Nvidia Shield review

Pros

  • Comfortable gamepad
  • Excellent build quality
  • Very fast for an Android device

Cons

  • Expensive for a gaming handheld
  • Still limited by the Android library
  • PC game streaming only for local network

Since mobile gaming has become so prevalent, the idea of game systems, handhelds, and mobile devices as separate product categories has blurred. There are dedicated systems like the Nintendo 3DS and Sony PlayStation Vita, but there are also smartphones, tablets, and phablets that run Android or iOS and can access tons of games. They're not often very good games compared with the dedicated devices, but they're there, and they're readily available.

The Nvidia Shield tries to combine a dedicated gaming handheld and an Android tablet into a single, gamepad-equipped, feature-filled device. However, it's still an Android device. While this handheld is the best gaming-oriented Android system I've ever seen and a truly impressive piece of technology, it's limited by its library – for now, at least. The Shield has the added and unique benefit that you can stream PC games to it, but only on a local network and only with a specific type of Nvidia video card, and once you leave your house it becomes just a powerful Android device with Android games on it.

The Shield is out now in the US, priced at $299, which works out at £197 of our hard-earned money via a direct currency conversion. Of course, the UK price will be more than that – although when the Shield will be coming to this country, and how much it will cost, is still unclear, with nothing confirmed by Nvidia at this stage. Hopefully we shall see the device soon enough.

Design

The Shield is thoroughly beefy for a handheld, completely dwarfing the 3DS and Vita with measurements of 158 x 135 x 57mm (WxDxH). It weighs a sturdy 580 grams, making it heftier than the 3DS and Vita combined. This bulk makes the Shield a surprisingly solid device, giving a sense of stability and durability, even with the flip-up screen that both Nintendo and Sony's handhelds lack (and neither of those devices feel particularly fragile to begin with).

If you've seen an Xbox 360 controller, you have a sense of the Shield's size and shape. It's a large, curved chunk of plastic with a vague U-shape, plus comfortable hand grips that hold trigger and bumper buttons on each shoulder. When closed, the controls and screen are completely protected except for the shoulder buttons.

The back of the Shield plays host to a microUSB port, a 3.5mm headphone jack, a mini-HDMI port, and a microSD card slot, all completely uncovered. A small rubber door for the ports would have helped protect them, but the ports themselves are very welcome, providing a variety of standard connections to use. You might need to get a mini-HDMI-to-HDMI cable if you don't already have one; mini-HDMI is a less common connector type than full-size HDMI.

When open, the Shield reveals a 5in 720p touchscreen under the lid, along with two large silver speakers, and a series of gamepad controls on the body. Two large, concave analogue sticks sit next to each other in the centre of the Shield, and a direction pad sits above them to the left, like on a PlayStation 3 controller. Four face buttons labelled A, B, X, and Y in an Xbox 360 controller pattern sit across from the direction pad, and five system buttons, Shield, Home, Start, Mute, and Back, sit between them. The Nvidia button is the largest and only backlit button, serving as a Home button that goes straight to the Shield menu, while the regular Home button goes to the Android home screen.

The touchscreen looks bright and crisp, and the 720p resolution suits its size. It easily compares with the Vita's same-sized 960 x 544 OLED screen, with an even sharper picture thanks to its higher resolution. The 720p screen isn't very impressive compared with the larger over-1080p refreshed Google Nexus 7, but among gaming handhelds it's the best in its class.

The two silver speakers on the gamepad are surprisingly powerful, blowing every other Android device I've used out of the water with how much sound they can put out. The sound can get significantly louder than a 3DS or PlayStation Vita, and while it isn't as loud as a separate, dedicated speaker (which you can connect using Bluetooth or the headphone jack), the Shield has some of the best speakers I've seen on any portable gadget (that wasn’t a speaker itself).

Unlike the Nintendo 3DS and Sony PlayStation Vita, the Shield has two ways to put what you're playing in your hand on your HDTV. The mini-HDMI port streams 720p video to the screen with nearly no latency, making playing any game on your HDTV simple, if tethered by a cable. It also supports Miracast, so you can wirelessly stream the Shield's screen to a Miracast-compatible HDTV or connected Blu-ray player. Miracast isn't quite as useful as a direct HDMI connection, because it has too much latency to play games with, and the picture can break up with signal hiccups. Still, both connections are welcome, and Miracast can be very handy for streaming a movie, music, or website to your HDTV, even if you can't game with it.

The flip-up screen and gamepad controls are great for gaming, but not so great for non-gaming features. You can control the system using the analogue sticks to manipulate an on-screen cursor and on-screen keyboard, but it still feels cumbersome if you want to use the Shield for more mundane Android tablet or smartphone functions like web browsing. Also, without any camera whatsoever, you can't make video calls or take any pictures with it. This is primarily a gaming device.

Features and performance

The Shield is one of the first Tegra 4 devices we've seen, with a 1.9GHz quad-core ARM Cortex-A15 CPU and a custom Nvidia GPU. It'll be the fastest chip on the market until devices with Qualcomm's Snapdragon 800 processor start surfacing, if our benchmark results hold out. It was smart of Nvidia to keep the Shield's screen at 720p and not bump it up to 1080p. The combination of the Tegra 4's GPU and the 720p screen led to graphics benchmark results which bumped right up against the 60 frames per second vsync limit beyond which Android games won't go. This was the first device we've seen to hit vsync on either Rightware's Basemark Taiji benchmark or GLBenchmark 2.5 Egypt HD, showing that the Shield will be able to handle anything games throw at it.

Overall system benchmarks were also very strong, with Antutu turning in a 41113, the highest score we've ever seen. Now, the Shield may be tweaked to that benchmark, which has become somewhat devalued of late. However, we'd venture to trust the 3D graphics component score, which is almost double that of even leading Snapdragon 600 devices like the Samsung Galaxy S4. Only Qualcomm's juiced-up Snapdragon 800 development tablet could come close to matching the Shield there. The Basemark OS score, to use another overall system benchmark, was also the highest we've ever seen in a shipping ARM-based product at 338.

The Tegra 4 chip has one flaw: It doesn't fully support the cross-platform graphics API OpenGL ES 3.0, which Google just started heavily pushing with Android 4.3. Nvidia is taking a calculated gamble here that with the long rollout of new Android versions, it'll be a while before Android game developers fully embrace OpenGL ES 3.0, at which point Tegra 5 with the new Kepler GPU will appear to pick up the slack.

So performance isn't going to be an issue here, at least from a raw horsepower perspective. The Shield's chip (and especially the graphics element of it) is more than any Android app developer is programming for right now. Rather, the big question about the Shield is whether the games can keep up with, and be programmed right for, the chip.

Because it's so large and powerful, the Shield is a bit of a battery hog. It can run full-steam for about five hours, but don't expect a full day's worth of gaming without a charge in the middle of the day.

Android and games

The Shield runs Android 4.2.1 Jelly Bean, and you can access the standard Android interface and all of the useful features of Android (including the Google Play store) by pressing the Home button. However, it also uses Nvidia's new Shield interface, accessed through the Nvidia button. This is a much more gaming-oriented, curated view that simply lists the installed Shield-optimised games in one tab, the currently available Shield-optimised games on another tab, and PC games you can stream from a networked computer on the third tab.

You can still access any other games on Google Play through the standard Android interface and app menu, and if you find a lot of games that aren't specifically Shield-compatible but play well on the Shield, you might want to eventually forego the Shield menu entirely (when not using the PC game streaming feature, explained below) and make folders on the Android home screen with your favourite games.

The selection of Shield-compatible games on the Shield store is relatively small but somewhat compelling, with many of the currently available three dozen or so games offering a solid gaming experience. You can play Grand Theft Auto 3, Max Payne, Sonic CD, The Bard's Tale, Star Wars Pinball, and The Conduit HD all with full Shield support.

If you're interested in less-than-savoury means of playing older games from other systems (*cough* emulators *cough*), the Shield is just about the most perfect device I've seen in this respect. Its great display and full gamepad make it ideal for the wide selection of Android apps that can run files intended for other, older game systems, which you should of course only acquire legally.

While only the games on the Shield store have official support and guaranteed compatibility with the Shield gamepad, there are also many solid games on the Google Play store that work well with the Shield, with either complete or partial gamepad support. Virtua Tennis Challenge worked perfectly on the Shield (and, despite not being listed in the Shield Store, it showed up in the Shield Games menu), and R-Type played very well with the analogue stick even though I had to use the touchscreen to make choices in the game's menus.

Minecraft: Pocket Edition and Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit didn't fare quite as well. Minecraft didn't work at all, and while the tilt controls worked fine in Need for Speed, I had to choose between not playing the game at all, or playing the game without nitro or braking because of the lack of gamepad support.

Like all Android devices, the Shield suffers from a lack of top-tier games. The local PC streaming feature (discussed below) helps, but it requires a specific hardware configuration and only works locally. The games you can pick up on the Google Play store (and play away from home) aren't as varied, deep, or high quality as the games you can get for the 3DS.

The Shield simply doesn't have any system-seller in its US launch line-up, and that’s really the Shield's biggest flaw. It could almost certainly run circles around the 3DS and compare favourably to the Vita in terms of power, but the Android ecosystem only has casual titles, knock-offs of varying quality, and generations-old console games available.

You can defend certain selections on the Google Play store and there are certainly some great games available, but at heart you have to accept its limits. Out of the top 20 paid games in the Google Play Store, two are decade-old Grand Theft Auto games, nine are extremely simple casual titles that became popular as smartphone or web games (including three different versions of Where's My Water), and one is a Super Nintendo emulator. These aren't the hallmarks of a healthy, modern game library.

PC game streaming

The Shield has a very unique and useful feature. It can stream games from a locally networked PC, so you can play full PC titles on the handheld. It's similar to the Nintendo Wii U's ability to play Virtual Console and other games on the gamepad within range. It opens up the Shield to more flexibility as long as you're near your computer, but it's very limited.

PC game streaming is currently in beta, and while the feature is available to all users, it's currently not "complete." It also requires some very specific hardware to run. You need to have a computer with Nvidia's Kepler architecture and enough power to both run and stream the compatible games.

Specifically, you need a desktop computer (notebooks aren't supported yet) with a GeForce GTX 650 or higher Kepler video card and an Intel Core i3-2100 3.1GHz or AMD Athlon II X4 630 2.8GHz or higher CPU. This even limits gamers with high-end gaming systems if they prefer AMD hardware over Nvidia. Nvidia says this is because Kepler is specifically designed with this streaming game feature in mind, and both non-Nvidia and earlier Nvidia GPUs simply can't handle it.

Even though it's in beta, the PC game streaming feature works nearly flawlessly. Nvidia currently lists about a dozen PC games that work with the streaming feature, but it can handle nearly every game that supports gamepad controls. I tried two supported games, Borderlands 2 and Team Fortress 2, and they worked without a hitch. I tried a handful of unsupported games: Super Meat Boy, Super Puzzle Fighter, and Serious Sam 3 BFE. All three of them worked perfectly as well. If your game is on Steam and can handle a gamepad, you should be able to play it on the Shield.

I was impressed by the lack of latency. Super Meat Boy and Super Puzzle Fighter are both graphically simple but fairly twitchy platform/puzzle games, and I didn't feel any lag between the gamepad and the screen. Serious Sam 3 also felt lag-free, and I could aim at and blast away enemies with ease. This is dependent on the strength of your Wi-Fi network, though; Nvidia sent us a router with which to test the feature, and it worked flawlessly with this router. If you don't have a dual-band router, your performance might be inferior.

Whatever you play on the Shield while using the PC streaming feature shows up on your computer screen. This means you can't have someone at the computer doing something else while you play games, but it does mean the Shield can function as a Wii U gamepad-like gamepad. You can have the extra screen with your game on it, but you can also use the gamepad while looking at your monitor or, if you have your computer hooked up to one, your HDTV.

Verdict

It's really tough to judge the Nvidia Shield. Standing on its own merits, it's the most well-constructed, comfortable, powerful, and technically impressive Android gadget I've ever used. The gamepad feels great, the screen looks sharp and vivid, and the speakers sound excellent. It destroys other Android devices in all speed tests. Its PC game streaming feature works amazingly well even in beta (though its technical requirements currently make it very limited). It's an amazing device.

However, from a gaming perspective, I can't necessarily recommend it over a 3DS or even a Vita. The other two systems simply have much larger, higher quality software libraries, and they’re less expensive. Of course, I'd also recommend the 3DS over the Vita despite the Vita outshining the 3DS in all technical aspects for this same reason: The 3DS game library is better.

The question always boils down to games, and once you step out of your house and away from your hopefully Kepler-equipped gaming desktop, you're limited to Android games. If you're an emulation fanatic this means you can basically play any console or handheld game (you've legitimately acquired, if applicable) made before 2002 on this one device.

If you want to stick to more legally savoury titles, that means some good old Rockstar and Sega games and whatever else you can find on the Google Play store. Also, if you want to play more casual games or use the Shield as a general tablet, you might also find yourself frustrated because the bulky gamepad gets in the way of using the touchscreen solely as a touchscreen.

Priced at $300 in the US, this is a powerful, impressive, and expensive piece of hardware that doesn't really have the core experience you'd expect from a system pitched at that price level. Even the PlayStation Vita is less expensive, and while its library is anaemic, there are several excellent games available for the system (Persona 4: Golden, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, LittleBigPlanet) and an impressive library of hundreds of PlayStation One and PlayStation Portable titles.

The 3DS has much less power, but its game library is massive and has many more hard-hitters than the Shield (Fire Emblem: Awakening, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D, any game with Mario or Zelda in the title). The current Android game library and the limitations of it are the Shield's biggest hurdle to overcome.

If the Shield was a hundred notes cheaper, or if it could function as its own phablet without the bulky gamepad, it would be a shoo-in for a Best Buy award and likely a slightly higher score. It's a fantastic product when considered on its own merits, but one that's too pricey and limited when compared to other gaming handhelds.

As higher quality games appear on the Google Play store, more gaming systems use Kepler GPUs, and Nvidia (hopefully) adds notebook support, it could become a much more useful device. As it stands now, though, you need to approach the Shield with some very specific expectations – and, if you want to use PC game streaming, very specific equipment. It's an incredibly impressive gaming handheld, but it's boxed in from both sides by more economical and games-rich dedicated gaming handhelds and more flexible Android tablets. Put simply, this is a great device very few people need.