PAX East 2013: Nvidia Project Shield Hands-On Preview

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Nvidia Project Shield Running The ConduitRegardless of what anybody thinks of the Nvidia Shield, it’s difficult to deny that it’s a concept that has gotten peoples’ attention. It’s a powerful, Android-based dedicated gaming device which, while not entirely unique — in fact, they’re coming out of the woodwork now, what with the Ouya, Gamestick, etc. — it’s among the first wave of such products. But more importantly, it’s being branded as a portable, which some people simply aren’t sold on due to the size of the device. This weekend, Nvidia was showing off its buzz worthy product at the biggest gaming show in Boston, PAX East, giving us an opportunity to see for ourselves if Project Shield is an idea destined to change the gaming landscape or simply an unnecessary product.

Build and Design

The biggest benefit of Project Shield is obviously that it brings a set of physical controls to the table, something that has been missing in the past and has effectively undermined the quality of many Android games. We all know how awful it can feel to try to play a FPS on a phone or tablet with a virtual, on-screen joystick and buttons, and Project Shield ameliorates that problem. The full button/control selection includes a d-pad, two joysticks, four face buttons, two triggers, two bumpers, a start button, Android back and home buttons, a volume button, and a TegraZone button.

Nvidia Project Shield ClosedWhen it comes to build quality, Project Shield is no joke. The clamshell screen set up seems ripe for hinge issues, yet we found that it was perfectly tight and that the display didn’t flop around at all. The partially metallic casing on the back of the display is a nice a touch, too.

And while nothing felt flimsy or cheap, Project Shield was also surprisingly light. For something that packs not only a capable set of gaming hardware underneath the hood, but also a 5-inch display and a full set of physical controls, it didn’t have the brick-like heft we were expecting.

Put simply, Project Shield feels utterly fantastic in the hand. It has the right curves, it has the grips, and it has easily accessible buttons and a pair of tight joysticks. It’s essentially a game controller, and that’s not only comfortable, but makes for a much better gaming experience.

But that’s exactly the problem: it’s a game controller. With a screen attached to it, no less! Let’s be real here: there’s no getting this thing in your pocket or small purse, and that completely undermines Nvidia’s attempt to make Project Shield a portable gaming device. And if isn’t portable, then you might as well go with other, better non-portable options like compact gaming laptops or even gaming tablets.

Nvidia’s counterargument may be yes, you can’t throw this in your pocket, but you can throw it in a bag and take it with you to a friend’s house. But the same can be said for other, slightly larger devices too, and those will likely provide you with a better gaming platform and better hardware. That’s not to say that Project Shield has poor hardware — it’s fantastic for a device this size — but nobody is about to say that it’s better than that of a laptop.

Nvidia Project Shield In HandPerformance

It has to be said that the unit we were handling was, obviously, an early preview build, as Project Shield isn’t due out until late Q2. As such, it was rife with game-crashing bugs that booted me out to the home screen at least half a dozen times in the short time we spent with the device. But when games actually managed to stay running for any significant period of time, they ran very well.

Granted, most of the games loaded on the unit weren’t especially complex or graphic-intensive — that’s what you get with Android gaming, which is precisely why Android-based gaming devices are so puzzling — but they ran smoothly nonetheless. Some of the titles included The Conduit and Arma Tactics, to give you an idea of what we were working with, neither of which look particularly stunning. The latter seems like the better candidate for pushing the limits of the hardware though, what with it being a FPS, and it ran at a steady clip without the slightest dip in framerate.

Oddly enough, the best-looking game we tried out was Sonic the Hedgehog: Episode II, which showed off how well the device’s quad-core Tegra 4 processor could keep up with the fast-paced, beautiful-looking gameplay (not to mention the bright colors and sharpness that the device’s 1280 x 720 display is capable of delivering).

Nvidia Project Shield Right SideUltimately, as said, these weren’t the most impressive games to show off the capabilities of Project Shield’s hardware. But then again, this is a device that seems a little odd in the sense that it brings a lot of muscle to the table for a library of games that doesn’t call for it. You’re using a relative powerhouse to play the same games you can play on your smartphone.

When we brought this point up with the Nvidia rep we were speaking to, he pointed out that Project Shield can play streamed PC games, and it even lets you connect to and play them on your HDTV wirelessly. Yes, that’s a nice feature and all, but it needs to be connected to a PC to do so, and all of the work is handled by that machine before it’s spit out on Project Shield. At that point, it’s little more than a controller with which to play your PC games, and we all know those have existed for quite some time…and for far less money.

The interface of Project Shield worked comfortably was well, giving users the ability to pop out to the TegraZone portal at any time with a single press of the aforementioned button, providing them with access to their recent games, full library, and a storefront through which they can pick up suggested titles. The touchscreen came in handy for browsing through these pages whenever we were out of game, and was also used for small tasks like adjusting the volume (though the physical volume button must be tapped first, which brings up the slider on screen).

Nvidia Project Shield Controls Close-upThe Nvidia rep also assured me that the traditional Android interface of multiple homescreens with app shortcuts with which most users will be familiar will be accessible on the final product. We were not, however, able to access it for ourselves to get a feel for how easily it transitioned between the homescreens, TegraZone, and currently-running games.

Conclusion

Project Shield is, in many ways, a solid product. It feels fantastic in the hand, it holds a lot of power in a small package, and the form factor and tight controls afford a superior control scheme than virtually any other handheld. But therein lies the problem: can this even be considered a handheld? By definition, sure, but in reality, this thing is no more portable than shoving an Xbox 360 controller in your pocket. And once the portability factor goes out the window, that leaves Project Shield feeling pretty unnecessary, good performance aside.

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