Nvidia's Tegra 3 Optimizations: THD Android Games, Tested

Tegra HD: Must-Have Or Marketing Gimmick?

In a majority of cases, the Tegra-oriented game optimizations are largely marketing on Nvidia's part. When it comes to Android, almost any modern GPU is capable of comparable performance as the Tegra 3. The additional Tegra-only effects are more of gimmick than anything else. We did notice, however, that optimized titles were able to run stably, whereas the Nexus 4 and Galaxy S III ran into issues with a number of different games.

With thousands of games competing on Google Play, Nvidia’s TegraZone can provide developers an opportunity for their games to receive additional exposure. But how many people really know about, or actually use TegraZone?

Limiting certain graphical effects to the GPUs capable of rendering them smoothly is a wise choice. Many entry-level smartphones have SoCs with performance far below that of the Tegra 3, making many of the detail effects quite onerous on lower-end hardware. This also allows developers the freedom to create titles that play well across a wider spectrum of devices, while creating better-looking experiences for the folks buying higher-end phones and tablets.

Another point to keep in mind is that Nvidia sometimes has exclusivity deals with game publishers, which makes certain titles available only on Tegra-equipped devices for a few weeks or months before general Android availability. Zen Pinball HD, for example, is still only for devices with an Nvidia GPU.

In some cases, however, the additional Tegra effects can be enabled on any GPU. Just keep in mind that forcing this can cause performance to drop. Dead Trigger, for instance, can be manually modified on a rooted device via a configuration file. In other cases, it’s possible to trick the game into recognizing another GPU as a Tegra. Chainfire3D is the app most often used for doing this. It allows you to modify the OpenGL drivers to make the game think the smartphone is equipped with any GPU you choose. But be careful; the program modifies system settings, so a novice modder could easily render their device unusable. Even we managed to soft brick the Samsung Galaxy S III while fooling around with Chainfire3D.

If you're an Android user and gaming is a priority, it actually does make sense to choose a device powered by Nvidia's Tegra 3 SoC (or wait until Tegra 4-based hardware starts showing up). The titles we've looked at here aren't all on the Top Paid list in Google Play, but they do represent a variety of genres and many of them are quite popular. We picked them specifically to judge whether Nvidia's Tegra-specific optimizations make a difference, but ended up discovering that, beyond aesthetics, stability is a big deal, too. A quarter of these games had problems running on Google's Nexus 4, Samsung's Galaxy S III, or both. Even if the optimizations aren’t always apparent, many higher-end games (like those based on the Unity and Unreal engines) are optimized for Nvidia's hardware.

The iOS Problem

But then there's iOS. Apple equips its smartphones and tablets with relatively fast GPUs from Imagination Technologies. And since exclusivity agreements between developers and Nvidia generally only pertain to Android, those "Tegra-only optimizations" are often also exposed on iOS (for instance, Shadowgun: DeadZone and Dead Trigger). What’s more, these games often run faster on the iPhone 5 due to its newer, more powerful GPU. Incidentally, the same goes for Windows 8 and RT.

So, while gaming is one of Nvidia's competitive advantages over other chip-makers in the Android arena, developers are still pushing all of their best effects to Apple's ecosystem, too. We could take a cheap shot and say that the best smartphone for Tegra 3-optimized games is an iPhone 5, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes the added effects don't show up under iOS, even when the games play more smoothly than they do on Android-based phones.

We’ll conclude with an expression of hope for the future: we’re eagerly awaiting Tegra 4 rumored to launch at this year's CES. Remember that Tegra 3 is more than a year old, and it's a simple evolution of an older chip. Even then, most games look good on it, are highly detailed, and basically on par with Apple’s latest and greatest. We can’t wait to see what Nvidia’s next SoC does for Android gaming in the days to come.

For enthusiasts, here's a photo album showing the differences in the 12 games we tested.

  • aicom
    Interesting comparison. Maybe you could test if there are any differences in effects between models of the Tegra 3?
  • darkavenger123
    Err...why bother compare with iOS?? No big deal. They should start comparing with PS VITA for some real games....hardware is useless without software....so sick of casual gaming...Angry birds runs just fine with Androids 2 years ago, doesn't need a hardware upgrade. They need to get developers to makes some real games for it or it's just pointless expensive sillicone.
  • I own both the Nexus 4 and a Tegra 3 equiped Asus Transformer Prime. The Nexus 4 is quite a bit faster in a lot of games, especially GTA3 and Vice City. But also Dead Trigger which is supposedly optimized for Tegra runs quite badly on the Transformer Prime, the framerate is much better on the Nexus 4.
  • gomerpile
    WTF is going on, jeez if it keep it up with the rat race of title games that have no graphics, pc gamers are all doomed. Why waste time and money on the next version of Battlefield 4 when we can develop monkey ball andriod shooters.
  • abbadon_34
    Nvidia continues to encourage game developers to add Tegra-only details to their Android titles.

    Exactly what is wrong with tech today, for 30 years companies learned to embrace compatibility after the Sony Betamax failure (technically better, but priced beyond comsumer appreciation). Now everyone wants to follow Apple forgetting they too suffered from a "closed shop" for 20 years.
  • blubbey
    Are these phones now more powerful than gen 6 consoles? Dreamcast/PS2/Gamecube/Xbox. I would assume so.
  • darkchazz
    I've got a Nexus 7 OCed (1.5ghz CPU, 520mhz GPU) and a stock Galaxy Note II, and I have to say that every single game you can think of in the play store runs miles better on the Note II, even the so called optimized-for-tegra titles.

    What's bothersome for me though is that some tegra optimized titles actually run on a low resolution by default on the N7 (to compensate for low memory bandwidth???) yet still play on a 30-40ish frame rate, luckily the devs have put resolution option in the setting (see Riptide, beach buggy blitz), but you'll be playing at 20-30fps if you bump it up to the max/native res.

    Another title, Horn, which is actually a Tegra exclusive using UE3, actually runs on a low res but does not provide any option to change that, and even with the low resolution, it is extremely choppy at times I can easily notice 15-20fps.

    One dev that I like is MADFINGER Games (dead trigger, shadowgun), their titles are so heavily optimized that they run at a consistent 35-45fps on my N7 and I do not notice lag nor inconsistent frame rate. still runs at constant 60fps on my Note II though...

    Meanwhile I can't think of anything that doesn't run at 60fps on my Note II, So much that wonder how much better the gpu performance is on Snapdragon S4 pro and apple A6 devices.
  • natoco
    blubbeyAre these phones now more powerful than gen 6 consoles? Dreamcast/PS2/Gamecube/Xbox. I would assume so.Yes, but tiny screens u put u fingers on ruin the experience of gaming, i get my old megadrive out and play or niintendo 64 for some funny simple old school games. Phones look the 'tiny' part like it but its just not the same. I bought a whole heap of games on my iphone only to put them down and never play again since the format in which u play is just not 'fun' and thats the whole point of games is it not. Oh well, consoles or pc's FTW
  • gilgamex101
    Did anyone else notice that the Heroes Call screen shots are the EXACT same as the Soulcraft screenshots??
  • blubbeyAre these phones now more powerful than gen 6 consoles? Dreamcast/PS2/Gamecube/Xbox. I would assume so.
    definitely, GTAIII and Vice City were both PS2 games and the new mobile versions have upgraded textures