10 Galaxy Tab A7 Lite general gaming fate grand order

Ray tracing graphics for smartphones are here, but is this the real deal?

Galaxy Tab A7 Lite The fate of the grand system

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While there was a lot to dig into with Qualcomm announcing its Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 platform, the new feature that grabbed the headlines was undoubtedly the smartphone’s ray tracing graphics support. Qualcomm joins Mediatek’s Dimensity 9200 and Samsung’s Exynos 2200 with hardware-based ray tracing support, opening the door to impressive new graphical effects for mobile games.

With the flagship phones of 2023 set to support the feature almost universally, will it be the year mobile games stop playing second fiddle to console and PC graphics?

Well, yes, but no either. Smartphone ray tracing is undoubtedly a great feature which will, in all likelihood, make for even more amazing looking graphical effects and games. However, there are many hurdles still to be overcome, so an examination of the reality of ray tracing is in order.

Not all ray tracing apps are created equal

Qualcomm Ray Tracing chip example

The important thing to recognize here is that ray tracing is a graphic term that encompasses a wide range of possible applications. You can think of these as ray tracing “tiers”, each with their own graphics benefits and associated performance costs. Just because smartphones support ray tracing doesn’t mean games will look the same on console and PC.

Ultimately, it comes down to whether you can render an entire scene with computationally expensive ray tracing or rely on a hybrid approach that just uses ray tracing for some effects. Given that PC and consoles are still taking a hybrid approach, we’re definitely looking at the latter in the smartphone space. On the high end, caustics can determine the way light and reflections bounce off curved surfaces such as water or glass, while less demanding applications can improve the accuracy of shadows cast and help with reflections on some surfaces. That’s still cool, but keep those expectations in check as to what ray tracing can be used for.

Mobile ray tracing devices are less powerful than consoles and computers.

We know quite a bit about the ray tracing architectures used by Qualcomm and Arm, which gives us some insight into their capabilities. For starters, both basic square acceleration and triangle intercepts, the building blocks of ray tracing, work. Hardware calculation of the intersections of rays is many times faster than software calculation.

However, only Qualcomm supports Bounding Volume Hierarchical (BVH) (we don’t know about Samsung’s Xclipse GPU), a technology similar to that used by Nvidia and AMD in their high-end GPUs. BVH acceleration is important because it is used to speed up the ray-intersection mathematics by searching groups of polygons to narrow the intersections rather than casting each ray individually.

As such, we’d expect Qualcomm’s implementation to offer better frame rates and more ray-tracing complexity, but that’s assuming its ray-number-crunching capabilities are comparable to Arm’s in the first place. However, there are other aspects of ray tracing acceleration, such as noise reduction and memory management, that can be tuned to improve performance as well. We don’t know how far Arm or Qualcomm have gone in broader GPU optimization for these requirements.

Mobile GPUs vary in their level of ray tracing support and performance.

In terms of numbers, Oppo claims to boost the PhysRay engine by 5x by moving from software to hardware acceleration with 8th Gen 2.0. Meanwhile, Arm notes a 3x increase with its Immortalis G715 GPU in internal hardware versus software benchmarking. Unfortunately, none of the benchmarks tell us much about what kind of real-world performance and graphical capabilities we’re likely to see.

Qualcomm notes that it supports reflections, shadows, and global lighting, which are key technologies for producing decent, if not superior, ray tracing effects. Similarly, Arm notes that it uses mixed rasterization to improve lighting, shadows, and reflections. However, layering these features requires more and more processing power, and we don’t yet know how far the first smartphone chips can push support and at what frame rate.

Ray tracing won’t scale in smartphones like consoles

PS5 and Xbox Series X 2

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While we’ll have to wait and see what actual mobile gaming brings, what we can say for sure is that a smartphone chip designed for a graphical power budget of less than 5W won’t measure up to the performance levels of a gaming console or PC graphics card.

Nvidia’s latest RTX4080 graphics card is a 320W card, for example. At the same time, the Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X consume about 200 watts each (including their CPUs). 4K resolution with all the bells and whistles is simply out of the question for smartphone ray tracing.

Expect framerate and resolution compromises with ray tracing enabled.

Our closest approximation to real-world performance comes from Oppo talking about its PhysRay engine during a keynote on day one of the Snapdragon Tech Summit. The company reports that it can achieve 60fps at a modest 720p resolution, lasting 30 minutes running on the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 platform. This sounds good but clearly highlights the trade-offs a mobile phone will have to make in terms of frame rate or resolution. Not to mention that sustained performance can also be an issue, given the limited cooling available for the smartphone form factor.

Our time at Snapdragon Summit also included a hands-on demo. Qualcomm provided a short animation where we had the opportunity to toggle ray tracing on and off. It was easy to see the difference in lighting and reflections – even in day and night. However, we couldn’t adjust the camera or move around within the space, so there’s no way to know how well it will perform.

Doom and gloom aside, smaller smartphone screens don’t need ultra-high resolutions or extreme levels of graphical fidelity to look great. 720p 60fps or 1080p 30fps games with more luxurious lighting and reflections can provide a significant increase in mobile graphics fidelity.

Games will take some time to appear

GameSir X3 Controller with Genshin Impact

Dhruv Bhutani / Android Authority

During their recent announcement, both Mediatek and Qualcomm indicated that the first ray tracing-enabled mobile game would appear in the first half of 2023, just in time for the phones to make their way into consumers’ hands. One game is hardly a drop in the ocean, and it will be much longer, perhaps years, before ray tracing gains mainstream mobile appeal.

This is partly due to the fact that games have to be profitable, which means appealing to the mass market rather than being built for just a few phones. While there’s always free marketing in the first place, ray tracing apps will be an afterthought for many developers, at least until devices reach greater adoption. It was the same with console and PC games. However, Mediatek notes that it will work to get all major Chinese game studios to support ray tracing in the future. We’ve also spotted Chinese Tencent and Netease games on Qualcomm’s partner list, so some markets may move to support the feature sooner than others.

Support for the game is coming, but mass adoption could take years.

Most importantly, with Qualcomm on board, ray tracing is firmly on the map due to its massive sales volume. It is likely that an increasing number of titles will be gradually chosen in the coming years, providing more luxurious reflections and lighting for those phones that support them. Ray tracing via the increasingly popular Vulkan API means cross-platform ports are more viable than ever. So again, there’s a lot to hope for in the long run.

Should I buy a ray tracing phone?

Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 reference phone in hand

We hope this article has convinced you; number. You shouldn’t rush into buying a new phone just because it supports ray tracing graphics. We haven’t even seen the first mobile game to support the technology yet, so there should be no rush to be an early adopter here. To be honest, you might be better off waiting for the second generation of ray tracing GPUs to iron out the kinks and boost performance significantly.

However, if you’re in the market for a new phone soon, and gaming is a top priority for you, it might be worth waiting until 2023 to get a phone that’s a little more of the future. We expect the first ray tracing phone announcement before the end of the year.

See also: The best gaming phones you can buy today