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Developing Mobile GPUs: Why They Matter and Where the Industry Is Headed?

In the last decade, we have seen mobile devices reach unprecedented peaks in terms of specs and performance. Fuelled by booming demand by consumers, smartphone developers have managed to release devices that can hold their own across an array of tasks traditionally performed by PCs. Among them, mobile gaming seems to have been the breakthrough that has established smartphones as a force to be reckoned with. Against this backdrop, how do mobile GPUs compare to their desktop counterparts?

How are mobile GPUs different from desktop?

The way that GPUs are integrated into the primary processor of a mobile device is different from what we are used to in desktop computers. The CPU and the GPU are generally distinct components in gaming computers, which means that they can be treated, upgraded, or replaced separately. By contrast, the lack of space in smartphones has led developers to combine the two. The result is the System-on-a-Chip or SoC for short. SoC is essentially the brainpower of a smartphone, as it contains the whole of its processing unit in one neat package. Fusing everything together into a single chip ensures optimal use of the limited space offered by mobile devices, as well as helps cut back on manufacturing costs and power consumption.

The SoC contains several components, including not only CPU and GPU. SoC also holds the Image Processing Unit (ISP) which handles photos and videos, the Digital Signal Processor (DSP), the Neural Processing Unit (NPU), and the phone’s modems, from Wi-Fi to Bluetooth. The GPU is in charge of the visual rendering of the user interface and the phone’s display. While in earlier versions of mobile phones GPUs did not have to do so much heavy lifting, the landscape changed rapidly with the refinement of smartphones. The transformation of smartphones into devices capable of independently supporting an array of entertainment options was when the mobile GPU market reached new heights.

Why did mobile GPU development take off?

The online video streaming service that is widely credited with revolutionizing the TV series and film industry had a crucial part to play. Netflix was one of the first big names to embrace mobile entertainment by launching a mobile-friendly app. The app became particularly popular because it allowed users to download and watch content offline – making it perfect for airplane travel or long commutes. Mobile friendly entertainment also traditionally encompasses online slot games. For example, Betway Casino has been providing slot games since 2006 and they keep adding new titles to their library that currently offers more than 450 to choose from, which demonstrates how thriving the slot game industry is.

One of the biggest appeals of slots is the powerful graphics, especially when it comes to themed slots like Games of Sparticus or Bridesmaids. Yet while slots have always been a favorite of mobile players, thanks to the fast-paced action they offer, they did not put too much of a strain on mobile GPUs. But then, immensely successful battle royale-type mobile games came along, both on Android and on Apple’s mobile iOS for iPhones and iPads – and they changed everything. Mobile games rely more heavily on players controlling graphic elements and interacting with the graphic layout of the game, meaning more heavy-duty GPUs were needed.

Which mobile GPUs are the most popular?

Apple made it clear that it was heading in a direction where it would pay more attention to its GPU models. The iPhone 7 was the last to feature the PowerVR Series7XT Plus GPU. Starting with iPhone 8, Apple switched to its own Apple A11 Bionic and then upgraded to Apple A12 Bionic beginning with iPhone XR. iPhone 12 will feature the next generation, A14 Bionic. Besides Apple, many manufacturers still rely on the Qualcomm Adreno GPU series for their devices. Google Pixel 3, OnePlus 6, Sony Xperia XZ 2, and Xiaomi Mi 8 all use the Qualcomm Adreno 630, while LG6 use the 530 models. Both the Samsung Galaxy S9 and the Huawei Honor 10 rely on the ARM Mali-G72 series, while the PowerVR GE8100 is still powering graphics at the HTC Desire 12.

Mobile GPUs come as part and parcel with a specific SoC. This means that, for instance, you will always get Qualcomm Adreno 630 with any phone that runs on Snapdragon 845. Currently, Adreno GPUs are considered the second-best in the industry, while Apple holds the lead with its new Bionic line. Starting with the Apple A10 Fusion SoC, Apple began designing its own GPU, and they have quickly managed to stand out.

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