Smartphones that rival console performance are not a threat

Smartphone chipsets that rival the performance of the PS4 in late 2017 isn't a threat to consoles; the usage context remains entirely different

ARM's ecosystem director Nizar Romdan told the Casual Connect conference in Amsterdam this week that mobile chipsets will reach graphical parity with the PS4 and Xbox One by the end of 2017. In some respects, it's a bold claim; Apple's ARM-based A9, currently by far the most powerful mobile chipset on the market, is a long way behind the likes of the PS4, and while some aspects of mobile phone chipsets may well catch up to the current generation of consoles in the next two years or so, it's unlikely that they'll touch the performance level of the consoles overall - bearing in mind not only the advantages of discrete GPUs, but the fact that consoles sport far more, and far faster, RAM than mobile devices do right now.

Still, I don't doubt that Romdan is speaking from a well-informed position - ARM's roadmap unquestionably has some components on it which will achieve performance parity with home consoles in late 2017. It's worth unpacking what that actually means. Leaving aside the fact that a few console-class components doesn't necessarily translate into a console-class gaming experience (the system has to be considered as a whole, and mobile phones are fundamentally not optimised for that kind of performance), it's also worth noting that for ARM to have these components on a roadmap for late 2017 probably means they'll be in consumers' hands in 2018 - while the consoles they'll rival launched in late 2013. The implication is that the time taken for performance levels in home consoles to be matched in mobile devices will have dropped to around four and a half years.

That's actually a really interesting achievement, albeit one so adorned with caveats that it looks like it's wearing a festival outfit made of ifs, buts and maybes. It's worth recalling that consoles aren't actually state of the art when they launch - PS4 was already outclassed by top-end PCs on the day that it appeared on the market, because it's designed as a good, sustainable trade-off between performance and cost. On a technological basis, comparing the very bleeding edge of mobile phone chipsets to game consoles, the reliable mid-range family sedan of the gaming world, is a bit of a soft target to choose.

"It's not impossible to imagine a future where your smartphone is your primary processing device, connecting itself to your keyboard and monitor to do work, or to your TV and gamepad for play"

On a business basis, though, it's still a really interesting comparison, because it implies that something genuinely new has the potential to happen in the next few years. For the first time since the arrival of smart devices, there may be phones on sale which match the performance of a top-end home console, within the lifespan of that console generation. That's never happened before; today's top-end smartphones are just about feeling out the margins of the performance of the Xbox 360 and PS3, several years after those systems were replaced by their successors. PS4 and Xbox One, if ARM's predictions hold true, will face equivalently powerful smartphones long before PS5 and Xbox Two (?) are ready to take the stage.

What does that mean? For many, it's going to conjure up once again the vision of a console-less future, one where smartphones have replaced the box under the TV entirely, and I have no doubt that the continued rapid progress of smartphones is going to provoke plenty more "death of consoles" narratives. That's just one possible future, though, and it's worth bearing in mind that while the lag between a performance level being achieved on a home console and that performance level being possible on smartphones will narrow further, it will never close to zero; in fact, much of the low-hanging fruit of smartphone chipset design has already been snagged, with fabrication processes reaching the 14nm scale in Apple's A9 and not a whole lot of potential for further shrinking beyond that without some serious advances (which would also, of course, boost desktop processors). It's fairly straightforward physics to say that desktop (or console) class processors will always lead smartphone chipsets in performance by a certain span of time; it's equally straightforward to say that a device plugged into a power source (and hence optimised for performance) is always going to have an advantage over a device with a battery (hence optimised for power consumption).

Still, let's do the thought experiment. Consider a world where the smartphone is as powerful, or as close to parity as makes no odds to the average consumer, as a home console might be. It's probably also pretty damned close in power to your average consumer's laptop, at that stage. Already, there's something slightly ridiculous about carrying around a device as powerful as your smartphone all day, but leaving it almost entirely unutilised while you work on your laptop and game on your console; it's not impossible to imagine a future where your smartphone is your primary processing device, connecting itself to your keyboard and monitor to do work, or to your TV and gamepad for play, shifting its role in your life as you move between physical contexts. Microsoft, in particular, has done interesting work on this front, experimenting with allowing its Windows 10 smartphones to act as desktop PCs when plugged in to a keyboard and monitor; it works rather better than you might expect and, in a world where smartphones really are that powerful (and most of your data stored in the cloud anyway, presumably), it's not hard to imagine this being a paradigm that would become quite dominant. In that case, the smartphone replacing the console - by becoming a console in its own right as soon as you put it in a room with a TV and a joypad - is also reasonably easy to imagine.

That's based on the assumption, though, that it's wasteful to have so much processing power duplicated between the devices you own - that having an ultra-powerful mobile CPU/GPU sitting on your sofa and being used to idly check Twitter during load delays in your game is wasteful and uneconomic, as is having your smartphone quietly charging on your desk during the day while you work on a laptop little more powerful than it. Yet it's equally likely that that's just what our future looks like - one where processing power is so incredibly commoditised and readily available that everyone owns and interacts with loads of powerful, under-utilised CPUs in their daily lives. Isn't this, after all, what has largely sunk the ship of "cloud gaming" - the realisation that there's so much cheap CPU and GPU power out there in the world that it's economically insane to try and centralise it all in a server farm, instead sucking dry the relatively scarce and valuable resource that is bandwidth? It's also worth bearing in mind that while the trend towards technological convergence is an extremely powerful one (I do like those side-by-side comparisons pictures which show that every piece of technology on a large, well-appointed desk in the 1970s or 80s is now integrated into a small smartphone), it runs into a brick wall at the point where consumers actually demand compartmentalisation. Build a camera into my phone? Great, I don't want to carry a camera and a phone anyway. Make me use the same device for professional work, for play, for family activities and for highly private moments with the Internet's less-clothed denizens? Yeah, quite a lot of people are going to take a rain-check on that one.

"The availability of a smartphone as powerful as a PS4 won't really matter very much to the PS4... They are devices that exist in very different contexts with very different paradigms of usage and interaction"

It's equally likely, in other words, that the availability of a smartphone as powerful as a PS4 won't really matter very much to the PS4. They are devices that exist in very different contexts with very different paradigms of usage and interaction; the fact that one is hypothetically capable of running software of equal quality to the other is something of great interest to engineers, programmers and people who argue with each other on technology subreddits, but not really worthy of a flicker of interest from consumers (who will consider it equally compelling information as "you know the engine in your food processor could also drive a pretty decent RC helicopter"). The rapidly falling cost of hugely powerful CPUs and GPUs will simply give us an embarrassment of processing riches; powerful game consoles, powerful phones, powerful tablets and powerful laptops, and while there will be crossover between their functionality and usage cases (I mean, who hasn't used an RC helicopter to slice an onion when the food processor is on the fritz?), their distinct presentation and context will mean consumers see no problem with having all of them in their lives.

Smaller, faster, more energy efficient and more powerful processors continue to open up exciting new possibilities and opportunities for games and for technology in general (I'm particularly keen on the idea of VR headsets being decoupled from cumbersome cables by the integration of smartphone-class GPUs, though I'm wary that it's only a matter of time before someone exploring a virtual world tumbles over a balcony here in the real and worryingly gravity-afflicted one). It's a leap of logic, though, to assume that developments in smartphone chipsets represent an existential threat to game consoles, or to gaming PCs; context is king, and of all the devices smartphones may eventually replace, other high-powered processing devices that fill very different niches in consumers' lives are perhaps the least likely of all.

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Latest comments (15)

James Brightman Editor, North America, GamesIndustry.biz2 years ago
Instead of complaining about Rob's piece, maybe offer something interesting and constructive to the conversation?
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I think Jim Webb said it just fine with his most popular comment in the article being referred to here.

The only way they catch up is if PC and console makers stop innovating. My big beefy game rigs arent water cooled and power drainers cause its fun, its because its necessary.
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 2 years ago
Something with a tiny screen cannot possibly rival something with a large screen.

No matter what the framerate is, you're still looking at a dinky little image.

(There's a strategy game, released in 2000... Ground Control... which I still play regularly and which still looks great.)
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 2 years ago
(1) In the past 4.5 years, the speed of the Intel i7 CPU increased by a mere 30% while still managing to increase in price. And somehow PS4 supplier AMD still managed to do worse than that. It's not like ARM is chasing Speedy Gonzales here.
(2) To add insult to injury, the GPU component of the i7 is still utterly pointless and outperformed by any 50 gfx card.
(3) While Arm is eager to point out performance, there is less talk about the form factor you need to house the TDP. A 2W TDP smartphone is called mobile just as much as the latest 150W TDP gaming laptop. It is easy to outperform the PS4 when you can cool your device with a big chunk of copper. It will still be hard in 2017, if you expect people to hold the device in their hands.
(4) Power supplies matter just as much and there are no magic batteries.
(5) How does the "premium chip" strategy of the chip forges line up with a typical mobile f2p game developers plan to maximize reach? I say not at all. There are a few platform specific tech demo games, but the money is made with games that run on anything. Isn't long battery life more desirable for developers than brute speed?
(6) Want to talk about a class of smartphone that will truly impact the VG industry? Look no further than the Freedom 251.
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Curtis Turner Game Developer - Monsters of War A year ago
We'll probably see more modular computers/consoles that you can easily switch components to make for a more powerful machine.

We haven't replaced the TV... A computer needs to be inside it or connected to it... Between power, RAM, CPU's/GPU's, InterwebZ cord(If you're serious about online play)...

I think we're just scratching the surface and by 2020 we should be livin' the game!
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James Coote Independent Game Developer A year ago
Even if mobiles were more powerful than consoles, I feel the audience for consoles is a bit traditionalist and like the idea of a dedicated gaming machine (and disks/cartridges and all the paraphernalia that comes with it). That's even leaving aside the "different experiences / play styles argument". I think it's just going to be more difficult to sell consoles and games on shiny graphics alone, which is probably a good thing.
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.A year ago
Rob, you are correct, as always, that a separation exists between mobile gamer and console gamer.

But that isn't the gist of the statement by ARM. It's an assumption that their mobile chips will have the same power as the current console chips. It's an allusion that that their mobile chip can do everything that the current console chips can. You already noted the impossibility of the experience between the devices regardless of power equivalency. But the real issue is the flat out lie being pushed upon the non-technical among us.

To the average consumer or media outlet, he can make such a statement and it will be believed due to power of authority. But until he and his company can figure out how to absolutely disobey the laws of physics (in which case mobile chips are a stupid use of his talents), people that know better are going to call him out for insulting us.

It's a statement that's been presented for years by mobile execs and every time it's as inane then as it is now. Physics. Mobile execs need to take a course in it or ask their chip design team first before they open mouth and insert foot. A drone quad copter will never have the same thrust output as a modern fighter jet but that's what these execs keep claiming. In truth, it's one of the reasons I don't like the mobile industry. They promise way beyond the ability to deliver and decry the death of other entertainment mediums (mobile killing consoles) in the process. I don't like being blatantly lied to.
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Andy Samson QA Supervisor, Digital Media ExchangeA year ago
Smartphones may rival last gen home consoles but what about a next gen handheld? Modern AAA console games nowadays require games to be stored in the hard disk which could require space to anywhere between 8 to 16GB+ For mobiles, this would mean that you will have to have the entire game installed and it would eat up double that amount and we're talking only of ONE game. For a mobile device to have at least ten times that amount would mean it will have at least 250GB of storage. Another issue is battery consumption, yes it may run those games but for how long, 1 to 2 hours on a single charge? Then you are left with no more juice for your phone's other functions. This is where a dedicated handheld device still has the edge. The NX portable will have game cards with storage capacity to rival Blu Ray and will most likely be partitioned for the game, saves and even DLC.
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Paul Shirley Programmers A year ago
@Jim Webb: Landauer's principle suggests current computing devices consume more than 6 orders of magnitude more power than the theoretical minimum. The 'laws of physics' have a lot more slack in them than you believe. We might have ground to a halt on increasing computing power, we're nowhere near finished increasing power efficiency and that's the important one for mobile.
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We might have ground to a halt on increasing computing power,
really? IBM and its upcoming test chip featuring the 7nm transistor nodes might beg to differ, and that is just one of the many advances coming. We havent even begun to touch what computers will become.
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Steve Peterson Marketing Consultant A year ago
The implicit assumption is that processing power is directly correlated with game quality, not just graphics quality. I think we've seen graphics reaching amazing levels, but there's still plenty of room for improvement in game design in multiple areas that don't directly depend on sheer CPU or GPU power. I think issues of interface and screen size are more important for many mobile games than raw graphics power. If the image you see is on a 5" screen, after a certain point extra pixels or polygons don't make much practical difference in most cases.

Mobile devices get better faster than consoles, and may catch up in some technical parameters at some point. What matters much more is what sort of games you play and how engaging there are, and what hardware you need to make that happen.
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Richard Pygott Level Designer A year ago
I don't think it matters when it comes to graphical fidelity on mobile devices matching that of home consoles, in most instances the actual gaming experience is very different in my opinion. The control scheme also is so removed from home console games, that I even see them as two totally different entities.

There is also the cost of developing high risk games, particularly on the F2P model on mobile devices, they do not need the extra cost of creating extremely detailed graphical environments to their already tight budgets or budgets that would just not allow for them.
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Sandy Lobban Founder, Noise Me UpA year ago
There's something about being made to sit down and immerse yourself in a game. However and I think its a big however. VR could change this in an unexpected way. Because of the level of immersion it brings, a mobile device with the same computing power and no cables would still enforce you to engage at a deep level and remain involved, but its on a mobile device that can be located anywhere physically. If the device can crunch the numbers and deliver the experience in VR then where would your preferences lie?
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Matthew Martinez Consultant, BCGA year ago
I'm not sure how much this impacts the current market for mobile games, but I do wonder what life could be like if you considered merging the mobile/console/PC segments. Ignoring the technical challenges, I imagine a high powered mobile device could have an impact if it could effectively duplicate the experience of a console. Imagine a phone that could also serve as a Steam Machine; allowing you to play console quality PC games, but say 2 years after the newest console generation was launched. Give it another 2 years the current mobile devices are delivering better performance than the consoles who still aren't ready for a new generation. If it had the capability to serve as your main gaming console think of some of the benefits. If you're a user who regularly upgrades your phone every two years, it means you get a more powerful console every two years. Also if the ecosystem remains constant, you don't have to worry about not being able to use all of those old games you loved. You would also have the ability to take your console wherever you go. Seems attractive to me.
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GuyA year ago
I'm not sure exactly how further away smartphone CPUs are from 8th generation console CPUs, but it's worth remembering both the XB1 and the PS4 didn't go for an overpowered CPU like they did in the generation before. Instead, they house a pretty tame Jaguar based CPU which was designed for mobile computing in the first place. It's entirely feasible that on some comparisons 2017 ARM bases CPUs will be at the same level.

But modern gaming relies on (and is bottlenecked by) the GPU, and that's where mobile still trails behind: Compared to the 8th generation consoles GPUs that can push around 1.3-1.8 Teraflops, the most high-end mobile graphic chipsets only recently reached 7th generation console GPU level at around 0.5 Teraflops.
So even if as a game developer you restrict your games to the newest mobile handsets and use Metal/Vulkan to develop close-to-the-metal (giving up on the absolute majority of the market, but that's another topic altogether) it's not realistic to expect current console gen performance. Let's see games that can actually rival X360/PS3 in terms of both graphical fidelity and scope before we jump to the next level.

And thing is, even that requires optimal conditions where there's enough wattage and cooling to keep the SoC running at optimal conditions without overheating. So one might be willing to consider next generation Nvidia Shield and similar ARM based TV boxes with a connection to an actual power outlet reaching 8th generation consoles in 2-3 years, but expecting actual smartphones with their minimal thermal envelope to reach this level without breaking laws of physics is a bit too much.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Guy on 24th February 2016 6:05am

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