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Carmack: iPhone Held Back Due to Slow Software

By - Source: Tom's Guide US | B 22 comments

iPhone could be more powerful than Nintendo DS and Sony PSP, but the software is holding it back.

Next week, one of the best looking games yet for the App Store will be hitting iPhone and iPod Touch gamers – Doom Resurrection.

id Software lead programming whiz John Carmack, who has developed 3D engines from Wolfenstein 3D to the yet-to-be-released Rage, has been quite charmed by the iPhone since its release, an opinion that he’s not afraid to share.

“I love the iPhone,” Carmack said in an interview with VentureBeat. “It’s a real game platform, not a tiny little toy.”

According to Carmack, the iPhone/iPod Touch has stronger gaming hardware than the Nintendo DS--which should be no surprise--but even stronger than the PSP. So then why have iPhone/iPod Touch games thus far been below the graphical and audio quality of the PSP? It’s a problem with the software, said the programmer.

“If you look at it in raw hardware horsepower, the iPhone should be better in performance than the Nintendo DS and the PlayStation Portable,” Carmack said. “But the truth is, you can’t exploit it all because of software inefficiencies.”

While the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP are purpose built for gaming in mind, the iPhone software must also manage other forms of applications and even (gasp) phone functions.

Escalation Studios, the developers behind Doom Resurrection, expect to be able to take advantage of various features of the upcoming iPhone OS 3.0, though the game is designed to run fine on the current 2.x base.

As with any development platform, the software tools will get better over time, which should yield better games. The only disappointing bit of news for diehard first-person shooter fans is that Doom Resurrection will be an on-rails experience.

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  • 0 Hide
    apache_lives , June 12, 2009 11:49 PM
    iphone needs a directx/openGL like approach, perhaps.
  • 7 Hide
    CR0W M@GN3T , June 13, 2009 12:04 AM
    Even if the iphone can surpass the PSP or DS in terms of power, a touchscreen control scheme can only go so far. I don't know about anyone else but I prefer actual tactile buttons.
  • 3 Hide
    Hatecrime69 , June 13, 2009 12:27 AM
    apache_livesiphone needs a directx/openGL like approach, perhaps.


    afaik the iphone does use opengl (the new iphone upping the support to opengles 2.0 i believe)
  • Display all 22 comments.
  • 0 Hide
    fuser , June 13, 2009 12:57 AM
    Watched the preview video and I'm not impressed. The soundtrack is cool.
  • 0 Hide
    tayb , June 13, 2009 1:10 AM
    cr0w m@gn3tEven if the iphone can surpass the PSP or DS in terms of power, a touchscreen control scheme can only go so far. I don't know about anyone else but I prefer actual tactile buttons.


    I agree on the tactile buttons comment but I am sad to say that we are most definitely in the minority.
  • 0 Hide
    midnightgun , June 13, 2009 5:45 AM
    For the controls comment, there is absolutely nothing stopping a company (even a gaming company) from making a device that has the iphone plug into it in landscape mode with full buttons under it (that I know of).

    With api's giving direct access to the hardware in that is plugged into it (in os 3.0), there shouldn't be this input limit any longer.

  • 0 Hide
    anamaniac , June 13, 2009 8:52 AM
    It`s a phone and a iPod, what do you expect?
    That's their dedicated purpose.
    Games and the such are only side projects.

    On the other hand...
    The PSP/NDS are dedicated gaming platforms, and everything else comes second.

    Hell...
    I'd rather buy the old PSP (new one isn't as good eye candy in my belief) and use it as a MP3 player and phone through VOIP (however you would do that) than a iPod touch or iPhone as a handheld gaming device.
  • 0 Hide
    eddieroolz , June 13, 2009 9:33 AM
    More powerful than the PSP, you say? I have a hard time believing that, but if a programmer says so, then perhaps.

    However, I disagree that iPhone is any good. Without the third party apps to cover Apple's shortfalls, such as copy/paste, video record and MMS, it would be a piece of crap platform.

    Oh well, I love my SH906i.
  • 0 Hide
    Andraxxus , June 13, 2009 12:33 PM
    If they fix this software problem I wonder what other games will we see on the iPhone.
  • -2 Hide
    eternalkp , June 13, 2009 4:14 PM
    carmack is out of his mind. iphone better than psp? righttt

    i've seen the preview video of doom resurrection and it's horrible. awkward laggy control and the video quality looks mediocre.

    id used to make fun games like hexen, heretic, doom2. when there are no other games around. But i think it's all over for them. Doom3 was an alright game. There are giant companies out there like valve, crytek, etc.

    Apple iphone is a horrible phone. I bought one for my gf with latest 2.2.1. For a phone, it crashes too much. 6hours video life like apple claimed? NO, more like 1.5hr.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , June 13, 2009 9:15 PM
    Carmack would probably jizz all over the Pandora (handheld) if it wasn't going to be a niche device with a relatively small audience. I'd play a new Doom on it.
  • -1 Hide
    rexoverbey , June 14, 2009 12:16 AM
    The iPhone 3GS is definently better than PSP. The PowerVR SGX supports OpenGL ES 2.0 programmable shaders and it runs at over 200mhz. The CPU is a 600mhz Cortex A8 Arm11 which is twice the mhz of the aging PSP Media Engine processor. That is not even counting the dedicated VPU. Still even with just the multi-touchscreen controls a lot of people are counting out the built in accelerometer, ad-hoc bluetooth gaming, and with OS3.0 third party support for accessories (including controllers).
  • -2 Hide
    eternalkp , June 14, 2009 12:20 AM
    we'll see about that,
    what retard would game on the iphone?
    i be you can game for 90min before the battery dies
    no keyboard,
    i have gamed with those keyboard on the touch screne, horrid.

    RULE OF THUMB: never believe what apple breaches. I have both ipod nano (ok device) & iphone 16gb 2G (horrible device)
  • -1 Hide
    Anonymous , June 14, 2009 2:32 AM
    Unix/Mac OS have never been good gaming platforms, just like windows before the refined it to work directly with Direct X (which most people don't realize wasn't created by M$, M$ bought the company that created it). M$ refined it's OS later to bypass some of the overhead created by the OS to speed up directx.

    Apple probably needs to do the same to BSD, but I doubt they ever will.
  • 0 Hide
    biometricsguy , June 14, 2009 5:12 PM
    There are a couple of subtle yet very important details that are always overlooked when trying to compare the hardware of these two devices. First, the iPhone uses an ARM processor. This is the single worst production level implementation of a RISC style architecture that you can find. It was really meant for extremely low power devices. (typically cell-phones and old PDAs). It has gained quite a bit of popularity in recent years as it has been improving. It even somehow made its way through nvidia's doors. However, quite literally, every other risc architecture out there is better. The PSP uses MIPS. While this really isn't a whole lot better, it does make a difference.

    Another important thing to remember is that the PSP has a 128 bit bus compared to the iPhone's 32 bit bus. I don't know how it is that this is always overlooked, but this makes a huge impact in overall number crunching (which is mostly what gaming is). This is the same advantage that the Neo-Geo had back in its day that made it appear so far ahead of its time.

    The third point is that people tend to drastically under-estimate the role the CPU plays in 3d acceleration. There is this myth that the cpu doesn't matter as long as we have a great GPU. This happens to be somewhat true in the PC world because x86 processors have gotten to be so fast that they can generally keep up with the GPU without too much effort. In the mobile world however, this isn't the case at all. These dinky little ARM processors are fighting for every breath, and when they are responsible for keeping every other piece of hardware up and running, they're not going to have a lot of free cycles to give to the GPU. I think that this is the root cause for the iPhone's inability to game on par with other mobile devices like the PSP. No amount of software improvements are going to fix this. They either need to have some type of "game mode" where the entire phone minus the GPU, audio and screen are disabled, or move to a larger buss (which I've heard rumors that the next gen iPhone will be 64 bit). Even then, I'm not sure that it could keep up with the PSP.

    One last point, remember that Carmak is pure software guy, a mighty fine one at that. However, I wouldn't put muck stock in what he has to say about hardware. Just my two cents.
  • 0 Hide
    eternalkp , June 14, 2009 8:58 PM
    thank you, very helpful biometric

    it's pure logic, just look at the graphic game play at the psp vs iphone. iphone is far inferior. psp control is just awesome.

    what is the big fuss with the iphone, blackberry is out selling them. i hate apple so much. they make verything shinny and idiots falls for it...iphone os, os x.

    since when is apple concentrating on gaming. leave that to a windows pc & xbox, sony, nintendo.

  • 0 Hide
    antilycus , June 15, 2009 6:56 PM
    Everyone thank Apple for testing and selling their beta kits to the public. All you current iPhoner's currently have one. Iphone 1, iPhone2, Iphone 3, iPhone 3S, all of thse should've been in 1 product...you can thank corporate greed and stock investors for ripping you off and you can thank yourself for falling for it.
  • 0 Hide
    rexoverbey , June 16, 2009 4:06 AM
    The PSP design is long in the tooth biometrics guy. For one it lacks programmable shaders and per pixel lighting that you will see with the iPhone 3GS. The PowerVR is a pixel, geometry, vertex part that even supports OpenGL 2.0 and DirectX 9 SM3. The ARM11 Cortex A8 will allow for denser code than the MIPS processor in the PSP. Plus it will have 256MB of RAM vs 32/64MB(PSP 2000+). Also the PowerVR is a 128-bit internal bus not 64/32.

    From the technical specs of PowerVR SGX...."POWERVR SGX IP cores to another new level with an upgraded 128-bit internal bus architecture and related enhancements to maximise performance when integrated in the latest SoCs."

  • 0 Hide
    biometricsguy , June 16, 2009 6:23 PM
    I'm certainly not trying to dispute the fact that the iPhone has some fairly powerful pieces of hardware. Unfortunately, there wasn't a lot of thought (nor real design) put into making all of the pieces work well together. Independently each piece is fairly meaty (at least the GPU). However, when you throw the whole thing together like a bunch of legos, things tend to not work well together. Your system as a whole can only run as fast as it's weakest link. For example, having a 128 bit internal GPU doesn't help too much when the CPU is only 32 bit. The data has to be fed to the GPU before it can do anything with it. Also, although you're probably right about the denser code in the ARM, don't confuse the term "denser" with "optimized", nor "efficient". Frankly, both MIPS & ARM are poor implementation of an already inferior architecture (RISC). If they were going to use a RISC style processor I would have hoped that they at least chose powerPC. That was their flagship architecture for so many years after all. Of course, it would probably have taken too much time and money to design an ultra-low power version, neither of which would be acceptable when Apple's trying to push the product out the door ahead of schedule.

    The PSP hardware, while sub-par is some regards (by today's standards), was designed very well as a system. Plus, it doesn't have to load balance between 20 other tasks like the iPhone does. I think this is why you're simply not seeing the same quality of games on the iPhone as you do on the PSP. Unless some serious redesign is done in terms of hardware, I don't think you ever will.

    I think that what Antilycus is saying has a lot of truth to it. Unfortunately, The iphone really was just thrown together as quick as possible, and now they're letting the customers debug the system for them. I suppose this is the hardware equivalent of agile development, which is all the buzz right now. ;) 
  • 0 Hide
    hillarymakesmecry , June 16, 2009 7:56 PM
    It's held back by the lack of buttons.
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