Nvidia Shield: Gaming tablet impresses, despite some nagging caveats (hands-on)

LAS VEGAS–Last night Nvidia unveiled its Project Shield portable gaming device and today I finally got my grubby mitts on it.

Whether the device will actually be called Shield when it debuts has yet to be decided, but that’s the name Nvidia’s going with for now. Shield is shaped and feels like a gaming controller. In fact it could be described as an Xbox 360 controller with a 5-inch screen at the top. Weight-wise it felt a bit heavier than a stock controller, by maybe a pound or so. Overall, it felt nearly as comfortable as my beloved Xbox 360 controller, but I did notice that the screen on one of the models felt kind of loose and wobbled a lot when I moved the device.

The intriguing Nvidia Project Shield gaming device (pictures)

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I got a chance to play around with a few Android games as well as play a couple games streamed from a nearby PC over Wi-Fi. Of the native Android games, both Sonic the Hedgehog and Rochard looked fine, if unimpressive from a frame rate perspective. Hawken, on the other hand, ran at what looked to be a full 60fps with fairly complex geometry and effects. It must be said, though, that the game was not populated with any other players when I tried it.

Streaming has its limits
The coolest feature of Shield is most definitely its ability to stream games from your PC to the device. A really cool concept that feels part Wii U, part OnLive, but as exciting as the prospect is, there are limitations.

For one, it only streams over Wi-Fi; unless your buddy also has a powerful PC and doesn’t mind you playing games at his house while you two hang out, this will be something you only do in the comfort of your own home. Also, there is latency. If you’re a frame counter or someone who plays games professionally, that’s going to be a problem. Admittedly, that’s a very small percentage of the public, however.

Hot streaming action!

Also, the quality of your experience will depend on the quality of the Wi-Fi network you’re connected to. During my demo, the Wi-Fi network lost connection to Shield and the connection had to be re-established, which took a few minutes. An Nvidia rep, however, did comment that this is one of the reasons the device is not yet on shelves.

The final stipulation/caveat I’ll mention is the fact that in order to stream games, the PC you’re connected to must house a GeForce GTX 650 or later to function. AMD/ATI owners need not apply.

First thoughts
Despite the caveats I’ve mentioned, I’m champing at the bit to see the final product. Nvidia plans to release Shield in the second quarter of this year, but the real question is price. While Nvidia wouldn’t tell me outright what to expect, it hinted at what not to expect: a heavily subsidized device.

No, expect the price to reflect the advanced hardware housed within, and while streaming from a PC is a cool novelty, as a gaming device, this thing will live or die based on the quality and proliferation of the games natively available for it. Hopefully the several months of lead time before release will be enough for Android developers to get Android gaming into a much more impressive state.

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