retina display is something to behold, it easy to make decision in apple showcase when comparing those 2 side by side. But then again when it come to gaming i think it far better off if i get ps vita rather than the new ipad

  • Steve Wright

    The IPAD 3’s A5X definetely cannot handle 3D intensive games. GTA 3, Vice City and ZombieWood to name but a few stutter occasionally and the framerate drops dramatically when this happens.Its not game destroying but is very annoying. I have swopped mine for an IPAD 4 to see if there is any improvement. I think Apple took this fact into consideration when bringing out the newest version of its tablet after just 6 months, discontinuing the latter and knowing full well of this problem. If you are thinking of Purchasing a used IPAD 3 to play third party A list games, think AGAIN.