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Nvidia Shield review: A great gaming portable awaiting truly great games

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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.

Nvidia_Shield_35566996-9157.jpg
7.8

Nvidia Shield

Pricing Not Available

The Good

The <b>Nvidia Shield</b> has a high-quality build with comfortable responsive buttons, and a sharp and bright touch screen. Expandable storage and HDMI output sweeten the pot. Sound quality through the speakers is excellent, and gaming performance is incredible.

The Bad

There aren’t enough games that take advantage of the Tegra 4's processing power. The system is heavy and interaction with the touch screen is awkward compared with standard tablets. The PC streaming feature requires high-end hardware investment.

The Bottom Line

The Nvidia Shield brings console-level quality to portable Android gaming, but it needs a higher quality list of compatible games before it can truly rival the Vita or 3DS.

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 Shield is Nvidia's first piece of consumer hardware -- a 5-inch Android "tablet" grafted onto an Xbox-style game pad.

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 Nvidia Shield shows off its high-end components (pictures)

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Design
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.

A true console-quality controller. Nice, comfy, and responsive. Josh Miller/CNET

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.

Ready for porting! Josh Miller/CNET

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.

The Shield features some of the nicest triggers I've ever had the pleasure of pulling. Josh Miller/CNET

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.

Angry Birds is a lot easier to play on the Shield than more twitch-based touch games like N.O.V.A. 3. Josh Miller/CNET

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.

Android games
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.

The Shield shows you a list of controller-compatible games currently installed. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

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.

Nvidia's curated Shield store includes only games compatible with the Shield's controller. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

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.

You'll want to make sure both the Shield and the PC you're streaming from are on the same network before attempting to connect. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

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.

BioShock Infinite as it streams from a high-end PC. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

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?

Steam as seen through the Shield. Not all the games listed here are compatible, however. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

I had a difficult time coming up with a good answer, but what really appeals to me is its inherent convenience. If your couch, bedroom, washroom, backyard, front yard, or roof are close enough, it's a nice way to play full versions of your favorite games, using your latest save file, without having to sit at your desk. It's a novel feature that most will probably have to experience the convenience of to truly appreciate.

However, until you can actually use this feature anywhere -- something Nvidia says its working on -- like a hotel while traveling or even a plane, its appeal will be limited.

Shield update
The latest OTA update for the Shield, released on October 28, brings a few major changes.

Nvidia says the number of Android games with native controller support has increased to 140 from less than 100 last time I checked.

Game pad mapping is a much-appreciated features that allows even more games to be used with the Shield's physical controls. It's not necessarily for tilt-based games like Real Racing 3, but more for games that already include touch controls like Temple Run or NBA Jam.

The Gamepad Mapper interface isn't the most intuitive around, to say the least. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

When in a game with touch, simply hold down the play button and a menu will appear at the top. Just drag the appropriate icons (stick controls, or buttons, gestures) to the screen and assign a button or stick to each control. You can then control the game with the physical controls you've assigned.

While this is an appreciated feature, I was disappointed that the interface wasn't easier to understand. The text prompts don't do a good job of explaining each icon's function and walking you through the process of button mapping, but hopefully Nvidia makes the tutorial from the reviewers guide available to everyone.

Some games will have Gamepad Mapper profiles stored in the cloud that you can download, making the mapping process a lot easier.

Console mode turns your Shield into a bona fide microconsole, but not the lame kind. By connecting the Shield to your TV through a Mini-HDMI cable, you'll be able to play most Android games in 1080p on your TV. Games that are too taxing will run at 720p. You can connect a Nyko Play Pad Pro to the Shield via Bluetooth and play Android games from your couch.

Gamestream is the final name given to Shield streaming capability, which allows you to steam currently around 50 supported PC games not only to Shield, but now your HDTV as well.

Hardware features
The Nvidia Shield houses a 1.9GHz Nvidia Tegra 4 system on a chip with a quad-core CPU and a 72-core GPU. It includes 2GB of RAM and support for 802.11 a/b/g/n 2x2 Mimo dual-band (2.4GHz and 5GHz) Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 3.0, and a GPS. Additionally, there's a gyroscope and an accelerometer inside.

The only way to fly. Yes, I did accidentally crash the AR Drone into many a wall. Eric Franklin/CNET

The Shield is also compatible with the Parrot AR Drone app and its dual analog sticks can be used to wreak havoc control a Parrot Drone. Check out the First Look video up top for more, but after using using it, I can't imagine attempting to the same with touch controls. For my money, this is the only way to fly.

Performance
With the Tegra 4, the Shield delivers faster gaming performance than any mobile product before. Polygonal games run at noticeably higher frame rates than on the Nexus 7, but the speed is about on par with the Kindle Fire HDX 7, which houses a Snapdragon 800 processor.

Riptide GP 2 boasts superior lighting effects on the Shield and other Tegra 4 devices. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

Real Racing 3 ran at a smoother frame rate on the Shield than on any other device, and Riptide GP 2 produced superior lighting effects you won't currently find on any other platform, and while keeping its frame rate high.

The alpha version of Dead Trigger 2 looked extremely impressive, with high-resolution textures, a mostly 60-frame-per-second refresh rate, particle effects, and reflections. Hopefully, we'll see more games taking advantage of the Tegra 4's capabilities like this soon.

The impressive real-time reflections of Dead Trigger 2 (alpha). Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET
Device CPU GPU RAM OS tested
Google Nexus 7 (Summer 2013) 1.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro Adreno 320 (single-core) 2GB Android 4.3
Sony Xperia Tablet Z 1.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro Andreno 320 (single-core) 2GB Android 4.1.2
Google Nexus 10 1.7GHz Dual-core Samsung Exynos 5 Dual (5250) Mali-T604 (quad-core) 2GB Android 4.2.2
Apple iPad 4 1.4GHz dual-core Apple A6X PowerVR SGX554MP4 (quad-core) 1GB iOS 6.1.3
Nvidia Shield 1.9GHz quad-core Nvidia Tegra 4 72-core GPU 2GB Android 4.2.1

3DMark (Normal)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Graphics Test 1, 720p (GPU)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Graphics Test 2, 720p (GPU)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Physics Test, 720p (CPU)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

GFXBench tests
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

The Shield also loads games faster than any other Android device I've yet seen, and swiping through windows and switching between apps happens without delay. The first level of N.O.V.A. 3 loaded in 23 seconds. A record for Android devices.

N.O.V.A. 3 Level 1 load time (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Wi-Fi performance was fast and consistent, pulling apps down from the Play store as fast as I've seen on some of the fastest tablets. The speakers are incredibly powerful and reach high volume without grating the ears with tinniness.

As for battery life, the system lasted for about 4 hours with Riptide GP 2 left idle, alternating between its attract screen and title screen. This was about an hour more than the Nexus 7 with the same setup, at the same 150 cd/m2 brightness. Look for more comprehensive battery tests soon.

Conclusion
The Shield is a high-quality device with stellar performance, and while most of what it currently offers will first and foremost appeal to hard-core gamers, I'm anxiously awaiting more exciting games to come to the device.

Casual gamers should be satisfied by the cheaper Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HDX, but the hard-core gamers will appreciate the Shield's superior performance and tactile controls.

Nvidia_Shield_35566996-9157.jpg
7.8

Nvidia Shield

Pricing Not Available

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 9