NVIDIA surprised the world last night by transitioning from hardware component manufacturer to game console maker in one fell swoop, introducing the world to its portable game console, Project Shield. A 5-inch "retinal" HD multitouch display sitting atop a full-on game controller that resembles a blend of the Xbox 360 gamepad's curves and the PlayStation 3 DualShock 3's unfortunate analog stick placement, all powered by the newly revealed Tegra 4 quad-core cortex A15 processor. The console's set to ship in Q2 2013, and it promises stunning graphics for the Android games it's made to run, as well as a direct streaming option employing NVIDIA's GeForce Experience application. That means not just Android games, but also full-on PC games, with built-in Steam Big Picture Mode integration. It is, frankly, an impressive package. But the proof's in the pudding, right?

We got our first chance to go hands-on with the device this morning -- our first hands-on with any Tegra 4 device, mind you -- and came away impressed. Beyond being a speedy handheld, the 5-inch LED makes high-def PC games look even more visually stunning. Sheer pixel density alone meant that our test run of Need for Speed: Most Wanted looked even better on Project Shield than it did on the PC running it. More importantly, there was zero perceptible lag.

As for controls, Shield is a bit on the unwieldy side of things. In an effort to make the screen foldable, clamshell-style, with the full gamepad underneath, the analog sticks are sunk into the body. While it didn't make any of the games we tried unplayable, it did feel a bit less comfy than, say, an Xbox 360 controller. The DualShock 3-esque placement of those analog sticks isn't helping either, but sadly that doesn't look like it's changing -- the sticks are where they are for function's sake.

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NVIDIA Project SHIELD hands-on

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The Shields we used were running Android's latest firmware, Jelly Bean 4.2.1, and appears to be a mostly stock version of the OS. There's of course the inclusion of Tegrazone, as well as the Shield app (which facilitates PC game streaming and acts as a hub for games on the device), but it was otherwise pretty standard. That said, with a Q2 2013 expected launch, that OS could change dramatically. We were able to quickly and easily swap from a high-def PC game to the internet browser without any issues, and back again. Switching between PC games is a bit more trouble, requiring you to quit out before swapping to another -- a failsafe to make sure you don't accidentally kill your save file, but an unfortunate one for ease of use. Android gaming is a bit more fluid, operating ... well, like an Android device. The boxing title featured during last night's pre-CES keynote looked just as good as it did yesterday, though admittedly nowhere near as impressive as the PC game streaming.

All in all, while there are still some minor tweaks we'd like to see on Project Shield before it becomes a reality, the device felt solid, looked great, and sounded just as good. The speakers are, if anything, overbearingly loud (that's a good thing), and the screen is far more beautiful than we were expecting. If the price is right, we could very much see this becoming our go-to gaming handheld at home. For now, all we know about that is that it won't be in line with the subsidized console market. "There's a lot of tech in there," an NVIDIA rep told us, pointing out the device's many functions. While that statement's a bit worrying, we'll reserve our trepidation for the actual price, which we should know sooner than later.

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Hands-on with NVIDIA's first game console, Project Shield (update: now with video!)