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Tablet Chip Showdown: Nvidia Tegra 3 vs. the New iPad's A5X

When Apple announced the new iPad earlier this month, CEO Tim Cook claimed that the new iPad's new A5X chip offers four times the performance of Nvidia's quad-core Tegra 3 CPU.  Now that the new iPad has hit the street, we've been able to compare its performance to that of an ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime, the first tablet with a Tegra 3 inside. The results may surprise you.

GLBenchmark 2.1

In GLBenchmark 2.1,  one of the few benchmarks that has versions for both Android and iOS, the new iPad scored higher. On the program's Egypt Standard test, which shows a 3D animation of ancient Egypt, the new iPad and its A5X chip processed 6718 frames at a rate of 60 frames-per-second to the Transformer Primer's 5,939 frames at 53 fps. 

When GLBenchmark ran the Geometric test (vertex weighted), which measures low-level shader performance, the new iPad processed 7,530,524 frames at a rate of 57 fps while the Tegra 3-based Transformer Prime processed just 3,523,926 at a rate of 27 fps. We saw the same trend on the program's Fill test, which measures texturing speed, as the iPad processed 1.98 billion textels per second to the Prime's 404.61 million.

Geekbench

On Geekbench, a cross-platform benchmark that measures raw processing power rather than graphics, the quad-core Tegra 3 blew its competitor way as it achieved an overall score of 1,571 to the A5X's 692. On the integer (1391 to 614), floating point (2408 to 825) and memory subtests (1076 to 784) , the Tegra 3 dominated, but the A5X bested it by a small margin of 324 to 266 on the stream subtest.

Browser Benchmarks: Peacekeeper and Sunspider

We also tested the new iPad's Safari browser performance on two synthetic benchmarks and compared the results to those on the Transformer Prime's stock Android browser. In Peacekeeper, a general-purpose browser benchmark, the two tablets got nearly identical scores of 386 for the iPad and 387 for the Prime. However, the iPad completed the Sunspider JavaScript rendering test in just 1810 milliseconds to the Prime's 2216 ms. 

Unfortunately, since the two tablets use two different browsers, it's impossible to isolate the processor's role in giving the iPad slightly faster Sunspider results. It's quite possible that Safari just performs better on this test than the Android 4.0 browser does.

Subjective Gaming Performance

Evaluating gaming performance on any tablet is a mainly subjective task, because there's no benchmark that measures framerates like FRAPs does in Windows. However, we attempted to see what the differences in appearance were when we played the same game on both devices and placed them side by side. 

When we fired up the jet ski racing game Riptide GP on both devices, we noticed immediately that images looked sharper and more colorful on the new iPad's retina display. Edges of objects like our avatar's ski jacket, the walls on the racing course, and the writing on the scoreboard looked so much crisper on the iPad's 2048 x 1536 screen and colors just popped a lot more than on the Transformer's 1280 x 800 display. The difference in screen quality was only a little less pronounced when we played the third-person shooter game Shadowgun.

However, when we looked past the beautiful screen, we noticed that the version of the game playing on the Transformer Prime had some additional visual effects that were not present on the new iPad.  In Riptide, we noticed more reflections in the water and a splashing effect that made it look like water was hitting the screen when our ski landed from a jump. On the iPad, we just saw a little foam appear on landing, not splashes.

In Shadowgun, we walked into a scene with a burning helicopter and, on both devices, saw gorgeous billows of smoke and fire rising up to the sky. However, only on the Tegra 3-powered Transformer Prime, did the game show two flags billowing in the wind; the flags weren't even there on the iPad version.

Our experience playing Shadowgun and Riptide on the two tablets shows how difficult it is to separate processor performance from other system components like the screen. It's likely that, if we could put a gorgeous 2048 x 1536 screen on the Transformer Prime, these games would have both the great special effects and the sharp, beautiful images.

However, comparing tablet-to-tablet rather than chip-to-chip, the iPad's screen makes the gaming experience a much tastier visual feast than you get on the Transformer Prime. We hope that upcoming higher-res Android tablets like the 1920 x 1200 screened Transformer Prime TF701 will give mobile gamers the perfect combination of special effects and sharp, vibrant images.

It is also possible that, once developers rework their games for the new iPad's A5X chip, we'll see the same kind of added special effects that we see with Tegra 3. Neither Shadowgun nor Riptide has yet been optimized for the A5X chip, so who knows what they will look like in their next iOS iterations. For now, its clear that the A5X offers better benchmark performance, while Tegra 3-optimized games offer more and better visual effects.