With SHIELD, NVIDIA ventures for the first time in the game console business with a mission: making Android a premium gaming platform. NVIDIA absolutely wanted to build a portable gaming device with an integrated controller because without a top-notch controller, skills can’t be expressed and without skills, there is no hardcore gaming.
SHIELD is going to be the first device to use NVIDIA’s Tegra 4 chip and when it ships on July 31st, it will be the most powerful Android device on the market. In addition to running Android games, the NVIDIA SHIELD can also stream PC games by basically turning your PC into a private cloud gaming service like Onlive or Gaikai. Now the question is: how does it perform in the real world? In this review, I have tested both Android and PC gaming to give you a sense for whether or not SHIELD performs as expected.
Tegra 4 system on chip (1.9GHz)
2GB LPDDR3 DRAM
5” 1280×720 display
16Gb of internal memory
Microphone and 3.5mm audio connector
micro-USB for sync/charge
microSD SDXC slot (up to 2TB… If you find one)
Battery: 28.8 Watt/hours
158 x 135 x 57mm, 579g (1.27lbs)
System Performance (excellent)
I know that many people are excited about the raw performance of Tegra 4, and I’d like to go over now, so that we can get to the gaming part right after you know what’s under the hood. By now, I’m assuming that everyone who wants a SHIELD more knows the important points related to Tegra 4, like the 4+1 ARM A15 CPU cores and the more powerful graphics processor (GPU). Here are the raw numbers:"SPEED-WISE, NVIDIA LEAVES SONY AND NINTENDO PORTABLES IN THE DUST"
As you can see the overall system performance is world-class. As the systems start shipping, Tegra 4 will be the most powerful Android hardware on the market. That is, until the Snapdragon 800 arrives on the market to challenge it. Still, for practical purposes, I would say that both are comparable in raw performance and that users are really getting top-notch performance here, which is a very strong differentiation from any other dedicated Android gaming system out there. SHIELD is also outgunning every other portable system on the market as well (PS Vita, 3DS). Yet, I’m not sure that there is a direct competition among the PS/PS Vita and 3DS (other than budgetary) since they are all radically different in terms of games availability and size/weight.
In terms of graphics performance, the numbers show that Tegra 4 offers a nice jump from the current generation of smartphones, which will translate to a solid 60FPS for a large number of games in the Android Market. I’ll get back to that later, but even graphics-heavy games like Real Racing 3 run very smoothly, beyond 30FPS (I’m “eyeballing” it here). It takes a game like Dead trigger 2 (with Tegra 4 bonus graphics) to start challenging SHIELD in any visible way, and only in very specific locations in the game.
I’m not sure what happened in the Basemark X benchmark, since I was expecting the results to be closer, similarly to what GLBenchmark 2.5 shows. However, synthetic benchmarks can yield very different results depending on specific architectural details. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.
Outside of the “frames per second” world, I noticed that the SHIELD system is speedy in general. It is extremely responsive, and everything seems to be a bit quicker than on other established Android platforms, like the most recent smartphones. It is fair to say that SHIELD will badly outclass the Tegra 3 based Ouya game console, even if they don’t compete in the same class (set top vs. portable), but since SHIELD fans are already calling for a box, or a non-display version of this device, NVIDIA may eventually oblige… but for now let’s focus on the issue at hand.
Even after playing a high-powered FPS for about 1hr, SHIELD gets a little warm, but not even hot. The larger form-factor and what seems to be generous air intakes help keep the heat down. I don’t think that even playing for extended periods of time would result in overheating or something like that. The room temperature was around 70 degrees (F).
Just to let you know where I come from: I mostly use PCs, and I own many Android devices and I have tested many others, informally or in-depth. As I’ve said many times in my reviews, I don’t play much on Android systems. That’s partly because games do deplete the phone battery quickly, and secondly because the touch-interface isn’t so great for games that I do like to play such as first person shooters (FPS) or real-time strategy (RTS) games. I own a PS3 and am well familiar with Xbox 360 as well, but I have to admit that my PS3 has become more or less a Blu-Ray player which has not seen a Blu-Ray disc for more than 1.5 years. OK, now you know…
When NVIDIA announced that it would actually build an end-consumer device, I was very curious to see what they would come up with. My initial impression of the SHIELD at CES 2013 was very positive and I found the device to be well built and solid. I was made aware at the time that it was a prototype and that additional “polish” would come in the final product.
I’m glad to report that the finish has been noticeably improved in the final design. You may have heard that NVIDIA delayed the shipping date because it wanted to make sure that the product came out “perfect” as designed, and there it is. The build quality is high and those who have held the prototype should immediately feel that the soft paint and mat surface feel better. There are some shiny black plastic accents, but overall, the device does not look cheap at all, and it feels solid – although possibly heavier than you may think (1.27lbs).
Controller look and feel
The controller is the central part of the design and the rationale behind the “soul” of the product. While not everybody would agree that a touch-interface is detrimental to a lot of games that we have come to like and play over the years, I found the “virtual sticks” to be poor for playing FPS, racing, platform, arcade, sports… I simply I have less control over my characters or vehicles and it is often frustrating to lose because you couldn’t do what you intended.
To compensate for that, game developers have “softened” many games. There are an auto-aim that will ensure that you can hit something more often, and the difficulty level is usually lower on mobile games for that very reason. The good news is that it is possible to use 3rd party controllers with many phones and other Android boxes, and that’s proof that controllers is not dead – on the contrary. They should co-exist with touch-screens.
The SHIELD controller looks big, but it provides good ergonomics. For reference I wear size “M” gloves, so that gives you an idea of my hands size. Upon holding the controller, my fingers land in all the right places: the thumbs are right on top of the analog controls and I can reach the digital controls by moving a little. The two index fingers land right on top of the triggers. With a neutral pose, there is no effort whatsoever to avoid accidental button action.
The device weight makes it feel a bit different from your typical game controller, and while it wasn’t an issue, I found myself looking for a support (tablet, lap, pillow) while playing with the SHIELD. Before we wrap this section up, I’d like to add that it would be nice if it was possible to dim the brightness of the NVIDIA button. The back light is strong, and in total darkness it’s a bit distracting.
Playing touch games
Since Android is full of native touch games like Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja, chances are that you may want to play those as well eventually. The SHIELD hardware can run those without any problems and most likely it should not even need to fire up its high-performance cores but there are different ergonomics that need to be taken into account.
To play those games comfortably, I held SHIELD closer to the screen with my hand partially covering the back of the display to counter balance any pressure induced by swiping on the screen. This is not the most natural way of holding it, but that’s the one which worked best for me.
The SHIELD body also gets a bit in the way of the swiping hand, although that didn’t prevent me from scoring in both games. The conclusion is that you can’t have a great “controller” experience and a perfect “slate” experience in the same device – unless the screen was somewhat detachable. Not a big deal, but I thought that I would bring it up.
Display technologies (very good+)
The NVIDIA SHIELD comes with a 5” 1280×720 LCD display. It looks exactly like it was presented in January at CES, and my impressions remains the same: it produces excellent colors and brightness (indoors, I use it at 50% max, the extra brightness could be useful for outdoor use) and I find the 720p resolution to be very adequate for gaming because it provides the right blend between high framerates (FPS) in games and very good visual quality.
Using a 1080p display would have lowered the FPS significantly, while adding only a fraction of the visual quality, since textures often don’t match a 1080p quality (there’s just not enough texture memory for that). 1080p displays tend to be better for text and photo since the added pixel density (PPI) will increase the perceived image quality. For movies and games, the extra PPI doesn’t provide nearly as much “bang” for your dollars. Finally, 1080p screens also consume more power, so you need to make sure that the usage model justifies it.
In terms of visual quality, I find the SHIELD display to be very good. There are no visible pixels, and everything looks pretty smooth, especially at gaming distance (13” to 20” away for me).
180 degrees tilt
Interestingly, the NVIDIA SHIELD display can be tilted back to 180 degrees, which works best when you are playing on your lap, which I think may happen a lot because you rest it on something. In the plane or in a car’s backseat (or at the office, under the table ;) ) would be good example of where the 180 degrees tilt would work best.
Comfortable to watch movies in bed
An unexpected side effect of the SHIELD design is that it is comfortable to use when watching movies in bed, since you can tilt it at 90 degrees and put it on your chest. I typically do that with my laptop, but the screen ends up being too big (it’s a 15”), so the SHIELD has been an interesting alternative. The powerful sound system is appreciable as well when compared to the tablet option, but I’ll get back to that a bit later in the “Entertainment” section.
Mini-HDMI Type C Output
I haven’t actually tested this port since it should “just work”. The idea is that you could plug SHIELD to a TV to watch movies and play. If your cable isn’t overly thick, playing with the cable attached shouldn’t be an issue, unless you’re very agitated in which case you may disconnect the cable, but I don’t see that happening with most people. I have a 55” TV right here, so most cables would be too short to be far enough from the screen – it’s quite obvious, but keep that in mind.
Miracast (easy, but not built for games)
We were fortunate to have a RocketFish Miracast dongle at the office, so we have been able to test the SHIELD screen “beaming” capabilities. The good news is that it is very simple to setup and that this works great for streaming movies. Miracast sends whatever is on your device’s display, so it couldn’t be any simpler.
The bad news is that this didn’t work so well for gaming. There is a noticeable “lag” in real-time applications and the video streaming wasn’t sustained, thus resulting in dropped frames. I tried to get closer and in the direct line of sight of the dongle – without much success. From what I understand, Miracast is simply not optimized for low-latency apps like games, but this could improve in the future.
Android Gaming (excellent)
There is a huge library of games available on Android, and NVIDIA says that 100+ run particularly well on SHIELD. I’m not going to review the games themselves, but I’ve played many of them to have a grasp of what SHIELD means for Android gaming. Here are the highlights:
Dead Trigger 2
This is the sequel of a zombie first-person shooter, and the game/story is everything you expect from that type of game. The short version is: “Everything that is not you is an enemy, and you have to survive by shooting everything that moves”. Madfingers always impress me with how well they use the Unity Engine, and this game pushes the limit of today’s Android hardware. Tegra runs the game at a solid 30-60FPS, but can sometime drop below 30FPS when you are looking at the water reflection at certain point of the scene. You can imagine how that would hurt slower machines.
The controller clearly gives you superior control over the touch interface. I’ve played Dead Trigger with the touch interface before, and although the developers did a good job, the physical controller is simply better – not as good as keyboard and mouse combo, but so much better than the virtual stick.
This boxing game is pretty good looking (powered by the Unreal engine!) and the developers have really made a best effort on the skin shading and the whole focus is on the fighters. I liked the controls that are based on directions rather than buttons combo. This makes the game much more accessible than a “Tekken” or a “Street Fighter” just to use the famous ones.
What a fun game! The graphics are clearly not “out of this world” and the game doesn’t really push above 30FPS (SEGA: why?!) but it is really fun and I quickly forgot about the graphics to be fully focusing on winning. This is exactly what gaming is about and Virtua Tennis is very well balanced and executed. It feels very natural to play it on the SHIELD, thanks to the controller.
Riptide GP 2
This sequel has added much more complex graphics, and as it stands even Tegra 4 is having a hard time to keep the game up to 30FPS. May be this is a case where developers have cranked the effects just a little bit too much. The game looks very nice, and the controls are great, but the slower FPS does get to me – in a racing game, it’s all about the small tweaks in the trajectory. I’ll fall back to Riptide GP 1 for now.
Android gaming: summary
"ANDROID GAMES HAVE NEVER FELT SO GOOD" There is no mystery to it: when you mix the highest performance available today with a great controller, games are going to be that much better. Android games have never looked and felt so good. The Android platform is reaching the point where it has little to envy from dedicated portables like the PSP, PS Vista and Nintendo 3DS. But “little” doesn’t mean “nothing” and right now, one thing is missing: the great game franchises. It will come of course, but right now, I wouldn’t mind playing a Mario Kart or a Metal Gear Portable Ops. It’s true, Sonic is there, but unfortunately, I’ve never been a big fan of that one.
Obviously, SHIELD sublimes games that work with a controller, while native touch apps will “only” benefit from the higher performance, but I suspect that if you’re reading this, the controller is of high importance to you.
To easily find games that have been optimized for SHIELD, there is a SHIELD store app in the device. I want to clarify what this “store” is and what it is not. SHIELD Store is basically a listing of games, but it does not replace the Android Market. On the contrary, it links back to the Google Market. Aside from the curation, the app purchase experience is no different than with other Android devices.
Shield has a very unique ability to play PC games via video streaming. The concept is similar to having a service like OnLive or Gaikai in your own home, using your PC as a server.
PC Gaming experience
There is a long list of games that NVIDIA has tested with SHIELD, and I’m going to focus on the experience since you probably know the games anyway. Just to shed some context, I have to point out that the internal performance of SHIELD matters much less here, since the PC is executing all the heavy game computing in streaming mode: graphics, physics, AI, everything. What SHIELD lets you do is to remotely control and play by using it as a monitor and controller.
Maximum speed streaming: 60FPS
In theory it is possible to reach 60FPS on SHIELD while streaming a game. In my particular case I got somewhere around 30-45FPS with a good network setting. You luck may vary depending your network conditions. However, even if your PC can run at game 120FPS, it won’t stream faster than 60FPS to SHIELD.
Launching and playing
The interface between SHIELD and Steam works well: NVIDIA has already published a list of compatible games, and once games have been installed on the PC, all it takes is a few taps to launch it from SHIELD. Since those games are built with native controller support, they basically works as you would expect. You now have “PC Gaming” in the palm of your hand.
Despite being compatible, keep in mind that some games were built with a 12”+ screen in mind. For example, in many FPS, you can see and shoot stuff that is relatively far away. Other games, like Skyrim work great on the smaller screen because there is usually no need to look at little details.
Talking about Skyrim, I think that this is exactly the kind of game that I would play with SHIELD in my couch. It doesn’t require all precision of a mouse/keyboard combo, there is a lot of “walking around” and the fights aren’t really complicated. Diablo, WoW, GTA and many car racing games are other examples that I can think of.
PC Gaming summary
Since this is new, users will all come with different ways of using it, but from my own perspective, I think that this allows gamers to play certain PC games in places where they would normally not. I wouldn’t normally setup a laptop with a controller in my bed or living room for example, but with SHIELD, I can play in those places without making a mess.
Network latency (low)
Many users think “latency” as soon as they hear “streaming” and it’s a justified reflex. For this review I’ve tested the network latency with two WiFi networks. The first one is the default network that we have at the office: 100Mbps Internet, one router on a different floor (right above me), multiple HUBs/switches, long cables, plenty of machines. This was my worst case scenario… and with this first setup, I was able to play Skyrim almost normally. There were small hiccups here and there, but slo-action games are playable.
The second setup had a dual-band N router, with only one PC in the same room as the shield (note that in both cases, the PC is connected to the router via wired Ethernet). With that configuration, things were flawless. The latency was tiny (I’m very picky) and there was no slowdown whatsoever. I highly recommend having a good wireless setup and use Ethernet to connect the computer to the router if you can.
The SHIELD PC Game streaming setup is pretty simple: customers will have to install the latest NVIDIA drivers and GeForce Experience utility, and… that’s it. GeForce Experience will scan for available games, and if you use Steam, you will need to log-in.
GPU: GeForce GTX 650 or higher desktop GPU (Notebook GPUs are not supported at this time)
CPU: Intel Core i3-2100 3.1GHz or AMD Athlon II X4 630 2.8GHz or higher
System Memory: 4GB or higher
OS: Windows 8 or Windows 7
GeForce Experience Ver 1.6
GeForce 320.49 or higher drivers
Steam Client 6/20 or later
ASUS RT-AC66U, ASUS RT-N66U, Belkin F9K1105 v2, Belkin F9K1118, Buffalo WZR-HP-AG300H, D-Link DIR865L, D-Link Dir-860L, Linksys EA6500, Netgear R6250, Netgear R6300V, Netgear WNDR4500, Trendnet T1392, Vizio XWR100, Western Digital AC1300-J2F
Still in BETA
Although there is a growing number of games available for streaming, keep in mind that Game Streaming is still in beta phase and you may hit some bumps. For instance, if the PC game loses focus in Windows, the streaming will stop. That’s can happen if there a pop-up (on my system, the Java update is particularly annoying). While playing on your PC, this may not be a big problem, but with SHIELD you may have to go from the living room back to the PC to get things working again. Usually, disconnecting and re-connecting from SHIELD is sufficient to get things running again.
I have also bumped into issues with non-steam games. Although it is possible to add them into Steam, Battlefield 3 install (downloaded from Origin.com) kept insisting on launching the web browser, which stopped the SHIELD streaming. Various forms of digital rights management (DRM) may also be problematic, depending on how they were implemented.
NVIDIA is working with many game companies to improve SHIELD support, and now that the hardware is out there, things should improve rapidly, but there are potential snafus and I want to set the proper expectations. This is new and in Beta. You may run into kinks.
Movies / music
As you can imagine, such powerful hardware has no difficulty running any of the entertainment applications that you may want to use. Music is certainly not an issue, and there are plenty of movie services to rent or buy content from. I have tested the obvious ones like Netflix and Google Play Movies. Of course, both ran without a hitch, and I really like the fact that I could “beam” all the content to the big TV wirelessly via Miracast.
Speaker quality (excellent)
Since the SHIELD design gives ample freedom to the sound engineers (because it’s larger than phones), NVIDIA has been able to equip this device with very powerful high-quality speakers. It’s a real pleasure to use them while playing or watching movies. At first, it’s even a little bizarre to hear this level of sound quality and look at a 5” display, but be assured that I got used to it very quickly…
Battery life (excellent)
Gaming is of course the most taxing activity, and I’ve picked Dead Trigger 2 as a test case. While playing that game, I estimated that the battery goes down by a 24% for every hour played (using headphones), so that leads us to 4.2 hours of really hardcore gaming (shooting zombies non-stop) – not bad at all for a worst-case scenario. If you play less demanding games or if the pace is slower, the battery should last much longer. I didn’t have time to run the same test with Angry Birds, but I bet that this one would be playable for 7-8hrs.
NVIDIA says that SHIELD should be able to play HD videos for up to 15 hours. That’s believable, but I’m still running some tests, so I’ll update this information when I’m done.
When streaming PC games, the PC does all the heavy lifting, and SHIELD only decodes the video stream using its native hardware video decoder, so the battery life can climb up to 9-10hrs. I suspect that most gamers will get tired well before that.
Since the battery is relatively big, charging can take a while. I haven’t done an exact measurement yet since I’ve been busy playing with the device, but you can expect at least couple of hours to fully recharge SHIELD. If there’s demand for it, I’d be happy to look at this again, just drop a comment.
Conclusion (excellent, unique)
With the SHIELD portable gaming system, NVIDIA enters into a whole new business. However, it doesn’t do it blindly and the company isn’t trying to pick a fight with Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo. Instead, NVIDIA follows its usual strategy of finding a smaller market in which it can dominate, and expand from there."SHIELD IS THE BEST THAT ANDROID GAMING HAS TO OFFER"
This time, the landing zone is “Android Gaming” and NVIDIA has set a goal for itself to take Android Gaming to the next level by offering an integrated system that has all the key elements of a great gaming experience: powerful hardware, high quality display, excellent controller and quality games. It’s fair to say that in absolute terms, SHIELD is the best that Android Gaming has to offer today. I think of SHIELD as an Android gaming device first, and it has a nice ability to play some PC games as well.
One could argue that it is possible to build “something like SHIELD” –but cheaper– with an existing tablet/phone and controller accessories: names like Wikipad comes to mind. It sounds interesting on paper, but in reality, none of those are put together as tightly as SHIELD is, and that’s where a lot of the value of SHIELD is: the blend of integration and performance is what makes the user experience that much better. Also, none of those can offer the raw power of Tegra 4 in the $299 range and since FPS and responsiveness are key metrics for a good gaming experience.
I wouldn’t be surprised to hear very heated debates about people should get a SHIELD. It is an “extreme” device which has been designed to offer a “no-compromise” Android Gaming experience, and this is exactly what it delivers. Like any other extreme device, some will absolutely love it and some will find it overkill. In the end, it’s about what YOU want to play and how you want to play it, so make sure that there are great titles for you on Android (or on streaming PC). If you do find them, SHIELD will show you Android gaming like you’ve never seen it before.