OpenCL vs OpenGL: Differences and Full Comparison

OpenCL vs OpenGL

OpenCL vs OpenGL: Differences and Full Comparison

There’s a variety of open-source libraries for developers to leverage for their projects. These can range from open graphics libraries to massive libraries intended for parallel computing. One of these libraries, OpenGL, has been in the computing space for a number of years.

How does OpenGL stack up against OpenCL? These two libraries sound similar, but their differences may surprise you. One is an open programming library intended to program a wide variety of hardware, and the other allows for fast and effective rendering of 2D and 3D graphics.

Let’s get down to brass tacks and go over what makes these two popular open-source projects tick.

OpenCL vs OpenGL: Side-by-Side Comparison

Languages UsedC and C++C
Use CaseUsed to program GPUs, FGPAs, DSP, and CPUsUsed for operating 2D and 3D graphical rendering
CompatibilityPCPC, Android, iOS, Web Browsers
Type IntegrationCan be used with Java, Python, macOS, and C++None

OpenCL vs OpenGL: What’s the Difference?

OpenCL and OpenGL have similar aims in providing open programming platforms. They’re both provisioned and overseen by the Khronos Group, a consortium of developers and organizations promoting open platforms for developers to use.

They do offer up quite a few different means of delivering these standards, providing support for other open-source platforms like OpenXR and Vulkan for virtual reality and 3D graphics, respectively.

Use Case

OpenGL has been a popular alternative to DirectX for quite some time. It provides an open library for provisioning 2D and 3D graphical assets in applications like visualizers, web browsers, and games. It still retains a good degree of popularity despite Vulkan offering a bit more in comparison to DirectX 12.

OpenGL doesn’t really have extensions into other spaces, as it has a singular focus on its intended use case. It does make for a heavily documented means of implementing 3D graphics into a project, as it has the benefit of being an open-source project with a relatively long lifespan.

Numerous communities, ample documentation, and a plethora of tutorials make it a fairly easy platform to delve into if you’re wanting to integrate 3D graphics but want something more cross-platform friendly.

opencl vs cuda
Programs in the OpenCL language are intended to be compiled at run-time


OpenCL has a wildly different use case compared to OpenCL. Instead of being focused on solely graphical assets, OpenCL allows for the addressing and programming of hardware like processors, microcontrollers, FPGAs, and GPUs.

OpenCL is most similar to NVIDIA’s CUDA cores but has a little more flexibility that doesn’t solely rely upon NVIDIA’s proprietary hardware. Programmers can greatly speed up their applications by leveraging hardware to accelerate the processes executed by the code. It isn’t necessarily meant for gaming purposes but can handle some of the heavier calculations, like physics.


Choosing an open-source library has additional benefits, beyond the freedom to modify and generally being royalty-free for use. Compatibility with multiple computing platforms has its benefits, allowing developers to readily port their projects to other platforms.

OpenGL has a massive amount of compatibility with a variety of platforms. Developers have the option of utilizing OpenGL on Windows, Linux, macOS, BSD, Android, and web browsers among others.

Certain libraries for OpenGL also operate at a higher level and use abstraction to deliver solid graphical performance to all platforms without programming for a specific one. This effectively allows developers to create a single version of their application and make it easy to reuse the rendering effectively with different hardware.

OpenCL doesn’t have explicit requirements for operating systems, but there are certain pieces of computer hardware compatible with it. Developers have the option of utilizing AMD and NVIDIA GPUs, Intel and AMD CPUs, and certain Apple products.

Given that OpenCL acts more as an open-source counterpart to NVIDIA’s CUDA, it makes sense that there is less reliance on operating systems and software. The general aim towards accelerated computing means developers only need to look for supported vendors for OpenCL for their projects.

Supported Languages

As OpenCL and OpenGL are both programming environments, they do require some basic knowledge of coding to work effectively. OpenCL can make use of code written for it in C or C++ which, despite naming similarities, do have some distinct differences.

OpenGL is a little more restrictive and only allows developers to program with it in C. OpenGL is primarily focused on software, and C code runs on most modern platforms that are compatible with it.

opencl vs opengl
The OpenGL specification describes an abstract API for drawing 2D and 3D graphics.

OpenCL also has the option for type extensions, allowing for the integration of different languages beyond the natively supported C and C++. Developers can make use of Python, Java, and Xcode to program their hardware.

This is a major boon because it allows for higher-level languages with far more abstraction to address the hardware. Developers aren’t going to rely on themselves to do memory management, as this is already accommodated in Java and Python alike. There are enough similarities between C and Xcode that it might also aid developers transitioning into a Mac-oriented development environment.

OpenCL vs OpenGL: 6 Must-Know Facts


  1. Allows for accelerated computing without the use of proprietary hardware.
  2. Supports a wide variety of GPUs and CPUs.
  3. Programmers of differing skill levels and focuses can work with it.


  1. Massive compatibility across multiple devices and operating systems.
  2. Helps hardware-accelerated graphical rendering in web browsers like Firefox and Chrome.
  3. Has a massive community of developers for beginners to learn from.

OpenCL vs OpenGL: Which One Should You Use?

Given the differences in their focuses, it is rather hard to suggest either of these options over the other.

Choose OpenCL if…

Go with OpenCL if you’re in the business of parallel processing and accelerated computing. It allows for performance similar to NVIDIA’s CUDA while not relying entirely on proprietary technology to implement it.

This is a massive benefit for those working with machine learning, physics calculations, and anything else where intense numerical calculations are the order of the day. OpenCL even allows for addressing more specialized hardware, like NVIDIA’s tensor cores.

Choose OpenGL if…

Choose OpenGL if you’re looking for something to implement hardware-accelerated 2D or 3D assets. OpenGL is something of an industry standard, and while it may not enjoy the first-party support of environments like DirectX or Metal, it allows for use on multiple platforms far more easily than on individual platforms.

This allows developers to render graphically, regardless of the hardware in active use for the application itself. It has been an open standard for decades and it has an absolutely massive wealth of resources to draw from. It might lack the draw of newer libraries like Vulkan, but it still has plenty of life left in it for any rendering tasks you may need.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the benefit of using OpenGL over something like DirectX?

OpenGL is an open-source library for hardware-accelerated graphics, much like DirectX. Where the benefit of OpenGL comes into play is that it isn’t solely restricted to Windows platforms to work. A game or application utilizing OpenGL for graphical rendering has the option of making the software available for Linux, BSD, or even web browsers if they feel so inclined.

It doesn’t have the amenities and widespread support of Microsoft or Apple, but there are benefits in using a standard that isn’t relying solely on the functions of a particular operating system. With so many applications bridging the gap between desktop and mobile devices, it makes sense to lean more toward a development environment that allows for porting to as many compatible devices as possible.

What are some popular applications using OpenCL?

OpenCL sees usage in a fair few fairly popular applications. One notable usage is Blender, a popular and free 3D modeling software. Blender utilizes OpenCL for the renderer Cycles.

OpenCL hasn’t faced as much widespread adoption as OpenGL, but it is a fairly recent standard for hardware-accelerated computing. Another notable usage is the experimental builds of Mozilla Firefox, which leverages OpenCL for the high-speed rendering of Javascript and the DOM.

There are also a handful of games utilizing OpenCL, like BeamNG.drive. BeamNG utilizes OpenCL for handling the physics of their realistic driving simulation.

Is OpenCL more popular than CUDA?

NVIDIA has done quite a bit to position itself at the forefront of multiple sectors with CUDA and their tensor cores. OpenCL is a comparable standard for hardware-accelerated computing but lacks the general industry support to give it the legs it needs to compete with CUDA.

CUDA sees a lot of usage in fields like gaming, AI and machine learning, and cryptography. It does require a compatible NVIDIA GPU, but for those looking to crunch numbers quickly, it has proven to be a reliable and well-supported standard.

Since AI is a bit of a hot topic, there aren’t many models relying upon OpenCL to work. Popular AI models overwhelmingly rely upon NVIDIA’s CUDA and GPUs or completely different specialty-built quantum solutions.

Why would developers use Metal over OpenGL?

For those targeting ideal performance, proprietary development environments like Metal and DirectX can provide that. OpenGL can do away with a fair bit of the lower-level programming required of something like Metal or DirectX, but its being platform agnostic makes it a less-than-ideal fit if you’re looking for top performance across a wide breadth of hardware.

An unfortunate fact is that most applications for desktop users are going to be developed with Metal and DirectX in mind. While OpenGL has some wonderful benefits, it is a jack-of-all-trades that lacks the explicit support contracts you might find in other environments.

Why should you use open-source software?

Open vs closed-source software is a relatively heated debate. There are multiple benefits to using open-source software. Generally speaking, it is available for free with the caveat of relying on users for technical support. It being free makes it a popular choice for hobbyist developers or those who adhere to a certain ethos.

Where open-source software sometimes falters is in a lack of general focus and guidance you might see in closed-source software. They lack oversight committees that guide the development and progress of development.

Conversely, closed-source software is generally more refined, but typically requires some form of payment to utilize it. Development is handled by a core team of developers, and it is less of a communal effort to provide upkeep and support. Where closed-source falters is in the event of the development team going defunct and the software subsequently being abandoned.

To top