The biggest surprise at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show is about to go on sale. The Nvidia Shield, a five-inch portable Android game console that can also stream PC games from a nearby gaming computer, will cost $349 at Newegg, GameStop, Micro Center, Canada Computers, and Nvidia.com when pre-orders begin May 20th. Devices ship by the end of June. Technically, you can actually pre-order one today if you sign up on Nvidia's "notify me" webpage — and there's nothing to keep you from doing that right now. Before you plunk down money on the latest gadget, though, why not read what the fuss is all about?
Simply put, the Shield is Nvidia's attempt to build a premier Android gaming experience like nothing we've seen before. Where most Android devices rely on a touchscreen and maybe an accelerometer and gyroscope for controls, the Shield also has a full console-like gamepad with two analog sticks. Where most are large, wide, flat slabs, the Shield is a clamshell whose five-inch screen lifts up out of the comfortable grips of that large, hefty gamepad. And where many Android devices cut corners on components and install bloated software loads, the Shield runs stock Android 4.2.1 on a brand-new Tegra 4 processor with 2GB of RAM, an incredibly sharp 720p display, tuned bass reflex drivers for audio, a GPS chip, and a mini-HDMI output that outputs 4K video.
We took a trip to Nvidia's headquarters in Santa Clara, California to get a peek at a near-final production prototype of the Shield this week, and it's come incredibly far in just a few months. What once looked like an Xbox 360 controller mated to an incredibly sharp LCD screen now feels even more like one, with freshly tuned triggers, more space between the analog sticks, more room near them for thumbs, and a raised directional pad that feels far friendlier to the touch.
The grips are coated with soft-touch rubber now, and there's a LED under the Nvidia logo button that shines emerald in the dark, not to mention a new charging indicator that glows amber when charging and green when it's ready to unplug. The interchangeable magnetic faceplate on top of the device satisfyingly snaps into place whenever it gets even close to its proper home. The screen's hinge still doesn't feel perfect, a little flimsier when closing and stiffer opening than we'd like, but the screen stays put — and even opens to 180 degrees if that's the angle you want. Nvidia will offer additional faceplates for $20 each, and a nice hard-shell case for the Shield for $40 with a flap that pops open for charging.
We played bits and pieces of Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II and Expendable: Rearmed on the Shield — full Android games that will come bundled with every device — as well as Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Max Payne, and finally some Borderlands 2 and Batman: Arkham City streaming from a beefy gaming PC on the same Wi-Fi network. Across the spectrum of current Android and former console titles, the Shield performed quite well. Though there was a little noticeable stutter in Sonic, the other mobile games were butter-smooth on the Tegra 4 processor and extremely crisp on the 5-inch 720p screen. Audio was also impressive: though we could definitely hear distortion in some extremely bass-heavy songs, the Shield's speakers sounded better than many a laptop we've used.
If you're dreaming of all the PC games you'll be playing on the Shield, though, you might be disappointed to hear that there are still some kinks to be worked out, and Nvidia will be labeling the feature "beta" to manage expectations for at least a couple of months. Borderlands 2 in particular worked great in our brief test, but neither game's animations felt quite as fluid as on PC, and several times Nvidia had difficulty getting the Shield and PC to stay connected. The setup also requires an approved Wi-Fi router (dual-band MIMO) to function well, and doesn't yet work with all games: only a limited selection of Steam Big Picture mode and GeForce Experience titles are good to go as of today, though engineers told us that the buttons and sticks should theoretically just work with any PC game that supports an Xbox controller.
Spec sheet changes and omissions
PC streaming isn't the only feature that's in question, just so you know. Between CES and today, the Shield's on-board storage shrunk from 32GB to 16GB, and the 33 watt-hour battery made way for a slightly smaller 28.8Wh unit, even though the Shield still feels rather hefty for its size at over 1.2 pounds. (Nvidia's still promising four to five hours of Tegra 4 gaming even in a worst-case scenario with the screen brightness turned all the way up, as well as 10 to 12 hours of PC streaming and 20-plus hours of video playback, but we'll want to test those for ourselves.) There's no camera, not even a front-facing one for video chats ("It fell off the list for the first design," says Nvidia) and the touchscreen's position, behind the controller grips, can make it hard to use. Though 4K video is a feature, there's no simple source of 4K video content right now, and the Shield doesn't actually play games at 4K resolution. There's also no cellular modem as of yet.
And then there's the slight worry that not all Android apps will work properly on the Shield, since it presently only displays Android in landscape mode. Surprisingly, Nvidia tells us it's specifically working on that very issue with developers, including Netflix, whose Android app currently only lets you sign into an account in portrait mode.
Landscape orientation onlyThe company actually showed us a new build of Netflix specifically designed for the Shield, and pointed out that Hulu Plus and Twitch.tv will come with every handheld. "Google wants to help us as well," Nvidia VP of Marketing Ujesi Desai told The Verge. Though the Nexus 7 tablet also didn't fully support landscape mode at launch, Desai said that Google has reconsidered. "I think that was an acute learning for them and they realize it," he said, "In the conversations we've had with them, I think they understand the importance; that portrait and landscape should both be treated as first-class citizens." Android games do support and often even default to landscape orientation — and if they support Android's game controller standard, the Shield should natively work — but for non-gaming apps Google's clout might be important.
While it's clear that a lot of thought and some quality components have gone into the Shield, it's too early for us to say whether it's worth your $349. That's a chunk of money for a handheld gaming machine, perhaps even as much as it'll cost you to buy a new gaming console this holiday. Still, there's no other device quite like it on the market, and today's tablet and smartphone competition can cost a bundle of money as well.