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How Games Are Driving a Mobile Graphics Revolution

The needs of players are helping to push advances from chip makers like Qualcomm and Nvidia.

Since Apple opened its App Store in 2008, catering to the needs of gamers has been increasingly important for mobile-device makers. While the iPhone was not designed primarily for games, they soon dominated the best-selling app charts, a pattern that was duplicated on Android devices and looks set to repeat with Windows phones. Qualcomm, a major manufacturer of chipsets for mobile devices, estimates that 60 percent of smart-phone users regularly play games on the devices.

Hand control: The iPod Touch has become a popular platform for games; many games for the device allow players to tilt the device back and forth in lieu of a keypad or joystick.

Consequently, chip makers have been competing to provide mobile-device manufacturers with better and better graphics capabilities by means of dedicated processors that are now among the devices’ most complex and powerful subsystems. Painting hundreds of thousands of pixels at a time, these graphics processors don’t just display two-dimensional icons, pictures, and video but can render the complex 3-D environments of many modern video games—calculating, for example, how a sunbeam will reflect off a tattered flag as it flutters in a breeze.

Qualcomm spent $65 million in 2009 to buy the handset graphics operations of Advanced Micro Devices, which were originally part of ATI Technologies, an early leader in graphics processors for personal computers. ARM, which designs the general-purpose processor cores that power most of the world’s smart phones, has been placing increasing emphasis on its Mali family of graphics processors, the first versions of which were announced in 2007. The overarching importance of graphics has even allowed Nvidia, which created the first commercial graphics processing unit in 1999 for the personal-computer games market, to enter the market with an eight-core graphics processor and a dual-core general-purpose processor bundled on the same chip. “The catalyst was Apple’s iPhone,” says Matt Wuebbling, director of product marketing for Nvidia. “It showcased a mobile device that is purely display based.” That is, it relies on a graphical interface for all interactions with the user.

One of the biggest challenges companies like Qualcomm and Nvidia faced as they developed graphics processors for mobile devices was to provide advanced processing without draining a battery within 20 minutes. While graphics cards for personal computers often required beefed-up power supplies and cooling fans, Qualcomm calculates that its latest chips render a scene nearly as complex as those found in desktop computer games but use less than 1 percent as much energy as a desktop graphics processor.

See the rest of our Business Impact report on The Business of Games.

Because the mobile market is so huge, chip makers can make investments that they couldn’t afford for smaller targets. Market researcher iSuppli says that last year 295 million smart-phone handsets were shipped, compared with 27.2 million dedicated handheld gaming devices such as the Nintendo DS. The result has been a positive feedback loop: better hardware leads to more advanced games, which in turn stoke the demand for better hardware. Progress has been so rapid that mobile devices are moving toward the kind of graphic performance normally associated with video-game consoles and high-end PC systems. For example, last spring Sony Ericcson introduced the Xperia Play phone, which is capable of playing games designed for the original PlayStation console, and Apple says the iPhone4S contains a graphics processor from Imagination Technologies that is seven times faster than that of the iPhone 4.

Indeed, as mobile graphics power increases, growing numbers of users are likely to play some of their favorite mobile games on their big-screen TVs, by hooking up the handsets through a cable. In terms of the graphic capabilities available, says Wuebbling, “on the mobile side, for gaming, we’re where PCs were 10 years ago.”

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