Today we put the Nvidia Tegra mobile platform under the microscope, with gameplay comparisons between Nvidia Tegra 3 and the latest Tegra 4 platforms. On paper the Nvidia Tegra 4 processor is a gaming monster, but how will it stand up to scrutiny in a real world gaming head to head? Let’s find out:
Written by Johnny Cosme, edited by Stewart Haston
Nvidia’s Tegra platform has been through several iterations in recent years, with the company earning a solid reputation in the high-performance mobile platform space. Nvidia of course are industry leaders in terms of discrete 3D graphics, so it makes sense to see Tegra packing several high performance GPU cores in a low power system-on-chip processor.
Here’s a video you can watch before heading into the analysis and in depth thoughts below:
For today’s comparison, we are using the Gigabyte Tegra Note 7 which runs Nvidia Tegra 4, and the Asus Transformer Prime 201 based on the Tegra 3. As far as specifications, the Tegra 4 has the same 4+1 design as the Tegra 3, with four ARM Cortex A15 CPUs for general processing, a lower clocked Cortex A15 core for background processes, and importantly, six times as many graphics processing cores as the Tegra 3; there are 72 GPU cores on the Tegra 4 compared to 12 on the Tegra 3.
The Tegra 4 SoC has some great features like support for USB 3.0 and 4K ultra-high-definition video support, but the Tegra line hasn’t had the industry adoption that Nvidia would have liked, partly because it lacks built in support for LTE, a major factor for many manufacturers, particularly those making smartphones.
Nvidia has also been doing more in-house product development, producing devices such as the Nvidia Shield and the Note 7 to help speed up development cycles and encourage adoption with device manufacturers. These devices have been well supported by Nvidia and gotten better over time with frequent firmware updates and feature additions.
For the most part the difference is evolutionary rather than revolutionary, but if you look at the last generation side by side you can see the difference the chips make in practice. Gaming isn’t just about graphics, it’s also about gameplay, but better graphics usually mean a more satisfying, more immersive experience. When you look at a Tegra 4 game you can see all the extra details in the shadows and lighting the developers are able to put into the game without any noticeable slowdown in frame-rates.
Tegra 4: Better Lighting, Textures and Filtering
It’s easy to sum up the biggest difference you’ll see between these two generations of chips. Lighting and shading. It’s much easier to model larger solid objects than it is to model small particles or intangibles. Just as in the real world, particle and wave physics are more difficult than the physics of objects, the same is true in the virtual world. These shaders and lighting effects require a lot of math and number crunching to generate the effects on the fly, and this is really where you see the power of the extra cores coming into play.
Here is a slide outlining the new features that Nvidia’s Tegra brings to the table:
Here’s a marketing slide from Nvidia which shows us an example game rendering that kind of explains the end product of the feature list above:
These features really add up and can make a real difference to the in-game experience, in theory at least. We put thoery to the test, looking at 5 games that have been specifically optimized for the Tegra 4.
This game is very cross platform and available on the Windows, PSN, Google Play, and OUYA platforms. It was available on XBLA until their XBLA publisher was liquidated. The main single player mode is a little tedious because a lot of it involved destroying a group of zombies with the first bunch going quickly but the last few hard to nail down, especially with the sensitive default touchscreen control settings.
The tournament mode which was more combat racing was much more fun.
The third level on tournament mode is very different between the Tegra chips. The Tegra 4 version is a nigh time level with headlights as most of the lighting but they didn’t even attempt that with the Tegra 3 version and instead the same level is a daytime level on the older chip. It’s a shame because the dynamic shadows created by the headlights from the enemies are an excellent effect. There is some dynamic lighting on Tegra 4, but not always on the flames and explosions of either version.
Eden to Green
This game definitely takes a lot of inspiration from Plants vs. Zombies, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It uses machines instead and these have some excellent character modeling and animations. It’s a turn based tower defense type game and pretty fun. Even though it’s a freemium game, you are still able to play enjoyably without paying.
Many objects are skipped altogether in the non-Tegra version but the biggest difference between the Tegra versions again is the lack of shadows. The fire is pretty similar with maybe more subtle transparency on the Tegra 4, but no lighting effects coming off of it onto the surroundings. The game looks pretty good on both but definitely has better colors and more shaders on the Tegra 4 as well as more luminosity effects. Really, the shadows are too sharp and unrealistic on the Tegra 4, but still better than none.
Blood Sword THD
This game initially showed potential, and seemed similar to God of War, but quickly got tedious with the same problem common to a lot of the hack and slash genre being that there was a lack of variety in moves, enemies and terrain. The biggest difference on the Tegra 4 is dynamic shadows. The Tegra 3 version simply doesn’t have them. If you saw the game without seeing the Tegra 4 version you probably wouldn’t think much about it but if you know about it it feels wrong like a bad Photoshop job where a person looks like they’re hovering in a picture they’ve been composited into. It’s subtle but the difference in realism is dramatic.
It feels like this game was rushed out, especially because I had the on screen buttons disappear a few times. This happened to me on both versions with or without a controller connected, but it wasn’t an issue since I used a controller when I recorded this.
The Tegra 4 version looks to have good textures and texture mapping. The Tegra 3 may actually have the same but without the dynamic shadows, it’s hard to tell. I think the character and terrain models are the same, but the lack of dynamic shadows make the Tegra 3 version look much more fake or flat. I do notice some jaggies from not great anti-aliasing, but that looks about even on both versions. Both systems can handle tons of enemies on screen at once without noticeable slowdown.
Dead on Arrival 2
This is a great looking game, but arguably too dark as the shadows are easy to get stuck in, which can get you killed quickly in this game. Like many freemium games they are constantly trying to sell you power ups. It is available on Android and iOS.
This sequel to Dead on Arrival integrates PhysX support for explosions and map destruction and “mega gore” particle effects, but these are supported on both Tegra 3 and 4 platforms.
There is some dynamic lighting from the surroundings, but the Tegra 3 version doesn’t have the flashlight the main character carries on the Tegra 4 version. There is good texture mapping in both versions.
The Tegra 4 version has the water rippling in the warehouse level. It’s not the most realistic water I’ve seen, but the water on the Tegra 3 version looks more like fog. If I hadn’t seen the Tegra 4 I wouldn’t realize it was meant to be water because it looks so flat. However, you can see the main character’s footsteps leave a little wake. It’s not the most realistic effect, but it is a nice touch.
Dead Trigger 2
This is my favorite game of this bunch, in spite of the zombie trope being overdone these days, as you can see even from this small selection of games. It’s a first person shooter game that uses the Unity game engine for great graphics and isn’t too pushy selling you power ups. It has been released for Android and iOS devices, and even for Facebook. This game goes a long way towards solving the touchscreen aiming problem by auto firing when a target is in your cross-hairs.
There’s some dynamic lighting and a blur effect simulating water on the lens, but the puddle of water right at the start is left out on the Tegra 3, with the nice reflections on the Tegra 4. This is a very nice effect but probably very processor hungry. There’s dynamic lighting in both on the weapon itself. I found the load time was dramatically longer on the Tegra 3, but that could be affected by slower memory or other factors too. The end of level camera crawl is missing some shadows on the Tegra 3.
The settings screen allows different settings between devices with the Tegra 4 allowing Ultra High graphical settings but the Tegra 3 maximum available is only High.
Nvidia Tegra 4 is wholly different proposition to its predecessor, showing plenty of real world advantages in terms of how the games actually look and feel during gameplay. Ater you have experienced a Tegra 4 optimized game, you’ll have a hard time going back to the more flat textures and flat lighting on a Tegra 3 version. The level of immersion is improved with much more sophisticated lighting and liquid effects that add a crucial level of visual realism to the graphics being presented in your device’s display. Clearly Tegra 4 is significant improvements, born out by both benchmarking and real word game-play.
Tegra 4 and the current generation have been a big step forward, but it is getting late in the chip’s life with the next generation coming very soon. It’s very nearly, but not quite up to the performance of Qualcomm’s 800 series which packs a powerful Adreno GPU. In the real world however, you probably won’t see an effective difference in performance, but you possibly could in price, with Qualcomm currently dominating the flagship, high-end device space.
The 32-bit development board for the K1 successor to the Tegra 4 has just started shipping and their 64-bit dual-core ARM CPU, the first CPU Nvidia has developed, is expected in devices later this year. The 64-bit variant could be a dramatic step forward in terms of power and data bandwidth.
It’s hard to believe that a few year ago, modern phones would sometimes struggle with 2D games like Angry Birds, but now they are very quickly coming to power parity with home consoles; indeed Nvidia claims the K1 has more raw processing power than Playstation 3. Looking at the performance of the Tegra 4, it’s an easy claim to believe.
With the explosion of mobile devices and the industry, mobile gaming is a niche that’s not going away and will only continue to grow. The current generation of chips can already support better looking games than Vita or 3DS, but the games market and development are still maturing.
For now, gaming is usually a bonus feature on mobile devices, but with Amazon making a game controller on their FireOS/Android set top box and as the market matures, more and more people are going to find that Android gaming is getting more compelling. Google is also rumored to be making a game console with their acquisition of controller company Green Throttle Games and is already streamlining game development with their cross-platform Google Play game services. They intend to use Google Play to standardize cloud-based game saving, achievements, matchmaking, and leader boards. No mean feat but one which should make Android gaming an even better experience.
In terms of mobile gaming, we are living in some pretty exciting times. Expect some big changes in the industry in the coming months that will shake things up even more.that will shake things up even more.