When It Comes To Gaming, The iPhone Will Always Win

When It Comes to Gaming, the iPhone Will Always Stomp the Competition

OK. The great autumn phone glut is over. The big manufacturers have revealed their flagship devices. Apple even joined in with a cheaper alternative to its flagship iPhone. I've spent the last few months benchmarking a lot of phones, and something has become exceedingly clear: All the CPU and GPU benchmarks in the world can't compare to real world performance when it comes to mobile gaming. And in the real world Apple stomps its Android competitors. Benchmarking can be one of the most exciting things about reviewing consumer electronics. You get to take a device, run some tests and boil its entire worth down to a few numbers. If you live and breathe statistical analysis like I do, then this is damn rad. It's like understanding an entire baseball game from a glance at the box score.

But while you can benchmark a whole slew of things on a computer, mobile devices have been notoriously more difficult to benchmark. Synthetic benchmarks, like the popular AnTuTu and Geekbench, can be "gamed" by clever device manufacturers and leave you with majorly skewed results. So you often find yourself looking to PC benchmarks and adapting them for the Android/iOS environment and the numerous complications it entails.

There was one particular aspect of benchmarking that proved, for years, to be impossible to carry over from PC benchmarking. It was mobile benchmarking's white whale.

Game benchmarks.

Game developers don't include any kind of frames per second counter for benchmarking on mobile games, and counting FPS manually requires significant alteration to code -- usually in the form of rooting/jailbreaking. There was one company, GameBench, aggressively pursuing the problem, but it wasn't until late last year -- three years after the company formed -- that it caught the whale and gave us access to all kinds of goodies, like FPS, CPU, GPU usage and even power consumption.

Unfortunately, the new benchmark has also highlighted a pretty major limitation in mobile game benchmarking -- mobiles games have frame per second caps. Most mobile games are capped at 30fps, with some more intense games capped at 60fps. In part this is to help save battery power, but it also means that no matter how amaaaaazing the processor in your phone is, it will only ever do a maximum 60fps.

This is incredibly antithetical to how we understand game benchmarks. They're often for bragging rights right? "My SLI'd Quad Titan rig does 400-plus frames per second on Grand Theft Auto V. WHAT NOW SON?!"

The iPhone SE, Apple's tiny "budget" phone, features the same top of the line guts as the iPhone 6S, and it hits the cap. Every time. Even my two year old iPhone 6 has no problem maintaining 59fps in Lara Croft Go (a wicked fun game with some sweet, if gruelling, graphics).

But the Samsung S7 Edge with its fancy Snapdragon 820 processor and Adreno 530 GPU? Hovers around 44fps. And the LG G5 -- which features the same processor? 42 frames per second. Even the brand-spanking new HTC 10 managed only 44 frames per second.

These aren't two-year-old devices. These are the very best phones from their respective brands and feature one of the fastest processors available in a mobile device. So why can't they hit the cap?

Because mobile games are made for iOS first. Android is an afterthought -- even though Android continues to crush iOS in terms of smartphone marketshare.

Developing for iOS tends to be more lucrative overall, and there's very little device fragmentation. There are just a handful of processors and screen sizes that an iOS developer needs to program for, which means devs can optimise their apps better than the poor Android developer who has to take into consideration hundreds of different devices with a wide variety of processor and display capabilities.

Sharif Sakr of Gamebench agreed with my assessment, but he was also more hopeful for the future of Android gaming.

I think the iPhone's supremacy is a legacy of how mobile has evolved, and doesn't necessarily dictate the future. The Android platform is moving forward (e.g. with the Vulkan API, which is the Android equivalent to Metal), and developers and middleware providers are taking Android much more seriously as a source of commercial success, so there is every hope that Android will catch up.

Yet until Android actually catches up -- or apps are specifically optimised for Android -- benchmarking them to compare them to iOS devices will be an exercise in futility. Apple's always going to win.

Sorry Android fanboys.

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    quick, everyone whinge about everyone else's choice of mobile telephone operating system and/or hipsters.

      God damn hipsters! Takin' our jobs and stealin' our women and now stealin' our frame rates too!

        They toooooook orurrrrrrrrrrr jorrrrrrrbbbbsssss

          They Tok Yer JERBS!!!!!!!!!!!

      If you want to talk about gaming, you could at least learn the basics first. Failing to even mention the screen resolution of the respective devices just shows the ignorance of the author and the lack of any proper research.

      All of the modern Android phones are running QHD screens and pushing just over 4 times the number of pixels as the iPhone SE. It's hardly surprising that iPhones can manage 60fps at such a low resolution. Even the iPhone 6S+ is only rendering 58% of the pixels of the Android flagships.

      If that's "stomping the competition" then I guess the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are totally on the wrong track. They totally should have just used 320x240 screens for their displays, because apparently high framerates = winning and anything else is pointless.

      Last edited 15/04/16 4:10 pm

        Screen res might be relevant if it could be changed but it can't, so it isn't. What counts is which device can give you the most FPS, isn't it? In fact, if you think about it, what it perhaps shows is Samsung's poor choice of screen res, if it is hampering performance. Whichever way you look at it, Android comes out looking second best (and nobody hates Apple more than I do).

          Screen resolution is still an integral part of the gaming experience and remains very relevant, whether you can change it or not. Frame rate and resolution go hand in hand, and each have something to contribute to the gaming experience.

          In action games like car racing or shooters, higher frame rates give you quick and smooth visual feedback from your control inputs - steering, dodging, aiming etc. Low frame rates means that you tend to over-or under-correct. But even then, resolution is still vital - higher resolution allows you to see obstacles sooner in a race, or spot targets further away in a shooter. With a low-resolution display, you often can't tell what you're seeing until later, because the objects are poorly defined with fewer pixels drawn. Knowing what's coming is vital, and resolution is king there.

          In adventure games, where the scenery is a major part of the game's experience, frame rates are less important and high resolution allows you to become 'lost' in the game because it seems more detailed and realistic. But again, low frame rates can break the illusion of reality because movement is jerky and unrealistic.

          My point is that neither resolution nor frame-rates are the ultimate goal in a game - you want both for a good gaming experience. Just measuring fps to declare a winner is stupid and ignorant.

          There's one more aspect to consider as well - screen size plays a big part in the immersiveness of a game, and on-screen controls mean that a player often has to cover a fair amount of the screen with their fingers to access the controls. The iPhone SE might punch out consistently high frame-rates, but with a tiny 4" low-resolution screen, phone gaming is always going to be a fairly sub-par experience.

            phone gaming is always going to be a fairly sub-par experience

              As a PC gamer, I agree that phone gaming is pretty mediocre in comparison.

              But I'm not the target market, and that's not really the point - there are millions of people who sink serious time and money into mobile gaming. Games like Clash of Clans, Asphalt etc. are massively popular and financially successful, and developers spend massive money on developing new mobile games all the time. People who play games on mobile devices want their gaming experience to be the best it can be, which is why this discussion came up in the first place.

              But the article was pretty clearly flawed because it focused entirely on frames per second without even mentioning the massive resolution difference - an obvious noob error (or deliberate troll) that a PC gamer would never make. Lift your game, Alex.

    iphone SE resolution 1136 x 640.
    iphone 6 resolution 1334 x 750.
    S7 & G5 resolution 2560 x 1440.
    You would expect to see higher fps on a lower resolution screen, all other things being equal. The only fair way to compare would be to do the benchmark at the same resolution. Something I'm not sure you can do in these benchmarks.

      Do the games run at those resolutions though or are they upscaled to fit the display? Not sure about mobile graphics tests but on PC they can absolutely run the benchmarks at different resolutions.

      It also begs the question should phone manufacturers bother pushing PPI above about 300. I personally think once you hit that level its other areas of the screen tech that makes more of a difference to the display quality.

      Begone with yer "facts". They have no place in evangelical platform wars.

      Grab an APK of a game, unzip it, and have a look at the resolution of the images. Some use higher res, but in a lot of cases there's no point in supplying higher res images for Android. Especially considering the multitude of devices it could potentially be played on. It's all about finding the sweet spot.

    iPhones, especially the 5SE, run significantly lower resolutions than comparable Android devices, which will be a massive contributor to higher frame rates.

      True, but it makes no difference to the consumer, you can't change the resolution, so the games run slower on Android, which is annoying.

    Does this really matter when all gaming on a phone is shit house. On screen buttons are useless and take up vital screen area. If you truly want to game, then do it on console or PC. Anyway, the kind of games that are mostly played on phone's is crap like candy crush and who gives a fuck if it's running a million frames per second or 44.

      You are much cooler than everyone who enjoys playing games on a different device than you do.

    This is nothing but a flamer article, the results will be skewed because of resolutions. Notice he didn't mention any hi-res iPhone? Also author says Apple will always win, and the person he interviewed says Android will probably catch up. Finish it with something about Android fanboys and you've just made a flamer article, designed to get comments and add revenue while giving the reader little actual good info.

    Alex (author), maybe you need to find a Samsung phone with a low-res screen and a fast processor, just to shut these Android apologists up?

    If you think mobile gaming is gaming, you unworthy to be called a gamer.

    Women and children use tablets and phones to game, this is call passing time, but real gamers use controllers on a 70" screen, with 7.2 digital surround, this is serious gaming for true gamers.

      Have you got a 70" screen? Cause I sure don't. And most games don't support 7.1 surround sound (super popular games do, most don't though).

      p.s. Even though I say most games don't have 7.1 surround sound, I do have a headset that supports it

      Real gamers use three projectors and Dolby Atmos.
      Your pathetic 70" screen and 7.2 sound make you unworthy to be called a real gamer.

        True, let me walk down the road of shame, till I've saved up enough money to buy a Village Cinema.

        I will no longer speak of my pathetic 70" screen and 7.2 surround sound (tears gathering in the eyes, hands in both pockets, walks back slowly into the sunset).

          well actually, I have a 120" screen in my lounge now, 1080p 3D projector and full surround. All up, screen, projector and surround cost $2500AU. You don't need to spend squillions on big TVs at all. And this projector setup is the greatest thing I've ever done.

            That's actually good deal for a package, what brand is your projector?

    My $190 Chinadroid with its MT6753 CPU and 1080*1920 pixel display plays games like Beach Buggy Racing perfectly smooth, and with the change left over from NOT buying the latest iPhone I can go and buy an XboxOne AND a PS4 and blow any iPhone out the water with frame rates and resolution.
    Games on phones are good for killing a few minutes waiting for someone, not much else.

    Last edited 15/04/16 9:03 pm

      Haha good luck blowing anything out of the water with ps4 and xbone frame rates.

    Pfft. Screen resolution is already optimal on the iPhone, rather have higher FPS over extra pixels you can't even notice any day of the week.

    Who the hell goes to smart phones for gaming any way? Games on smart phones are only any good to pass a few minutes while waiting for something else. If you want games you either join the master race (PC) or become a peasant (console). Sorry Apple fan boys.

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