In just a few short years, Android has become a tech juggernaut, dominating mobile phone and tablet market share alongside Apple’s iOS. Android’s open nature leaves the door wide open for third parties to leverage the OS in new and innovative ways. Right now, the heart of that discussion is in the gaming industry, where massive change is underway.
Nintendo just launched the Wii U. Microsoft and Sony will launch the Xbox One and Playsation 4 later this year. Android based consoles and accessories such as OUYA, Gamestick, and Moga have flooded the scene. And now NVIDIA – a company with a long and proven history of gaming industry success – enters the market with their own hardware: the Android-based NVIDIA SHIELD.
Design, Style, and Ergonomics
When first unboxing the SHIELD you know you’re in for a treat. It rests in the box on a slanted pedestal as if it’s confidently demanding attention. The display is so thoughtfully designed that it felt a bit like plucking Excalibur from the stone (or maybe I got caught up in the sword and SHIELD verbiage).
Wow, it’s quite heavy. Not heavy in a clunky or obnoxious way; heavy in a “this feels really expensive” kind of way. NVIDIA’s goal was to create a premium portable gaming device and it only took a couple seconds of holding the SHIELD to confirm they’re headed in the right direction.
The design is simple but striking. The matte black and silver finish are offset by glossy black accents and a cool stripe of neon green. The device is curved in all the right places to maximize ergonomics, but hard angled lines give it an edgy appearance at the same time.
Because the SHIELD is itself a controller, “feel” is one of the most important aspects of the device, and I was impressed. The SHIELD feels rock solid and substantial, but weighing in at 1.2 pounds, it still somehow rests lightly in your hands. It’s definitely one of the nicest controllers I’ve ever held, and with great attention to detail, to boot. If you’re an Xbox gamer, you’ll feel right at home.
Popping open the sturdy clamshell cover reveals the screen and gameplay controls.
Thankfully, NVIDIA doesn’t try to get cute or innovative with the button layout: the left analog stick is flanked by a D-Pad and the right analog stick is flanked by the four primary buttons (X, Y, A, B). In between are 5 additional buttons: Home, Back, Volume, and Start, with a slightly larger “NVIDIA” button between. Just above them is a barely noticeable microphone. On the top right and left of the controller are silver, front-facing speaker grills. They don’t just make noise… they make a statement.
Four additional buttons round things out, with triggers and bumpers on the back left and right. Once again, these are crafted flawlessly with the perfect amount of give and resistance during gameplay.
Opinions on the controller’s look and feel will largely depend on the size of your hands and personal preferences, but I’d oppose anyone who doesn’t think it looks and feels stellar.
At the core, NVIDIA is a chip manufacturer and in many ways this is their version of “Nexus”. They’ve taken their own product (Tegra 4), leveraged it to create what they consider the ultimate gaming device (SHIELD), while still providing direct competitors the same opportunity (ex: OUYA).
The crown jewel of the SHIELD hardware is NVIDIA’s quad core Tegra 4 processor, boasting 1.9 GHz of power and 2GB of DRAM. The Tegra 4 gives SHIELD a great performance boost, enabling developers to create more rich and dynamic experiences while simultaneously saving battery life. That’s not just marketing talk: both performance and battery life were impressive.
The SHIELD (thankfully) lacks cellular capabilities and a camera, but has just about everything else: 16GB of onboard memory, Micro SD slot, 3.5mm headset jack, Mini-HDMI out, Micro-USB, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 3.0, GPS, stereo speakers, built-in microphone, and an accelerometer.
The 5-inch screen is on a sturdy clamshell hinge and looks beautiful with its 1280 by 720 pixel resolution. Being able to tilt the screen at just the right angle is a noticeable luxury that the typical phone or tablet cannot afford. Whether you’re laying on the couch, sitting on the subway or airplane, or hanging upside down from a jungle gym, you’re able to get your viewing angle just right.
It’s all held together by a 28.8 watts per hour battery that keeps the beast fed.
The NVIDIA Shield is deliciously Android (4.2.1 on launch). No bait, no switch. All robot, all day.
This makes the SHIELD especially attractive for current Android users for three primary reasons:
- No learning curve: turn SHIELD on and you already know how to do everything
- No setup time: sync all your info from your Google account and you’re ready to rock
- BYOD: Bring your own downloads. All your previously purchased games and media from the Play Store are immediately accessible and the MicroSD slot allows you to sideload any additional media and info you could possibly want.
SHIELD is essentially stock Android with a few perks and twists:
- Hold down the NVIDIA button to power the device on and off
- Tap the NVIDIA button to access SHIELD Games, SHIELD Store, and PC Games within TegraZone
- Navigate through screens with the D-Pad and Left Analog Stick
- Navigate through homescreen pages with the left and right bumper
- Alternatively, adjust settings to force bumpers as volume up/down
- Use the Right Analog Stick as a mouse, pushing it in to click a link or make a selection
That’s about it… everything else is the Android you already know and love!
SHIELD Games & Store
First thing’s first: you’re still able to access the Google Play Store on SHIELD – go ahead and download all the apps and games your little heart desires (or can afford). The purpose of the SHIELD Store is to curate those games which best leverage Tegra 4 and the SHIELD’s controller configuration to maximize the user’s experience. SHIELD would be lost without this principle: the Google Play Store can be a vast wilderness to navigate.
If you want an example of everything that’s right with NVIDIA SHIELD, play Dead Trigger (1 or 2). The game performs brilliantly across the board. The first person shooter controls are mapped perfectly to the SHIELD controller. The graphics are gorgeous. Reflections on the water, smoke billowing in the distance, and blood splattering from your zombified enemies are artfully weaved into the action. And did I mention it’s outrageously fun?
Let’s go one step further (as I did in the above video) and connect SHIELD to a big screen television via HDMI. Holy smokes. The game truly looks, feels, and plays as if it’s coming directly from a console. But alas, it’s coming directly from the trusty, portable, Android-based SHIELD. You truly need to see it to believe it.
Dead Trigger isn’t the only game worthy of such distinction. Shadowgun, The Conduit, GTA Vice City, and several others deserve this distinction as well. If you’ll notice, these are all shoot ‘em up FPS type games, and I feel this genre particularly illustrates the fulfilled promise of SHIELD. But you’d be surprised: even the simplest of games achieve an enjoyment boost through SHIELD.
Take, for example, Beach Buggy Blitz or Riptide GT, where your primary input is simply steering, or a side scrolling platformer like Cordy. Play it on your phone or tablet and then play it on SHIELD: the difference is noticeable. Your vision isn’t blocked by constant tapping of onscreen buttons. Your hands are comfortably positioned under the ergonomic grips. The screen is tilted at just the right angle. The audio is loud and clear.
NVIDIA does most of the small things right with SHIELD and it goes a long way. Unfortunately, they didn’t get all the small things right.
By curating a list of SHIELD optimized games, NVIDIA is essentially giving their stamp of approval on the games they grant access. The total number of games currently in the SHIELD store is relatively small and I’ve played many of them. Games like Dead Trigger are near perfection, while others are pure frustration due to sloppy porting, poor explanation of game controls, or confusing layouts.
It’s a brand new product line. These are 3rd party developers. I get it. But NVIDIA’s reputation is staked to the SHIELD Store, so I think one of two things need to happen:
- Have more stringent quality guidelines for accepting games into the SHIELD Store, and/or
- Offer a form of SHIELD-only feedback for games so they can accumulate their own performance indicators directly related to their use with SHIELD. Google Play Store rankings and reviews might be spectacular, but if the game performs poorly on SHIELD, what’s the point?
Aside from the SHIELD optimized games, pretty much all games that are mapped to work with gaming controllers will work seamlessly with SHIELD. Again, each game will have its own quirks and oddities, but after a few minutes of figuring it out you’ll be well on your way. I must admit, some games get annoying when you’re constantly forced to switch between gamepad and touchscreen inputs, but hopefully the above suggestions will be taken to improve.
Then there are the games without controller support but that still work – mostly the simpler 1 or 2 button games. Be warned: if you plan on downloading a game that requires all touchscreen input, you’re going to be frustrated. The SHIELD is built as a console remote and gaming with the touchscreen is inefficient and annoying. In fact, even text input can seem exhausting, needing to “choke up” on the SHIELD with an awkward grip.
A couple incredibly minor complaints: sometimes the SHIELD Store prices did not match the Play Store prices, and the inability to organize my games alphabetically (defaults to most recently played) would be nice.
If NVIDIA can keep support and momentum going for SHIELD controller compatibility, they’ll not only be leaping a huge hurdle for themselves, but also for the Android ecosystem as a whole.
PC Streaming with Steam
I’m not personally a big PC gamer, but it’s hard not to be intrigued by the PC Streaming option with SHIELD. Users whose computer rigs meet the minimum standards – starting with an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 650 Graphics Card or above – can stream their Steam games onto SHIELD simply by connecting to the same Wi-Fi network. The computer and Wi-Fi does all the hard work, with SHIELD pulling down the data in real-time.
In theory, the service sounds awesome. In reality, I’ve tested the feature and it works amazingly well. That being said, I’ve still got my questions.
Not being a hardcore PC Gamer, my main question is how many Steam users will see this as a killer feature? If you’re already at home, how often would you prefer to play on a mobile device vs. sitting at your gaming PC? That remains to be seen and I’m curious to hear your thoughts in the comments.
I actually attempted to provide a video review of this feature, but faced a case of user error. I purchased the GTX 670 Ti Boost and attempted unsuccessfully to place it in 3 different computers. One didn’t have a Wi-Fi card, one didn’t have enough RAM, and the other simply couldn’t fit the graphics card on the mother board configuration. Total fail.
This brings up a recommendation: if you’re excited for the Steam streaming, check he hardware requirements. If you need to upgrade your current PC, triple check the configuration to make sure it will fit. I’m not the geekiest computer nerd out there, but I’m sure there are folks far less computer savvy who might be mystified by this process.
Chances are that most Steam playing PC Gamers who have a new computer running an NVIDIA GFX 650+ will be good to go. And if you know what that means without doing any research, you probably don’t need any additional help.
PC Streaming with Steam is a wonderful touch NVIDIA added, rounding out an already solid feature set with yet another cherry on the gaming cake. We hope to offer a full review of this feature in the coming weeks.
Big Screen Gaming: HDMI and Miracast
I already discussed HDMI gaming with NVIDIA SHIELD but wanted to make some quick clarifications.
SCREENSHOT FROM VIDEO
You’ll need a Mini-HDMI to HDMI cable, one which you can easily purchase at Amazon for under $15, or if you need it quicker, pop into Best Buy or Radio Shack where you’ll pay upwards of $30. Simply connect the mini-HDMI into SHIELD and the HDMI into your television, switch to the proper TV source, and you’re big screen gaming in near console quality. Pretty amazing.
If you want to scrap the wires you’ve got an alternative called Miracast. Some TVs come with the feature built in, but if yours doesn’t, you can purchase an add-on for under $100. The SHIELD already has the tech built in, so simply plug Miracast into your TV and your tech is set. Hold down the NVIDIA button and you’ll see Miracast as an option.
Enjoy! And don’t forget to check out Dead Trigger and Dead Trigger 2 as prime examples of SHIELD’s awesome big screen capabilities.
SHIELD Multimedia: Music & Movies
Beyond the gaming experience, SHIELD makes an amazing multimedia companion that rivals – and perhaps surpasses – most of its smartphone and tablet competitors.
Start with the stereo speakers. These things BOOM. They provide a certain level of immersion for gaming, but I was impressed with how this extended to the full multimedia experience. I found myself putting SHIELD on the counter in the kitchen or bathroom and using it as a Jambox. The stereo speakers make every multimedia interaction on SHIELD that much better. Even with headphones in, the sound quality is fantastic.
We’re running Android here, so once again, you’ve got all the multimedia options you would have on any Android device. YouTube, Hulu, Twitch, Google Play Movies, Netflix, or straight from your SD card. It’s all there.
Although SHIELD might be a tad bulkier to carry around, I found the multimedia experience to exceed tablets and smartphones. It rests comfortably in your hands or lap. You can tilt the screen to your desired angle, avoiding glare and awkward neck craning. For long car rides, flights, or even just watching a movie, it makes the hours pass much quicker.
SHIELD Battery Life
Speaking of hours passing, how many hours will pass before your NVIDIA Shield is out of juice?
The SHIELD is a 3-cell battery with a combined rating of 28.8-watt-hours. For those doing the math at home, NVIDIA expects you’ll get 4 to 5 hours of straight Tegra 4 gameplay, up to 10 hours of typical Android gameplay, movie playback for up to 15 hours, and music playback for up to 40 hours.
I find that battery capabilities are often over stated, but not in this case. I flew from San Francisco to Baltimore and then got on a bus to NYC, using SHIELD throughout the 10 hour trip. It was still kicking when I arrived in the Big Apple.
You’ll be pleasantly surprised with the SHIELD’s battery life. One suggestion: turn GPS, Wi-Fi, and other options off unless you truly need them… your battery will go even further.
There are two primary accessories you can purchase for the SHIELD — the first being cosmetic, and the second practical.
I like to call the silver piece on the top of the SHIELD’s case its “coat of arms” (NVIDIA calls them tags). You can easily remove the magnetic piece, replacing it with a black or Kevlar version sold by NVIDIA. I can only assume 3rd parties will offer skins or their own pieces altogether. The piece is shaped like a shield and allows you to personalize it with your own style – very similar to a coat of arms if you ask me.
The second accessory is a carrying case. It’s rock solid, looks fantastic, and even has a rubberized opening in the back so you can charge SHIELD while still keeping it protected. For the person constantly stuffing SHIELD into bags and on the road, this will be a must buy.
The carrying case costs $39.99 and tags are $19.99 each, both available at the SHIELD Store.
Competition & Alternatives
Priced at $299.99, NVIDIA SHIELD isn’t cheap, and lots of alternatives exist on both the low end and high end.
On the low end, most detractors of the SHIELD will question why they’d pay $300 when they can simply add an accessory to their smartphone or tablet that turns it into a gaming controller. If you’ve already dropped a huge wad of cash on Android devices, I can understand: take a look at GameStop’s range of Android controllers, all under $50. But make no mistake: you get what you pay for, and in this case you’re paying bottom dollar to slightly improve your gaming experience.
Many will compare SHIELD to OUYA, but besides both being based on Android, they’re nothing alike. At only $99, OUYA is an affordable console replacement, allowing you to rock all sorts of Android games from the comfort of your couch. But if you want to leave your couch, you’ll be leaving OUYA behind. And in comparing the quality of the controller itself… it’s not even a comparison.
Competing on a more level playing field are the Sony Playstation Vita ($249) and Nintendo 3DS ($199). These systems have a leg up on SHIELD in the games department, with a solid list of game titles that are beautifully optimized for gameplay. But guess what? They’re not Android, which brings an entire multimedia and software experience to the table, in addition to all the information, apps, and games already in your library.
The NVIDIA SHIELD is a valiant first attempt at creating a premium, portable Android gaming experience. They’ve not only succeeded in this challenge, but gone several steps further.
The SHIELD hardware is nearly flawless, offering an incredibly comfortable gaming experience by all measures. The ergonomics are wonderful, the controls and input are excellent, and the Tegra 4 processor runs the show beautifully. The 5-inch screen and booming stereo speakers provide an immersive experience while HDMI out, Miracast, and PC Streaming take SHIELD well beyond its promise of a portable gaming device.
Games such as Dead Trigger 2 – impressively optimized for SHIELD – show tremendous potential and promise for the platform. Other games seem a bit like lazy ports, but let’s face it – every game can’t be a home run. Continually gaining developer support for SHIELD will be NVIDIA’s biggest challenge.
The other huge challenge is convincing consumers they need SHIELD when they’ve already got an Android device. They could easily snag a remote accessory for their existing Android device or a premium device running a competing platform. NVIDIA is targeting the sweet spot in between: the Android user who wants a premium gaming experience. For that customer, the NVIDIA SHIELD fills a gap that no other product in the market better fills.
There is no better Android gaming experience on the planet than NVIDIA SHIELD. It’s not for everyone, but for the avid gamer and Android enthusiast, you can’t ask for anything more.