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Nvidia rolling out cloud gaming for its Shield tablet and console

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Plus a Lollipop update

When Nvidia announced the Android-based Shield console, it came with a simple promise: the experience you'd expect on a full-sized gaming machine, shrunk to a 5-inch screen and either powered by the Shield itself or streamed from a home PC. The first effort was promising but rough, and it's spent the past year and a half building on that original idea. In late 2013, it started publicly testing a service called Grid, which allowed Shield owners near its San Jose data center to stream eight games for a couple of hours at a time. For the time, the service worked beautifully, but it was never billed as more than a test, and there was no indication of how well it would work on a large scale. A year later, we're about to find out.

On November 18th, Nvidia is launching a revamped version of Grid in North America — western Europe will follow in December and parts of Asia in 2015. If you're using either a Shield tablet or a portable console, you'll have access to around 20 cloud games. This includes some major AAA titles like Arkham City and Borderlands 2, although (as you might have gathered from those examples) you won't find the latest releases; the newest title I noticed during a demo was Ultra Street Fighter 4, an expansion of a game first released in 2008. Nvidia wouldn't say how much it wants its library to grow, but it has promised "new games every week."

Nvidia wants to compete with PlayStation Now on quality and price

As far as cloud gaming goes, Nvidia is going up against Sony's PlayStation Now streaming service, which launched in beta earlier this year. PS Now is available to a bigger user base, and it offers a bigger catalog of newer games. But one of the major draws of Grid is that until at least June 30th, 2015, all the games are free. This is a better deal than usual when you consider the ridiculously expensive rental prices Sony is offering right now. Nvidia says eventually, users will be paying for Grid somehow, but it hasn't decided whether that will mean buying individual games, getting a subscription, or something else.

Nvidia has been looking at streaming services for years — in 2012, it was seeking partners for the pre-Shield "GeForce Grid" — and you can run the equivalent of your own web-based Shield gaming service off a home PC. But with pure cloud gaming, it hasn't gone beyond what are essentially demos. Now, the company says it's working off a rewritten software infrastructure and adding a new East Coast-based data center; the test version will be shutting down early next year. If you're part of the small original beta,  you're supposed to see lower latency and the option to stream games in 60fps.

Beyond pricing, Nvidia hopes to beat services like PS Now on quality. Objectively judging how well a streaming game service works is difficult; it depends heavily on your connection strength, and Nvidia hasn't yet had to deal with scaling up its service to accommodate everybody with a Shield device. But in my limited demo, it was a marked improvement over the sometimes laggy, blocky PS Now — based on outside experiences and a version of the service at Nvidia's demo. Dead Island, streamed through the Shield tablet to a monitor, ran well and controlled more smoothly than its PS Now counterpart, and beating up crooks in Arkham City fights was as satisfying as it was on the PC, although Grid seemed to struggle a little with rendering the city if I moved through it too quickly. Your mileage will vary.

Grid is part of a larger software update that will make the Shield tablet one of the first non-Nexus devices to get Android 5.0 Lollipop. Besides adding all the basic benefits of Lollipop, it's updating its Dabbler art software with support for layers and streaming through Twitch — perhaps on its new game development category. Lastly, Half-Life 2: Episode One is coming to the Shield tablet, joining Half-Life 2 and Portal, which arrived earlier this year. It's not quite the leap that getting Half-Life 2 on an Android-based console was, but all three games will come bundled with new LTE tablets, and it'll get you at least one cliffhanger closer to the current end of Valve's saga.