Armin Ronacher's Game and Graphics Development Adventures

SDL 1.3 on iOS

written on Monday, April 25, 2011

Personally I try to avoid Objective-C and Xcode if possible. I am not a fan of the language and I rather keep my stuff in a way that I can port it to other platforms with little amount of extra work. As such SDL 1.3 and Cmake are ideal candidates to target iOS and still be under full control of your stuff with simple porting possible to other platforms.

This tutorial assumes that you're in a similar boat. I will be using SDL 1.3 here in combination with cmake as build tool. Cmake automatically generates Xcode projects, so you can use Xcode for the actual development if you like to do that. In fact, keeping xcode open for compiling is a good idea because it automatically runs the iPhone simulator.

I personally don't pay for the yearly license currently so I run my experiments with the simulator only currently. You will need a developer license from apple to upload your applications to your phone for testing. Also as of recently SDL switched to the zlib license for 1.3 which means it's completely free for iOS or embedded development.

What are the reasons for SDL instead of UIKit? Your application can be ported to Android, WebOS, the Nintendo DS or any desktop operating system easily without having to replace large chunks of code. The license of SDL also allows you to modify any part of the SDL code without having to share them which makes it easy to adjust SDL to your particular needs if you hit a limit.

Compiling SDL 1.3

First we need to get hold of SDL 1.3. If you have mercurial installed, that's straightforward:

$ hg clone sdl-1.3

Once that's done, navigate to the “Xcode-iPhoneOS/SDL” folder and open the “SDLiPhoneOS.xcodeproj”. While the readme tells you to just set the SDK target, that is currently not possible. You will have to change the SDK to the one you want to develop with in the Project settings. During local development you want “iPhone Simulator 4.0”, on deployment you want “iPhone Device 4.0”. You can change the SDK by going to “Project -> Edit Project Settings” and then in the “Build” tab under “Base SDK”:

/static/blog-media/sdl-ios-menu.png /static/blog-media/sdl-ios-dialog.png

Afterwards just hit the “Build and Run” button and you're good to go or do the correct thing and just build (⌘B).

Once built, you can find the “libSDL.a” file in the “build/Debug-iphonesimulator” folder together with the headers. Unfortunately the headers are in a full canonical folder structure (“usr/local/include” instead of “SDL”) which would be more helpful.

What you will have to do is to move and rename a bunch of files:

  • libSDL.a -> libs/SDL/Debug/libSDL.a
  • usr/local/include -> libs/SDL/include

For local development you only need a simulator build instead of the device one.

Creating the CMakeLists.txt

Once that is done, create a file called CMakeLists.txt next to your libs folder with the following contents:

cmake_minimum_required(VERSION 2.8)



set(CMAKE_OSX_SYSROOT iphonesimulator4.0)


set(MACOSX_BUNDLE_GUI_IDENTIFIER "com.mycompany.\${PRODUCT_NAME:identifier}")


target_link_libraries(MyApp SDL)

If you want to run it on the phone you will need to change and add a bunch of things:

set(CMAKE_OSX_SYSROOT iphonedevice4.0)
set_target_properties(${NAME} PROPERTIES

In that case SDL will have to be built against the device and not the simulator. Once you're at that point, you should consider adding a switch to your configuration.

Hello iPhone

On the iPhone or other iOS devices you have OpenGL ES 2.0 to your disposal. Devices before the 3GS only have OpenGL ES 1.0, but these devices are slowly disappearing so for a small project it's not worth the hassle to support both. The differences between those two are quite big (the former only does fixed function, the latter only does programmable pipeline). The following example however uses OpenGL ES 1.0 for simplicitly.

To verify that everything works, create these two files:



#include <SDL.h>
#include <SDL_opengles.h>



#include <iostream>
#include <cstdlib>
#include <myapp/myapp.hpp>

static const int screen_width = 320;
static const int screen_height = 480;

static SDL_Window *win;
static SDL_GLContext ctx;

void sdl_error_die()
    std::clog << "Error: " << SDL_GetError() << std::endl;

int main(int argc, char **argv)
    if (SDL_Init(SDL_INIT_VIDEO) < 0)

    win = SDL_CreateWindow(NULL, 0, 0, screen_width, screen_height,
                           SDL_WINDOW_OPENGL | SDL_WINDOW_SHOWN);
    if (!win)

    ctx = SDL_GL_CreateContext(m_win);

    bool running = true;
    SDL_Event event;

    while (running) {
        while (SDL_PollEvent(&event)) {
            if (event.type == SDL_QUIT)
                running = false;

        glClearColor(1.0, 0.0, 0.0, 1.0);


Switching to OpenGL ES 2.0

If you want an OpenGL ES 2.0 context and environment you need two things:

  1. Change SDL_opengles.h to SDL_opengles2.h

  2. Tell SDL you want an OpenGL ES 2.0 context


Make sure to call the latter before you create the window and context.

Building and Running

To build this now you need to run cmake with the XCode generator:

$ mkdir xcode
$ cd xcode
$ cmake -GXcode ..

This will generate an Xcode project inside the “xcode” folder. Open it and hit the “build and run” button. If everything works the simulator should start and show you a red window.

At that point you can operated with the device as if it was a regular SDL target. The accelerometer reacts as if it was a joystick and the touchscreen sends finger and button touch events. Currently the haptics support does not work on iOS so you won't be able to vibrate the device. However there are two ways out: you can either provide a patch for SDL which shouldn't be too hard, or add an objective C file yourself and send the iPhone the appropriate commands yourself.

For more information about how SDL works on iOS read this followup article about the behavior of SDL.

This entry was tagged ios, opengl and sdl