Last summer, I bought an iPad 3. I convinced myself I’d use it for everything: showing off wedding photos, reading all those neglected articles I save to Pocket, and as a second monitor for my laptop.
The only time I actually pick up the iPad, sadly, is to play video games. Perhaps the saddest part is that my iPad isn’t a very good game system. It’s bulky, the touchscreen controls are pretty crappy for navigating 3D worlds, and the graphics are merely okay. But where “real” game systems like the PlayStation Vita are struggling to build a library of game titles, the iTunes App Store continually tempts me with addictive, artsy new games. I wanted the best of both: the physical controls to explore immersive worlds, and a store to convince developers to build them. I wanted the equivalent of a PlayStation Vita running iOS.
Then, the next best thing came along: Nvidia announced the Shield at CES. For $299, the graphics giant promised the most powerful hardware we’d ever seen in a portable console, running stock Android, with what basically amounted to a built-in Xbox 360 controller at the helm. Nvidia even promised it would stream games from my home gaming PC. I was jazzed. Six months later, the Shield showed up on my doorstep.
Touch, but don't look
The Nvidia Shield has a face only a gamer could love. When closed, it's a bulbous black manta ray of a device with green lips and a shiny silver forehead. When opened, it's like an oversized Xbox 360 game controller mated with a giant Nintendo DS. The bezels on the screen are ridiculously huge compared to today's smartphones, and the device's profile can seem grotesque. There are ugly seams in the plastic shell, particularly around the triggers, two visible screws, and the port arrangement feels lopsided. At roughly 6 inches wide, 5 inches deep, and over 2 inches thick, it won’t remotely fit into a pocket. It’s practically the size of a DSLR camera body, not a tablet or game controller.
But the Shield isn't designed for your eyes. It's built for your hands.
Close your eyes and grab the Shield, and things begin to make sense. The twin grips, covered in soft-touch rubber, give your hands an incredibly secure purchase on the device — secure enough that you can comfortably hold the 1.2-pound package up above your head while lying in bed. The plastic frame doesn't feel cheap, with only an occasional creak when you squeeze with force. The twin thumbsticks are just as precise and comfortable as their Xbox 360 forebear, although Nvidia adopted a PlayStation-like symmetrical layout and I rather prefer the way that Xbox sticks sit.
the shield is made to feel great
The shoulder buttons and D-pad are a little too much like their Xbox counterparts, all clicky and shallow, but I was able to toss some fireballs and dragon punches in a pinch. The face buttons and triggers feel fantastic, though, with just enough throw and padding to hammer on repeatedly for hours. And in case you're wondering, those thumbsticks are buttons too, producing a satisfying click when you press down.
The Shield's controller isn't just something you flip out for games. It's also the primary way you'll navigate the Android operating system. Not only are there dedicated Home, Back, and Volume keys surrounding the glowing Nvidia button in the center – hold down Volume to mute – but Android also natively recognizes the controller layout exactly as you'd expect it to. The shoulder buttons flip through homescreens, the left stick and D-pad scroll, the A button selects, the B button backs up a step, and you can use the right analog stick as a virtual mouse. And if you're used to typing with an Xbox 360 gamepad, it works the exact same way here, from tapping the Y key for a space, to clicking the left analog stick to access capital letters. It’s not the optimal text input method, but at least it performs as expected.
Looking and listening
When it comes to the display, Nvidia cut no corners: the 5-inch, 720p screen is about as good as it gets. You could perhaps ask for a 1080p screen like the incredible 468ppi panel on the HTC One, but for $299 the Shield includes a fantastic alternative. Bright whites and vibrant colors leap out of a stunningly crisp screen with practically 180-degree viewing angles. It's also exceptionally glossy, and the blacks don't get as deep as those on OLED panels like the one in the PlayStation Vita, but I wouldn't trade screens. At 294ppi, the pixel density of the Shield's display keeps games and movies looking fantastic mere inches from your face. The hinge lets you put it there, too, bending back a full 180 degrees. It's worth noting that out of two units I tested, one of them had a weak, creaky hinge, while the other performed well: I'm hoping the former was a fluke of manufacturing.
Nvidia got both display and speakers right
Surprisingly, the Shield sounds pretty good, too. Nvidia promises "fidelity and range never before experienced on a handheld device" from the custom tuned bass reflex speakers on the Shield, and it might even be true. These speakers sound better than many laptop speakers and completely outclass the mediocrity you’ll find on most phones and tablets. They're not quite at the level of, say, a Jawbone Jambox, but they get fairly loud and have enough bass to feel in-game gunshots and earthquakes through the controls. They're great for games and action movies, but not necessarily music: the highs get a little too harsh and there's not really enough range to satisfy serious music lovers.
While the Shield does require a fan to cool the Tegra 4 chip and related circuitry, it stays nice and quiet, and battery life is great. I measured over 10 hours in our Verge Battery Test, which cycles through websites and high-res images at 65 percent brightness, and we were able to play about five continuous hours of the most demanding Android games we could find. Charging is easy: there’s no proprietary charging port, just a Micro USB socket in the rear of the device.
Console, tablet, smartphone
The Shield comes with stock Android 4.2.1, and can run practically every app in the Play Store. And Nvidia's Tegra 4 processor, backed by 2GB of RAM, makes Android run exceedingly quickly, no question about it. There are some limitations, though. The Shield doesn't come with a camera – don't expect to be Snapchatting your friends – and certain tablet-specific apps (like Frozen Synapse) won't install.
There is a microphone, however, so you can still make your Skype calls and take advantage of Android's text to speech, which can come in really handy here. There's also built-in GPS for all your Google Maps and Foursquare check-ins. There’s no cellular radio, so you’ll need Wi-Fi wherever you go. Jelly Bean also supports multiple users, so if you're sharing a Shield with your household each person can have their own accounts and apps at the ready.
The Shield has touch, but it's no fun to use
Actually using those apps, though, is a totally different story. An ergonomic nightmare, even. How should you hold the Shield when you’re using the touchscreen? I have no idea. Some apps default to portrait mode, particularly when you’re first signing into an account, and the Shield is clearly not designed to be held sideways with the lid in one fist. It occurred to me to hold the Shield like an open paperback, cradling the entire base of the system in one hand, but then my fingertips blocked the system fan. Even when apps appear in landscape mode, things aren’t always easier. It feels extremely awkward to hold the system by the lid to swipe, to pinch, and to use the virtual keyboard. Meanwhile, that same 16:9 aspect ratio that works great for movies and games means you get to see very few emails and have very little web browser real estate. Nvidia does mitigate this slightly with a "full screen" option that gets rid of the notification bar in Android apps, but it’s not an optimal solution. There's a reason most tablets have 16:10 aspect ratios, or even 4:3 like the iPad.
The Shield still has way, way more functionality than a PlayStation Vita and plenty of power under the hood, but it's not a perfect substitute for an Android tablet, and Android tablets aren’t such a high benchmark anyhow.
Where are the real games?
You can play pretty much any Android game with the Shield's touchscreen, as awkward as it might be, but that’s not the point of the system. If you’re buying a Shield, you want to play games with controller support… and on Android, there simply aren’t a lot of great controller games.
For instance, you might suppose that Minecraft: Pocket Edition would be fantastic fun with a gamepad, but that's not how it works – even though you can download Minecraft on an actual Xbox 360, the Android version doesn't include controller support. It’s a problem for every Android game system with physical controls, but worse, even those games that do support game controllers don’t all play nice with the Shield's joysticks and buttons. Take Crazy Taxi, which just debuted on Android a few weeks ago: it supports the Xperia Play and PowerA’s Moga controllers, but not the Shield. To be fair, it's not Nvidia's fault that developers don’t have their ducks in a row, but it's a stumbling block for the Shield either way. At this point it might require a critical mass of Shield sales or a real push from Google to make things better. There’s one thing Google could improve right away: there's no way to tell whether games support the Android game controller standard at the time you buy them in Google Play.
Update: Some of these issues have been reduced now that you can build your own controls, part of a major software update. Crazy Taxi has also added Shield support.
Thankfully, Android isn't entirely bereft of excellent controller games. Dead Trigger works well, and a demo of its sequel Dead Trigger 2 has better graphics than any game I’ve seen running on mobile before, battling waves of zombies in a highly detailed environment with pools of water that reflect the entire world. ShadowGun: DeadZone is a perfectly playable online shooter, if not a particularly deep one. Grand Theft Auto III, and better yet Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, play wonderfully on the Shield at high resolution, looking far better than they did on the PlayStation 2.
There are some good android games in the mix
PC classic Max Payne shows just how easy it can be to pull off headshots with the Shield's thumbsticks in slow motion, although it’s a shame Rockstar nerfed the difficulty level. Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic CD, and Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II are not only guaranteed to trigger nostalgia, they're great fun. The Conduit is a capable port of the Wii title, though there's something wrong with the thumbstick deadzone settings that makes aiming difficult. And Epic Citadel, while not actually a game, is a tantalizing tease of the titles the Android library could include if the many Unreal Engine developers ported their games to the platform.
There are more, but generally speaking you'll find that classic titles which originated on Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, PlayStation 2, and classic PC titles are the most likely to have good controller support. Even then it's not a given, though: Ubisoft's just-released Prince of Persia 2 remake doesn't work with the Shield's controls.
Old console games tend to have the best controller support
Even if there were lots of good Android games, though, you might have trouble installing them on the Shield as of today. Big Android games can take up a couple of gigabytes, and the Shield ships with less than 12GB of usable storage. If you think you’d just use the SD card slot, think again: you can't install apps to the card. Nvidia promises me that installing apps to SD will get fixed in the very first update after launch, a la Samsung’s update for the Galaxy S4, but it could be troublesome for now. (Update: This was fixed as of an October 28th software update.) It's also worth noting that if you have an SD card over 32GB in size, you'll need to format it with the NTFS filesystem using a Windows PC.
One place you can get great controller games: classic console emulators. I'm not going to get into how you might, ahem, creatively acquire copies of games like Star Fox 64 and Metal Gear Solid, but they certainly work. The Shield's Tegra 4 is plenty powerful enough to run Nintendo 64 and original PlayStation titles, with a few glitches here and there. The shoulder buttons and triggers can be a bit finicky, though: when Peppy asked me to do a barrel roll, I accidentally did several.
Not just Android after all
So if the app experience isn't perfect, and the Android game catalog is lacking, why would you buy a Shield over, say, a new Nexus 7? I can tell you why I'm buying one: PC game streaming.
For the past couple of years, I've been buying a stack of fantastic PC games on deep discount at Steam, and many of those fantastic games were designed with an Xbox 360 controller in mind. After a long day at work, I want to play those games from a comfortable couch. For a while, I tried carrying my desktop computer to the living room and hooking up an Xbox 360 wireless controller adapter. I considered building an HTPC.
Now, instead, I can stream any PC game to the Shield wherever I happen to be in the house, using Nvidia’s proprietary low-latency remote display technology built into its new graphics chips. There's definitely a tiny bit of lag, particularly the audio, but it's easily the most palatable streaming I've seen. It's better than OnLive, better than Gaikai, and it looks killer on the Shield's screen. It feels like playing Xbox 360 because of the controls and the slight lag, but the level of detail my gaming PC can pump out at 720p puts Xbox to shame. Battery life is also surprisingly good while streaming: I managed nine and a half hours of Tomb Raider before the Shield died. There was still plenty of gas in the tank when the Nvidia logo started blinking, as a low-battery warning.
To be sure, there's a lot of equipment involved to make PC streaming work. You need a high-end Nvidia GeForce GTX 600 series graphics card and a fast dual-band wireless router. AMD graphics won’t work. While I already happened to own a decent gaming PC and one of the supported routers on Nvidia’s list, you're looking at what's easily a few hundred dollars' worth of extra hardware if you don't have those components lying around the house.
GAME STREAMING IS A KILLER APP
Even then, the experience is filled with caveats. Once you've paired the Shield to your PC, connecting is a cinch, but the slightest error while launching a game will instantly sever the link. Sometimes the software will get confused as to whether the PC has already launched a game or not, and it won't fail gracefully; you'll often have to walk back to your PC and manually correct the error. The video framerate isn't as high as you might expect from your PC. Even though many PC games support controllers, there are loads that don’t, and there’s no good way to play those that require an actual keyboard and mouse. If you didn't buy a game on Steam, you'll need to manually add it to your Steam library. (Yes, it plays Crysis 3 – by telling Steam to log into Origin and then launch the game.)
You can't play a game on your PC and then neatly hand it off to the Shield when you want to walk around: you have to launch it from scratch each time. You can use a mini-HDMI cable to pipe streamed games to a TV, and it looks great, but you can't stream titles to the Shield and then mirror them to a TV with Miracast, in case you're wondering. (Miracast isn't fast enough for games right now, period.) And though the whole streaming application is clearly a Splashtop hack, with Windows visible underneath the surface, Nvidia won't let you control Windows at all, won't let you so much as remotely force-close a game when it fails to sync with the Shield. Nvidia's calling PC streaming a "beta" feature, and I have to agree.
But despite all the hassle, the payoff is superb. It was enough to convince me to buy a Shield where the Android games alone weren’t cutting it. This week, I rolled over in bed and played an hour of Max Payne 3. I traversed Skyrim from my couch. I joined a co-op game of Left 4 Dead 2 while standing in the hallway, just because I could. And then, in bed, with headphones so as not to wake my wife, I rocked myself to sleep again with a BioShock Infinite lullaby.
The Nvidia Shield is a fantastic first effort for Nvidia, a seriously impressive piece of hardware, and a chance for Android gaming to be taken seriously if enough gamers buy in. The Shield is riding a wave of interest in controller gaming, and I’m hoping the dearth of good Android controller games will be short-lived. Still, it’s chicken and egg: and most game developers won’t dedicate time and effort to building for physical controllers when the iPad and iPhone audience is the most lucrative.
The Shield is a capable device for $299, but honestly the $229 Nexus 7 is a better short-term bet. You’ll even have $70 left over to buy yourself a PlayStation 3 controller and a pairing app, or to save towards the next Shield, which will come with an even more capable Tegra chip. You might also consider a 32GB iPod touch for the same $299, or an iPad mini for $30 more. They don’t have the same graphical potency, but they fit in pockets, come with cameras, and have Apple’s incredible app ecosystem waiting for your credit card.
Yet if you have the right graphics card and the right Wi-Fi router – or hundreds of dollars burning a hole in your pants – the Shield’s PC streaming is not to be missed. The killer app for Shield is already here. It’s called Steam, and when it works, it’s glorious.
Have more questions about the Shield? Here are some answers.