NVIDIA Shield review: The ultimate Android gaming system?
Rocking a Tegra 4 chipset and an Xbox-style controller, is the NVIDIA Shield the best Android gamer ever?
Although iOS is arguably a more popular format for both gamers and games developers, Android has proven to be extremely accommodating when it comes to satisfying the needs and desires of players. While Apple is only just getting around to creating a physical gaming interface for iOS, Android has boasted USB gamepad support for quite some time and we've already seen the much-hyped (but ultimately ill-fated) PlayStation phone in the form of the Xperia Play.
More recently we've had the Ouya console, which is soon to be joined by the likes of the GameStick and M.O.J.O. systems. Sitting somewhere in the middle is Nvidia's Shield handheld, a curious beast which offers cutting-edge tech and one of the best gaming interfaces yet witnessed on a portable gaming platform. It also carries a somewhat hefty $299.99 (approximately £190) price tag, making it more expensive than dedicated portables like the Nintendo 3DS and PS Vita.
Is this gaming-centric system worthy the of steep cost, or is it little more than a vanity project which allows Nvidia to show off its Tegra 4 chipset? Let's find out.
NVIDIA Shield review: Design
Feeling every inch like an Xbox 360 controller with a 5-inch LCD screen fused on top, the Shield is anything but pocket-sized. Compared to other consoles it's a beast, tipping the scales at 579 grams (in contrast, the PS Vita is 260 grams and the 3DS XL is 336 grams). However, with these immense proportions comes comfort, and because the Shield makes no attempt to be super-portable, it means there's plenty of room to grip the device - even if you're blessed with gigantic hands.
The ergonomic design prevents hand cramp - a common problem with other portables, especially the original version of the 3DS - and despite the massive weight, the Shield never feels like it's causing a strain on the wrists.
The Shield's 5-inch screen flips up on a surprisingly sturdy hinge that has none of the rattle or movement of the lid on the 3DS. The gaming controls are absolutely superb, with twin analogue sticks, an 8-way rolling D-pad, four face buttons, two shoulder buttons and two shoulder triggers. The usual Android "Home" and "Back" buttons are also present, and there's a big friendly Nvidia button in the middle of the control arrangement for instant access to the Tegra Zone online store.
The back of the console features a rubberised texture that is designed to enhance grip, but it's prone to picking up marks and scuffs, which makes the device look a little grubby over time. On the lid there's a metal plate which clips on using magnets - you can buy these plates in different colours and thereby customise your console a little, but it feels a little too much like a gimmick to us.
NVIDIA Shield review: Specifications
The Shield is the first consumer product to pack Nvidia's Tegra 4 chipset, which is comprised of a 1.9GHz CPU and 72-core GeForce GPU and apparently provides six times the power of the Tegra 3 system-on-a-chip. In practice, all that really matters is that the Shield is blisteringly fast and is capable of handling any 3D Android title with ease. Games like After Burner Climax, Jet Set Radio and Real Racing 3 all run like a charm, although all of these games have issues with the console's controls - which we'll come to shortly.
Benchmarks illustrate the vast difference in performance when compared to rival systems. Geekbench 2 clocks the Shield at 4328, while the Nexus 4 can only manage 2127 and the iPad 4 1773. In 3DMark's Ice Storm graphics benchmark, the Shield scores 19506 - by comparison, the Galaxy S4 achieves 10450.
NVIDIA Shield review: Software
The Shield comes with Android 4.2.1, and the OS is mercifully untouched by Nvidia. The stock feel of the interface will ensure the console finds favour with Android purists who traditionally invest in devices like the Nexus 4 and Nexus 7, but it remains to be seen how often the firmware gets updated.
Although it's possible to use the console's touchscreen to navigate around the OS, it's actually more comfortable to utilize the D-pad and analogue sticks. The right-hand stick acts as a mouse pointer, which is initially awkward but actually comes in handy for making precise selections.
NVIDIA Shield review: Screen
At 5-inches the Shield's display is large in mobile phone terms but feels like it's too small for the console's bulky form. The whopping bezel which surrounds the screen means you can adjust its position without putting greasy finger marks on the display, but also serves to make it appear even smaller than it is.
With a resolution of 1280x720, the screen isn't a match for the ones seen on phones like the Galaxy S4 and HTC One, but the slightly lower number of pixels undoubtedly helps the Shield when it comes to pure performance. Viewing angles are excellent and image quality is first-class.
NVIDIA Shield review: Gaming
The Shield's main objective is to play games, despite the presence of the robust and feature-rich Android OS. In this regard it both delights and disappoints; the physical gaming controls enrich the titles that support them, but at the time of writing there are far too many games which aren't compatible.
For every Grand Theft Auto III and Dead Trigger there are countless other games which refuse to acknowledge the Shield's sticks and buttons. Real Racing 3, a game that would really benefit from analogue stick control, currently doesn't support the Shield.
This is likely to be a short-term issue, however. Sega, for instance, has added a comment to its Google Play listings for Jet Set Radio and Crazy Taxi stating that Shield support is "coming soon". Still it’s annoying NVIDIA didn’t get more support in place for launch.
It's a shame, because when it does work, the Shield is unmatched in the mobile sphere. Dead Trigger feels like an entirely different game when played with analogue sticks and proper buttons, and it goes without saying that the Shield is the ideal platform for retro emulation – all of the emulators we tried on the console worked flawlessly and ran at full speed, without the need for frame-skipping to maintain performance.
Of course, Android gaming is just one part of the Shield's appeal. If you have a PC with a compatible graphics card (Nvidia GTX 650 or better), you can connect the console via a wireless network and stream PC titles to the 5-inch display - a similar mechanic to the one seen on the Nintendo Wii U's off-TV play.
The quality of the streamed footage is fantastic and there's no noticeable latency when it comes to your inputs being recognised by the PC, which is doing all the legwork and then pushing a video stream to the Shield. Streaming is easy to get working and comes as a massive bonus - provided you've got the right computer. If you don't have capable PC at home then you're missing out on one of the Shield's key selling points, so it's worth keeping this in mind before making a purchase.
NVIDIA Shield review: Battery, storage and connectivity
Because the Shield can only connect via Wi-Fi, its power consumption when idle is next to nothing. However, once it's up and running it's quite a hungry beast – you'll get around 5-7 hours of gaming out of the system, but less demanding activities won't tax the battery as much.
16GB of flash storage is included, but there's a MicroSD card slot to boost that figure if need be. Next to the card slot is an HDMI-out port which allows you to connect the Shield to a TV for a big-screen experience. Android allows you to connect additional controllers via Bluetooth, and once combined with the many emulators available on the Google Play market, it's possible to turn the Shield into a mobile retro gaming powerhouse, which, quite frankly, is bloody awesome.
NVIDIA Shield review: Conclusion
The Shield is unquestionably a massive step forward for portable gaming. The Tegra 4 chipset offers incredible power and allows the console to run the latest Android games without breaking a sweat, but the lack of supported titles at launch is a bit of an issue.
And while it is one that will surely change over time, there's no guarantee that every developer will update their games to make use of the Shield's physical control interface. For this to happen the console will have to sell in significant quantities, and the steep price point could prevent that from happening.
As it stands, the Shield is a gaming console that is easy to fall in love with. Packed with plenty of technology and USPs, the console is a great concept with tons of potential. But the lack of support is worrying and some users may find this a tough pill to swallow, especially after coughing up the best part of £200.
It’s also worth noting that, at the time of writing, NVIDIA has not yet confirmed the UK release of the Shield. Like Chromecast, it is only available in the US. Hopefully that will change in the coming months…
Shield would make a rather excellent Christmas present.
|Screen Size||1280 x 720 pixel LCD, 5 inches|
|Built-in Memory||16GB + microSD support (up to 64GB)|
|Connectivity||WiFi, Bluetooth, HDMI-out|
|Processor||Tegra 4 (1.9GHz CPU and 72-core GeForce GPU )|