Android to get a graphics boost with Vulkan, a low-overhead rendering API

As video and graphics become more central to our mobile lives, Google is betting that a new API for Android will improve the experience.

Mobile app developers looking for more direct graphics control will have it: Google on Monday announced Android support for Vulkan, a direct rendering 3D graphics API.

Vulkan actually comes by way of the Khronos Group, a non-profit consortium of companies creating open standard APIs for computer graphics rendering such as OpenGL and WebGL. Once Google integrates the new Vulkan APIs, developers can choose to use them or stick with the tried and true OpenGL ES.


So why would app-makers choose Vulkan over older or legacy graphics technologies? Vulkan will provide more app control to a device's GPU for better overall performance and efficiency, says Google:

"Vulkan is being designed from the ground up to minimize CPU overhead in the driver, and allow your application to control GPU operation more directly. Vulkan also enables better parallelization by allowing multiple threads to perform work such as command buffer construction at once."

The new APIs are designed with mobile graphics processors in mind instead of desktop-class GPUs.

Indeed, there's been at least as much, if not more, maturity on the mobile GPU side in the past few years due to the growing number of mobile apps, games and video uptake on tablets and phones.

Even so, older devices won't gain much as they'll still be relegated to legacy graphics solutions. Instead, ArsTechnica notes, Vulkan will be supported on most high-end phones and tablets from 2014 and up, powered by Nvidia's Tegra K1, Qualcomm's 400-series GPUs, ARM's 600, 700, and 800 line of Mali GPUs, and the PowerVR Series 6 from Imagination Technologies.

The last supported chipset is what you'll find in Apple's iPhone 5s and up but of course, those all run iOS. And they don't need another low-overhead rending API because Apple debuted one similar to Vulkan last year with Metal.

Google hasn't yet said when Vulkan support would officially arrive, and at this point, it's unlikely it would appear in conjunction with the Android M launch later this year. At its Google I/O developer conference in May, Google made no mention of Vulkan. It's possible the company held that announcement back, but I'm leery.

Instead, I suspect Android M will launch without Vulkan support or solely in a developer preview on certain Nexus devices, with additional phones and tablets to follow in a software update.