Which is better for gaming — an Android phone or an iPhone? (The answer is obviously a proper big-rig gaming PC, a giant monitor and a comfy chair, but we won't get into that argument.) Three million mobile device benchmarks later, the creators of 3DMark have the definitive comparison of mobile graphics power when it comes to Apple's iOS smartphones and tablets versus the Android powerhouses of Samsung, Nvidia, Sony and Motorola.
One graph from Futuremark tells you everything you need to know. It's a distribution of average device scores from Futuremark's 3DMark Ice Storm mobile benchmark over the last two years until now — every significant phone and tablet release, the best of their respective eras — since the reign of the iPhone 5S and iPad 4. It includes the original Apple iPad Air, the slim Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet, the Nvidia Shield Tablet, the Motorola Nexus 6 and Samsung's Galaxy S6 Edge+ — the current smartphone champion.
And that graph shows a few interesting trends. Look at the rise of Apple's tablets, for example. Every release — iPad 4 to iPad Air to iPad Air 2 — is a significant improvement, jumping from 10K to 15K to 20K in 3DMark's Ice Storm Unlimited. The story is a little different for the iPhone; the 5S already scored a respectable 15K, but the 6 Plus only jumped to around 17K. And, tomorrow, we'll likely see at least one new top iOS device — maybe even two, if the rumoured new iPad Pro turns out to be real.
Sony's Xperia Z Ultra was the smartphone gaming king in 2013 with a score around 18K, but a quick succession of new best Android phones and ceaseless competition means that the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+ is the current champion at 25K. Android tablets effectively mirrored the smartphone of the day two years ago, but the launch of Nvidia's Shield blitzed the competition mid-last year and it has remained the supreme mobile gaming device since then. New releases from a dozen major companies continue at a much faster pace than the Cupertino competition.
What's just as interesting is the fact that Apple's devices, despite being more conservative in their results and benchmark performance, are a lot more consistent. That is, there's a lot less deviation in the results as reported in 3DMark Ice Storm when you compare an iPhone 6 (when it was Apple's best performer post-September 2014) to the Nexus 6 (when it was Android's, between November 2014 and January 2015).
The iPhone 6's average score of 17278 is remarkably consistent — barely any devices register 18K scores, and barely any register 16K — where Nexus 6 devices have a distribution from any score as low as 18K and as high as 24K. That wide spread means the Nexus 6' average is only 21663, likely due to many devices throttling performance due to heat.
At the end of the day, though, Futuremark says the results are clear. When it comes to mobile gaming, whether it's on tablet or smartphone, Apple has always been playing catch-up with its Android competitors. Part of that comes down to the fact that Apple only (usually) iterates on its mobile devices once per year, but even then, comparing any Apple smartphone with any Android smartphone, or any Apple tablet with any Android tablet, you'll find there's a performance gap. Just how big that gap is tends to vary, but throughout the last couple of years of Futuremark's benchmarks it's been between 2K (phone to phone, the 5S versus the Z Ultra) and a whopping 15K (tablet to tablet, post-Shield launch).
So if you want to use your mobile device just to play games, you're always better off with an Android device. (Although you could argue that Apple gets all the best games, and it gets them first.) Who knows, though? That might all change with tomorrow's massive Apple launch event in San Francisco. Maybe the new iPhone or new iPad will sport a hugely powerful processor and will become the mobile gaming device of choice (moreso than it already is)? Maybe the Apple TV will become the ultimate couch gaming machine? But then another Android phone will come out in about a minute. We'll be reporting live, so stay tuned — our coverage kicks off from 3AM AEST on Thursday morning.
Here's the entire Futuremark infographic on Apple versus Android performance in the 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited benchmark. It's full of interesting facts — 3DMark is by far most popularly run on Apple iPhone 5Ss, although it has been run on over 3000 different phones and tablets. A new benchmark is generated on average every 30 seconds. China and the US love the Apple version of the app, whereas for Android it's Russia and the US — China really doesn't care about Android phone gaming benchmarks, with only 1.6 per cent of Android downloads coming from that location. [Futuremark / Google Play Store / Apple App Store]