In a lot of ways, NVIDIA's SHIELD (not to be confused with this SHIELD or that SHIELD) is a typical set-top box. And in many ways it isn't: though NVIDIA has built its living room invader on Android like the previous products in the line, the OS underneath is merely a means to an end. And that end is selling you games, in every form and fashion that the company can come up with.

SHIELD will release its Android TV-powered console sometime in May with a suggested retail price of $199. We took a good long look at both the hardware and the games that NVIDIA hopes you'll play on it.

Hardware

The SHIELD set-top box is a nondescript slab of black metal and plastic with a few distinctive angular accents. Though it's much smaller than the PlayStation 4, the design reminds me of Sony's console if it were shrunken down and viewed through a funhouse mirror. A single green LED light shaped like a check mark sits on the top (or if you use the sold-separately vertical stand, the side) of the unit, with one capacitive "NVIDIA" button for power.

On the back is the array of ports. You get a proprietary power port, a single HDMI 2.0 port (no Google TV-style pass-through capability), two USB 3.0 ports, another MicroUSB port (for data, not charging - handy for ADB and side-loading), a MicroSD card slot, a wired Ethernet port (for those whose local Wi-Fi network isn't fast enough), and the grille for the internal fan's air exhaust. There is no optical or 1/8" port for audio, though both the included controller and the optional remote have standard headphone jacks.

The unit is deceptively heavy at a pound and a half, much more so than the Nexus Player or Razer's upcoming Forge TV. It's also more than twice as big as both of them at 130mm by 210mm by 25mm -  about the size of two 8-inch tablets in a stack. But considering the fact that NVIDIA crams its Tegra X1 and an active cooling system (which was still too quiet to hear in a small office cubicle) into the box, that's not surprising.

Specifications

NVIDIA's Tegra X1 processor is obviously the star of this machine. You can read more about it and the various eye-popping comparisons to older gaming tech in the SHIELD announcement post and the X1 announcement back at CES. Suffice it to say the SoC is one of the most powerful mobile chips around, though whether or not it's the fastest will have to wait until we can compare it with the latest silicon from Qualcomm and Samsung. It's paired to a generous 3GB of RAM and a not-so-generous 16GB of storage.

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The Tegra X1 is paired to a generous 3GB of RAM and a not-so-generous 16GB of storage

When we asked NVIDIA representatives about the relatively tiny amount of on-board storage, especially on a machine meant to play high-end and inevitably large games, we were told that the designers expected users to take advantage of the MicroSD card slot and the USB 3.0 ports for expandable storage. (Unlike stock Android, the software builds on the original SHIELD Portable and SHIELD Tablet can move apps and games to external storage, as can the SHIELD set-top box.) The representatives said that 16GB of on-board storage was chosen specifically to keep the price below the $200 mark. That makes sense, but it isn't going to make moving software around various storage drives any easier. Users will also need fast storage for the best experience - at least Class 10 speed for cards, and USB 2.0 external storage is not recommended.

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The SHIELD supports 4K video output at 60 frames per second, and can also record at that quality. Both 5.1 and 7.1 Dolby surround sound is output on HDMI, and the on-board Wi-Fi is 802.11ac at 2.4 and 5Ghz. Bluetooth 4.1 is thrown in almost as an afterthought.

Controller and other inputs

The SHIELD includes one controller in its $199 package. Compare that to the upcoming (and similarly game-focused) Razer Forge TV, which will be available with a standard TV-style remote at $100 and in a bundle with a controller for $150. Separate SHIELD controllers are currently sold for $59.99, and the SHIELD console can handle up to four at a time.

The SHIELD controller is exactly the same one that was sold alongside the SHIELD Tablet. It uses the near-universal Xbox 360 shape and button layout, with a small tweak that swaps the D-pad and the left thumbstick in a PlayStation-style layout. As with the original SHIELD Portable, the buttons, triggers, and sticks are fantastic, more or less a perfect copy of its inspiration.

 

But there are a few notable differences between a standard console controller and SHIELD's controller. First of all, the top button array includes capacitive Android controls: back, home, and recents. In between all of them is the NVIDIA button, which can be long-pressed to access built-in Twitch streaming and the screenshot menu. Underneath the two thumbsticks you'll find a laptop-style touchpad cleverly hidden with silver styling (which I'm told is disabled on the SHIELD set-top box, even in games) and a handy volume rocker. An integrated microphone lets you perform voice commands or even chat in compatible games.

Unlike the original Xbox 360 wireless controller, the SHIELD controller is easily rechargeable with any MicroUSB cable. NVIDIA claims it can last through 40 hours of gaming on a single charge (which probably means weeks and weeks of standard Android TV navigation). It also has a headphone jack for listening to the SHIELD's audio output privately. The controller is Wi-Fi direct, not Bluetooth, so it won't work with standard Android phones or tablets. NVIDIA chose Wi-Fi direct for its low latency.

  

A more typical Roku-style Bluetooth remote will also be available for the SHIELD as a separate purchase. This tiny remote includes basic navigation and volume controls, a rechargeable battery, a headphone jack, and a microphone for voice commands.

The SHIELD also supports a variety of other inputs. The controllers can be plugged into the back of the console with a standard MicroUSB cord for wired play and/or charging, and both wired and Bluetooth mice and keyboards are supported for PC-style controls. Even wired Xbox 360 controllers can be used, for those who want four-player local games on the cheap. Additional supported inputs include typical Bluetooth controllers, Logitech webcams for video chat, and an IR port for Harmony remotes and other infrared controls.

Software

NVIDIA's new toy has access to quite a lot of software and games, some local, some streamed via a compatible gaming PC, and some streamed from NVIDIA's GRID service for a subscription fee. Let's break it down.

Android TV

The SHIELD runs Android TV. Android TV is Android TV - the core experience is pretty much the same no matter what company you buy it from, like a homogenized auto platform that serves as a basis for pickups, SUVs, and delivery vans. (Um, in a good way.) You have near instant access to apps, movies, TV shows, and deep integration with almost all of Google's entertainment services. Apps like Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Go, and SlingTV are natural fits. Aside from a few visual elements and the services below, it's very familiar to anyone who's used Android TV before.

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This is the fastest and smoothest Android TV machine I've seen yet

That said, this is easily the fastest and smoothest ATV machine I've seen yet. All the stuttery jankiness of the Nexus Player is gone, replaced with smooth transitions and animations. Even the bombastic Tegra X1 system can slow down when gaming or when using the GRID service, but the SHIELD is surely the best way to experience Android TV. It ought to be, since it's also the most expensive option available.

SHIELD and Android TV games

The SHIELD set-top box will (presumably) play any games released for Android TV so far. It will also play a whole host of games specifically made for the SHIELD only (whether that be specifically for the X1 Android TV machine or games made for the older SHIELD and SHIELD Tablet). The only requirement is that the game be enabled for Android TV and accepted by the Play Store, which NVIDIA curates to create its "SHIELD Store." This isn't an actual store so much as a highly selective skin, tying into the Play Store for game descriptions and screenshots, but popping you out into the Play Store itself for actual purchases and downloads.

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It looks like NVIDIA is preparing most or all of the older SHIELD-enabled and SHIELD-enhanced games for the new set-top box. That's a good move, considering that the majority of the vast library of Android games haven't been enabled for Android TV, and are thus off-limits to the SHIELD console. The company has also partnered with major Android and PC game developers to release a host of new titles for the system's launch and later this year. The highlights among these are former high-end PC and console games that are getting their first run on a mobile system of any kind - they'll be exclusive to the SHIELD set-top box at launch.

These high-end games include Doom 3: BFG Edition, an enhanced and upgraded version of the 2005 Id shooter, The Talos Principle, a first-person puzzle game broadly similar to Portal, Metal Gear Rising: Revengance, a fast-paced action game set in the Metal Gear Solid universe, and many, many more. Stand-outs from NVIDIA's press presentation include older PC and console games like Resident Evil 5, Crysis 3, and Borderlands: the Pre-Sequel.

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Almost all of these are at least a couple of years old, some of them much more than that. While the demos of local Android games we've seen are impressive, they're far from new - there's very little that NVIDIA has shown that dedicated gamers won't have sampled on some platform or another. The exception is Borderlands. The third entry in the series known for outlandish characters and massive amounts of loot came out for PCs and consoles a little less than five months ago, and even then it was a AAA game with top-tier graphics. Getting it to run on any ARM-based system, even the super-powerful Tegra X1, is an impressive feat. 

There's very little that NVIDIA has shown that dedicated gamers won't have sampled on some platform or another

That said, Borderlands was the least polished of the games that NVIDIA showed on stage, with noticeable slowdown and frame drops, and none of the live demonstrations at NVIDIA's event or on the Game Developers Conference floor included Borderlands. An NVIDIA representative told us that the developers at 2K and Gearbox had only been working on the SHIELD version of the game for two weeks, so it's an understandably early build. While NVIDIA provides its partners tons of support for SHIELD-compatible games, even going so far as to publish some of them on the Play Store under the Tegra Partners name, I'd be surprised if many of the games above were available for the May launch.

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If NVIDIA is interested in pushing the SHIELD as a stand-alone, Android-based "game console," it's going to need to try as hard as possible to secure more developers to make Android-based games. And not just any games - old titles like Doom and Resident Evil won't impress gamers who want the latest and greatest that they see advertised on television and gaming sites. They need new titles with a minimal delay between release on PCs, Xboxes, and PlayStations, and their release on SHIELD. A couple of months would be good, day one would be better... if somewhat unlikely.

This won't make Android gamers in general very happy. NVIDIA has already been accused of fostering fragmentation by encouraging developers to make games that don't work with other Android hardware. Of course, local Android games may be a secondary consideration for NVIDIA, which is busy preparing for the full rollout of its GRID streaming game service. See below for more elaboration.

Once again, I have to highlight NVIDIA's questionable decision to equip the SHIELD with only 16GB of storage, especially considering its designation as a "game console." Consider that many of the high-end Android games today are easily passing multiple gigabytes in size, and all these PC and console ports will only tax the storage more. Doom 3: BFG Edition is an 11GB install on the PC. While it's technically possible to install as many games as you want on expanded storage and clear out space by uninstalling old games, this is a tedious process that also requires extra hardware. A higher-tier SHIELD system, perhaps a 64GB or 128GB option, would be very welcome.

GRID Subscription

NVIDIA's GRID subscription gaming service may well be the primary reason that the SHIELD set-top box exists. GRID has been in beta test mode for over a year, offered as a free perk to owners of the original SHIELD Portable and SHIELD Tablet. In practice, GRID is very much like the existing Onlive system: it hosts full PC games on remote servers and streams them to users, who can play them instantly through a minimal local software layer.

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GRID has the potential to transition the company from one primarily focused on hardware designs to one that manages a vast network of dedicated and loyal users

NVIDIA is hoping to usher in a new era of gaming with GRID - go ahead and insert comparisons to Netflix and Spotify here. By serving games on its own hardware and collecting service fees and sales for games, it hopes to become the center of the gaming world for its users. The idea is appealing: pay a small fee and play a library of great games whenever you want, plus have access to the latest games via a purchase. And if NVIDIA can make it stick, it will certainly be worth it: GRID has the potential to transition the company from one primarily focused on hardware designs to one that manages a vast network of dedicated and loyal users, not unlike the way Steam transformed Valve from a developer and publisher to a global software vendor.

But this road is not without potholes. First NVIDIA has to sell the hardware: though GRID will continue to be available on the SHIELD Portable and SHIELD Tablet, it won't be coming to PCs, non-NVIDIA Android hardware, or other set-top boxes, at least for the time being. The SHIELD console is meant to be a consumer portal to this service first and foremost.

Next NVIDIA will need to make the service appealing. Pricing will be key here, and it's still unannounced. Two tiers of streaming will be available, 720p at 30 frames per second and 1080p at 60fps. Setting aside for the moment that gamers will need excellent broadband connections to take advantage of GRID at all (a representative estimated 60mbps for reliable 1080p/60fps gaming), pricing for the subscription service will have to be low enough for consumers to try it out first. Anything more than $20 a month seems unlikely to woo users, especially ones increasingly used to free or cheap mobile games, and anything less than $10 a month seems like it wouldn't cover NVIDIA's cost to deliver GRID in the first place. For reference, Onlive's full service tier currently costs $12.95 per month.

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And finally, NVIDIA needs to offer a compelling library of "free with subscription" games. The appeal of "all-you-can-eat" subscriptions like Netflix and Spotify is the wide selection and regularity. NVIDIA is off to a decent start here: they estimate that 50 games will be available at launch and 100 will be available by the end of the year (some of which will be paid, but most of which are going to be included). But when you compare that to stiff competition on both Android and the PC, it doesn't seem nearly as impressive. Stand-out titles already available on GRID for free include Borderlands 2, Batman: Arkham Origins, Saints Row: The Third, Ultra Street Fighter 4, Darksiders 2, and no fewer than six LEGO games.

Like Netflix, NVIDIA is now a content company. It will have to court (read: pay) developers and publishers to offer their games on the GRID service. Gamers will inevitably be disappointed when they find that the one PC game they really want to play isn't available, or isn't available at no additional cost. Throw in the fact that NVIDIA's potential library is limited to PC games (Xbox and PlayStation games can't be had on GRID, for obvious reasons), and the company is suddenly facing a more narrow window. Consider also that major publishers with their own distribution platforms, including Valve, Blizzard, Ubisoft, and Activision, are unlikely to release new games on GRID for any price.

GRID Purchases

This is where things get tricky. In addition to a collection of PC games that come free with a GRID subscription, NVIDIA will also sell full-priced, stand-alone games for users to access. At its press event and at MWC, NVIDIA was showing off recent PC hits like Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor and Dying Light as well as high-profile upcoming games like The Witcher 3 and Batman: Arkham Knight. Most of these games will be sold at their typical PC prices, which means $50-60.

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An NVIDIA representative said that the company will try to issue PC game codes along with purchases

When you buy a game on GRID, it's accessible from a SHIELD set-top box, SHIELD Portable, or SHIELD Tablet. Like the "free with subscription" games, there is no multi-gigabyte download to worry about and you get high-end PC-quality graphics (720p or 1080p, depending on tier). But that game is also tied to your GRID account, and thus limited in ways a traditional PC game isn't. An NVIDIA representative said that the company will try to issue PC game codes along with purchases, which would allow SHIELD players with typical gaming PCs to install them on Steam or similar services. But the representative cautioned that this might not be possible with all developers and publishers.

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What happens if you buy a PC game on GRID and then you end your service? You don't get to play it anymore. That nixes a lot of the appeal of that $60 purchase, even if the user does have a compatible PC... and NVIDIA isn't even targeting those users.

Getting over the limited selection of GRID (both in free with subscription and paid games), not to mention possible consumer confusion arising from the limitation of a PC game-based system in the first place, won't be easy. The potential benefits of building a thriving service are nearly unlimited for NVIDIA, but they have a lot of ground to cover, and it's all uphill.

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GRID is still in the beta stage and will be free to SHIELD Portable, SHIELD Tablet, and SHIELD console users until June 30th. The paid service tiers and extra paid games will be available on July 1st.

GameStream

Though playing games from a local gaming PC via the GameStream system was a huge selling point for both the SHIELD Portable and SHIELD Tablet, NVIDIA didn't even mention it in the announcement of the SHIELD set-top box. The capability is still there for the new Android hardware (as is the requirement for a late-model NVIDIA GTX graphics card), but it's clear that NVIDIA's enthusiasm for streaming games that customers already own has waned as the full launch of GRID comes near.

Marketplace

SHIELD lives in an odd spot in both the video game and set-top box markets. At $200, it will be the de facto super-premium offering for Android TV when it launches. But at the same price, it's undercutting both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 (and sliding neatly under the Wii U, too). NVIDIA would argue that the GRID streaming service makes the SHIELD competitive with all three of them, hence the "console" label in the promotional material.

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It's hard to compete with the established players in the console world - just ask OUYA and Mad Catz, which made a similar gambit hoping a low price would allow gamers to overlook a relatively limited selection of Android games. NVIDIA will also have to sell gamers on the GRID service in order to compete - the local Android games, impressive as they are, won't sway gamers who want new titles.

Offering a subscription with a console isn't necessarily a point of weakness: after all, the Xbox practically requires Xbox Live for full functionality, and Sony has made its PlayStation Network service attractive by giving away old games and other perks. But those are also sold to people who have invested years in those respective brands and spend hours and hours every week engaged with them. Trying to get gamers who want a high-end experience to invest in both a new platform and a new subscription service will be a Herculean task, if not a Sisyphean one.

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The SHIELD set-top box is fantastic Android hardware. Unless there's some major pitfall between now and release, it will be the Android TV device to beat. Whether or not NVIDIA's push for high end Android gaming will bear fruit, both locally and via the GRID service, remains to be seen. SHIELD could be an important shift in the gaming market as a whole... or a piece of niche hardware that's quickly forgotten. NVIDIA's execution at launch and shortly thereafter will make all the difference.