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Measuring Input Lag in Browsers

For games, the time between a key-press and the appropriate action happening on the screen can often decide over virtual life or death.

It is no surprise that game developers go to great length to reduce input lag as much as possible. Guitar Hero for instance even has an option to compensate for lag. One of the biggest time hogs these days seem to be displays, but a poorly written application or game can introduce a lot of lag as well.

The typical path a key-press travels – Keyboard » USB Driver » OS » Application – is bad enough as each of these layer can introduce some lag. Yet, JavaScript games have to go through an additional layer they have no control over: the browser – which in itself may have several layers that introduce lag until a JavaScript callback for a keydown event can be called.

I decided to try and measure this lag for different browsers to see if there's room for improvement. The good news: most browsers do a good job delivering input to JavaScript events as fast as possible. The bad news: Chrome does not.

I build a simple website that draws to a canvas element at 60 frames per second, counts the number of frames and captures input events. I used my camera (a Samsung NX200) to record video at 120 frames per second, then slowed the video down even further to have a close look at the results.

The response time from the command prompt was used as a baseline (I measured the same lag with Quake 3 and other native games): 5 frames or about ~83ms. This is pretty awful to begin with. I'm not really sure where all this lag comes from, but I blame the display. Since I measured all (Windows) browsers with the same setup, results are still comparable.

Firefox 14 had the fastest response time of only 5 frames, followed by IE9, Opera 12 and Safari 5.1.5 (Mac) with 6 frames. The real surprise here is Chrome's response time of 8 frames or 133ms – 50ms more than Firefox. This doesn't sound like much, but if you directly compare a real JavaScript game in Chrome and Firefox, you can definitely feel the difference.

The input lag for Mobile Safari on iOS6 is around the 5 frame, ~83ms mark as well. I also tried to measure the Android's "Browser" and the Chrome Beta on my Galaxy Nexus, but couldn't get accurate results.

Chrome on Android refused to render at more than 20 frames per second and the "Browser", while proclaiming to render at 60 frames per second, only really presented every fourth frame. This is clearly visible in the slow motion video – 4 boxes appear at the same time, instead of one after the other. This is also why HTML5 games in the "Browser" (damn, I hate that "name") still seem to stutter, even though they are "rendered" at 60 frames per second.

Android has a lot of catching up to do.

I build another simple website that behaves like Guitar Hero's lag calibration. As humans, we try to compensate for the lag ourselves by pressing a bit earlier, so the results from this aren't as accurate as measured with a camera, but you can clearly see and feel the difference between Chrome and about any other desktop browser.

Try it here:

Update June 26th, 2012

As suggested by Filip Svendsen in the comments, I made another video to show mouse input lag in Firefox 14 and Chrome 22. To make the lag easier to spot, I wrote a Python script to move the mouse cursor at constant speeds.

From the video, it's quite obvious that the mouse lag in Chrome is much higher than in Firefox. However, the movement looks much smoother in Chrome. I guess you can't have everything - at least not yet.

Tuesday, June 19th 2012
— Dominic Szablewski, @phoboslab