Why do Android manufacturers limit app and game performance?

A Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and OnePlus 9 Pro in someone's hand

C. Scott Brown / Android Authority

Samsung found itself in the midst of a heated controversy last week as reports of alleged throttling began to circulate on Korean technology forums. Dozens of users complained that Samsung’s Game Optimizing Service (GOS) was limiting the performance of select apps and games on their smartphones, some of which go back generations. The company responded predictably, stating that the feature is intended to prevent the CPU and GPU from overheating. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen phones artificially limit apps and games, OnePlus was caught “optimizing” performance in 2021.

It’s easy to see why so many Android enthusiasts are so outraged — you’re essentially paying for premium hardware performance that’s usually inaccessible. For example, in the case of a 3DMark benchmark, the Galaxy S22 Ultra’s score would drop almost 50% if the optimization service is enabled. While Samsung deserves criticism for not disclosing this behavior, let’s try to understand why it went down this road in the first place.

More on throttling: Hey OnePlus, it was never about the crime, it was about the cover-up

Throttled vs. unthrottled: Was Samsung right?

Genshin impact on the Vivo X70 Pro Plus.

Hadlee Simons / Android Authority

When dealing with a portable device such as a smartphone or tablet, factors such as power consumption, battery life and heat are arguably far more important than raw performance. And on that note, new tests show that Samsung’s Game Optimizing Service could justify its namesake.

galaxy s22 ultra turns on vs off power

The above plot, courtesy of Golden Reviewer on YouTube, shows just how much extra power an “unoptimized” app can get from the S22 Ultra’s Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 SoC. With GOS turned off via an unofficial workaround, power consumption routinely peaks above 10W within the first minute. That’s a lot for a mobile device, which has historically wanted to peak in the 7W region. The power consumption drops after a few minutes of heavy use as the SoC starts to decrease.

With GOS turned off, everything seems to work as it should – albeit with very high power that consumes more battery and warms up the device faster. While some users may want to use the maximum power, here it is not sustainable and thermal throttling kicks in. But the most important thing to note is that the device continues to draw more current after thermal throttling than the device with GOS still on. Additionally, check out this framerate plot from the same run:

galaxy s22 ultra turns on vs off

In the second graph, we see that the unoptimized app eventually drops to the same level of performance as an optimized one. In other words, you see almost the same FPS after a few minutes of runtime – whether Samsung’s GOS exists or not. At the same time, however, power consumption remains noticeably high on the unpinned device. In other words, you’re consuming a lot more power for just a short-term boost in performance.

Without GOS, power consumption increases significantly with no long-term performance benefits.

While a single test won’t give us a conclusive picture of the big picture, the graphs above show that the S22 Ultra uses significantly more power to deliver the same end result in Genshin Impact – at least over the course of a few minutes. If this is consistently the case, then Samsung’s decision to artificially limit the performance ceiling was not only justified, but also somewhat cautious. As a result of higher power consumption, the unthrottled device will consume much more battery and heat up more – possibly resulting in poorer component life and faster battery degradation.

Can chip manufacturers achieve consistent annual performance improvements?

Qualcomm Smartphone logo on display

Robert Triggs / Android Authority

While Samsung’s performance cap seems somewhat justified, I’m not advocating that the company continue to tacitly restrict apps without the user’s consent or knowledge. After all, you own the hardware you pay for. If you want to prioritize performance over battery life, that choice should be available. That said, the vast majority of users have also never noticed the throttling behavior of Samsung or OnePlus during everyday use. Meanwhile, the real battery and longevity benefits of GOS and similar ideas are not only tangible, but noticeable for every class of users.

Perhaps there’s an argument that Samsung (and possibly other device makers) are resorting to app-level throttling because of the ever-present expectation of better performance from year to year, despite this goal no longer being achievable.

Majority of users never noticed Samsung or OnePlus throttling behavior during daily use. But battery draining or overheating issues would be detected immediately.

In our testing, the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 offers only marginally better single-core performance than last year’s Snapdragon 888. Multi-core Geekbench scores, meanwhile, showed little generational improvement. Interestingly, AnandTech’s testing of Qualcomm’s latest chip reveals higher peak power consumption when pursuing these performance gains. There are still performance and efficiency improvements, but peak CPU consumption also increases, which will eventually result in thermal headroom issues.

Likewise, our main concern when testing the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 and Exynos 2200 is their inability to maintain peak performance during benchmarking. A fact that is also reflected in the tests referred to in this article. While neither chip is a contender for one of the worst Android SoCs we’ve seen over the years, they aren’t capable of delivering the groundbreaking performance enthusiasts expected. This may be partly due to the fact that Samsung’s 4nm process isn’t as energy efficient as originally hoped.

All eyes are now on Mediatek’s flagship Dimensity 9000, the first SoC to be built on TSMC’s 4nm node. According to tests conducted on an early technical sample, the Dimensity 9000 delivers equal or better CPU performance than the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1. More importantly, it consumed about 20% less power on average. In a smartphone where every watt counts, such a reduction translates directly into better thermals and less aggressive throttling. TSMC-made 4nm Qualcomm chips are rumored to be on the way later this year, but we’ll have to wait and see if there’s a notable efficiency bump from switching to a different manufacturing process.

Maybe it’s time for us to shed the expectation of annual performance leaps.

With an industry-wide focus on peak performance above everything else, it’s clear that manufacturers are starting to feel the heat – quite literally. Perhaps it’s time for us to do away with the expectation of annual performance jumps and encourage chipmakers to switch to a less frequent update cadence or more conservative generational improvements.

But until that happens, it seems like we’re caught between a rock and a hard spot. We can either pay for a premium device with unsustainable peak performance or a cheaper, less feature-rich device that offers more consistent performance. Fortunately, if you prefer the former, Samsung has already released a software update for Galaxy S22 models that offers more granular control over its Game Optimizing Service, including the ability to disable it completely.

Next: It’s time to let go of our fascination with the annual upgrade cycle


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