When Qualcomm launched the new “Krait” CPU architecture, I was disappointed that it didn’t launch the new Adreno 3xx GPU architecture as well. Ever since Qualcomm bought the Adreno team and technology from AMD a few years ago, the Adreno GPUs have been at least slightly behind the competition.
The new Adreno 320 GPU that is arriving in the quad core S4 Pro SoC comes with some much needed features that should push mobile graphics forward. However, the performance of the GPU is ultimately not as good as it should’ve been, when compared to what will be available in the market by the time devices with Adreno 320 begin shipping.
I’ve been talking before about how probably the most exciting thing about the upcoming new GPU architectures, including Adreno 3xx, Mali “Midgard” T6xx, Tegra 4, and PowerVR SGX 6, is the support for the new OpenGL ES 3.0 standard. The OpenGL ES 2.0 standard has been in use since 2008 in smartphones, and its 4-5 years lifecycle means that mobile graphics require a much needed upgrade.
I expect OpenGL ES 3.0 to provide a huge boost to how games look on HD mobile devices, and I’m glad to see that Qualcomm’s new GPU architecture is one of the very first to support it. However, most of the new GPU architectures will only start appearing at the end of this year or in the first half of 2013. Before developers start taking advantage of OpenGL ES 3.0, they will need a critical mass of device supporting it, so don’t get your hopes too high just yet.
The Adreno 320 GPU also supports GPGPU computing, by adding OpenCL 1.2, Google’s RenderScript (mainly used to speed up app interfaces), and DirectX11 version 9_3, which means it mainly supports only the DirectX 9.3c features. Even if you do see other chips saying they support DirectX11, it’s highly unlikely that they use any of its advanced features, like tessellation, which even high-end PC GPUs can barely handle.
If a chip vendor claims to have DirectX11 support, they probably mean they support some newer lower-end features, like hardware acceleration, that are used in more recent versions of Windows. Even so, DirectX support doesn’t concern our Android world at all, as Android devices don’t use Microsoft’s proprietary DirectX.
The performance of the Adreno 320 is roughly double the performance of the current Adreno 225 found in the S4 SoC, which equips most LTE phones sold recently in the US. That sounds like an impressive feat, but once you compare it to the competition, you realize that it’s not enough. Anandtech has some benchmarks that show it’s still doing poorly against the PowerVR SGX543 MP4 inside the new iPad.
Anandtech doesn’t compare the Adreno 320 to the Exynos 4 Quad and its overclocked Mali 400 GPU, but seeing how much faster the Mali 400 was in the Galaxy S3 than the Adreno 225 GPU in HTC One X, you can only deduce that while Adreno 320 is going to be faster, it will be only slightly so.
The bad news for Qualcomm is that Mali T604 is supposed to arrive around the same time as Adreno 320, and it’s going to deliver double or more the speed of the Mali 400 inside the Galaxy S3, which means it will handily beat the Adreno 320 and even the PowerVR SGX543 MP4.
We still need to see actual devices compared when they arrive on the market with the new GPUs, but the bottom line is that I don’t think Adreno 320 will hold its own very well against Samsung’s and Apple’s chips. If they only double the performance of the future version of Adreno 3xx next year, it might fall behind Tegra 4 as well, although going by how little we know about Tegra 4 right now, the outcome is pretty unpredictable.