Like a lot of you, I watched NVIDIA's press conference with my jaw firmly on the floor when Project Shield was unveiled. It's a true Android gaming portable, built from the ground up to make a great gaming experience - not a phone or a tablet that also plays games, with varying degrees of efficiency, like Sony's now outdated Xperia Play or Archos' Gamepad. And it's made by NVIDIA, the company with the most to gain by expanding the platform's gaming horizons. The potential embodied by Shield is amazing... but there are also some reasons to to curb your enthusiasm. Let's step back and take a look at Project Shield, not only as an awesome piece of hardware, but as a competitor trying to carve its own niche into several markets at once.
Pro: Hardware Made For Gaming First
The aforementioned Xperia Play and Archos Gamepad both make sacrifices to their individual form factors. The Xperia Play needed to be a reasonable size, and had to hide its controls away to be even remotely useful as a smartphone. The Gamepad has to conform to the slate factor of 7-inch tablets; even the controls lack a full-sized grip, like the ones found on console controllers. Both the Xperia Play and the Gamepad need to be affordable, to avoid deterring consumers who need a phone or tablet more than they need another portable game machine... even if that's what they want.
Project Shield has no compromises: it's centered around gaming and only gaming to an almost ridiculous level, a prospect that could only appeal to a company like NVIDIA. The hardware is the latest and greatest Tegra that NVIDIA can provide, the speakers and batteries are relatively enormous, and aesthetics take a backseat to the physical controls and chunky ergonomics that true gamers crave. It resembles nothing so much as the bastard child of the Xbox 360 controller and the Nintendo DS. That's a pretty good pedigree for serious gamers.
Con: NVIDIA forgot the "Portable" Part Of Portable Gaming
Of course, no compromises means that you're going to leave someone unhappy, and in this case, that someone might turn out to be the majority of mobile gamers. The Nintendo DS/DSi/3DS and, to a smaller extent, the PlayStation Portable family have a lot of appeal because they're so portable. The low z-axis of both devices allow them to slip easily into a pocket. That's something that Shield, despite its power and flexibility, simply isn't designed to do - it's larger and heavier than the original Xbox controller. There's no real way that it couldn't be, since it's got a powerful mobile machine stuffed into the same basic shape.
While that's not a huge concern for the dedicated gamer who will gladly carry a satchel bag for the purpose of portable entertainment, it does limit the use case for Shield. A portable that you're less likely to carry with you will spend more time on your desk or nightstand, and thus, less time performing the action it's intended for. 10-inch tablets already have this issue, and they're designed to slip easily into a bag or purse. Keep in mind, the vast majority of potential users will be carrying both a smartphone and the bulky Shield.
Pro: Real, Unencumbered Android With Play Store Access
NVIDIA knows that serious Android enthusiasts (which is likely to include anyone reading the article) want pure Android, with access to the Google Play Store, devoid of manufacturer skins and carrier garbage. And based on what we've seen thus far, Shield seems to deliver on that line. Aside from NVIDIA's necessarily proprietary remote access software, it's 100% Jelly Bean, and you can start to download apps, games, and videos directly from the Play Store the moment you turn it on. The appeal of this system is something that seems to have escaped other bit players in the Android gaming space, like OUYA and PowerA's Moga.
Likewise, once you're connected to a gaming PC, you've got complete and seamless control of games and the desktop, with some frankly brilliant integration to Steam's Big Picture Mode. This is a market that even Valve didn't think of, but the tech-savvy gamers who are likely to have a $1000+ gaming PC will eat it up. Just imagine: you won't have to stop looting the Borderlands landscape for anything... including what's known in MMO circles as a "bio-break."
Con: Limited Non-Gamer Appeal
I can name a dozen handheld systems from the last decade that tried to mesh mobile computing with gaming: Nokia's N-Gage, the Palm-powered Tapwave Zodiac, Game.com, and to some degree even Sony's Xperia Play. All of them have a common failing, and it's that they're trying to appease both gamers and standard users. While Shield swings the pendulum all the way towards gamers, that means that it completely abandons the pursuit of other consumers, who would rather go for a standard tablet. Historically, this is an all-or-nothing proposal - these kind of no-compromise devices either soar like the Game Boy or flop like the Game Gear. Also, access to Shield's most alluring secondary feature, streaming games from the PC, will require an NVIDIA card. That's great for those who already have them, but someone who's already spent $500 on a screaming ATI card will be hard-pressed to switch for an ancillary device.
On the other hand, the market for true hard-core gamers demonstrably exists. Razer and other peripheral companies have built fortunes on it, and even now, boutique PC manufacturers cater to gamers with more money than sense. Consider Razer's Blade laptop a primary example of hardware that's aimed exclusively at gamers, with a huge price tag, and still manages to sell enough to be profitable. NVIDIA's own high-end discrete cards are a testament to gamer excess, and they know how to market it. In short, if anyone can overcome the hurdle of a purposefully limited audience, it's NVIDIA.
Pro: Two Built-In Gaming Ecosystems
If you're going to build what is essentially a new console in this day and age, you had better be sure that you've got developer support behind it. As stated above, NVIDIA doesn't have to worry about that: with hundreds of millions of users for both the Play Store and Steam, developers don't need any extra prodding to get their games into the hands of consumers. Even NVIDIA's Tegra Zone is more of a showroom than an actual app store, and doesn't interfere with regular apps... though those with current-gen hardware that just happens to lack a Tegra processor kind of wish it would go away.
There's a brilliance to the form factor of Shield that hasn't been discussed that much: because it's something that's never been seen before, it probably won't bother any of NVIDIA's hardware partners. It's a rare customer who will have a tough choice between Shield and the latest ASUS Transformer - assuming that the prices are roughly equitable, hardcore gamers will clearly choose Shield, where more typical consumers will go for the tablet. In the minefield that is supplier-manufacturer relations, this is a win-win for NVIDIA.
Con: Pricing And Availability Are Up In The Air
This is almost universally true for products revealed at trade shows, but there's no skirting around the fact that we don't know exactly how much Shield will cost, or exactly when it will become available. I think $399 would probably be the sweet spot for this hardware, allowing NVIDIA to keep a nice profit while not alienating cash-strapped gamers. Keep in mind that since NVIDIA won't be taking a cut from app or media sales, either directly on the device or via Steam, they can't afford a Nexus-style loss leader.
But there's something else to consider here. Both the Xbox and the PlayStation are due for major revisions this year, a fact that any in-the-know gamer will be aware of. While NVIDIA's primary target is someone who's already invested in PC gaming, there will undoubtedly be college-age and younger consumers who will have to choose between the Xbox 720, the PlayStation 4, and Shield. As impressive as the Shield is, the undeniably limited nature of mobile gaming might be a hindrance to those who prefer consoles. It's in Shield's best interest to release before E3 this summer. NVIDIA could hedge their bets here by building some kind of system to allow console gamers the same kind of low-latency streaming on display at CES.
In a CES that offered precious little for both Android enthusiasts and hardcore gamers to be excited about, Project Shield is a green-tinted ray of sunlight. Though I'm wary of the prospects of such a targeted device, from a company that's never sold hardware directly to consumers, I can't wait to see if it can find a place in the crowded markets of both mobile and gaming. Because if it does, it will be a boon to Android gaming as a whole.