Editors' note: Nvidia released an over-the-air (OTA) update on October 28, adding new features and upgrading the OS to Android 4.3. There's a new section below covering the changes. We've also adjusted the overall score up as the features address some of the Shield's major problems.
When you think "portable gaming," Android isn't usually the first thing that comes to mind. But with iPhones and iPads gobbling up more and more of the on-the-go gaming market that was once ruled exclusively by Nintendo and Sony, Android is getting in on the game. And with the $300 Nvidia Shield, it's bringing something entirely new to the table.
The result is arguably the most powerful portable gaming hardware we've seen to date. It's also got a nifty feature that enables the streaming of PC games in real-time -- albeit only from high-end Nvidia equipped gaming PCs, and only on top-notch Wi-Fi routers.
Yes, the Shield can still handle all of your run-of-the-mill Android apps -- Netflix, Gmail, Chrome, you name it -- but the Google Docs crowd can stick with their Nexus 7 and their Angry Birds. The Shield should be the hard-core gamer's Android device of choice. They're gonna find a solid, well-made portable gaming device that can hold its own versus the PlayStation Vita and 3DS -- if the Nvidia continues to add Shield control compatibility to enough must-have games.
The easiest way to describe the Nvidia Shield is to think of an Xbox 360 controller with a 5-inch screen attached to its top; however, as closely as it resembles Microsoft's controller, there are a few small nuances that set it apart. The dual analog sticks sit directly parallel to each other, like a PS3 DualShock, only closer. The D-pad is located in the upper left and lies parallel to the A, B, X, and Y button array.
A large power button clad with an Nvidia logo sits in the middle and when pressed takes you to the Shield interface hub, with Shield-compatible software, the Shield store, and the PC games streaming interface. Four additional buttons -- home, back, volume, and play, surround the hub button. One speaker each is located directly above the D-pad and face buttons array, respectively.
Shoulder and trigger buttons adorn the top of the device, with a connection array between them. The array includes a microSD slot, Mini-HDMI port, Micro-USB, and a headphone jack.
The Nvidia Shield is heavy. Not heavy for a full-size tablet, but at 1.30 pounds it's certainly heavier than any other modern portable console, the heaviest of which is the Nintendo 3DS XL at 0.75 pound. Having said that, I quickly got used to its extra load over the course of a few days and it now feels completely natural to hold and is still lighter than a full-size iPad. However, it could have used a bit more balanced weight toward the front.
The screen tilts back a full 180 degrees and folds on top of the controls when not in use. The underside is a hard rubberized texture, and its contours are almost perfectly hewn to fit my fingers. Alas, the space underneath isn't as spacious as it is on the Xbox 360 controller.
The face buttons also feel a bit flatter than the Xbox 360's and lack that controller's tactility as a result. However, the button placement is intuitive and takes no time at all to get accustomed to; the trigger buttons especially are tuned with a near perfect degree of resistance.
As good as the physical controls are, though, using the touch screen proved a bit more ergonomically challenging. Typing is accomplished by either using the analog stick to navigate to each individual letter and pressing "A" or awkwardly tapping on the screen while trying not to let the controller get in the way.
Games like Angry Birds that don't require much precise timing are easier to play with the screen laid flat. Luckily, control mapping and increase support for the Shield's physical controls is beginning to make this a moot point. That said, I'd still love to see a "tablet mode" if Nvidia does a version 2. Maybe something in the way of a Lenovo Yoga tablet the folds back on itself could alleviate these issues.
My other problems with the design are more just quibbles. I miss having a physical volume rocker (pressing the volume button can either bring up an onscreen rocker or enable the shoulder buttons to be used and rockers); its absence makes adjusting the volume a two-step process. Also, the start and home buttons should have probably switched places. There were too many times when I accidentally pressed the home button meaning instead to press the start button to pause the game.
The Nvidia Shield ships with a pure version of Android 4.2.1. It's fully compatible with the Google Play store, and apps like Netflix and Hulu Plus work without issue.
All Android games will run on the Shield, but only about 140 are natively compatible with its controller as yet and only a handful of those are worth your time or money. Among the best of these games are Riptide GP 2, Cordy 2, Virtua Tennis, and older games like GTA 3 and Vice City.
These games are infinitely more playable with a physical controller as opposed to using a touch screen; however, the Shield needs more games that take advantage of the Tegra 4's power. Riptide GP 2 and the alpha build of Dead Trigger 2 are certainly impressive for mobile games, but many others are not.
PC games streaming
With a Windows PC running at least a GeForce GTX 650 and meeting a few other requirements, you can stream your PC games directly to the Shield or to your HDTV, allowing you to play full PC games up to 25 feet away from your router.
The games runs at 1,280x720 pixels and while Nvidia says any PC game optimized to work with a controller should work, some games are more troublesome than others to get up and running.
Sometimes games just don't work and you're left with only a black screen, or as in many cases, the PC game requires setup that can only be done from the PC. Also, although Nvidia recommends using your router's 5GHz wireless band, my experience during my first week of testing gave me the impression that 5GHz was more of a requirement than a recommendation. At 2.4GHz I got frequent drops when only several unobstructed feet away.
The aforementioned 25-foot limit for streaming is significantly diminished depending on your home/office layout. Your ability to play smoothly is greatly affected by the strength of your signal and how many walls (including what said walls are made of) are between your Shield and the router. However, when within about 10 feet of my router with no signal obstructions, I had no problems with lag or video artifacting.
It must also be said that a 5-inch, 720p screen isn't ideal for playing PC games. Smaller details and some text in certain games can be really difficult to see while playing. Playing instead on a 40-inch HDTV -- while not nearly as sharp as playing on a monitor -- is a much better option.
The biggest question for streaming games to the Shield, though, is "Why?" Why would anyone choose to play on such a comparatively small screen when in all likelihood, a 27-inch extreme-resolution screen or 40-inch plus, 1080p screen, is only a few feet away?