Nvidia Shield Review: One Year In
As we approach the one-year anniversary of the Nvidia Shield, we evaluate the new functionality and features that the mobile platform offers. You can primarily look at the NVIDIA SHIELD in one of two ways; the first as a handheld Android gaming-device that can also stream PC games, or as a PC game-streaming device that can also play Android games. Taking price into account (launch price $299, now $199 for a limited time), viewing the SHIELD as the first option could seem like throwing an incredible amount of money at something that your phone or tablet can easily do. If instead, you view the SHIELD as a PC streaming-device, I think you could easily justify the cost.
Since the SHIELD launched a year ago, the device that I hold in my hands is a different beast than when it was first introduced. There are advanced Tegra 4 optimized Android games that are available, and PC game-streaming has seen a few updates as well, aimed at making the experience smoother and more reliable. A new ‘Console Mode’ brings the SHIELD’s functionality to your HDTV, allowing the SHIELD to be a more versatile handheld system, while the addition of ‘Gamepad Mapper’ for Android games makes mapping controls to the SHIELD’s buttons a breeze. The SHIELD even includes mapping support for motion and gesture controls for its games.
Let’s start with the build quality, I feel that the SHIELD should never be mistaken for anything other than a high quality piece of equipment. The entire unit feels sturdy, and even the screen-hinge itself offers a solid ‘no wobbling’ design when you open and shut it. The back of the SHIELD offers a hard, rubberized grip, making for comfortable gaming sessions even over long-periods of time.
The buttons and analog sticks are all well made as well, never feeling loose and offering ‘springy’ and responsive controls. The bulk, or overall shape of the unit resembles an old “Duke” Xbox controller. Albeit one with a Dualshock analog-stick layout, as opposed to the staggered stick-layout of Microsoft’s popular controller. One of the best designs are the triggers, which have just the right amount of give and resistance, making them ideal for racing games in my opinion.
With any device or service that relies on streaming as its main selling point, consistency must be a key factor in its design. One of my biggest gripes with OnLive, was the lack of consistent quality. On the flipside, the PlayStation Now beta has impressed me with just how smooth and consistent the experience has been. Consistency will easily make or break your game-streaming experience.
How does the SHIELD perform in this aspect? Pretty well, but only if you have required equipment. To enable Gamestream on your SHIELD, you will need these components:
- GeForce GTX desktop GPU, 600 series or higher, or notebook GTX 660M, 670MX, 675MX, 680M, 700M series or higher
- Intel Core i3-2100 3.10GHz or AMD Athlon II X4 630 2.8GHz CPU or higher
- 4GB of system RAM or higher
- Windows 7 or Windows 8
- GeForce 332.82 Driver or later
- 802.11a/g router (minimum). 802.11n dual band router (recommended)
That could be considered a pretty hefty list of requirements to do something that you can do with a bluetooth controller, a tablet/phone, and the Splashtop app. If you happen to already have these components to utilize Gamestream, then great, you’re ready to go and should enjoy streaming your PC games with no hiccups. If you don’t, keep in mind the additional costs of obtaining these components, simply to be able to Gamestream on the device.
When Gamestream works, it REALLY works. I rarely experienced any lag or latency issues as long as I was getting a clear signal. Games that require precise controller-input like ‘Street Fighter IV’ or a racer like ‘NFS Shift 2’ played wonderfully. Overall it’s pretty cool to play something like ‘Assassin’s Creed IV’ in the palm of my hands while sitting on the couch next to my wife, who’s most likely watching ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ on the TV (no thanks).
Move a bit further away however and it becomes a different story. Even with distances as far as 10 feet I experienced a drop in quality. Playing upstairs in my bedroom is pretty much out of question. Now granted, I live in house with a ton of wireless devices but even shutting most of them off did not yield any better results during my testing. I even went so far as to setup my wireless extender in different parts of the house, in order to offer the device a better signal, but any improvements were minimal at best.
Nvidia has recently taken the covers off of its ‘Remote Gamestream’ feature, which is currently still in beta. With this feature, you could theoretically stream games from your PC to any location, as long as you have your PC set up correctly. Like I mentioned in the Portal for Android review, I attempted to play some games from my local Starbucks to test out a public wifi option. I was able to connect to my computer but was unable to stream anything. The connection was so poor that I could barely log onto any games at all. Given that this is still in beta I’m hoping that some improvements will still be released, as it would be awesome to access my game library from anywhere with a wifi connection. That feature alone, to me personally, puts the SHIELD on a different level than any other handheld out there. With the exception of the PS Vita and its ability to remote play PS4 games, which is a similar feature to the Shield and its PC counterpart.
Nvidia recently also launched their ‘GRID Cloud’ gaming service as a beta for SHIELD owners who live in Northern California. More specifically, within the vicinity of the San Jose area. I live approximately 70 miles from San Jose and I have not experienced any issues with the GRID service. To recap the GRID Service, for those unfamiliar with the new offering, it is essentially Nvidia’s version of PlayStation Now, Gaikai or OnLive. The beta currently delivers only a handful of games at this point, including ‘Darksiders 2,’ ‘Dead Island,’ ‘Saint’s Row The Third,’ and ‘Street Fighter IV’. There is currently no info on when GRID will see a full rollout, and there hasn’t been any information released on pricing or device compatibility. That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was restricted only to the Nvidia SHIELD or other gaming tablet devices when/if it goes live.
While Gamestream and GRID are excellent features for the SHIELD, it was Console Mode that made the device worth its price during my testing. With Console Mode activated, you plug your SHIELD into your HDTV via an HDMI to mini-HDMI connection, as well as a connection to a bluetooth controller (I use the OnLive wireless controller), and in no-time you’re ready to play all of your Android and PC games on your TV.
Console Mode will support visuals up to 720p if you connect via wifi, but if you use one more connection (an ethernet LAN adapter), you can stream games up to 1080p/60 fps. It was pretty glorious to have ‘Batman: Arkham Origins’ pumping out at full 1080p/60 fps on my living room TV. Even Android games like ‘Dead Trigger’ and ‘NBA Jam’ looked and played fantastic on my TV via Console Mode. In my testing, nothing beat playing new HD versions of ‘GTA III’ and ‘Vice City’ on my big TV.
This brings me to Android games and I have said many times before that my biggest issue with Android/iOS games is the constant lack of decent input options. I just feel that touch controls…suck. I’ll just get that out of the way now. For something like ‘Angry Birds,’ touch-controls are fine, but anything else that requires a bit more dexterity is immediately ruined by the simple mechanic. Mobile users have the option of connecting a separate controller wirelessly, but then you’re stuck toting around an additional component to make up for the first. With the SHIELD you get a controller built in, a feature that gives new life to games like ‘Shadowgun,’ ‘Eternity Warriors,’ ‘Dead Trigger,’ ‘Portal,’ and the newly released ‘Half-Life 2.’
Android games have come a long way since mobile gaming first started and I find it absolutely mind-blowing that a game like ‘GTA III,’ which was once the king of the PS2, is now a game that I can play on a mobile device like the SHIELD. Other titles that I mentioned earlier like ‘Dead Trigger’ or ‘NBA Jam’ all look absolutely fantastic on both my SHIELD and TV, and they can easily rival console games from the earlier generations.
Even though the SHIELD has a touchscreen, if you are anything like me, you will be balking at the thought of putting smudges and fingerprints all over the screen. I’m very particular about screen smudges and I’m always obsessively wiping my phone or tablet, so naturally the thought of playing ‘Angry Birds’ on my SHIELD’s shiny new screen was not looking like a very attractive option when I first started testing. Thankfully Nvidia introduced the ‘Gamepad Mapper.’
With this feature you can map any of the game’s controls, regardless if they are button, motion, or gesture based. You can remap these controls to your SHIELD’S buttons or analog sticks. So let’s say you’re playing an Android game that doesn’t natively support the SHIELD’s gamepad, something along the lines of ‘Mikey Shorts’. To use the Gamepad Mapper you simply launch the game, enter into Gamepad Mapper by long-pressing the Start button and simply drag and drop the button maps on top of the touch-overlay controls. With ‘Mikey Shorts,’ I mapped the left/right touch-controls to the dpad, and the jump/slide touch controls to the X and B buttons. Voila, instant controller support!
This works with nearly all of the games out there. If you want to play ‘Angry Birds’ using only the analog sticks, you can simply Gamepad Map the controls in seconds. If you have a tilt-based racing game like ‘Real Racing 3,’ simply remap the tilt-controls to the left analog-stick and enjoy a game that plays like a mobile version of ‘Gran Turismo.’ If you are too lazy to start mapping your own controls, you can also download community creations for each game straight from the cloud. This cloud-option offers dozens of possibilities for games.
In the end there are several ways to look at the Shield, the best way I feel to look at it is as a portable Steambox. One that you can take with you anywhere, but also allows you to enjoy games on the big screen at home. There are currently several different ways to stream PC games to your TV, or to other portable devices, and prior to testing out the SHIELD I previously streamed games to my tablet via Splashtop, while utilizing a bluetooth controller. Although that worked fine, the SHIELD is a self-contained device with everything you need built-in, a very attractive and much more streamlined option.
It isn’t just the features that the SHIELD can do just with PC games that make it amazing, when you consider all of the Android functionality that it also offers along with the streaming functionality. In the end you have an incredibly powerful and functional device that offers the best of Android coupled with the best streaming available.