I’ve traditionally always played video games either on a console or on a PC. I first started handheld gaming back in the 90s on my Nintendo Gameboy. Fast forward to today, and even the most basic smartphone has probably ten times more processing power than my lowly Gameboy. Portable gaming is certainly sticking around, be it on devices such as smartphones or tablets, or on devices such as the Playstation Vita and the Nintendo 3DS. The latest tech marvel to make waves on the Internet is the Nvidia Shield, a bold handheld device that aims to offer a compelling gaming experience that’s limited by current devices.
Unboxing the Shield I’m struck by two things – its bulkiness and how similar it looks to an Xbox controller. The Shield is certainly no lightweight, with plenty of heft making it rather boxy to slip into your bag when on the go. But despite its large size, the Shield is made from premium materials, featuring comfortable matte grips, responsive triggers and buttons, and metallic plastic on the body. Nvidia’s signature green and black design elements seem to be mostly missing here, with just a slim green bar at the bottom of the device.
Lifting up the ‘lid’ on the Shield reveals the 5-inch 720p IPS touchscreen, which is gorgeous if not quite reflective at times. Below that are the Shield’s full-size controls, which is what contributes to the device’s size. While other handheld gadgets feature scaled down controls, the Shield has very comfortable thumbsticks and buttons, which is great if you’re going to be gaming for long periods of time. Right in the middle is a large Nvidia button, which when pressed takes you to launcher where you can access your games. Just below the screen are two speakers which offer surprisingly loud volume levels, but in hindsight most users will opt for headphones instead. At the back you’ve got ports for headphones, microSD expansion, and mini-HDMI.
Driving the Nvidia Shield is Android 4.2.1, which Nvidia have chosen to leave mostly unchanged. The only addition is Nvidia’s own games launcher, which lets you download or buy games that have been optimized for the Shield, or connect to your PC to stream games from your Steam library.
Powering the Shield is Nvidia’s Tegra4 processor, which packs plenty of juice for gaming. As an Android-powered device, the Shield absolutely blew through our regular benchmarks, scoring the highest in 3DMark with ease. Apps that ran well on Android smartphones or tablets were flawlessly executed on the Shield, with the gorgeous display making the experience even more enjoyable. The beauty of the Shield running Android means that you have access to the full Google Play store and the plethora of apps that are available, so whether you want to play a game of Sonic the Hedgehog or check your Facebook, you can do both on the Shield.
Gaming on the Shield is split into two different scenarios. The first one is where you can download or purchase a number of Android games that have been specifically optimized to run on the Shield. These generally cost a few dollars, and make good use of the Shield’s responsive controls and hardware to deliver a great gaming experience.
The second scenario involves streaming games from your Steam library on your PC, although this feature is currently in beta. You’ll need a suitably beefy PC to enable streaming, as well as an Nvidia Geforce 660 graphics card or higher. Once the shield and your PC are on the same network, you can connect to Steam using the Big Picture Mode and stream a number of supported games, including Bioshock Infinite, Borderlands 2, Half-Life 2, and a number of other titles.
In theory, the streaming mode works well. But in real life, it’s easy to see why it’s still in beta. For one thing, you’ll need to be standing pretty much next to your router for this to work flawlessly. I fired up Borderlands 2 on the Shield, and the moment I started walking away a few meters from my router, the game started getting choppy. What’s worse is that if you’ve got other people downloading or streaming on your network, the performance goes downhill. There were also frequent moments where the streaming just abruptly closed and threw me back to the PC selection screen without any explanation. It’s very much hit and miss, but in all honesty during the times when the streaming worked perfectly, it was actually quite satisfying to play my favorite Steam games on a more portable platform. Add to that the advantage of having tighter controls vs a keyboard and mouse, and you’ll see why there’s so much potential in what the Shield can do.
The display on the Shield is absolutely gorgeous, with comfortable viewing angles and graphics coming up crisp and clear. There is a noticeable slight degradation in quality when streaming games, but when playing native games off the Shield, it looks brilliant. Sound is surprisingly loud for the two small speakers situated with the Shield, but as mentioned before most gamers will prefer to use headphones while gaming.
If you’re gaming with something this powerful, then battery life is of course something to think about. In theory you can get through the entire day with a full charge of the Shield, assuming you’re using a few regular Android apps and maybe the occasional game. If you’re playing a Tegra-optimized game, you’re looking at about 5 hours of battery life, a standard Android game clocks in at about 10 hours, while streaming will last about 20 hours due to the compression used when streaming.
At it’s core the Shield is actually quite a beast, with plenty of power to run some pretty great games. But it’s most talked about feature is the ability to stream games from your PC, and sadly this isn’t quite perfect just yet. Add to that the bulky nature of the Shield and its price tag, and you’ll need to think long and hard about whether or not you want to be one of the early adopters.