- 1 HARDWARE
- 2 SOFTWARE
- 3 GAMES
- 4 VALUE
- 5 CONCLUSION
NVIDIA’s SHIELD is a gaming device that defies classification. The full-sized controls and Android software make it more than a portable gaming device, at least on paper, but it doesn't compete with (or complement) more conventional mobile form factors. SHIELD is something entirely new.
The only way to evaluate a gaming machine is on how it plays games, and in that respect, SHIELD is amazing... at least in a few specific circumstances. Problems arise from the fact that Android gaming is still immature in many ways, and most of the games available right now are designed for touchscreens first and foremost. From a hardware perspective, SHIELD does almost everything right, but the Android platform itself may not be up to the challenge of providing a rich selection of games for a semi-exclusive piece of hardware. At least not yet.
Make no mistake: if you consider yourself a hardcore Android gamer, you want SHIELD, and $300 is a great price for a Tegra 4 device with full console controls. The question is, how many “hardcore” Android gamers are out there, and how many are willing to gamble a purchase on the promise that SHIELD and Tegra can improve the selection of high-end games?
NVIDIA SHIELD: Specifications
- Processor: 1.9GHz quad-core NVIDIA Tegra 4
- Network compatibility: WiFi only
- Operating system: Android 4.2.1
- Display: 5" 720p LCD
- Memory: 2GB RAM / 16GB storage (12.6 usable)
- Cameras: None
- Battery: 3400mAh
- NFC: No
- Ports / expandable storage: microUSB / microSD /Mini-HDMI
- Thickness: 57mm (closed)
- Weight: 579g
- Price: $299
- Controls: NVIDIA basically copied the Xbox 360 controller for the design of their game pad, and that's a very, very good thing. Controlling compatible games is tight and enjoyable, and the hardware itself feels fantastic.
- Sound: There's no other way to put it: SHIELD has the best speakers I've ever heard on any mobile device. They're even louder than most laptop speakers, with lots of bass to boot. They're not quite concert quality, but they are great at what they do.
- Build Quality: The SHIELD is a tank. It won't fit nicely into your pocket, but thanks to the folding design of the screen, both the display and the controls are well-protected when it's closed.
- Android and TegraZone: NVIDIA left Android 4.2 alone for the most part, and where it's amended, it's only to make it work better with the SHIELD controller. The built-in TegraZone is a great way to find new and relevant games.
- Price: Whether you're after a gaming device or not, you can't deny that the hardware you get for the $300 price is some of the best available.
- Compatibility: Games that are designed to work with SHIELD are great. More regular (and far more numerous) games? Not so great. Using touchscreen controls on a relatively bulky device is a pain.
- No cameras: Perhaps not a huge deal for a gaming device, but a noticeable omission for an Android device of any form factor. It's a shame, too: a cheap front-facing camera could have made SHIELD perfect for teleconferencing.
- No vibration motor/force feedback: an even bigger omission on NVIDIA's part. Modern games depend on force feedback for play mechanics and game ambience, and you won't get any of that with SHIELD.
- Storage: 16GB is not nearly enough storage for a device aimed at gaming and media consumption. With HD video becoming the norm and games regularly exceeding 1GB in size, there's just no excuse for the dinky space on the SHIELD - and no, the MicroSD card slot doesn't help.
SHIELD is unique as an Android device, thanks to its console-style controls and flip-up screen. Sony has experimented with similar designs (see the Xperia Play and Tablet P) but it's clear that NVIDIA has put an amazing amount of gaming-focused R&D into the hardware.
The SHIELD control pad is, for all practical purposes, a copy of the Xbox 360 controller. That's not a slight on the designers, by the way: I consider the Xbox controller the gold standard of control pads, and if you're going to copy something, it's good place to start. Aside from the swapped D-pad and left thumbstick, it's identical, right down to four cardinal nubs on the top of both sticks.
The sticks themselves are wonderful. They're full-sized, not the barely-there nubs you may have seen on the MOGA controller and PSP. This is achieved by recessing them into the housing by about a centimeter, making them sit lower than the D-pad and face buttons to allow the screen close completely. The A, B, X, and Y buttons are big and easy to distinguish thanks to a typical cross configuration. The controller buttons aren't illuminated except for the NVIDIA button, which bothered at least one of my colleagues, but I never felt the loss. The ergonomics of the controller mean you learn where everything is very quickly.
In between the face buttons and the D-pad lies a big, glowing NVIDIA button with four surrounding buttons: Volume, Start, Home, and Back. The latter two work in the same way that they do on newer Android phones without virtual controls; hold Home to see recent apps and double-tap it to open Google Now. Pressing the Volume button will open virtual controls on the screen. There’s an option in the Settings menu to adjust volume with the shoulder buttons instead of on-screen controls, and it generally works better, though I think two volume buttons would have been a better solution. The Start button is only used in games that support it, and the glowing NVIDIA button opens the customized TegraZone app. The brightness of its hidden LED can be adjusted in the Settings menu.
The shoulders hold a button and a trigger each, just like the standard Xbox and PlayStation layouts. The position and shape of these are more important than you think - ergonomically, they tell your index fingers right away that this is a gaming machine. Travel on all buttons is long, with a clear distinction between a full press and a partial one, though I don’t think any of the buttons themselves have analog depression settings.
After using SHIELD for about a month, it’s clear to me that NVIDIA spent an exhaustive amount of time and energy creating what they considered to be the perfect mobile controller. There is no compromise here: SHIELD is huge, even when compared to game controllers alone, and every millimeter of the hardware is meant to make extended play sessions comfortable and enjoyable. Take a look at the bottom of the case. See that groove that runs about halfway between the triggers and the beefy contours where your palms sit? That is a resting place specifically made for your middle fingers. There's nothing else to say here: SHIELD has no equal when it comes to gaming controls on a mobile device.
Altogether, SHIELD creates a control environment that's fantastic for any game that supports it. I've heard the argument advanced that you could get something similar with a Bluetooth controller or MOGA. That's just not the case. Of course, the hardware is only as good as what you can play on it - for more on that, skip down to the Games section of this review.
The SHIELD screen flips up on a large hinge that covers and protects the controls and the screen itself when closed. It's a 5-inch 720p panel, which I've heard described as both too small and too low-resolution in our comments section. While I'll grant that 1080p is more modern and the LCD panel itself could probably be stretched another inch or so without straining the case, the screen is fine for its usage scenario. Keep in mind that for the most intense sessions, you're going to be holding SHIELD at arm's length, where the extra pixels wouldn't do much good.
The screen's viewing angles are great nearly 180 degrees both vertically and horizontally, and color reproduction is impressive - it might be on the low-res side for five inches, but you won't be disappointed with the image quality. The hinge is of particular note as well: at 1.5 inches long, it's huge for a mobile device, and it's put to good use. The flip-out screen is incredibly stiff and stays put, from about a finger's width above the controls to fully extended at 180 degrees, allowing for a variety of play styles. SHIELD owners won't have to worry about constantly adjusting the hinge, as in some cheap laptops. The stiffness of the hinge will show up later in the Media section of this review.
One of the nicer things about the admittedly chunky build of the SHIELD is that when closed, both the screen and the controls are protected - even a drop onto a hard surface won't damage them, though the same might not be true for the rest of the unit. The screen just barely touches the raised tips of the control sticks, so they won't be held in a constant non-zero position (like used game stores always seem to do when shrink-wrapping console controllers).
The first of several puzzling omissions on NVIDIA's part comes to light at this point. There's no ambient light sensor on the SHIELD, as you'll find in even the most basic of smartphones. The only way that this affects end users is that they'll have to adjust brightness manually, which is thankfully just a few taps away at any point with Android 4.2's slide-down control panel. But this sort of compromise will rear its head later on.
Speakers And Sound
A pair of comparatively enormous speakers sit behind silver-colored grilles, just above the D-pad and ABXY buttons. They're fantastic. The SHIELD has better and louder sound than most of the laptops I've used, and there's no mobile device I've ever tried that can match them. The roomy dimensions of the case mean that the speaker housings can extend downwards and best even the HTC One and the new Nexus 7 for volume, if not actual fidelity.
Highs and lows tend to get a bit strained at extreme volume, like most speakers. At middle volume they excel at just about anything, from the bleeps and bloops of an emulated Genesis title to Con Te Partire. True, you'll still get a better audio experience from a pair of quality headphones (my Sennheiser set had no distortion issues, by the way) but those who prefer cord-free listening and playing will be quite satisfied.
Gamers tend to like things loud in any case, but for modern games, there's real benefit no only in quality sound, but quality separation. The stereo speakers have more distinct left and right channels than pretty much any Android device. That's a help in games like Grand Theft Auto, where being able to quickly pinpoint the source of a noise in a 3D environment is essential. Again, headphones are a better solution here, but SHIELD does a better job than any other freestanding mobile hardware.
A small microphone sits just above the five-button array in the center of the control pad. Google Now picked up on all my voice searches with no issues. SHIELD doesn't include a recording application, but a quick stop in the Google Play Store and a few bars of "Old Buttermilk Sky" proved that it can handle decent audio recording.
There's no getting around it: 16GB has become much too little storage for a modern, high-end Android device. It seems to be the default capacity these days, but manufacturers absolutely need to start bumping up to 32GB (or in the case of specialized, media-centric hardware, 64GB) as of yesterday. Unfortunately, NVIDIA follows the crowd on this one, and the SHIELD is only available with a 16GB flash storage chip.
This is a problem for a lot of reasons. While NVIDIA's software load isn't as egregious as, say, Samsung's, it still leaves only 12.6GB available to the user, which will quickly be filled up if said user has a liking for big, storage-heavy games. (Which is, you know, kind of the idea here.) Add in some HD video and cached music from the Play Store and even a light user will start to wonder where all the space went.
The inclusion of a MicroSD card slot was likely meant to soften this blow - NVIDIA told us that they're working on a solution to move apps and games to a suitably speedy SD card, as was previously possible in stock Android 4.0. (Samsung has already rolled out this feature to some 4.2 hardware, with mixed results.) But as reviewed, I must say that the storage on SHIELD will be inadequate for an alarming amount of its target users.
Battery Life And Wireless Reception
The SHIELD is a beast when it comes to battery... most of the time. Left on its own it gets a standby life that rivals 10-inch tablets, happily going into a deep sleep that can keep it alive for a week or more. But that's only if you're careful not to let it talk to your local WiFi network, by either manually turning WiFi off or by setting a timeout. When constantly chatting up the network, SHIELD has a habit of dying quickly.
With periodic gaming, watching videos, listening to Google Play Music, and generally using the SHIELD like the monster media device it is, I regularly got 10-12 hours of battery life. That's good, not great, but keep in mind that I was pushing it with some of the most intensive Android games available. With more conventional Android use (which, admittedly, the device is not well-suited to) most users will get about two days of battery life. An intense play session with a high-end game like Riptide GP2 might shorten that to as low as 5-6 hours.
On both WiFi and Bluetooth connections, SHIELD managed to hold a steady signal at the same or greater distances than my other devices. Bluetooth seemed particularly steady, as I could stream music for a good 40-50 feet. NVIDIA sent us a Parrot AR Drone to test the new control pad for piloting, and it seemed to hold on to the drone's WiFi signal for up to 150 feet. This might have more to do with the drone's hardware than the SHIELD itself, but it's impressive nonetheless.
Fit And Finish
The rest of SHIELD both looks and feels like an oversized Xbox controller. From its big, grippy handles to its strategically-placed expansion panel, this is an unapologetic game machine. "Take me or leave me," SHIELD seems to say, "but you won't be able to ignore me." While the SHIELD has possibly more distinct external parts than any other Android device, there's very little give to the build - this hunk of plastic is so tight that I couldn't get a pry bar in at any point except the hinge. Taking it apart would require removing no less than seven screws on the bottom panel (five of which are well-hidden behind plastic covers) and no small amount of patience and specialized tools.
There's one more feature that you won't find on other mobile hardware: a CPU fan. You can hear it start to spin if your Android activities become intense. It's noticeable, but easily dismissed, especially if you're actively gaming. But users will need to be aware of the air intake and exit points, just like on a PC: air flows in through the green-lined port nestled between the handles, and exits out the grille above the charging port. This was never an issue for me, but those who like to play in a horizontal position will find that their unit gets hot quickly if the intake port is blocked. It can do the same if some program is misbehaving and keeps the processor busy while the SHIELD is enclosed, as in the official carrying case.
The unit is heavy at 579 grams - far heavier than any phone, and right up there with the metal-clad Transformer Prime as far as tablets go. This isn't really an issue while using the device thanks to its excellent ergonomics, but placing the SHIELD in a bag or a pocket (if you can find one big enough) will definitely make it noticeably heavier.
Nestled in between the trigger buttons is SHIELD's expansion area. You'll find the standard MicroUSB charging port and headphone/microphone jack, a very welcome MicroSD card slot (empty), and a Mini (not Micro) HDMI port. We specifically asked NVIDIA why they chose MiniHDMI over the more prevalent mobile standard, and their answer was simple: because the smaller MicroHDMI cables fell out during play testing. I picked up a MiniHDMI cable for the purposes of this review, and found that the TV connection worked fine, and the cable stayed firmly in place.
One last thing: the "shield" part of SHIELD. The silver cutout "tag" on the top will separate from the body with a gentle push, and fix itself back in place with a combination of magnets and plastic cutouts. These tag covers can be swapped out, though the only ones you're likely to see at retail at launch are the glossy black top that NVIDIA included for the review and a slightly more interesting faux carbon fiber option. This could offer a bit of customization I suppose, but the black tag clashes with the matte plastic and attracts a ton of fingerprints, so I left it off. That said, if NVIDIA gets its act together and puts out a Marvel-licensed S.H.I.E.L.D. SHIELD tag, they can take my money.
Aside from the lack of an ambient light sensor as noted above, there are two glaring omissions in the SHIELD's hardware: a vibration motor and any sort of camera. As with the Nexus 7, I can live without a rear-facing camera on this device. Taking snapshots would be awkward, and better served by a phone in any case. But a front-facing camera just above the screen could have made the SHIELD an ideal teleconferencing device, thanks to the same sturdy base, stiff hinge and loud speakers that make is great for video and music (see the Media section). I suppose NVIDIA was focusing on core competencies here.
The absence of any sort of vibration is harder to understand. True, you won't be checking email or texts on the SHIELD with any degree of regularity, but force feedback has been a deep part of gaming for more than a decade. It's one of the developer's tools for immersing a player in a gaming environment, and (in the right hands) becomes integral to gaming elements in and of itself. SHIELD needn't rumble like a tempest in a teapot, but a bit of buzzy feedback makes plenty of mobile games more enjoyable. You won't have access to that feedback here.
There's also the slightly odd combination of the NVIDIA button and a conventional power button, not to mention the combined virtual volume rocker. I think most users will get used to this in short time; for example, it took me only a minute or two to figure out that pressing the center and volume button at once would take a screenshot, and even that was obvious in hindsight. There's no NFC or wireless charging, either, but to me these are not big losses.
Considered as the sum of its parts, the SHIELD is an amazing deal: a Tegra 4 device with 2GB of RAM, a 5-inch 720p screen, solid build quality, and the best controls in the business for $300. That's a price point that rivals the original Nexus 7 when compared to other devices. Of course, it's only a deal if you want it, and that's where the rest of this review comes into play.
SHIELD runs a build of Android 4.2.1 that's nearly stock, or as close to stock as can be achieved on hardware that's so physically different from the Android norm. The combination of a Tegra 4 processor and 2GB of RAM is formidable indeed - I've never seen Android respond so quickly, or keep so many high-performance apps in memory at the same time. But the crucial aspect of this device is how well the hardware and software work together, and what that means for gaming and media consumption as a whole.
If you've tried a Nexus device since the original Nexus 7, you'll be pretty familiar with SHIELD... until one of the many small changes throws you for a loop. The most obvious difference is the landscape-only screen orientation, a design decision that's more or less necessary thanks to the gigantic controller strapped to the screen. But this decision begat other, more baffling ones, like a default launcher that has heard of widgets and wants nothing to do with them. Or the fact that there's no lock screen by default, something that surely could have used the control pad to its advantage - "press upupdowndownleftrightleftrightBAstart to unlock," for example. You can enable a standard swipe, PIN, or pattern unlock if you wish.
The settings menu has a few new additions as well. Miracast is hanging out in between WiFi and Bluetooth, and the first option under "Hardware" is for the controller, allowing for a virtual mouse, the aforesaid bumped volume buttons, and some basic settings for the pulsing green NVIDIA button. Between them, the virtual mouse is the most useful: it turns the right control stick into a cursor whenever a program isn't actively using it (i.e. whenever you're not in a SHIELD-supported game) and depressing the stick functions as a screen press. The built-in keyboard has been tweaked to let you use the controller as a means of input, in the same fashion that you've seen for pretty much every console game ever: use the left stick to highlight a letter and the A button to select it.
It's a nice way to keep from actually using the screen, which is something you'll want to do as infrequently as possible, thanks to the controller-centric ergonomic design. In fact, shifting commonly-used functions to the controller is a pretty common theme for SHIELD - in most applications the Y button doubles as a menu button, for example, to keep that awful now-you-see-it-now-you-don't virtual menu button off of the thing. The ability to not touch the screen is a really important one to both SHIELD's designers and its end users, since it's so clearly built around the controller. Hint, hint: this will come up in the games section.
Some apps seemed to be inaccessible to SHIELD when I began the testing period, with big, important apps like Netflix, Facebook, and Pandora among them. An OTA update (which may or may not be necessary for retail units) seems to have cleared this up, as well as add a fullscreen mode(i.e., no notification bar) in the Display settings menu. At present it's hard to find a single app that I use that's incompatible, though a few intensive 3D games seem to have trouble with the new Tegra 4 system-on-a-chip. True, some (like Netflix) have some awkward portrait-only screens, but it's generally easy enough to work around them. Of course, portrait-only games like Tetris and Temple Run are more or less unplayable without tilting the device 90 degrees, but they're not really the sort of games SHIELD was intended for anyway.
The rest of Android is more or less untouched: you've got your Gmail, your web browser of choice, your Play Store, et cetera. All of them default to a phone view, not tablet view, though NVIDIA makes the Android 4.2 settings toggles accessible by pulling down the notification bar on the right, tablet-style.
A few relevant apps like Hulu Plus and the game-centric video service TwitchTV are included, and easily ignored/disabled. Sure, you can run all the apps you would on your normal tablet or smartphone, but the only one's you'll really care about are games, video, and music apps, because that's what SHIELD excels at. You could download the Kindle app and burn through all umpteen thousand words of Moby Dick on your SHIELD, but it wouldn't be a fun experience - heck, getting through this very review is something I wouldn't want to do on the flip-up screen. And that's OK. That's not what it's for. Speaking of which...
Consuming video and audio is what the SHIELD is for (if you'll indulge me by ignoring the whole "game" thing for a moment). It was a strange thing to discover on an Android-powered portable game console, but videos and music shine on the SHIELD, if for no other reason than the fact that the control pad makes it perfect for extended sessions. Either in your hands or freestanding on whatever's near you, it's a great way to consume entertainment - that gigantic control pad is essentially an enormous kickstand.
Within a few days of using the SHIELD, it's become my go-to device for Netflix, HBO Go, and videos from the Play Store. I'm willing to watch them on a screen smaller than a tablet because it's just so darned comfortable. SHIELD is better than a tablet in a few other situations as well: a cramped plane where a 10-inch slate means you're constantly jabbing your neighbor with your elbows, a loud kitchen where the SHIELD's speakers are the only thing on a portable device that can be heard over the frying pan, and using HDMI to output to the TV.
There's just one fly in the ointment: music playback on those wonderful speakers will unceremoniously desist if you close the screen. Yes, I realize that the screen would cover them up anyway, but they're loud enough to be audible through it, and moving an open SHIELD around the house is awkward. Headphones get continuous play, but miss the point. I wish there was a toggle for this somewhere.
As if you needed proof that SHIELD's Tegra 4 hardware is incredibly powerful, we've included a few benchmarks for you. There's a lot of numbers here, and they all add up to this: SHIELD will run anything you throw at it with ease. It's generally a good policy for a savvy consumer to skip the first generation of any new product to let the manufacturer iron the kinks out, but if you're worried about power, don't be. SHIELD should play any game acceptably for the next two years at the very least.
Android itself runs like a champ, though I'm sure an overabundance of memory is a big part of that. Apps open quickly, animations are smooth, and there are more apps available via the Recents button (or more accurately, a long-press of the Home button) than you can shake a reasonably-sized stick at.
By the way, power users will be glad to hear that the bootloader is not locked, and NVIDIA says they won't attempt to block modding or custom ROMs in any way. According to a company representative, they're taking a Nexus-style approach, both in quick updates and a hands-off policy towards end-user modification.
This is what you all came to see, right? How does the SHIELD stack up as an Android-powered gaming console? The answer is a bit mixed. In certain games, SHIELD can give you an experience that's absolutely unrivaled on any other mobile hardware, up to and including dedicated devices like the Nintendo 3DS and Sony PSP Vita. At the same time, some of the limitations of SHIELD's form factor, and unfortunately Android as a whole, act against it.
SHIELD gets a customized version of NVIDIA's long-running TegraZone app. It's designed as both a launchpad for enhanced games and a discovery zone for titles that take advantage of SHIELD's controls and/or Tegra hardware in general. While I tend to avoid TegraZone on other devices (it's little more than a showcase) on SHIELD it's particularly useful. The app is launched with a single tap of the glowing NVIDIA button, or you could be boring and tap the software icon.
You're then taken to a list of your installed SHIELD-enabled games, if you have any installed, in an easy-to-launch menu. Navigate with the left stick and you can go to the SHIELD store, a front-end for SHIELD-enabled titles on the Play Store. (Don't worry, you still buy and play them through the Play Store, and the purchases are linked to your Google Account.) This is a great way to get a quick look at some of the games that will work best on your hardware. Then there's the much-lauded PC game streaming, which I'll touch on later.
By the way, SHIELD comes with Sonic The Hedgehog 4 Episode II and Expendable: Rearmed (a rather generic twin-stick shooter) pre-installed.
Between SHIELD's monster hardware and perfectly-tuned controls, playing those titles that have been created or updated to work with it is a joy. Sonic The Hedgehog 4, Riptide GP2, Repulze, The Conduit, Shadowgun - all of these were improved by an incredible degree through the sheer joy of precise, accurate controls. Games that are designed to emulate the feel of consoles, like Shadowgun, and those that are fairly straightforward console ports, like Jet Set Radio and Grand Theft Auto, are finally given a platform where they look and feel at home.
Visually, nothing can touch SHIELD. Nothing. If you want the ultimate in Android gaming visuals, this is it (unless you'd care to wait for Tegra 4 devices from other manufacturers, of course). There aren't a lot of games that can even take advantage of this much power yet - Riptide GP2 is probably the only one at the time of this review. Combined with the excellent audio and the hardware controls, there's simply no better way to experience gaming on an Android device.
SHIELD As A Platform
Here's the Achilles heel for SHIELD: when playing games designed to use the SHIELD controls, it's fantastic. It really is like having a tiny console in my hands. But for the past five years, mobile game developers have been getting a grip (if you'll pardon the pun) on the strengths and weaknesses of touchscreen gaming. A few have tried to shoehorn console-style games onto touchscreens, and it's largely a miss - see the Modern Combat series for an example of games that slavishly emulate big-budget shooters, and suffer for it. SHIELD was made as a home for games like this.
But that's not what mobile gaming has become. Developers are finally figuring out what works best for touchscreen gaming, and more often than not, it requires reexamining the idea of button-based input altogether. These types of games - again, the majority of the games available at the moment - do not work well on SHIELD unless specifically updated for hardware controls.
Don't mistake my meaning: they're not unplayable, not by a long shot. But they're designed to be played on a slate, touchscreen device, turning SHIELD's biggest selling point into its worst feature. Take EPOCH, for example: in my review, I praised this cover-based shooter for both its impressive visuals and its smart use of touchscreen controls. The visuals are better than they've ever been when playing SHIELD, but using those tap-and-swipe controls now requires you to "hold" the screen portion of the device like a phone, with the bulky, heavy controller nestled awkwardly in the remaining three fingers of both hands.
Consider Rayman Jungle Run, a gorgeous game that's perfectly suited to mobile phones and tablets thanks to one-button controls. On SHIELD, you either have to adopt that awkward half-carry grip, or use the "virtual mouse" right stick as a poor substitute for your fingertip. You can say the same for pretty much any game that's primarily designed as a touchscreen experience, or at least all of them that don't include HID controller support in general or SHIELD support in particular. This puts both developers and NVIDIA in an awkward position: games designed to control well on Android and iOS are poorly-optimized for SHIELD, and those that are designed primarily for SHIELD will be difficult to play without an external controller. (ARMA Tactics is a pretty good example of this.) It's a gaming catch-22.
The obvious solution is to create a mobile game that works well on touchscreens, then add SHIELD support. NVIDIA has convinced enough developers to do this that SHIELD is launching with an impressive array of more than 100 optimized games. Riptide GP2 is probably the best technical demonstration (and a pretty fine racing game to boot), while any of SEGA's Sonic the Hedgehog or Silvertree's Cordy games will scratch the itch of platforming fans. Jet Set Radio and Grand Theft Auto are there for those who are nostalgic for turn-of-the-century gaming. Dead Trigger and The Conduit are there for shooter fans. Any number of twin-stick shooters and dungeon crawlers are literally at your fingertips, in both free and paid flavors. And there are more games on the way, including visual stunners like Dead Trigger 2 and Hawken. I have every reason to believe that NVIDIA will continue to score SHIELD-enabled games - and they'll need to, since the very nature of its design makes SHIELD a virtual platform within Android.
(By the way, this is where we tell you about our extensive, fully-linked list of 127 SHIELD-enhanced games, complete with our recommendations. If you're reading this review, you probably want to read that, too.)
But even if NVIDIA spent all of its considerable resources wooing the best game developers, there would still be a huge chunk that aren't interested in targeting the SHIELD. The reason that mobile gaming is huge is because it's accessible - the biggest hits of iOS and Android aren't big, glitzy affairs like the titles that light up the PC and console sales charts. They're simple, effective, encapsulated gaming experiences: games that have been given the stigmatic label of "casual" by the people that SHIELD is designed to appeal to. These games just don't work well on SHIELD at the moment.
There's a way that NVIDIA can help here, and if they can't, I'm sure that some talented app developers can: control mapping. A huge portion of the gap between those games that work well on SHIELD and those that don't could be bridged if end users had the ability to set up game-specific, contextual control maps for each non-SHIELD Android game. NVIDIA representatives have told us that they're looking into this. I can't wait to see what the Android community at large comes up with.
Of course, all of this doesn't even begin to address the biggest problem with Android games at large: availability. Even though Android is emerging as the clear victor of the mobile platform wars, game developers clearly favor iOS over Android, if they even offer Android versions at all. There's still a built-in delay of months (or years) for top-shelf gaming content, still huge issues of cross-device compatibility, still a seeming reluctance on the part of game developers to bring their games to Android in a timely manner. (Square-Enix, 2K, I'm not just looking at you, I'm staring daggers.)
The reasons for this are the subject of another article, and irrelevant in any case: the presence of a near-perfect piece of mobile gaming hardware won't woo developers across the iOS-Android divide, simply because even the most optimistic predictions for SHIELD sales can't hope to compete with even a mildly popular Android phone. It's an ugly thing to say, but it's true: SHIELD, and Tegra 4 in general, aren't going to make Android any less of a second-class citizen when it comes to mobile gaming.
PC Game Streaming (Beta)
SHIELD's last feather in its cap is the ability to stream games from a local PC. This feature is, as NVIDIA is at pains to point out, launching in the beta stage. But given the amount of attention they gave to PC streaming, both in the initial SHIELD announcement and since then, I'd be remiss if I didn't try it out. David Ruddock will have a separate article on streaming with a more powerful PC and a better network, but since I've got all the necessary components, I fired it up on my home-built gaming PC for a quick run-through here.
The necessary components in this case are a relatively powerful desktop or laptop running a discrete GeForce GTX graphics card (650 or better), plus a local WiFi network with 802.11N. (The A and G standards work as well, but are not optimal.) Streaming works with Steam's controller-focused Big Picture Mode, and a small number of supported games. Those of you with ATI graphics cards are out of luck - sorry, but you'll need a literal green card to enter this streaming nation.
Setup is relatively simple, if you're familiar with Windows: install the latest graphics card drivers and NVIDIA's GeForce Experience program. Then start the TegraZone app on your SHIELD and look for local PCs. Your computer should show up, allowing a connection after being verified on your PC. You'll then see supported games show up on your SHIELD. Big Picture mode works well, but it's somewhat deceptive. While you can browse and buy Steam games all you want on SHIELD, it will only stream those games that it officially supports, at least during the beta period. The supported games that I had installed were Far Cry 3 and Blood Dragon, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and Borderlands 2.
Game streaming itself is undeniably cool. You play in 720p on your SHIELD screen while your PC monitor or TV mirrors the display - you could even treat the SHIELD as a "dumb" controller, if you don't have a spare lying around. In-game, controls are translated to SHIELD in the same way that they would be for a PC controller. While within the streaming radius, the games are fast and extremely responsive. There was no lag, or at least no lag that I could detect. The video itself is a different story. While it's rendered well on the SHIELD screen, you can definitely see compression artifacts and a bit of tearing, as well as colors that are slightly off, especially in dark portions of the games.
Sound was an issue as well. At the time of writing, I've only gotten sound to stream to the SHIELD in Borderlands - the other two games left sound off on both the monitor and SHIELD. That's a dealbreaker for most games. The range on my A/G router was also extremely limited, and I could only count on an uninterrupted play within about twenty feet. (Again, NVIDIA recommends an N-capable router.)
But the biggest problem with SHIELD's streaming powers are that it's simply frustrating to try and operate a PC with a controller. For example, all three of my games start with some kind of menu or overlay. In the case of Far Cry 3, it's the entire detestable uPlay interface that boots up pre-game. You'll have to use SHIELD's streaming controls, a sort of VNC-style mix of gestures, taps, and zooms, to try an navigate this. And if you switch to another window on your computer (or it does so for you) the streaming interface will boot you out.
Between the PC hardware limitations, the questionable value of playing only on a local WiFi network, and the general hassle of actually getting a PC game to play, Steam and PC streaming is generally more trouble than it's worth in the at the moment.
The PC streaming feature is in beta for the SHIELD launch. I hope that David's in-depth feature, with more ideal hardware, will provide better results.
Emulated games get their own section in this review. Why? Because they're awesome on SHIELD. The combination of super-powered hardware and great controls is perfect for emulated games from just about any era, from ye olde Atari 2600 all the way through the N64. (I live in hope that the Dreamcast will get a reliable Android emulator solution.)
Super NES? No problem. Game Boy Advance? SHIELD's got you covered. Master System? If you insist. I've found that the somewhat defunct Gameboid and similar emulators from developer Yongzh work great, and the internal button-mapping system works (more or less) with SHIELD's physical controls. I assume that more recent emulators will as well, or will soon be updated. By the way: I own physical, purchased copies of all the emulated games you see.
Throw in SHIELD's Miracast and HDMI capabilities, and it's a near-perfect mobile emulation platform, assuming you're OK with hardware that won't fit in your pocket. With the relatively anemic requirements and file sizes of classic consoles, SHIELD should hold thousands of games and play them for days at a time. I won't go quite so far as to say that SHIELD is a must-buy for emulator fans, but if you're on the fence about a purchase, it's enough to tip you onto NVIDIA's greener grass.
Parrot AR Drone
One last thing for the software section: Parrot's FreeFlight control app fro the Parrot AR Drone has been updated to work with SHIELD's control pad. This allows for tighter, more precise control than any phone or tablet. If you're a serious AR Drone user (i.e. one of those people that tape GoPro cameras to them and fly around landmarks) the SHIELD may just be worth it for this feature alone.
Cameron Summerson has a quick hands-on with the AR Drone 2.0 and SHIELD, below.
If there was a $300 phone or tablet with the SHIELD's core specifications, it would be easy to recommend. But SHIELD isn't a phone, or a tablet, despite having elements of both. It doesn't compete directly with any current Android device, with the exception of a few oddballs like the Archos GamePad and Xperia Play. You could make the argument that it competes with the OUYA or GameStick, but in both cases, it's both far more capable and far more expensive.
As loathe as I am to say it, the gadgets that SHIELD most directly competes with are the $180 Nintendo 3DS and the $250 PlayStation Vita. The comparison is a poor one, because both of those systems have a larger pool of games (or at least, games that are designed specifically for their holistic hardware) and a much smaller set of full capabilities.
At the end of the day, SHIELD is designed exclusively for a very small subset of consumers: "hardcore" gamers that want to game on Android. For those people, SHIELD is a must-buy device. But $300 may be a hard sell on top of an existing phone-tablet combo, especially with equally powerful and more flexible tablets coming soon. The perfect SHIELD customer, at least to my mind, is someone who really enjoys console-style games on their phone and doesn't particularly want a tablet.
SHIELD is a steal based on its specifications. But based on its merits as a game machine, at least with the current limitations of both a SHIELD-specific game library and Android as a whole, you'd have to be really optimistic about the immediate future of Android gaming to spend $300 on it.
Should you buy SHIELD? Well, the technical specifications are top-of-the-line, the fit and finish is incredibly solid, and its primary selling point - the physical control pad - is basically perfect. From the perspective of a hardware junky, it's a dream come true. The question is whether you'd use it as a gaming device, and use it often enough to justify a $300 purchase.
A few hardware deficiencies like the lack of a camera or vibration motor are as nothing next to the ergonomic and platform problems of a truly portable Android game console. At the moment, you're making a big wager on whether NVIDIA and its developers can keep up the steam that's been generated for the initial launch. I really do hope that "SHIELD Controller Support" becomes a common theme among the biggest and best of Android games. But for the time being, the prudent consumer should probably wait it out - gaming history is littered with portable consoles that claimed to change the game, and only sat on the sidelines.
All that being said, if you're one of the few, the proud, the dedicated Android gamers, and you've got the disposable income, go for it. SHIELD offers the best Android gaming experience available for that small but growing subset of games that support it, and an impressive media experience for any video or audio content. With NVIDIA pushing developers and hopefully polishing the software, it's only going to get better.