Last month, Nvidia unleashed the Shield portable gaming system, a US$299 Tegra 4-powered combination dual-analogue game pad and touchscreen Android tablet with the ability to stream gameplay directly from a gaming PC. One of those selling points is not like the others.
When Nvidia announced its intention to make the leap from making video cards and mobile systems-on-a-chip to a full-fledged portable gaming system, the gaming community responded with much pointing and laughing. They called it a glorified tablet with a controller attached. They said there was no market for it. They called it the next N-Gage - ouch.
The scepticism is easy to understand. Console-quality controller hardware and fancy clamshell design aside, the Shield is essentially an Android device, like countless phones and tablets before it. It runs on Tegra 4, the latest and greatest iteration of Nvidia's powerful mobile hardware chip, but so do several other more traditional tablet and media box offerings on the market. And since Android's been supporting controllers for ages, there's any number of Bluetooth wireless options for adding the same functionality.
Then there's the Shield's most unique feature - PC game streaming. An intriguing feature, the streaming capability requires a modest gaming PC outfitted with a GeForce GTX 650 or better to function, so any AMD stalwarts that may have been tempted to cross the line have been stopped in their tracks.
If I'm making the Shield sound like a portable only a GeForce GTX card sporting PC gamer could love - well, there's some truth to that. The PC game streaming tech, as early-on as it might currently be, is the really good reason to buy the portable I mention in the headline.
That's not to say there aren't other reasons for spending US$299 on the Shield - they just aren't quite as good. Let's take a look at some of them.
POOR REASON: YOU'RE A TECH JUNKIE
You shouldn't buy things just because they are pretty and new. I do it all the time and feel moderately bad about it.
The Shield is new and quite pretty, in a chunky, obviously gaming-focused sort of way. It's an incredibly solid unit with a lovely heft, like a tricked-out Xbox 360 controller. It's black and silver with green accents, which is a sure sign that it comes from either the future or a Nike shoe display circa the early 90s.
And just look at these sexy, sexy ports.
Headphones, HDMI, USB and a micro SD slot - those are some nice ports, made even nicer via a recent update to the hardware that allows games to be transferred to that SD card.
The Shield is quite the looker, if you're into that sort of thing, but looks aren't normally a good reason to spend US$300. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and no one you share finances with is going to see it the same way you might.
UNLIKELY REASON: YOU'RE A SPEC JUNKIE
|Processor||Nvidia Tegra 4 Quad Core Mobile Processor with 2GB RAM|
|Display||5 inch 1280×720 (294 ppi) Multi-Touch Retinal Quality Display|
|Audio||Integrated Stereo Speakers with Built-in Microphone|
|Storage||16GB Flash Memory|
|Custom Tag Colour||Silver|
|Wireless||802.11n 2×2 Mimo Wi-Fi
MicroSD storage slot
3.5mm stereo headphone jack with microphone support
|Motion Sensors||3 Axis Gyro
3 Axis Accelerometer
|Input controls||Dual analogue joysticks
Left/right analogue triggers
Android Home and Back buttons
Nvidia power/multi-function button
|Battery||28.8 Watt Hours|
|Weight & Size||579 grams
158mm (w) x 135mm (D) x 57mm (H)
|Operating System||Android Jelly Bean OS|
Sonic 4 Episode II THD
One should never spent US$300 based on a list of features, even if they mention Tegra 4. This was totally not just an excuse to post the system specs.
FLAWED REASON: YOU'RE A HARDCORE ANDROID GAMER
Android gaming is a thing the Shield does, in some instances better than nearly any other similar device. Android games that utilized a game pad (and have been optimised for the Shield) are a joy to play on the unit.
But not all games are optimised for the Shield. Outside of the Shield Store there are titles that work perfectly well with other controller solutions but don't play nice with Nvidia's hardware, and trying to control a touchscreen-only game with a bulky controller in the way is just stupid. The right thumbstick becomes a virtual mouse in these instances, but a thumbstick is not a mouse.
There's the obvious issue of screen orientation.
That's just depressing.
Look, trying to justify the purchase of the Shield for Android gaming just doesn't work. There are less expensive Android gaming devices out there. The new Nexus 7 is lighter, has a larger, higher-resolution screen, and can easily pair with any number of controller options.
Tegra 4 is impressive, but as I mentioned earlier there are other Tegra 4 devices on the market, and with Nvidia already showing off an impressive generation of mobile gaming graphics beyond Tegra, you might just be better off waiting.
BITTERSWEET REASON: YOU'RE A MOBILE-MEDIA AFICIONADO
I've not experienced an Android device that sounds anywhere near as good as the Shield. The bass-reflex, tuned port audio system is gorgeous. I've never felt like turning down a portable because it was too loud before. Coupled with the system's vibrant screen, watching videos on the Shield is a joyous thing.
But no one is going to spend US$300 on a video player with a large game pad attached. Though they might not sound as lovely, there are other, larger and more sensible means to watch video on the go.
ALMOST REASON: YOU'RE A GAMER
REALLY GOOD REASON: YOU'RE PC GAMER WITH THE URGE TO WANDER
I'm sitting on my couch, feet up on the coffee table. My children are bouncing all over the place as Sesame Street's Elmo dances around the television set. Not normally relaxing situation, but I'm playing the latest Devil May Cry on my computer in the next room - I might as well be there. This is the Shield's finest moment.
Shield's PC streaming is far from perfect. The game you want to play has to be supported. It has to be fully updated - any pop-up dialogs break the magic spell. The same goes for Steam. Your PC monitor is going to shift resolutions to match the Shield, but since it has to be actively running a game for you to play it, that shouldn't matter. You're also going to want a dual-band router to avoid choppy performance or stuttering.
That's a lot of caveats, but when it all comes together, Shield's PC game streaming is a beautiful thing. Images are clear, audio is crisp, and there's so little lag that most of the time it's imperceptible.
Nvidia points out that the functionality is still technically in beta, and new updates are constantly being applied to increase game compatibility and streaming stability. It's not perfect, but it's definitely heading in the right direction.
BONUS REASON: A LITTLE OF EVERYTHING
I can't discount the notion that somewhere there are gamers looking for exactly this sort of device. They want to stream PC games, play hardcore Android titles, watch some videos and fondle a new piece of tech with some flashy specs. They've already bought one of these though, so they don't count.
The Nvidia Shield is an incredibly well-constructed device that should, in theory, appeal to a broad spectrum of gamers. It does Android games and apps. It does multimedia. It can remote control a drone, which Nvidia included with the review unit, and with which I nearly killed my entire family. The Shield was built to perform these tasks, and it performs them well - just not quite well enough to justify the premium price over other products that do the same things.
But no other product streams PC titles quite like this. I have no doubt the technology is going to explode over the next few years, but for right now - for a specific subset of PC gamers, at least - the Shield is the only game in town.