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Why Nvidia's Shield is ripe for success

When Gary Shapiro delivered his opening keynote speech at CES 2013, he was all about innovation. One of Shapiro’s favourite catchphrases is innovate or die, and you know what? He’s not wrong. No other industry needs breakthrough innovation as much as the technology industry, so when something truly innovative breaks cover at CES, it’s worth taking notice.

This year Nvidia proved that it could pull something both innovative and special out of the bag when it announced its Shield device at its press conference on Sunday. It’s very rare for tech journalists to be surprised by anything, since most big launches are preceded by months of rumours, leaks and speculation. But when Nvidia unveiled Shield, it truly was a surprise.

Shield is, in essence, a handheld gaming console that’s designed and built by a company that helped write the book on gaming hardware. But labelling Shield a handheld gaming console is like calling Concord public transport. Yes Shield sits in your hand and yes it’s a complete gaming device, but it’s so much more than that. In fact, anyone who views Shield as just a handheld Android console is really missing the point.

The first thing to remember about Shield, is that most of the people who have written about it haven’t even seen the device – after all, it was only announced a couple of days ago. However, I was lucky enough to spend this morning with Nvidia’s new baby, and I was impressed, very impressed in fact.

We all have a fair idea of Shield’s specs, most of the data was conveyed at the press conference on Sunday. Shield is powered by Nividia’s brand new Tegra 4 SoC, which makes it a pretty powerful device. Tegra 4 comes packed with four ARM Cortex A15 chips, along with no less than 72 Nvidia Kepler based GPU cores. That’s a pretty good starting point for any mobile gaming device.

Another point in Shield’s favour is that it runs a completely vanilla build of Android, so it shoud be upgradable whenever Google releases a new version of its OS. It also means that it already has a truly massive library of apps and games just waiting to be downloaded from the Google Play store.

But unlike other devices, bar the Archos GamePad (review coming very soon), Shield has a proper complement of gaming controls, making it a very different proposition form your average Android tablet.

Ergonomics are incredibly important with a tactile device like this, and having spent some time with Shield I can confirm that Nvidia has knocked it out of the park. It won’t take a genius to notice that the controller layout is very reminiscent of an Xbox 360 controller, but that’s no bad thing. The X360 gamepad is probably the best gaming controller to hit the street, so there’s no reason why Nvidia wouldn’t have looked there for inspiration.

Shield is bulkier than the PlayStation Vita, but it's also far more comfortable to hold and use.

The twin analogue sticks provide smooth and silky movement, and they’re also very well positioned, ensuring comfortable use. The trigger buttons fall easily under your index fingers, and they also provide a reassuring amount of travel for balancing the degree of input.

The four face buttons stand proud enough to offer easy access and the shoulder buttons, although slightly small, fall within easy reach. The only disappointment was the D-Pad, but Nvidia assured me that it will be improved before Shield goes into production.

The 5in screen is bright, vivid and offers surprisingly wide viewing angles. You navigate the device using the physical controls or the touchscreen interface, and the latter responded instantly and accurately to swipes and taps.

So, when it comes to hardware spec, OS build and physical interaction, Nvidia has got all of its proverbial ducks in a row.

Of course any gaming device lives and dies by its software catalogue, and despite the fact that there is no shortage of Android games available, those games will need to be optimised for Shield. This was one of the many negatives that James Plafke cited in his recent article outlining why Shield will fail (opens in new tab). I don’t agree with him.

Nvidia has a long, long history of working with game developers. Anyone who’s been a keen gamer for a while will remember Nvidia’s The Way It’s Meant To Be Played campaign, where the company worked with developers to ensure that games used Nvidia hardware to the absolute best effect. And that’s exactly what Nvidia will be doing again via TegraZone portal.

Nvidia is a company that fully understands the need for optimisation, so it’s clearly going to make sure that as many top Android games are optimised for both Tegra 4 and for the physical controls on Shield. And going by the titles I played today, Shield will represent the way Android games are meant to be played.

But as I said earlier on, thinking of Shield as just a handheld Android gaming console is doing the device a real disservice. Because it’s not handheld Android gaming that I’m excited about, it’s handheld PC gaming. As good as Dead Trigger 2 looked and played on Shield, it’s the likes of Skyrim, Diablo III and Dishonoured that I’m looking forward to.

For me, the killer feature on Shield is its ability to play PC games remotely. So, if you have a high-end gaming PC, you can pair Shield with it and play the game in your hand while it’s being executed on the PC. Essentially you’re creating a localised cloud gaming infrastructure in your own home.

You’re probably worrying about the input lag implications of such a model, but I was surprised at just how responsive the system is. I played Need For Speed Most Wanted and I wouldn’t have guessed that I wasn’t playing a locally executed game. And don’t forget that assuming your PC is up to the task, you’ll be playing a version of the game that looks way better than any console version.

As amazing as playing a PC game on Shield’s built-in screen is, that’s not all it can do. You can also choose to play that same PC game on your HDTV instead. So now you’re not going to have to choose between having the best visual experience or a big screen experience.

The really clever part here is that there’s no unnecessary streaming going on – while Shield is sending the control inputs to the PC, the PC is sending the video stream directly to the TV.

One of the tallest hurdles that any gaming console has to get over is building a software library, but Shield not only has access to an ever growing library of Android games, it can also play a multitude of PC games straight out of the box.

Oh, and let’s not forget that when you’re playing those PC games on or through Shield, you’ll be logged into your Steam account, so all of the best social and multi-play aspects of gaming will be at your fingertips too.

Shield isn’t just about gaming either. Being a fully featured Android device it can also handle everything that any other Android device could, whether that be email, browsing or social networking. But more important is its media handling ability.

You probably won’t want to watch masses of video on the integrated 5in screen, but Nvidia showed Shield streaming 4K video directly to an LG 4K TV at its press conference – that’s pretty impressive stuff. It’s probably a safe bet that other Tegra 4 devices will be able to do the same thing, but Shield’s ability to handle UltraHD without breaking a sweat is definitely another string to its bow.

When you’ve been in this business as long as I have, you start to become jaded about new products, but I’m genuinely excited by Shield. I’m sure that there will be discussion and arguments about this device ad infinitum, most probably spearheaded by people who’ve never even held Shield in their hands. But as someone who has spent some quality time with Shield, I think it could be a real game changer.

Riyad has been entrenched in technology publishing for more years than he cares to remember, having staffed and edited some of the largest and most successful IT magazines in the UK. In 2003 he joined forces with Hugh Chappell to create They built TR into the UK’s market leading technology publication before selling the title to IPC Media / Time Warner in 2007. As Editorial Director at Net Communities, Riyad will be helping to develop the publishing portfolio, making IT Pro Portal the best publication it can be.