October 24, 2014

NVIDIA Shield review: The gaming has changed

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I am not a mobile gamer – at least not in the sense that some of you guys and gals might be. I tend to prefer my Android gaming in a casual, pick-it-up-put-it-down manner and rarely find myself playing a first person shooter or something with high-end graphics. Not because I don’t want to, mind you, it’s just that I don’t have the time to give to a game of that caliber might deserve. Also, I don’t wanna tap the screen or use third party controllers; XBOX is my console of choice.

All of this changed with the NVIDIA Shield.

As NVIDIA’s first piece of branded Android hardware, the Shield is one powerful, Tegra 4-powered experience. You’ve likely seen the photos or chatter about the recently released device; it’s essentially a portable gaming console with a built-in 5-inch display. Indeed, it looks pretty much like an XBOX controller and features all of the familiar gaming buttons.

I’ve spent time playing with other gaming controllers for Android, most of which (Green Throttle, MOGA Pro, etc) pair via Bluetooth. While that works in most cases. it’s still an extra piece of hardware that you’ll need to carry around. And then you’re dealing with an extra charger, and wasting your phone or tablet juice for games. In other words, it’s a good experience but not an always great one.

The NVIDIA Shield is designed as a gaming and entertainment device, with an emphasis on the former. You’ll notice from the moment you pick it up that it begs for your to put it to the test. The device feels very solid in hand if not a touch heavier than you’d expect. Not to worry, however, it’s not so heavy that you won’t enjoy a good hour or more of continuous gaming.

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Everything feels first-rate

The colors, components, and design cues are expertly chosen and there’s no mistaking the Shield for a second-rate controller. Everything seems to fit, regardless of the size of your hands. My 9-year-old son has no problems playing games like Riptide GP 2 and has yet to complain about the weight. The curves and contours put your hand in a very comfortable position, even if you’re just using the Shield to browse the web.

Opening up the lid you find a 5-inch 1280×720 resolution display, a perfect size for gaming. As someone who has spent considerable time with a Samsung Galaxy Note 2 I was worried that the Shield screen might feel smart. Alas, it’s just the right size. This is not to say we would not mind an extra half inch (or more) of display. Here’s to a second generation that comes with less bezel around the screen.

Gaming buttons

In terms of button layout and configuration, the Shield hits it out of the ballpark. You’ll find ABXY, left and right shoulders and buttons, a pair of 360-degree analog sticks, a traditional D-pad, and a group of five centrally mounted buttons. These buttons provide instant access to the Shield and Android menus that change with each app. The back button works pretty much across the entire experience however the pause button only works inside of certain games.

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One of our the biggest surprises is the quality and volume of the stereo speakers. Understandably, there’s not much bass here, but you’ll not find many portable devices with louder or clearer sound in your face. Need something a little more rich or deep? Pair some Bluetooth headphones or speakers or plug in an external output and you’ll be rocking. Flip the Shield around and the back reveals a MicroSDXC slot for additional expansion, micro-USB, mini-HDMI and the standard 3.5mm stereo jack for headphones.

feature-integrated-speakersLook closely and you’ll find an air vent designed to keep things cool. You might expect that a couple of continuous hours of playing games, movies, or music that the Shield would be hot. It gets a little warm, but never hot. Ever picked up a game controller from your friend as you’re teaming up to take out a boss on a SNES game? Remember how it had a warm feeling? This is that.

Performance

The Tegra 4 features a quad-core ARM Cortex A15 running at 1.9GHz, with a slower A15 “companion core” that handles less power-intensive tasks. Suffice it to say, the Shield is a powerful device that runs benchmark circles around other smartphones and tablets. We don’t have the charts and reports to share with you but a quick online search will get you those nitty gritty details. One of the reasons that the Shield does so well with graphics is that the screen is 720 pixels and not the 1080p stuff.

The Shield is bundled with the Tegra-enhanced version of Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode 2 and Expendable Rearmed, both of which look and play incredibly. We also installed a number of games from Google Play and through the NVIDIA Shield portal, all of which worked great.

In the ten days we tested the Shield we noticed two software updates from NVIDIA. Both of these were pushed to the device and installed without a hitch. I imagine there will be a few more minor updates as the device gets out in the real world but nothing we encountered indicated an unfinished Android build.

Gaming

A word of advice and a bit of a heads up: not all driving games or first person titles work 100-percent.  Need for Speed: Most Wanted, for instance, still required us to tap the screen on occasion. Your results will vary and we suspect things will constantly improve. My son installed his some of his standby games like Minecraft and Subway Surfers, neither of which benefit from the Shield’s buttons.

Thinking in terms of launch titles, I am impressed with the selection from NVIDIA and its partners. And, thanks to committing to a working relationship with developers, the list ought to grow by leaps and bounds. If the Moga is an indicator, game publishers will update their apps to include Shield optimization.  With that said, there are tons of games already available that are “install and play” ready. Whether you play on the mobile display or run it out to your HDMI TV, you’ll be impressed with lighting, lens flares, particle effects, and other details.

stock_android_shieldYou know all of those $5 games you see in the Google Play Store that have you wondering, “who would spend that sort of money on an Android game?” Try them on the Shield and you’ll feel like you would have spent double that amount. It’s really tough to imagine myself buying $40-$60 games for a console now that I’ve warmed up to some of the $2-$5 titles in the NVIDIA Store.

One of the key benefits of the NVIDIA Shield also comes in the ability to stream games from a PC. Unfortunately, my computer is nowhere near powerful enough to merit loading a graphic-intense game. I was not able to put my review unit through these particular paces. It pains me to say this as the Android titles I spent time with were downright immerse and rich in detail. In other words, I am considering a much more powerful replacement computer than I originally planned. If you’re looking for some information on how the PC gaming works, I recommend checking out The Verge’s review of the NVIDIA Shield.

We also got to test out the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 with our Shield and, let me just say, that’s some ridiculously cool fun. Not only can you use the Shield in the same manner as your phone or tablet to control the helicopter-like device, but it feels right at home with the button configuration. Doing this, you’ll be able to see everything the camera does, right on the 5-inch display. Controlling the direction, turning, and elevation of the AR.Drone 2.0 with the device is a match made in heaven. While I know I can use my phone to do pretty much the same thing, I already know that the experience suffers as compared to using the Shield.

Wrap Up

It’s very difficult not to be impressed with the overall Shield experience. Yes, it’s a niche product and it comes at a strange time; new XBOX and Sony Playstation consoles are on the horizon. Because of its $299 price point, it could be a hard sell for casual fans and people scraping money for a next-gen console. But, for those who gotta have games, this is a no-brainer.

Even using the standard Android stuff (email, Facebook, Chrome, etc) feels nice on the Shield, if not a tad unfamiliar. It’s also here where you’ll find some apps or games will want to display in the portrait mode and you’ll turn the Shield on its side. For any of those titles we ran into I simply uninstalled them right away. The way I look at it, this guy’s for gaming only so why bother doing tablet-like stuff?

We showed the NVIDIA Shield to a number of friends and family members, all of which were impressed with various aspects of the device. Some, fell in love with the ability to install retro games and emulators and play titles that don’t come close to testing the Shield. Others see the benefit in being able to watch movies, YouTube, and other videos in the car or on a plane.  Most, however, were blown away at the ease in which the Shield handles games. As a family device, this is one you should consider this holiday shopping season. Everyone in the family will pick it up for different reasons and once in a while you’ll all converge around the television.

Added Bonuses

If you’ve ever considered buying a Google TV or something that bring Android to your television then you’ll also need to add the Shield to the list. As a stock Android experience that provides full Google Play and HDMI output, you’ve got the perfect road companion. Going to a hotel? Here’s your games, movies, email, and more , in a highly portable form factor. The Shield’s internal battery is good for six hours of playing games or video which is longer than your typical car ride or flight. And, thanks to the micro-USB port, you’re charging in the car anyways!

feature-tegra-4As a first-generation product the NVIDIA Shield feels far more polished than you would expect. It’s hard to find any one spot to improve upon and there’s nothing that feels like it wasn’t ready. Nothing we experience felt like a beta project. I dare you to find something else in this space that does half of what the Shield does and looks half as good doing it.

Really, the only issues we ran into revolved around how certain games played, in that not everything uses hardware buttons. In other words, nothing that gives cause for concern. We’ve watched over the last few years as NVIDIA’s various partners have released Tegra-optimized games. Looking ahead we expect more of the same, with even more enhancement for Shield. I fully expect this to be the benchmark device for all gaming controllers and Android consoles moving forward.

I’ve fallen fast in love with mobile gaming and the Shield has become my favorite way to kill a few minutes. Yes, I’ve gotten into a few GTA: Vice City missions and can spend hours trying to get three stars on Riptide GP. And, yes, I’ve downloaded a few more games that will require tons of free time, dexterity, and reflexes. Somewhere over the last few weeks I realized that mobile gaming can be way more immerse than a strategy game or casual puzzler. Were it not for the NVIDIA Shield I might have gone on blissfully unaware of all the great games out there for Android.

The $299 price might cause you to hesitate a bit but I invite you to give extra consideration to the Shield. There’s no contract or long-term commitment, it’s full Android, offers storage expansion, HDMI out, Wi-Fi connectivity, and more.  If you’re only half serious about games the Shield will bring you full circle. If you’re looking for something to take on road trips and vacations or something for the patio and lunch break, this is some of the best money you can spend.