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On Sunday evening, we reported that NVIDIA had launched Tegra 4, its next-generation quad-core chip with four ARM Cortex A15 CPUs, and a new massive GPU. At the same time, the company has announced the NVIDIA Shield, a “pure Android” portable gaming  device that is designed to bring a unique mobile gaming experience. Shield has been built as a great game controller which happens to host one of the fastest next-gen mobile chip along with a 720p screen. Shield is obviously capable of running Android games like nothing else can, but that’s not it: using technology specific to NVIDIA, Shield can also stream games from a nearby PC and effectively brings “PC gaming” into your hands. I’ve spent some private time with the device here at CES, and here are my first impressions.

Update: We have spent more time with the NVIDIA SHIELD and published a complete review of the device.

Quick specifications overview

Just to shed some context, let’s go quickly over the specifications of the NVIDIA Shield. As I said earlier, this is a “pure” Android 4.2 (Jelly Bean) device and besides some app optimizations in the browser and the user interface, it should be close to what the Google Nexus 4 owners are seeing.

It is powered by Tegra 4, which has four ARM Cortex A15 cores (+1 companion core for low-intensity workloads) and 72 GPU Cores. There is not enough information about the GPU Cores to figure out what that translate into in terms of raw processing power etc, but if the core were the same than the ones used in Tegra 3, that would translate into 6X more pixel processing power. Again, this is a rough “guesstimate”, but you get the idea: it’s much faster than Tegra 3 is.

The internal storage capacity has not been decided on, but there’s a microSD slot, and I have been told by NVIDIA that installing apps on the microSD would be an option, so that pretty much solves the storage capacity question, and if all of this is true, I suspect that NVIDIA could go towards 16GB, or even 8GB if they want to be very aggressive on pricing. We’ll see.

There is a 5″ 1280×720 LCD display built into the device. I went in with the idea that the display would just look “OK” for pricing sake, but I was agreeably surprised because it actually looks great. I’m not sure if this is an IPS display, but the view angles and color rendering are excellent. For those who play outdoors: I have not had the opportunity to test it in bright day light.

Shield as a gaming system

nvidia shield preview 01 640x426There’s no point of making you read more than you need to before getting to the “meat” of the matter: how is it as a portable gaming platform? To judge that, I ran a few games, some on Android, and some on PC (via streaming). I wanted to see how the controller feels (after all it’s the whole point of the device!) and how the PC games would feel like, especially when it comes to lag time. I had played with service like OnLive in the past, and while they “work”, lag time was a concern.

The controller

nvidia shield preview 15 640x426Despite a unusual industrial design, NVIDIA’s Shield does feel very good and very familiar as a controller. I have medium-sized hands (gloves size M) and for me, every controls were at the right place, including D-Pad, ABYX buttons, triggers and analog sticks. I haven’t used the buttons in the middle much, but they look to be within an quick reach. The D-pad is still a work in progress but NVIDIA’s Jason Paul told me that in the end, he wants to be able to perform a  “Hadoken” move from the Street Fighter game, which is demanding on the D-pad. Good idea!

For me, Shield feels closer to an Xbox controller than a PlayStation one in terms of how it feels in your hand, but overall, I think that most gamers will find their marks immediately. The controller is a success. Note that this is a “hand-built” prototype and that the final version may vary a little. For instance, the sides will have a soft touch texture, and other details may be tweaked before mass production begins.

 The Display

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I wish that I had a photo that shows the colors in all their glory

As I said earlier, this is a high-quality display and it can be tilted all the way to a near-flat position, which is great because you may need that depending on how you position yourself during play time. That’s when the wide view angle comes in handy as the colors and brightness don’t change much depending on how far back you tilt the screen back.

I have to admit that I don’t use my portable consoles that much, and that I’m not really a die-hard fan of portable gaming. Playing on a small screen does have some trade-offs and in general, the relatively small size of the screen is one of them. That said, if you feel just fine playing on a Vita or on your smartphone, then this is about the same size, except that the tilt option makes it much more comfortable as you look at the screen from a perfect angle.

The Games

NVIDIA has built an excellent relationship with game developers, and TegraZone (nvidia’s catalog of Tegra-optimized games) has quite a few games with high-quality graphics. I tried some, and overall, this is the best Android gaming experience that I’ve had since the platform was launched. But to keep it real, I also have to point out that despite a huge number of Android games, most aren’t even worthy of a single Tegra 4 core. So yes, the Android gaming experience is top notch, but you really have to look at the available titles, or “bet” on a possible success of Android as a gaming platform. This is an issue that most Android game systems will face, at least if they are geared towards “hardcore gaming”.

And that’s really where the ability to play PC games comes in. Using the GeForce Experience (a PC app that optimizes game settings and updates drivers) and low-latency technologies developed for the GeForce Grid, NVIDIA has built a game streaming system that lets you play PC games by using the Shield device as a thin client. To put it in simple terms, it’s basically an ultra-low latency, high-quality, Remote Desktop dedicated to gaming.

The games are rendered on the PC with a GeForce 600 Series (NVIDIA’s Kepler architecture was the first one that supported low-latency streaming technology), and at the moment, you can stream only over your home network. Playing outside the home is not supported (you may be able to built a VPN yourself of course), and 3G/4G is not an option at the moment, but NVIDIA told me that they were considering the option, given that their streaming technology is technically capable of supporting mobile networks.

PC Games must be able to support a controller, which is not an issue for many of them, but clearly some* games may not work out of the box. Also, there may rare moment swhere you need to have some keyboard interaction with the host PC (notifications, etc…) but during our play time, none of that did happen. If there is a need to enter a code or a player name, a virtual keyboard on the Shield should do the trick.

Steam works. NVIDIA has worked with Valve to integrate steam, and although we’ve only run a few games, hundreds of them should run without any issues.

In terms of gaming, and particularly in the portable gaming world, this is very unique. Keep in mind that the ability to run PC games is confined to your home, so think about how you would use the device. As soon as you step out of your home network, only Android games will be available. Again game system are all about the content, so take a good look at your options.

Last but not least, it is possible to stream games from the Shield to a large screen TV. I believe that NVIDIA is using Miracast for that, although I’ll have to get back to you on the specifics. It would be really fun  if Android game developers were to use the Shield display as a secondary screen (radar, misc game info) when playing on a large TV…

Industrial design (prototype)

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You’ve seen the photos, so I won’t go into the aesthetics (let me know what you think in the comments!), however, I can report on the build quality. Overall the NVIDIA Shield feels very solid and in its closed state, it should be much more resistant than your average smartphone and I wouldn’t worry too much about throwing it in a bag and travel with it.

The display hinge is probably the only obvious place where you have to be careful, but I don’t think that there’s a magic solution for that and the flip out screen basically means that you can get the best view angle.

Last but certainly not least, NVIDIA has worked very hard to ensure that the speaker system could deliver a good sound experience, which is critical to games. In terms of sheer power (volume), I was pretty impressed with the result. The positioning of the speakers project the sound directly to the user, which is the best way to do it. In terms of sound quality, I would say that this is “very good”, but short of “excellent” as the sound is sometime a bit “flat”, but this is something that may be tweaked via sound specialization software. NVIDIA still has months to make those changes, so we’ll have to wait and see.

Speculation

Games availability: With a “Q2″ launch, there is ample time for questions and speculations. First, there’s the question of games availability. I’ve said it earlier: I really like Android, and there are a lot of games but the number of really high-quality game is still relatively low. Obviously, every platform has to start from somewhere and you can either wait to see how this pans out, or have faith that things will come. It’s your money.

My personal opinion is that the Android eco-system is better for freemium games than it is for massive franchises like Call of Duty (who is going to pay $60 for an Android game?). Android is not going to displace Xbox and PlayStation in the next round of consoles, but it is also conceivable that once a game has been developed for other platforms, a port to Android may be affordable enough to make sense. The one thing I’m sure of is that the size of that market and competitive pressure will push the quality upwards. There’s is simply no way around it.

Affordability: this is probably the most important question that NVIDIA won’t answer today. As it is the case with every product, NVIDIA is probably looking at the initial feedback to see how it can price the Shield. The company could compress its own Tegra 4 margins, opt for a smaller internal storage, use less expensive RAM etc… to lower the price without affecting the user experience in a significant way. The 720p display should help keeping the price in check as well as smartphone makers will switch over 1080p in 2013. I dare say that I would expect Shield to cost between $249 and $300 with 16GB, but again, this is my own guess, so tell me what yours is, and more importantly: how much would you pay for it? (NVIDIA is probably reading this too icon smile

Conclusion

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The NVIDIA Shield was quite a surprise, I have to admit that I didn’t see it coming, even though I had heard some rumors before, I just didn’t expect NVIDIA to build its own device and I know the company rather well.

I think that the Shield is a device that can be of great service for a specific group of people who are looking for a high-end portable gaming system. Never before has a portable console been so powerful, and never before have PC games been so accessible from the palm of your hands. That said, if Android gaming is to truly succeed, Android games will have to rise both in numbers and in quality.

By now, I hope that you have a good idea of how it is to use the NVIDIA Shield, and hopefully this will help you form an opinion based on your own usage. If you have additional questions, or if there is something that I have not covered, feel free to drop a comment. I will try to address it. If there are things that you want to know, just ask and we’ll do our best to dig around.

Filed in Featured >Gaming . Tags: Android, Jelly Bean (Android), NVIDIA, NVIDIA Shield and Tegra 4.
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