NVIDIA SHIELD Hands-On Preview
The SHIELD portable gaming handheld is one of the few products this year which took the tech world by storm. After NVIDIA's decades of focusing on designing graphics chips for the desktop, professional and mobile markets, its announcement came as a surprise to industry watchers. However, when taking a step back and looking at the many gaming-focused technologies NVIDIA have been rolling out, SHIELD suddenly starts to make perfect sense.
If all had gone according to plan, tomorrow SHIELD would launch in the USA and Canada, pre-orders would ship out and our review would go live. Unfortunately, even the best laid plans can go awry and that’s exactly what happened. While conducting their final QA checks, NVIDIA discovered a slight flaw with a third party component and in order to ensure a smooth release, the launch was delayed. Availability and in-depth articles will have to wait until sometime in July.
So what exactly is SHIELD? It certainly isn’t the Android-only gaming platform some make it out to be. Android may be an integral part of this equation but if it was the only show in SHIELD's repertoire, we’d be the first to rail against the $299 price and its relative bulk when compared against the sleek and perfectly capable tablets which populate the market. NVIDIA isn’t gunning for the PS Vita or Nintendo DS either since both already have their pre-established niches.
NVIDIA’s goal has always been to build something unique that will bring seemingly dissimilar elements under a single platform. While Sony and Nintendo’s handheld consoles have very few points of divergence and somewhat limited selections of playable titles, SHIELD could be the first cross-platform, purpose built gaming device that has access to a library of countless titles from day one.
SHIELD’s true purpose is to act as a kind of multi-function technology demonstrator which showcases the ecosystem NVIDIA has been quietly building for the last 24 months. In a way, it is supposed to bridge the gap between Android and the PC while offering features neither has been capable of delivering. From a highly capable gaming platform, to a wireless streaming hub, to a portable media delivery system, it has the chops to succeed in many different segments.
To act as an all-in-one device, SHIELD features the Android-based TegraZone which acts as a general jump off point for key OS elements, GeForce Experience to facilitate PC to device communications, Steam’s Big Picture for SHIELD-based PC gaming and finally a pure version of Google’s Android 4.2 Jelly Bean. The Android OS gives users access to all of the Play store’s games while Steam opens up your personal PC gaming library.
Those are a lot of different elements being shoehorned into a single device but they combine to make SHIELD a potential game changer in the portable gaming market. From our somewhat limited experience, the experience is surprisingly well balanced too.
For many gamers, the most important element of SHIELD won’t be its access to the simple games which populate the Play store but rather its integration with your existing library of PC games. While Valve's Steam is the only platform currently supported, its ability to add executables from other services like Origin and UPlay makes SHIELD infinitely accessible. It’s even possible to add basic application support so web browsers, PDF readers and video playback programs can be streamed from the PC, significantly lowering SHIELD’s battery consumption.
One item that isn’t ready for prime time yet is GeForce GRID. While initial presentations had NVIDIA’s cloud game streaming service as a part of the SHIELD experience, none of the ISPs in North America has rolled it out yet and won’t be doing so for the foreseeable future. When asked if they would create their own service rather than relying on the telecoms NVIDIA’s response was a definite “no” due to the infrastructure costs involved.
In order to actually get the PC content to SHIELD, NVIDIA is using a wireless connection between a built-in advanced 2x2 MIMO WiFi antenna and a router that supports the Wireless N protocol. A fast, high strength home wireless network is an absolute necessity to ensure worry free PC streaming, as is a GTX 650 or higher.
To actually move the data, the PC system will do all of the heavy processing work and pass information off to the dedicated H.264 encoder / decoder within any Kepler-based graphics card. This stream will be then passed from the PC and through the wireless network towards SHIELD which will then decode the video. For those wondering, the amount of latency introduced into this process is largely determined by wireless performance.
With an integrated HDMI 1.4 connector, SHIELD can also transport all of its onscreen elements to an HDTV, monitor or projector. Considering most tablets and superphones require expensive docking stations to achieve something similar (other than the ones which support DLNA streaming), we can see this becoming an integral element in a home networking ecosystem. If being tied down to an HDMI cable isn’t your thing, Miracast wireless streaming is also supported but finding certified receivers isn’t all that easy.
One major selling point of this device is its responsive inputs and we can attest that NVIDIA has fine-tuned the gaming experience to near perfection. The analog sticks deliver excellent feedback, the buttons respond with a satisfying yet muted click and the shoulder triggers won't be activated inadvertently. Compared to the disappointing experience we had with the beta hardware, this is a massive improvement which makes SHIELD feel like a proper gaming device.
In a world full of sleek, sexy tablets, SHIELD is unapologetic about its gaming roots. Instead of following current trends of sexing up the tablet experience it looks bulky and uncomfortable by virtue of its game-controller-meets-flip-up-screen approach. But don’t rush to judge it based on looks alone; NVIDIA has designed a frankentablet that’s surprisingly comfortable, sits perfectly in your hands due to its use of soft touch materials and weighs less than an iPad 3.
On the positive side, since it isn’t a pretty device you won’t see a gaggle of beard-totting, plaid-clothed introverts with it in a local Starbucks. What it is, is ergonomic, built to high standards and functionally well designed for its intended purpose. Just don’t expect to carry it around in your pocket.
SHIELD is backed up by some robust hardware specifications like a quad core Tegra 4 processor, 16GB of onboard storage space (expandable to 2TB) and a gigantic 28.8 WHr battery that’s good for up to 5 hours of Android gaming or several days of PC media streaming. However, its small 5” screen will likely be seen by gamers as a limiting factor.
While SHIELD is primarily meant to bring Android and PC games into the living room, as a truly portable gaming device it has some limits. Its size alone means would-be gamers will have a hard time carting it around without a backpack. The aforementioned 5” 720P screen does incorporate multi touch functionality, excellent viewing angles and impressive backlight output but many will find themselves looking for more visible real-estate from such a physically large device. That screen is also highly reflective so gaming in well lit environments is sometimes hard.
After using it for a few days, we found the software experience to be quite impressive but several key features are still missing in action. For example, PC streaming with GeForce Experience and Steam's Big Picture hasn’t been made available to reviewers, though we’re promised a working beta “soon”. Actually finding controller-supporting Android games is a lesson in frustration, though NVIDIA promises a wide variety of SHIELD titles come launch. We’ll keep or fingers crossed for that but only time and development resources will fix the dearth of controller support found in most Android games.
NVIDIA is working hard with Android developers to introduce controller support and a number of SHIELD certified games will be available at launch. Titles like Real Boxing and Blood Sword: Sword of Ruin highlight a richness of design and seamless input integration which go a long way towards justifying this new platform’s credentials.
This situation does tell us one thing though: the red flag from NVIDIA’s QA team which led to the delayed launch couldn’t have been timed better. As the situation currently stands, without PC streaming support, SHIELD is exactly what some feared it would be: a $299 novelty which can push online content to your HDTV but only has access to a limited suite of rudimentary Android games. Some more time in the baker’s oven will certainly improve things.
The road to this point has been undoubtedly bumpy for SHIELD. There were bugs during its initial CES unveiling, a visceral knee jerk reaction to what many thought was an overly optimistic $349 price, a subsequent cost reduction to $299 and now a delay that pushes back its availability to sometime next month. We also feel there is a fundamental disconnect between what SHIELD really is and what people believe it to be. Whether or not this is due to a lack of clear marketing, a public that’s too fixated on its Android roots or something else altogether is up for debate. It is up to NVIDIA to prove the naysayers wrong by releasing SHIELD as the all-inclusive device it has the potential to become rather than the limited platform it currently is. Is that possible? From what we’ve seen, the answer is a definite yes.
SHIELD’s nebulous existence up to this point may have hurt its chances of making an immediate impact in a market which desperately needs some excitement. That’s a shame since it is an enticing, unique, feature-rich product which has a ton of potential. However, we have confidence that SHIELD's potential will be realized when NVIDIA officially rolls it out next month.
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