NVIDIA SHIELD Review - Tegra 4, Android Gaming and PC Game Streaming
It has come to my attention that you are planning on producing and selling a device to be called “NVIDIA SHIELD.” It should be noted that even though it shares the same name, this device has no matching attributes of the super-hero comic-based security agency. Please adjust.
When SHIELD was previewed to the world at CES in January of this year, there were a hundred questions about the device. What would it cost? Would the build quality stand up to expectations? Would the Android operating system hold up as a dedicated gaming platform? After months of waiting a SHIELD unit finally arrived in our offices in early July, giving us plenty of time (I thought) to really get a feel for the device and its strengths and weakness. As it turned out though, it still seemed like an inadequate amount of time to really gauge this product. But I am going to take a stab at it, feature by feature.
NVIDIA SHIELD aims to be a mobile gaming platform based on Android with a flip out touch-screen interface, high quality console design integrated controller, and added features like PC game streaming and Miracast support.
Initial Unboxing and Overview of Product Video
At the heart of NVIDIA SHIELD is the brand new Tegra 4 SoC, NVIDIA’s latest entry into the world of mobile processors. Tegra 4 is a quad-core, ARM Cortex-A15 based SoC that includes a 5th A15 core built on lower power optimized process technology to run background and idle tasks using less power. This is very similar to what NVIDIA did with Tegra 3’s 4+1 technology, and how ARM is tackling the problem with big.LITTLE philosophy.
Speaking of Tegra 3, the new T4 processors claim to have 6x the graphical performance of T3 thanks to 72 GPU cores and a clock speed as high as 1.9 GHz. We’ll have some graphics and processor performance tests later in the article that will showcase the performance jump from T3 to T4.
It should be noted that even though I don’t have power consumption numbers on Tegra 4, the NVIDIA SHIELD does utilize an active cooling solution. A fan spins up during HD video decode and gaming scenarios to exhaust heat out the rear of the unit. Though that might sound startling to someone that is used to passively cooled ARM-based phones and tablets, the noise of the fan was never a distraction in my use even while resting SHIELD on my chest and watching a movie without headphones.
SHIELD ships with 2GB of low power DDR3 system memory and 16GB of internal flash memory. A microSDXC slot resides on the rear of the unit as well for storage expansion up to 64GB with current card availability.
The display is a 5-inch 1280x720 multi-touch screen that has a surprisingly high DPI: 294 ppi. The quality of the screen is damn good and even up close I didn’t have any issues with pixel pop. The orientation of the display is fixed in landscape mode which is best for gaming but not for a lot of other Android applications. NVIDIA addressed this with an OTA update that allows portrait apps from the Play Store to install but holding the controller in that way is rather frustrating.
Another aspect of the design that NVIDIA is very proud of is the audio implementation. Because SHIELD has a deep cavity design it allowed NVIDIA to use a port audio system for more bass than you would typically be able to get out of a tablet or phone design. The forward facing stereo speakers are actually quite good and I found it was decent as a “portable” music device around the house or the office. Obviously these are no substitute for a good set of headphones or external speakers but for a mobile device, they are top notch.
Network connectivity on SHIELD is provided by a solid 2x2 MIMO 802.11n WiFi controller that works at either 2.4 GHz or 5.0 GHz. This allows SHIELD to connect to the much less crowded 5 GHz space and is actually recommended by NVIDIA for PC streaming use. SHIELD also includes Bluetooth 3.0 support, and a GPS just incase you happen to be lost in the woods with your SHIELD. If you have to, a micro-USB to Ethernet adapter can be used when performance is critical.
On the back of SHIELD you’ll find a handful of connectivity options that allow for expansion. A mini-HDMI connection allows you to directly connect it to a TV or entertainment system for full 1080p video support (though NVIDIA claimed 4K support at the CES press event). A micro-USB 2.0 port can be used for accessories or data transfer from a PC, but is most likely going to be utilized for charging with the included 10 watt wall adapter. A 3.5mm headphone jack can be used for headphones and also supports a microphone so you can use a headset for Skype calls, etc.
Just like all phones and tablets, NVIDIA SHIELD integrates a 3-axis gyro and accelerometer.
The controller on SHIELD is probably the most important feature as it will be the most used interface to the consumer. Though it is a combination of the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 designs, the button layout resembles the 360 controller quite closely – which is a great thing considering its dominance as the controller of choice for PC gamers. The D-pad is decent though a bit mushier – kind of like the Xbox 360 controller in that regard as well. Using the thumb sticks was a positive experience although the acceleration at the mid-point seems to pick up very quickly.
Other buttons on the SHIELD include volume, back/return, home, start, and the SHIELD button. The volume is controlled by tapping the button then using the touch screen context menu to raise or lower the sound levels. Back and home buttons perform just as they do with any other stock Android device. The start button is used for selective context usage in Tegra-based games and PC streaming emulation. Finally, the SHIELD button is used for powering on and off the device as well as entering the TegraZone sub-menu to access games and PC streaming.
The battery used in the SHIELD is rated at 28.8 Whr, and in my testing was able to get about 16 hours of web surfing time over WiFi. We are still doing more testing on game play times, but with the variance in usage from the titles we are testing with, we need more time to compare SHIELD to other Android gaming platforms.
A big plus for NVIDIA SHIELD is that it is a stock Android device in nearly every way, therefore you can expect to see updates from NVIDIA for newer iterations of the OS sooner than most other phones or tablets. Hopefully this means that we’ll see an upgrade to Android 4.3 soon, putting the SHIELD just behind Google’s own Nexus devices.
Setup and First Impressions Video