Skip to main content

Nvidia's Shield handheld is an ambitious blunder

Nvidia has finally priced its Project Shield gaming device, and it's not pretty. As we reported earlier today, if you want this new game system/controller/accessory, over in the US you'll need to shell out $350 (£230) for a pre-order, which is more than any other game system currently on the market.

That's the first mistake Nvidia is making with the Shield, which wouldn't be so much of a problem if Nvidia was also releasing a compelling ecosystem for the device. But instead – and here's mistake number two – the Shield is getting a mish-mash of two separate ecosystems, one that isn't completely functional on the device and another that isn't impressive in terms of size.

I don't want to predict doom for the Nvidia Shield, but I don't see how it can survive as a feasible product in its current state. It feels like a perpetual experiment, almost like the Google Glass Explorer edition, the $1,500 (£980) Android-based headset no one over in the States would seriously buy if they weren't early adopting technophiles. It doesn't mean either device is bad, it just means they’re a few iterations away from being feasible.

Of course, Google barely marketed Glass and only offered limited pre-orders at Google I/O 2012. Nvidia is heavily promoting Shield and has shown it off at every tech and gaming expo I've been to in the last year. That, incidentally, is Nvidia's third mistake. It's throwing marketing money at a consumer product that has little room in the market.

Let's start at the beginning because, despite the aforementioned marketing, you might need a primer on Shield. That's understandable; its concept is very strange. In short, it's an Android-based handheld gaming system designed to work with computers.

The long version is that it's an Android-based handheld gaming system that will have a beta PC-streaming feature that will let you stream video and audio from your computer and use the device as a controller to play compatible PC games. It does not play or stream PC games on its own. You need to be in the same area and on the same Wi-Fi network to mirror the screen and audio of your PC to the Shield and use it to play games.

In other words, it's an Android device that lets you give your PC a Wii U gamepad for the price of a Nintendo Wii U Deluxe Kit. Oh, and you can play Android games on it wherever you want.

There are a lot of great ideas in the Nvidia Shield, but they didn't need to come together in one product, and they really didn't need to be burdened with a $350/£230 price tag (which will no doubt be more in pounds when the UK price is officially announced). I spent some time with the Shield at PAX East a few months ago and I was impressed with the build quality, power, and streaming PC feature. It really seems like a powerful Android device with a potentially fun app and a great gamepad built into its body. However, it also really seems like a very well made concept design, and not a product people will actually want to buy.

Android has a lot of games available, but not many of them are particularly good, and few have any brand name recognition. While playing the Gameloft clone of Call of Duty might be a fun experience, it’s hardly the same as the real deal. And one can only play Angry Birds and Plants Vs. Zombies for so long.

Granted, Android does offer potential access to a less-than-savoury collection of game libraries in the form of emulators, but I can't confirm, explain, or recommend anything like that. On paper, the Nvidia Shield's game library just isn't as good as the 3DS or Vita, and it’s pitched at a much higher price.

The PC game streaming feature isn't very compelling on its own, either. If it was, the Nintendo Wii U would have completely taken off as a next-generation console instead of languishing in a relatively disinterested market. It's a bonus, and not one for which many gamers will pay a premium. The streaming is Wi-Fi-only and local, so while you can play your PC games on the couch or in the bathroom, you can't go further than that. It's just the Wii U's experience on a decent computer.

There's also the underlying issue with it being an Android device: You might already have one, and spending several hundred pounds on another one, even with gaming features, isn't a tempting prospect. If you have an Android smartphone or tablet, you can get the same non-PC game streaming features without getting a new device. If you don't have an Android smartphone or tablet, you probably have no idea what the Nvidia Shield is to begin with or why it would be interesting. It isn't the type of device built to appeal to Apple users. It's boxed in by the very products it wants to combine: Dedicated game handhelds offer a better overall gaming experience and Android smartphones and tablets offer a broader Android experience.

The Nvidia Shield should have remained a project, an experiment for the company to develop features and ideas it could pitch for future products. On its own, it's too expensive and doesn't offer enough gaming bang for the buck. Maybe the company could have offered an Nvidia Shield Gamepad compatible with any Tegra-based Android device for a fraction of the price of the Shield itself, and offering the PC streaming app separately to any device that could handle it. But on its own, the Nvidia Shield is a product nobody really asked for.