iPad News

A first-hand look at the next iPad’s PowerVR graphics chip

Most now expect the next iPad to have Imagination Technologies’ dual-core PowerVR SGX543 at the heart of its graphics. Although it’s seemingly a small numeric upgrade from the SGX535 in the current model, it promises to be as much as four times faster. We saw the SGX543 person at a live, raw demo at Mobile World Congress and have quick impressions as well as the implications for what the future iPad will do.

The video hardware at the show was running on a test mule attached to a phone-sized display. The demo was just one app, Futuremark’s 3DMark Mobile, but it was a good workout of the entire platform: a woman practicing a tai chi quan routine in a walled garden. Right away, the visual differences over most mobile apps were different: it used 3D models complex enough that they would have looked good in an early Xbox 360 game, down to finer facial detail. It showcased the SGX543’s support for unified, enhanced programmable pixel shaders, or visual processing units that can be changed to render many different effects on pixels or the geometry. The refractions and reflections in the water and the tall grass were examples, as were the proper 3D shadows.

Our view of the test saw it running moderately smoothly, though not spectacularly so; we’d estimate about 20 to 25 frames per second. However, a representative from Imagination told us that this was the first time he’d ever seen that portion of 3DMark run smoothly at all. Earlier PowerVR hardware, and most others, would produce a very choppy experience that would be unplayable in a game. We have yet to see how well it would scale to an iPad’s 1024×768 display, but since the iPad was only occasionally limited by its resolution, the new graphics might consider it a non-issue.

Much of the performance leap, as you would expect, comes from having a second core. The addition doesn’t literally translate to doubled performance but is enough that even an unoptimized app would still run much faster. Imagination also has an improved shader engine and vector math units that can greatly accelerate certain kinds of tasks if a game or other intense app can use the extra boost.

The resulting speedup should be very significant for what the iPad can do. At a minimum, games will be much closer to TV console quality. Consider the level of detail possible in Epic Games’ Infinity Blade or id Software”s Rage HD; combine faster graphics with a faster processor (also likely dual-core) and the detail might be much more impressive. Video should also get a major lift, and it’s entirely plausible that the iPad will play 1080p video at just about any image quality.

Representatives at the Mobile World Congress show floor wouldn’t confirm whether the new iPad was getting the upgrade, but when it was mentioned off-hand that we were hoping the SGX543 would reach devices in the next few weeks, one team member responded with “hopefully” as well.

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