Nvidia’s range of Shield gaming devices has previously been seen as a way for the company to show off its tech muscle rather than a genuine commercial venture. The Shield handheld was an awkward but likable combination of smartphone and game controller, and was primarily used to demonstrate the incredible power behind Nvidia’s (then) new Tegra 3 chipset. This year’s Shield Tablet – released alongside a dedicated Shield Controller which cost £50 but offered amazing performance – was a more serious commercial proposition, however. Boasting the new Tegra 4 tech and a virtually stock version of Android, it was rightly seen as the true successor to the 2012 Nexus 7 – a feeling which has only been reinforced by the fact that the device has recently been updated to Android 5.0, way ahead of many of its rivals.
However, it’s the introduction of Nvidia’s GRID service which is possibly the most interesting aspect of the software new update. Billed as Netflix for games, GRID is a cloud-powered platform which grants access to a wide range of leading titles, all displayed in glorious HD on your tablet’s screen. Nvidia is aiming for low-latency, high definition play, and in the fullness of time expects to charge a monthly fee to use the service. It launches in Europe next month, and will be free to use until June next year. We got the chance to go hands-on with GRID and came away very impressed indeed.
GRID runs right from the Shield Hub application – the same app which pulls together your Nvidia games, a curated selection of software to purchase and PC-to-tablet Gamestream titles. Tapping the “GRID Games” option brings up a menu of available games – currently 20 – which includes the likes of Batman: Arkham City, Borderlands 2, Saint’s Row: The Third, Dead Island and Ultra Street Fighter IV. Granted, it’s not the most up-to-date selection of software, but considering the service is free to use until the middle of next year, it’s forgivable – and Nvidia will be supporting GRID with more titles as the months roll by.
Starting a game is as simple as tapping the icon. The Shield Tablet will check your network settings to ensure the connection is robust enough to host the game and will also prompt you to pair up a Shield controller in order to experience the game properly. There’s a brief moment while you wait for the game to “load” on Nvidia’s servers, and you’re off – just as if you’d have loaded the title up on your PC or games console. We tested the service on a moderately fast domestic broadband connection and noticed very little latency or skipping. It wasn’t quite as seamless as playing it in the traditional manner, but Nvidia has pointed out that the European servers aren’t running at full strength at the moment, and this almost certainly accounts for the minor teething troubles we experienced during our test period.
Naturally, because you’re on a tablet device, there’s a good chance that you’ll occasionally need to drop out of the GRID app – and your game – to perform another task. This doesn’t present any issues as GRID simply suspends your progress, allowing you to resume it when you’re ready. The only caveat is that if you begin another game, your resumed data is removed – so you’ll still need to ensure you save within the game to prevent progress being lost. Aside from that, it’s very easy to play several games in tandem – GRID remembers your progress “on the cloud” and loads up your save data whenever you return to a particular title.
GRID turns what was already a highly recommended tablet into arguably the best option in the Android slate arena right now. The Shield Tablet already offers incredible tech that is capable of running games like Half Life 2 and Trine 2 at console-quality standard, but with GRID it really does take things to the next level. Pricing is the big question, of course, but if Nvidia aims for the same monthly cost as other on-demand services like Netflix, GRID could become a massive asset in its armoury, and a true challenger to the likes of OnLive and Sony’s much-hyped PlayStation Now platform.