Nvidia Shield review

Nvidia Shield review
If necessity is the mother of invention, then the Nvidia Shield is a parentless enigma.

The Shield is an interesting marriage of analog and touch-based tech, a $300 device with a clamshell design housing a "retinal" display – a 720p multi-touch OLED – all on top of a hefty dual-analog control setup beneath it. It's an impressive piece of technology, one that can stream PC games, play Android games and output anything to a TV via mini-HDMI.

The Shield accomplishes a great number of tasks but, outside of PC game streaming, it doesn't fill a need that isn't already being fulfilled elsewhere by cheaper devices.%Gallery-188227% Hardware & OS
Jelly Bean, the latest version of Android, serves as the backbone of the Shield. As an Android user, I found the interface comfortable and as customizable as I've come to expect from Google's mobile operating system. The Tegrazone app, a custom marketplace wrapper for the Google Play store, comes bundled with the Shield, highlighting content designed specifically for its Tegra 4 processor. Tegrazone also contains the PC games streaming area.

The design of the app trades elegance for simplicity, offering a clean grid of boxes for easy discovery of content – but that's the entirety of it. The Shield store within Tegrazone is little more than a display of promoted Shield games, both free and premium, and is a bare-bones affair.

Android runs smoothly on Shield. You can quickly jump in and out of apps, and everything can be accessed using either the left analog stick, the right analog stick (dedicated virtual mouse) or simply by tapping on the screen. Despite how user-friendly the Android OS is and how well it runs on Shield, switching between the analog sticks to using touch – a necessity for some menus in-game and when controlling the Shield's volume – feels awkward at first, but it's something I got used to.

My absolute favorite part of the Shield is its 5-inch OLED screen, a beautiful display with a wonderful viewing angle and serviceable touch response. The screen is bright and makes a great case for watching movies on Netflix or via a MicroSD card, or through other video apps like HBO Go, Hulu Plus and Twitch TV. The Shield can also beam these apps to any Miracast-compatible display or simply plug in through the mini-HDMI out connector on the back. (You'll need to supply your own HDMI cable – there isn't one included.)

As for other non-gaming applications, the Shield does almost as well as any other Android device with Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Pandora and Chrome. It's awkward when an app doesn't boot natively into landscape mode, forcing you to turn the Shield sideways to use the app in question. Thankfully, this doesn't affect some of the more popular apps like Netflix and HBO Go.

The Shield's bottom half is dedicated to controls, and they should be familiar to most users. The layout is reminiscent of the Xbox 360 controller, including the Shield's D-pad, shoulder and trigger buttons, and overall shape. The only real difference is seen in the unit's recessed, symmetrical analog sticks and its weight. While the Shield itself is one of the heaviest handhelds I've ever lugged around, hampering its portability quite a bit, it is at least comfortable to hold and play.

Android Games
Some Android games have been optimized for the Shield's controls, including Arma Tactics THD, Burn Zombie Burn, Riptide GP2, Real Boxing, The Conduit and more.

Arma Tactics THD and Real Boxing were among my favorite games in the Shield's library. Arma Tactics THD, designed for Tegra 3 and 4 processors only, is an isometric turn-based strategy game not dissimilar to XCOM: Enemy Unknown. You employ cover, use flanking maneuvers and generally wage war.

Having never played any of these games on a purely touch screen device, I can't speak to any value added by physical controls, but they all played well on Shield. In the case of Real Boxing, a boxing game that is primarily controlled using the analog sticks in the same vein as the FIght Night series, I can't even imagine playing it without actual analog sticks.

Naturally, the addition of physical controls will make many Android games better by default. But then it's an awfully expensive proposition just to remove a pet peeve of touch-based gaming, and there are plenty of much cheaper options for adding physical controls to Android games.

PC Streaming
PC game streaming is arguably the biggest temptation of the Shield. If you have one of Nvidia's GTX 650 GPUs (or better) in your computer, you can stream PC games over WiFi in 720p directly to the Shield. It all runs through Nvidia's driver delivery system and graphics optimization suite, GeForce Experience. There's also the ability to run Steam directly on the Shield in Big Picture mode, allowing you to stream just about every game in your Steam library.

Technically, you could output PC games to your TV with an HDMI cable, though Nvidia doesn't recommend it. The company says that the combination of streaming to the Shield and then outputting to the TV creates too much latency. Besides, you'd need an awfully long HDMI cable to reach all the way from the TV to your couch.

GeForce Experience games streamed best in my experience – specifically Left 4 Dead 2 and Tomb Raider – though not every game on the list is compatible. Battlefield 3 and XCOM: Enemy Unknown are both GeForce Experience games, and therefore should be compatible for streaming, but my Shield failed to recognize them. An Nvidia representative told me that Battlefield 3's dependence on Battlelog conflicts with the way streaming is handled on Shield, but considering XCOM: Enemy Unknown has partial controller support, there's no reason why it shouldn't be playable.

Still, Left 4 Dead 2 and Tomb Raider were mostly stable, only crashing occasionally when the Shield would tell me there was a dip in my WiFi connection that prohibited the game from running any longer. Drops occurred more frequently when I purposefully put stress on my network, running Netflix, Spotify and other internet-intensive applications. I also live in a small apartment so distance is a non-issue – your mileage may vary.

As of launch, about 15 different GeForce Experience-compatible games can be streamed to the Shield. The feature is still in beta, and a future patch promises to add expanded game support.

Many games not on Nvidia's official GeForce Experience list, however, can still be run via Steam's Big Picture mode. Games that were built for controllers, like Mirror's Edge and Alan Wake, ran swimmingly on the Shield, with little or no pre-configuration required before jumping right into the game. Of course, not every PC game is meant to be streamed on the Shield, Civilization 5 being a prime example. Given that it relies entirely on a mouse, the game defaulted to exclusive use of the touch screen and required the patience of a saint to play. Obviously, such a deep strategy game was not meant to be played on a 5-inch touchscreen.

In the end, I tested Mirror's Edge, both Alan Wake games, BioShock and BioShock 2, Civilization 5, FTL, Hotline Miami, Left 4 Dead 2, Portal, Saints Row the Third, Serious Sam HD, Super Street Fighter 4 Arcade Edition and Tomb Raider using Big Picture mode. The majority of games worked fine enough, though some, like Civilization 5, FTL and Hotline Miami were essentially unplayable thanks to mouse requirements and button-mapping issues.

Nvidia recommends a 5Ghz SSID router for use in games streaming. I had some issues when trying to stream games on my personal router, a D-Link DIR 516, but the Linksys EA6500 Nvidia provided for testing was a far more stable alternative that gave me few problems. An EA6500 runs for about $200 on Amazon, something to think about when considering the Shield costs $300 by itself.

PC game streaming is the Shield's biggest selling point by far. Again though, I live in a small apartment, so my PC is rarely more than 10 feet away. For those with larger living spaces, it may be a more useful proposition, but then $300 is a pretty hefty price for a relatively minor convenience.

With the PS Vita and 3DS offering strong arguments against the Shield in the realm of portable gaming, not to mention iOS and Android tablets offering comparable experiences sans bulky fixed controllers, why should anyone buy Nvidia's new handheld? Honestly, after almost a month with the device, I don't have a satisfactory answer. It's nowhere near as portable as competing devices. It doesn't fit in your pocket and it weighs a lot more than a tablet.

The Nvidia Shield is an interesting gadget, and I'm sure it will attract a segment of impassioned devotees, but its viability in the handheld space is questionable. PC streaming is the Shield's chief advantage over other handhelds, but I'm not sure how many PC enthusiasts are keen to trade their high-resolution monitors for a tiny 720p touch screen. Furthermore, one of the appeals of handheld consoles is the ability to play games anywhere, and the Shield's best games stop working the moment you step outside your personal WiFi network. Sure, you can still play Android games on the go, but unless you demand physical controls, there are cheaper, more portable alternatives. The same goes for media streamers that can run applications like Netflix and HBO Go.

Beyond servicing a niche of PC users looking for a specific kind of game streaming, it's hard to imagine who the Shield is supposed to appeal to. That niche will likely find that the Shield delivers on its promise – so long as they've already invested in an Nvidia graphics card and a decent router, anyway. For everyone else, it's an expensive novelty.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.