Device Review: Nvidia SHIELD
Back in January, I was lucky enough to be asked to represent XDA at CES. In my experience, one of the most exciting things unveiled at this year’s CES was the Nvidia’s “Project SHIELD.” Here we are, just over six months later, and SHIELD is no longer a “Project,” but a full-fledged, consumer-ready device.
In the middle of June, I ended up with a SHIELD in my hands, direct from the people at Nvidia. We were given a demonstration, allowed to try it out, and then sent away with one, and sworn to secrecy (in a manner of speaking).
Over the last month and a half or so, I thoroughly put the SHIELD through its paces, testing it with various games, benchmarks, and the like. Today, I bring you my conclusions. But first things first; let’s talk about the hardware of the SHIELD.
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1.9 GHz Quad-Core NVIDIA Tegra 4
2 GB RAM
5 inch 1280×720 (294 ppi) Multi-Touch Retinal
16 GB Flash Memory
802.11n 2×2 Mimo Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 3.0, GPS
3 Axis Gyro, 3 Axis Accelerometer
28.8 Watt Hours ~= 7350mAh
For the most part, the SHIELD is somewhat confusing when it comes to the hardware specifications. The brand-new Tegra 4 processor promises tons of power, while maintaining good battery life while not in use with that ninja fifth core. 2 GB of RAM is very much on par with the current flagship devices we’ve seen recently. The HUGE battery means you shouldn’t have to worry about running out of juice on a long flight, and far surpasses pretty much every other mobile device on the market. Nvidia estimates 4-5 hours of “Tegra 4-enhanced” gameplay time, with up to 10 hours of other Android gaming per charge. I’ve definitely seen it hold up to those estimates, though I don’t have stats to back it up—just personal experience.
That said, some of the specs don’t match up. The screen is 720p, when most newer devices offer 1080p. This didn’t prove to be much of an issue for me, but I thought I’d mention it. The internal storage is limited to 16 GB (with ~12 GB usable out of the box), which seems very tight when you start installing games. However, with a microSD slot, you can at least expand the storage if you like. The wireless is 802.11n, which is still fast. However with 802.11ac devices coming out, could be dated quickly. And it comes with Bluetooth 3.0, when 4.0 would offer much more device connectivity while still saving battery life (Fitbit devices, Pebble watch, Metawatch, etc.)
Even with the strange mixture of specs, the performance of this device was amazing. And while benchmarks aren’t necessarily a good judge of a device, this one knocks them all out of the park. Specifically, I ran Quadrant Standard and Antutu on this device, and when compared with most other devices in the field, SHIELD performed amazingly well.
The software is one area where I think the device really shines, particularly because of its relative simplicity. For the most part, it’s stock Android (4.2.1, for those interested), with a highly modified version of Nvidia’s TegraZone app preinstalled. This of course comes along with tweaks and binary blobs as necessary to make the controller work and pull in optimizations for the GPU.
Nvidia has made an excellent effort so far to provide regular updates for the device, as well. At the time of writing, they are on release 50 of the SHIELD firmware, and the update process is just as painless as it is for the grand majority of other Android devices, but with no wireless carrier standing in the way to block those updates. (I’m looking at you, Verizon…)
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Of course you can’t talk about an Android-based gaming device without discussing Android gaming on said device. Nvidia has provided a list of 100 suggested titles currently working appropriately with SHIELD. Some are Tegra-optimized, and some aren’t. Some are paid, and some are free. I’ve tried quite a few of these titles myself, and for the most part, I’ve been extremely pleased with the results. One of my chief complaints about Android gaming before receiving the SHIELD was the loss of screen real estate when I had to put my thumbs on the screen to control the movement of my character. With the controller on the SHIELD, I simply move the joysticks, press the buttons and/or triggers, and fun times are had.
With that in mind, there are still a large number of games out there that just don’t support controllers, and may never support them. Gameloft for example, with their massive Android game library, does not provide generic controller support, and has no intention of supporting them from everything I’ve read. That’s a bit of a bummer to be honest, but is in no way the fault of Nvidia or the SHIELD device.
I suppose it’s just a matter of time and patience to see if more Android games will be moving toward offering controller support. In fact, with the decent success of the OUYA, it’s entirely possible that the next generation of Android gaming will focus more heavily on controller support. That said, it definitely wouldn’t hurt to poke at the companies behind your favorite titles to see if they’re planning on adding support, and to let them know if you’re interested.
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When SHIELD was announced, having an Android device with a decent controller attached to it was interesting and all, but the one thing that really made it stand out for me was the option for PC streaming. I, like a lot of people, have a reasonably powerful gaming computer at home,. And while I really enjoy sitting down with a keyboard, mouse, and giant monitor to play games; it’s not always possible. When my in-laws are in town, I can’t simply sit in my office and play games the whole time. But if I’m carrying the SHIELD around, now I can play those same games (at least the ones on Steam) anywhere in the house! With a large number of Steam games moving in the direction of offering full controller support, it seems like a match made in heaven to have a wireless controller with a small display attached to it, offering you portability and mobility for your gaming (provided you stay within the confines of your wireless signal).
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However, it should be noted that PC streaming is still a beta feature, so it’s not 100% perfect yet, and there are PC hardware requirements that are quite a bit higher than the minimum requirements for most games you’d actually play. As far as the graphics card, you must have an Nvidia GTX 650 or higher in your desktop. Laptop support is not currently available, though it was suggested early on that when it does become available, a GTX 660m or higher would be required. The rest of the PC requirements aren’t that bad. An Intel Core i3 / AMD Athlon II X4 or higher, 4+ GB of RAM, and Windows 7 / 8+. Definitely not bottom of the line or “budget,” but pretty much required if you want to play any games with decent performance even without SHIELD. The networking requirement was a bit interesting too. 802.11g works (I tested it with a Linksys WRT54G router), but as you might expect, lower bandwidth means lower resolution. The video quickly became blocky in graphics-intensive games and looked rough. Gameplay was unaffected, but it definitely wasn’t a “premium” experience. When a 5 GHz 802.11n router was substituted, the games were beautiful, playback was very fluid and smooth, and everything was quite enjoyable.
Cutting to the crux of the issue (this is XDA Developers, right?), development looks like it’s going to be quite interesting on this device. Between the support of XDA Recognized Developer (and Nvidia employee) agrabren in the SHIELD forum, the Open Source Resources provided by Nvidia in terms of build instructions and factory images, the release of Kernel sources, and the ability to easily unlock and root your device using common tools like fastboot and Elite Recognized Developer Chainfire’s SuperSU, I would foresee a lot of possible development coming from the XDA community. It even appears that agrabren has already done an initial port of CWM for SHIELD.
The time I’ve spent with this device has been excellent. Game selection is still a bit limited, but there are quite a few titles that are ready for prime time as far as SHIELD is concerned. The controller, in my experience, is very comfortable in the hand. The battery lasts for a very long time while playing games, and for even longer when you’re simply browsing the web or watching videos. Being able to stream games from your PC to a handheld device anywhere in the house, while it may seem impractical, can be very handy in some instances. It’s not necessarily something I’m going to do 100% of the time, but when I need a quick Skyrim fix but don’t want to be cooped up in my office, I can be anywhere in the house and keep right on playing.
For more of my impressions of the device, make sure to check out the video review available on the XDA Developers YouTube Channel.