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.