The inconvenient truth about Retina iPad gaming

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?

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